Thursday, May 25, 2006

Historical context of stories inTalmud

I heard a tape of a fascinating shiur by R. Yaakov Elman called "Historical Context & Background of the Talmud." In it he analyzes a fairly well known incident in Babna Qamma 117a (translation here by Jeffrey Rubenstein):
A certain man intended to reveal another man's straw [to the Persian tax authorities.] He came before Rav. He [Rav] said to him, "Do not reveal it! Do not reveal it." He said to him, "I will reveal it! I will reveal it!"

Rav Kahana was sitting before Rav. He stood up and tore out his [the man's] windpipe. [He said,] “Your sons lie in a swoon at the corner of every street, like an antelope caught in a net (Isa 51:20). Just as they never show mercy to an antelope once it has fallen into a net, so the idolators never show mercy to the money of Jews once it has fallen into their hands."

Rav said to him, "Kahana, until now there was the Kingdom of the Greeks who were not strict about bloodshed [and allowed us to administer capital punishment]. But now there is the [Kingdom of the] Persians, who are strict about bloodshed. Rise and go up to the Land of Israel and accept upon yourself that you do not raise objections to [the teaching of] R. Yohanan for seven years."

He [Rav Kahana] went there [to the Land of Israel] and came upon Resh Laqish who was sitting and reviewing the daily lesson before the rabbis. He [Rav Kahana] said to them, "Where is Resh Laqish?" They said to him, "What for?" He told them this objection and that objection, this solution and that solution. They went and told Resh Laqish. Resh Laqish went and said to R. Yohanan, "A lion had come up from Babylonia. Let the Master look deeply into the lesson for tomorrow."

The next day they seated him [Rav Kahana] in the first row [of sages]. He [R. Yohanan] said a tradition and he [Rav Kahana] did not object. He said [another] tradition and he did not object. They seated him back through seven rows until he was in the last row. R. Yohanan said to Resh Laqish, “The lion you mentioned has become a fox.”

He [Rav Kahana] said, “May it be [God’s] will that these seven rows take the place of the seven years that Rav told me [not to raise objections].” He stood up on his feet. He said, “Let the master go back to the beginning.”

He [R. Yohanan] said a tradition and he [Rav Kahana] objected [until] they placed him in the first row. He said a tradition and he objected. R. Yohanan was sitting on seven cushions. They removed a cushion from under him. He said a tradition and he objected to him, until they removed all the cushions from under him and he was sitting on the ground.

R. Yohanan was an old man and his eyelids sagged [over his eyes]. He said to them, "Lift up my eyes that I may see him." They lifted up [his eyelids] with a silver stick. He saw that his [Rav Kahana's] lip was split. He thought that he was laughing at him. He became embarrassed and he [Rav Kahana] died [as divine punishment for causing R. Yohanan to feel ashamed].

The next day R. Yohanan said to the rabbis, "Did you see how that Babylonian acted?" They said to him, "That's the way he is [he has a split lip]." He [R. Yohanan] went to his [burial] cave. He saw that a snake was coiled about it. He said, "Snake! Snake! Open the door and let the master approach his student." It did not open. [He said,] "Let a colleague approach his colleague." It did not open. [He said,] "Let a student approach his teacher." It opened for him.

He prayed and revived him. He said to him, "Had I known that that is the way you are, I would not have felt embarrassed. Now, Sir, come with us to the academy." He said, "If you can pray that I will never die again [because of you], I will go with you. If not, I won't go." He said, "I cannot, for when times change, that which changes, changes.,

He [R. Yohanan] asked him [Rav Kahana] all his doubts [regarding points of law] and he [Rav Kahana] resolved them for him. This is [the meaning] of what R. Yohanan said, "What I thought was yours [=I thought the Torah was the Palestinians'] was theirs [the Babylonians']."
This is a bit of a long story, and I know that not everyone reads long blog posts, although many will already be familiar with this story. So you could just read the bolded part. The background is basically that Rav Kahana, a Bavli (Babylonian), killed a man who threatened to inform on another man to the authorities. His rebbe, Rav, sent him to Eretz Yisrael, to the yeshiva of Rav Yohannan in Tiberius. As a sort of penance for the killing, Rav Kahana was supposed to be sort of incognito for seven years! But he was quickly discovered to be a great scholar-a lion, in fact! He bested Rav Yohannan in class and here is where you should read the bolded text:

Rav Yohanan was an old man and his eyelids sagged [over his eyes]. He said to them, "Lift up my eyes that I may see him." They lifted up [his eyelids] with a silver stick. He saw that his [Rav Kahana's] lip was split. He thought that he was laughing at him. He became embarrassed and he [Rav Kahana] died [as divine punishment for causing Rav Yohanan to feel ashamed].

Rav Yohannan was then informed that Rav Kahana wasn't smirking at him, but that his normal facial expression just gave that appearance. Given that, R. Yohannan tried to get forgiveness from Rav Kahana, but was unable to until he acknowledged Rav Kahana as his superior!


R. Elman points out several things.

First, in the year 226 CE there had been a regime change. Babylonian Jewry came under control of a new dynasty, the Sassanians. The Sassanians were different then their predecessors who didn't interfere in minority communities internal affairs. Had this incident happened before 226 then the Parthian rulers would not have cared in the slightest if one Jew killed another. However, under the new regime Rav Kahana needed to skip town.

Secondly, there is ample evidence that the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, well, didn't really care for the Babylonian Jews. That isn't to say they hated them, but we all know about ethnic tensions. Furthermore, Rav Yohannan is quoted in numerous places saying derogatory things about Babylonian Jews.

Thirdly, the successors of the initial Sassanian rulers cooled things down considerably, which means that this incident happened after 226 but probably not more than 10 years later then that.

Fourthly, Rav Yohannan died in the year 279, having been born in 180 (actually, I got those dates from EJ; R. Elman may have qualified them slightly, but I don't remember, because he said that Rav Yohannan was 90 when he died) Given that, he would have been in his fifties when this story happened. True, we are talking about the 3rd century here, but hardly the old man described in the story!

Fifth, the motif of an old person's eyelids that can't be lifted by themselves is paralleled in Persian literature. In addition, the use of a silver instrument is signifigant, in that silver was considered a particularly noble metal by the Persians, even more than gold (which was still worth more!). In addition, a Persian word appears.

So, how did a typically Persian story happen to an amora of Eretz Yisrael who seems not to have been nearly as old as described?

According to R. Elman, the story is paralleled in the Yerushalmi, with no mention of the eyelids. Furthermore, one of the best Talmud manuscripts, the Hamburg ms--which I tried to get access to in order to verify the following, but haven't been able to)--has the story but without the Persian motifs (the eyelids, the silver)! This particular mss is not that old, its from the 14th century, but it was copied from a very, very old Talmud manuscript and preserves a lot of pristine readings.

Says R. Elman, the theory proposed by R. Daniel Sperber (and someone else whose name escapes me) is that the eyelids and the silver, that whole part of the episode, was an interpolation from ge'onic times! It is well known that there was something of a power struggle between proponents of the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Talmud Bavli. For example, Pirkoi Ben Baboi, student of R. Yehudai Ga'on, wrote a famous iggeret which was highly influential in establishing the supremacy of the Bavli.

Perhaps this was somehow added to the original story, for it seems to be a later interpolation, to make Rav Yohannan, the Eretz Yisraeli amora par excellence look less than flattering.

Note: I dashed this off without having heard the shiur that recently and without having taken notes. I'm sure I made mistakes and didn't do it justice; those errors are mine.

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