June 15, 2024
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Bava Metzia 25a: Rabbi Yitzchak of Migdal

Rabbi Yitzchak of Migdal (רִבִּי יִצחָק מִגְּדָּלָאה) is a real person! He was a first-generation amora of the Land of Israel. In Shabbat 139a, Rabbi Mallai (or in Midrash Mishlei1, second-generation Rabbi Simlai) cites him interpreting a verse, that Yosef didn’t taste wine from the time he left his brothers; Rabbi Yossi ben Rabbi Chanina adds that the brothers didn’t taste wine either. The gemara assumes they argue. In Niddah 27b, after Reish Lakish stakes out a position that X is like a deformed corpse and pure, Rabbi Yochanan asks where he knows a deformed corpse is pure. Is it based on second-generation Rabbi Shabtai citing Rabbi Yitzchak of Migdal (or, alternatively, the citation reversed)? In some versions of the parallel Yerushalmi Nidda 3:3, Reish Lakish objects from the same quote from Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala.

Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala will explain the mishna or brayta. He does so in our sugya, Bava Metzia 25a. The opening mishnah of the second perek described scattered money as a find he can keep, and the second Mishnah described piles of coins which he must announce, three coins one atop the other. To this, Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala says that this is where they were arranged כְּמִגְדָּלִין, in well-ordered towers. A brayta teaches this as well, that if they were ordered like towers, he must announce, and that a well-ordered tower is three coins stacked atop one another. The tosefta also defines gathered as like a tower. In the parallel Yerushalmi 2:4, second-generation Rav Yehuda says (like Rabbi Chanina in Bavli) that they should be of three kings’ minting, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Pedat (like the Talmudic narrator in Bavli) explores how this interacts with the towers requirement. Thus, towers were well-established outside Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala’s statement.

Similarly, in Niddah 33a, the Mishna said that Samaritan men are assumed impure because of intercourse with niddot, and Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala clarifies that this refers to married Samaritan men. Apparently, Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala was active in this topic of impurity, as he was cited earlier in Niddah 27b. In Yoma 81b, a brayta states that one wasn’t liable for eating grapevine shoots on Yom Kippur, and Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala clarifies that these are ones that sprouted between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

He engages in midrash aggadah. Thus, in Bereishit Rabba 5:9, Rabbi Natan interprets God’s curse of the ground, that it should produce cursed items, such as gnats, flies and fleas2. Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala objects that even these are beneficial. In Bereishit Rabba 98:20, regarding Yaakov’s blessing to Yosef, וּלְקָדְקֹד נְזִיר אֶחָיו, some interpret it negatively that his brothers distanced themselves from him, some interpret it as literal nezirut, but Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala interprets it as Yosef being the crown of his brothers. We discussed Midrash Mishlei above, about Yosef refraining from wine. In Shir Hashirim Rabba 3:10, after a verse in Divrei Hayamim is interpreted as silver putting to shame gold, since various vessels including potot are made from it, he defines potot as teeth of keys, while Rabbi Simai3 defines it as the cup under a hinge.

 

His Namesake

We would guess that Migdala means migdal. After all, Bereishit Rabba 94:5 / Shir Hashirim 1:12 speaks of Migdal Tzevaaya as a source of wood; acacia trees grew in Migdal. Eicha Rabba 2:4 also speaks of the city of Migdal. In Yerushalmi Berachot 9:2, Rabbi Yossi bar Yaakov visits Rabbi Yudan of Migdal. In Yerushalmi Maasarot 3:1, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai speaks of someone with two courtyards, one in Tiberias and one in Migdal. Finally, Mary Magdalene, perhaps מִרְיָם מְגַדְּלָא שְׂעַר in Shabbat 104b, came from Migdal.

Yet, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes suggests, in Mevo HaTalmud, that certain Sages were named based on a prominent halacha that he expressed. Alongside Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala, he notes Rabbi Zuhamai (Berachot 53b) who speaks of filthy hands rendering one unfit for Temple service as well as Birkat Hamazon; and Ben Rechumi (Nazir 13a) who asks Abaye about a case where one conditions a Nazirite vow on having a son, where he or the Gemara elaborates an offshoot question that perhaps he is saying רָחֵימְנָא, “I love you like you love yourself;” and Yerushalmi Megillah 1:11, where Rabbi Simlai Devora interprets a verse in which Eliyahu says וּבִדְבָרְךָ֣ עָשִׂ֔יתִי as “following your dibbur/ord I have acted.”

Rabbi Reuven Margolies, in his treatise לחקר שמות וכינויים בתלמוד, enumerates many more eponymous instances, where the sage’s name corresponds to his saying or to an event in his life. Still, he rejects “Rabbi Simlai Devorah” since when one obtains the precise text, the punctuation should be “Rabbi Simlai says: dibura,” rather than it being his name. He agrees with Maharatz Chajes where the sage stated only one halacha, but rejects applying it to Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala, who says several other halachot (and aggadot). Rather, the sages were attracted to sayings which punned on their names.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs, in Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud, takes the idea further. He considers Margolies’ answer weak, and rather asserts that many Talmudic sayings are pseudepigraphic, that redactors falsely attached the sages’ names to these sayings, specifically because of the pun. These eponymous statements join other examples he uses to argue that a great many Talmudic statements are pseudepigraphic.

I’ve discussed some of this evidence and arguments in past articles. For instance, “Ben Rechumi” is a scribal error and the correct “Rav Rechumi” is a well-attested Pumbeditan amora. More generally, scribal errors can create seemingly eponymous statements. Rabbi Margolies is right in that Talmudic Sages spent their time in careful analysis of text and wordplay, so of course they’d be attracted to statements similar to their name. Further, the Mishnah and Talmud were initially transmitted orally, so if several scholars advanced an idea, Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala is easier to remember. Also, academic scholars who study texts don’t always think mathematically, to calculate the pointwise mutual information, to wonder if their examples result from random chance. A prolific sage (e.g. Rav Chisda, Rabbi Natan, Levi, Rav Kahana, Rav Nachman or Rabbi Eleazar) says 100 statements. Is it that unlikely that for a small subset of them, one of those statements involves a name-related topic (e.g. kindness, giving, Leviim, Kohanim, comforting, the Biblical Eleazar)?


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 Rav Aharon Hyman tags Sanhedrin 98a alongside Midrash Mishlei, but I suspect this is an error. Rabbi Simlai appears where Rabbi Mallai does elsewhere, but not associated with Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala.

2 Perhaps this assumes spontaneous generation.

3 The later Bamidbar Rabba 12:4 reverses these definitions.

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