When Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya replaced Rabban Gamliel as the head of the academy, he immediately instituted a number of changes (B. Berachot 28a). Under Rabban Gamliel's regime, entry to the beit midrash (study hall) was limited to those students whose outward actions accurately reflected their inside intent. A guard was stationed at the door, and the admission of many a prospective student of the tradition was barred.
Indeed the guard's job was an impossible task: How was he supposed to test the inner nature of each student applying for entry? Some commentators suggest that this guard could not have been human and must have been a Divine messenger (Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Rymanov, 18th-19th centuries, Galicia). Others suggest that the task was so difficult that the doors were simply locked; only those who so desperately wanted to learn found an alternate way to enter the beit midrash (Rabbi Avraham Ya'acov Friedman of Sadigora, 19th century, Bukovina).
Be the nature of the sentry what it may, his services were no longer employed by the newly appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya. Inviting everyone to enter the beit midrash, the new administration removed the mysterious guard from his post and the doors were thrown open.
As people poured in, new benches were quickly added. The Talmud presents two views as to how many seats were added. According to one opinion, 400 benches were added, while another view suggests it was 700.
This is a curious argument; how could there be such a discrepancy? This question could summarily be dismissed by reiterating that the Talmud has no historiographic ambitions, and our sages are colorfully painting a vivid picture of an expanded beit midrash as all those who were previously denied entry suddenly gained admission.
While the Talmud may not attempt to present a historic record of events, it does strive to be a pedagogical tool on both a normative and an ethical plane. Thus we have the license - and maybe even the responsibility - to seek greater significance and pertinent meaning in the new benches.
One commentator offers an innovative explanation to this bench disagreement (Ketav Sofer, 19th century, Pressburg): Everyone agrees that only 400 benches were actually added to the beit midrash on that day. Those who propose the number 700 are not describing the seating capacity, but are depicting the atmosphere of learning. Four hundred benches may have been added, but 700 benches were filled with students all experiencing a surge in Torah study and an educational renaissance. Even the learning of those students who were permitted to enter under the deposed administration was spurred to new heights as new perspectives and fresh enthusiasm revitalized the entire beit midrash.
A collective study endeavor is not just a quantitative increase, it is also a qualitative upgrade. Indeed, the day that the doors were opened was remembered as an unparalleled day of Torah study. No question was left unanswered, no person was left outside. Even the ousted Rabban Gamliel participated in the discussion and was moved to question his own management style.
This spirit of inclusiveness extended not only to the top echelons of the learning pyramid; the spectrum of Jewish society was present in the beit midrash on that day. This mood extended even to the halachic decisions of the day, as people who were previously not considered part of the Jewish congregation were permitted to marry within in the community.
In this light, it is surprising that some commentators offer a different insight into the additional seats (Ahavat Yisrael of Vishnitz, 19th-20th centuries, Romania). They begin by asking why the sages cited the number of additional places rather than the number of additional students. Surely we are more interested in the people than in the furniture. They suggest that the Talmud may be stressing that the introduction of benches was in itself a noteworthy novelty. In the past, when only the purest students were permitted to enter, there was no need for seating. Each person gaining entry was happy to stand attentively and learn. The spiritual focus on the pursuit of Torah and the burning desire to study forestalled the need for a place to rest weary legs. The fresh students - together with their excitement and aspirations - also needed the reprieve of seating while studying and hence the new benches. The benches tell us not only about the number of students, but also of their caliber. The new benches therefore represent a hidden critique of the new policy allowing everyone to enter the beit midrash.
Indeed, the benches may have been an innovation, but decrying their introduction seems to go against the flow of the Talmud passage. As we have mentioned, our sages laud that matchless day, declaring it the beginning of the enterprise to record the Oral Law.
Perhaps we can view the innovative additional seating in another light. Indeed, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya removed the guard, opening the gates to the beit midrash and inviting all to participate. But at times opening the doors is insufficient. What happens once the invitee enters? Does the guest feel welcome?
Our sages are suggesting that not only did Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya invite people to enter, he also made them feel welcome by offering each of them a place. Without that seat new students may not have felt at ease and would almost certainly have been hesitant to contribute. They would have felt like spectators not participants. By bringing in new benches, Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya was saying: "You are all wanted here. You are part of this communal endeavor. Let us learn together."
Thus the new head of the academy encouraged and empowered students to take part in the discussion. It is only in such a welcome and accepting atmosphere that the beit midrash can fulfill its potential and be a place of lively, creative thought, discussion and growth.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.