June 19, 2024
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Bava Kamma 108b: Rabba Zutei the Redactor

On Bava Kamma 108b, we encounter two versions of a dilemma. The shared scenario is that an animal given to a watchman was stolen in אוֹנֶס circumstances (e.g., by an armed bandit). In the first version, the armed bandit is caught. Abaye makes a distinction between an unpaid and paid watchman. An unpaid watchman, can either contend with the thief in court or swear to the owner as to the circumstances of the theft, whereupon the owner will contend with the thief. A paid watchman has no oath option. Rava makes no distinction, saying that neither watchman may take an oath. The Talmudic narrator then explores the basis for this Abaye/Rava dispute1.

Then, רַבָּה זוּטֵי בָּעֵי לַהּ הָכִי—“Rabbi Zutei inquires as follows.” In this version, after the animal was stolen in אוֹנֶס circumstances, the bandit returned the animal to the watchman’s house, whereupon it dies due to the watchman’s negligence. Does the אוֹנֶס theft sever the watchman’s responsibilities, or does the return to his domain cause resumption of his responsibilities? The question isn’t resolved—תֵּיקוּ.

How does Rabba Zutei’s dilemma relate to the prior segment? The Koren English translation from Rav Steinsaltz renders it: “Rabba Zutei raises the dilemma like this,” with the implication that it is a version of the prior Talmudic segment. Artscroll describes it as follows: “By way of introduction—channeling Rosh and Ramah as cited by Shita Mekubetzet—‘Abaye and Rava agreed that at least a paid custodian is required to pursue the thief and retrieve the deposit, if possible. Thus, even when the custodian is exempt from paying, his duties are not terminated by the theft. The Gemara cites a dissenting view, ’ namely that of Rabba Zutei.”

Would Rabbi Zutei really argue with Abaye and Rava? Who is this bold fellow? Knowing his biography might shed light on the nature of his “dilemma.”


Rav Ashi’s Colleague

While Abaye and Rava are fourth-generation Amoraim, Rabba Zutei seems to be Rav Ashi’s sixth-generation colleague. Rav Aaron Hyman (Toledot Tannaim vaAmoraim) says Rabba Zutei took a large part in arranging the Talmud. Thus, in Menachot 31b, he tells Rav Ashi what Rav Yirmeyah of Difti said in Rava’s name, about repairing a torn Torah scroll. In Menachot 52a, when the Gemara is uncertain which of two baraita is later and therefore more authoritative, he relates a proof to Rav Ashi. In Beitza 32b, third-generation Rabba argues with his contemporary Rav Nachman regarding moving large stones together to function as a lavatory on Yom Tov, and Rav Nachman responds to this; sixth-generation Rabba Zutei2 raises an objection to Rav Ashi—If this were so, would one permit building a solid bench? Similarly, in Bava Batra 120a, the law restricting Tzelophchad’s daughters to marry within the tribe was only for that generation. Rava (in printings; Rabba/Rabba bar Sheila in manuscripts) gives a Scriptural derivation based on זֶה הַדָּבָר. Rabba Zuta objects to Rav Ashi that—If one interprets זֶה הַדָּבָר in this way, what about offerings slaughtered outside the Temple, where such language is employed?

In a few places, Rabba Zuta weighs in as to the correct girsa (expression). Thus, in Bechorot 36a, there’s a halacha from Rabbi Illai that if a Kohen brought an animal—not established as a firstborn—to an expert in blemishes and said, “It’s a firstborn, but it’s blemishes arose unintentionally,” he’s believed. The Gemara relates that Ravina taught this halacha without attribution. Rabba Zutei said to him, “We teach it in Rabbi Ilaa’s name.”

In Zevachim 24a, Rabbi Ami raises a dilemma: If one of the Temple’s stone tiles came loose and began to wobble, and a Kohen stood on it, what’s the law? (This is regarding performing Temple service, and whether the stone is considered an invalidating separation.) Then, רבה זוטי בעי לה הכי בעי רבי אמי, Rabba Zutei raises the dilemma as follows: Rabbi Ami raised the dilemma, if a stole tile was uprooted and the Kohen stood on the bare space, what’s the law?

In Menachot 15a, Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat raised a dilemma before Rav about a Kohen who had improper pigul thoughts (to consume the sacrifice the following day) regarding a thanksgiving offering as well as its loaves, as to whether the intentions combine. After a lengthy analysis, on Menachot 15b, ואיכא דמתני לה אכבשים בעא מיניה רבי אלעזר מרב השוחט את הכבשים—“There are some who change Rabbi Eleazar’s dilemma which he posed to Rav, to be about multiple lambs.” After another lengthy analysis, רבי אבא זוטי בעי לה הכי בעא מיניה ר’ אלעזר מרב השוחט את הכבש—“Rabba Zutei poses the dilemma as follows: ‘Rabbi Eleazar posed the dilemma to Rav about one of the lambs.’”

It seems to me like there were several versions of sugyot floating around in various academies in Rav Ashi’s and Ravina II’s days, when the Talmud was being redacted, and Rabba Zutei occasionally weighed in with his version. I’ve written about other such figures and their versions, such as “Rav Chaviva the Redactor” (July 8, 2021).


Rabba Zutei’s Dilemma?

Thus, Rabba Zutei provides alternate girsaot, and when raising dilemmas with the language בעי לה הכי, he’s explaining how some other, earlier Amora, actually posed the question. Therefore, I doubt Rabbi Zutei is so bold to pose his own question here, while simultaneously rejecting the combined positions of Abaye and Rava.

Rather, other Amoraim were posing questions. First was Rav Pappa, on Bava Kamma 108a. On 108b, (a) Rava inquired: “If he arose to swear falsely and they didn’t let him, what’s the law?” At least, that’s how Rav Kahana taught it. (I am assuming this is Rav Kahana V, sixth-generation contemporary of Rav Ashi.) However, sixth-generation Rav Tavyumi taught Rava’s dilemma otherwise, namely (b) that, “If he did swear falsely, what’s the law?” תֵּיקו.

Then, (c) the Gemara itself raises a question—תְּבָעוּהוּ בְּעָלִים לַשּׁוֹמֵר—וְשִׁילֵּם, וְהוּכַּר הַגַּנָּב, and leaves the question unresolved. Then, (d) אִתְּמַר, the aforementioned debate between Abaye and Rava.

In this context, Rabba Zutei says בעי לה הכי. Perhaps he’s acting parallel to (a) Rav Kahana IV and (b) Rav Tavyumi, and his dilemma should emanate from Rava’s mouth. Or, given that Rava’s name isn’t repeated like those posing the queries in Zevachim and Yevamot, he’s providing his own Talmudic girsa as an alternative to (c) and/or (d). That sugya knows nothing of a Rava/Abaye dispute, but rather it’s an anonymous Talmudic inquiry, like (c).

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

1 Interestingly, the narrator does so by asking if Abaye holds like Rav Huna bar Avin, who sent a ruling with identical wording to Abaye, while disagrees. The narrator explains that Rava could have told you how the cases are different, because the watchman preemptively and improperly swore. There’s a related sugya, Bava Metzia 93b, in which Rav Nachman—who is Rava’s primary teacher—rules practically in a case of an unpaid watchman disallowing an oath. Does this contradict Rav Huna bar Avin’s sent ruling? “No,” says Rava. “This case is different because government officials were present who would have rescued the watchman had he raised his voice.”

2 Here, Rav Steinsaltz says he was called “Rabba the Small” to distinguish him from “the famous Rabba,” presumably because Rabba appears immediately above. This doesn’t work in all other contexts.

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