Rabbi Yannai’s Tree

On Thursday afternoons, I study Talmud with a group of QC professors. I was fascinated by the passage we studied this week (Bava Basra 60a), and thought you might also enjoy it, so here we go (my translation/paraphrase):

Rabbi Yannai had a tree that extended past his property line into the public domain. One day, a person who had a similar tree on his property, appeared before Rabbi Yannai with a legal query: “People are complaining about my tree,” the person said to Rabbi Yannai, “They say that the branches are a hazard. What is the law? Am I required to cut them back to my property line?”

“Come back tomorrow,” Rabbi Yannai replied.

That evening, Rabbi Yannai sent someone to cut back the branches of his own tree which were overhanging into the public space.

The following day, the man returned for the answer to his question, and Rabbi Yannai said, “Indeed, you must cut the branches.”

“But you also have a tree whose branches are extending into the public space! Why should I cut mine while yours remain?” the man protested.

“Go to my property and look for yourself. If my branches are cut, then you must cut yours; and if not, then you can leave your tree as is,” said Rabbi Yannai.

The Talmud then inquires: What is going on here? Rabbi Yannai certainly knew the legal ruling that he had to cut the branches, so why did he allow them to grow in the first place? If he thought that perhaps he was “above the law,” then why did he change his mind after being questioned by the (anonymous) man?

The answer: Rabbi Yannai initially thought that people actually appreciated the overhanging branches, for they could rest under their shade. When someone else told him that he had received complaints for the same situation, Rabbi Yannai realized that the reason why people had not protested his branches was due to their respect for him, as a rabbi. If they indeed had appreciated the shade, then they would not have complained about the other person’s branches, either.

The Talmud inquires further: Why did Rabbi Yannai tell the person to return the following day? Why not just tell him to cut the branches, and then Rabbi Yannai could also cut his branches?

The answer: Rabbi Yannai was following the teaching of Reish Lakish, who explained the verse, “Clean yourselves and [then] clean others of straw” (Zephaniah 2:1) to mean that one must first adorn oneself (i.e., fix your own problems), and only then may one adorn others.
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This moral lesson derived from the legal case doesn’t need much clarification. In order to assist another person, we must first repair our own problems.