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This is part of a series of questions on the Gemara in Bechoros 8b-9a. Below is a summary of the relevant parts of the Gemara. After being challenged by Caesar, R' Yehoshua went to Athens to defeat the Athenian Elders in a battle of wits.


When R' Yehoshua arrived in Athens, he found a butcher slaughtering an animal. R' Yehoshua asked to buy his head. The butcher, understanding him to mean the head of the animal, agreed, for half a zuz. R' Yehoshua responded that he meant the head of the butcher, but he would let him go if he would take R' Yehoshua to the Elders.

The butcher was terrified. "They'll kill me if I reveal their location!" he cried.

R' Yehoshua came up with a plan. "Take your load around the city. Put it down outside their chambers, as if you need to rest, and at that point I'll enter. They won't know what hit them." And so it was. The butcher thus led R' Yehoshua to the Elders.

Now, there were guards by the doors on the outside, and there were also guards on the inside of the entrance hall. The ones on the outside were to prevent people from going inside the main building, while the ones on the inside were to prevent the Elders from leaving. If footprints were seen going in, the Elders would kill the outer guards; if they were seen going out, the Elders would kill the inner guards. Thus, R' Yehoshua put just one of his shoes on backwards and walked in. Seeing contradictory footprints, the Elders killed all of the guards.

Now, if nobody was allowed to reveal the Elders' location, presumably the reason is that nobody unauthorized was allowed to enter. So why did the guards let R' Yehoshua in?

  • Hey, these are some great questions! But I think you're right, it's far too broad for a single question ("if your question could be answered by an entire book, or has many valid answers, it's probably too broad for our format"). That said, you might find this question interesting as a starting point for finding answers. I know that the Maharshah and the Gr"a both have extensive explanations on these stories. – Hod - Monica's Army Aug 17 '16 at 20:44
  • Alright, splitting it off into several questions it is. – DonielF Aug 17 '16 at 20:46
  • As does the Maharal - he explains all the answers in detail. – LN6595 Aug 17 '16 at 21:05
  • And I believe that the English book, The Juggler and the King, by Rabbi Aharon Feldman of Baltimore, answers many of them. – LN6595 Aug 17 '16 at 21:06
  • I am just wondering if this question belongs on Mi Yodeya. The Sugya definitely deserves elucidation, but is this the right forum? Thoughts? – LN6595 Aug 17 '16 at 21:06
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Rav Yehoshua

Art Scroll Bechoros 8b(3) note 19

Rav Yehoshua told the butcher that unless he "reached the place" of the elders (used his intellectual powers) he would be no better than the animals that he killed. The butcher was afraid that if he emulated their "intellectualism" he would "die". That is he would lose any connection with the real world and his body would lose any meaningful function. Rav Yehoshua proved that even the elders were bound by the physical universe and even they must lay down their intellectual burden and rest.

Daf 9a note 2 cites the Maharal that the narrative elements in the story are no more than a literary device.

If someone tried to penetrate beyond the further side of the threshold, then the guards on the side from which he entered the threshold area would kill him or be killed themselves. Rav Yehoshua just stepped up to the threshold and stepped back leaving footprints in the bran (Rashi). This left footprints pointing out so the inner guards were killed. He then stepped back to the threshhold leaving prints leading in so the outer guards were killed.

There is a Rashi that seems to imply that he reversed only one shoe so that the elders thought that two different people had passed the guards, one going in and one going out.

Rav Yehoshua entered during the confusion when the guards were being killed.

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  • It still doesn't answer the question. How did the outer guards let him enter in the first place? – DonielF Aug 19 '16 at 4:07
  • @DonielF He did not enter in the first place. He just stepped on the threshhold, which was allowed. The guards did not notice that the footprints showed someone leaving. – sabbahillel Aug 19 '16 at 14:29

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