Rabbi Nechunia’s Prayer
‘Even So, An Actual Incident Is Greater’
(Bava Basra 83a)
The mishnah (81a) states that if a person buys three trees in his friend’s field, he acquires the land between (and near) the trees because he presumably bought a “tree field,” not just three solitary trees.
The Gemara (82b) establishes both a minimum and a maximum distance between the trees for this halacha to apply. If there is too little space between the trees, the trees do no constitute a “tree field” (because one of the trees will eventually have to be uprooted to allow the others to thrive). On the other hand, if there is too much space between the trees, they do not constitute a “tree field” due to the great distance between them.
Rav Yosef in the name of R. Yehuda rules that the minimum/maximum distance is 4-8 amos. Rav Nachman says the minimum/maximum distance is 8-16 amos.
Guidance From Kilayim
In seeking to resolve the dispute, the Gemara compares this law to that of kilayim in a vineyard.
R. Meir and R. Shimon maintain that if the rows of a vineyard are spaced eight amos apart (or more), they do not constitute a vineyard and one may plant other seeds in the vineyard (provided they are planted a minimum of one amah distance from the vines).
R. Yehuda disagrees. He relates an incident that occurred in the town of Tzalmon in which the sages ruled that seeds (of other crops) may not be planted in the vicinity of vines unless the rows of vines are spaced 16 amos apart.
Thus, Abaya rules like R. Nachman that the law of a “tree field” also applies as long as the trees are less than 16 amos apart.
The Gemara states that we rule like R. Yehuda in his dispute with R. Meir and R. Shimon because his ruling is based on an actual incident, and a ruling based on an actual incident always has greater validity.
In a similar vein, the Maharil (siman 72 – cited in She’arim Metzuyanim b’Halacha) states that a posek should always lend more weight to responsa that deal with actual cases rather abstract halachic queries.
The Noda Bi Yehuda (cited by Sefer Mofes Ha’Dor – a biography of Rav Yechezkel Landau – end of chapter 3) explains that when a posek answers a practical query, he is endowed with a measure of divine assistance (siyata dishmaya) which enables him to reach the proper conclusion. One who discusses a halachic question academically, however, is not endowed with this divine Inspiration.
The Mishnah (Berachos 28b) states, “Rabbi Nechunya ben HaKanah would offer a brief prayer when he entered the study hall and when he left. The Sages said to him: What is the nature of this prayer? He told them: Upon my entrance, I pray that no mishaps should occur because of me, and upon my departure, I offer thanksgiving for my portion. In the spirit of this Gemara, Be’er Mayim Chayyim (Sefer Eretz Hachayyim – Berachos 28b) instructs a rabbi confronted with a halachic query to pray to G-d that he arrive at the proper decision and spare him from any mishap as a result of his ruling.
He relates that a rabbi was once asked to examine a piece of chicken to ascertain whether it was treifah (due to the appearance of a fatal wound.). Based on what he saw, the rabbi did not see any reason to declare the chicken unfit. However, intuitively he asked to see the rest of the chicken. Upon examination, he discovered that it was in fact a treifah (a fatal wound) based on another part of the chicken. Because he was answering a practical question, he merited divine assistance and no mishap occurred as a result of his ruling.