Moed Katan 3-4
In Moed Katan 3b, Rabbi Zeira makes a powerful point to Rabbi Abahu. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel had each prohibited, by decree, plowing prior to the start of the shemitah year, one from Pesach and one from Shavuot. A chain of Amoraim asserted that Rabban Gamliel II and his court voted and nullified these prohibited periods. Now, Rabbi Zeira asks a literally stunning question. The Mishnah (Eduyot 1:5) states that a later court cannot nullify a decree of an earlier court unless it’s greater in number and wisdom, so how could Rabban Gamliel II’s court nullify the combined decrees of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel? Rabbi Abahu is at loss for an answer, whereupon Rabbi Zeira suggests that they originally stipulated that a later court could nullify the decree.
Rabbi Zeira I, a third-generation Amora, is the brilliant scholar of our sugya. Based on interactions, it’s the same Rabbi Zeira I citing Rabba b. Yirmeya citing Shmuel, allowing irrigation on Chol Hamoed from streams that draw their water from pools (4a), and argues with Rabbi Abba b. Mamal about why constructing a new water channel during shemitah is prohibited (4b).
Often, Talmud Bavli refers to him as Rav Zeira, but Talmud Yerushalmi refers to him as Rabbi Zeira. “Rav” was the rabbinic title in Bavel, while “Rabbi” was the rabbinic title in Israel, where they still had ordination. On Ketubot 43b, the Talmud takes pains to distinguish the two, writing of variant girsaot: אָמַר רַב זֵירָא אָמַר רַב מַתְנָה אָמַר רַב, וְאָמְרִי לַהּ אָמַר רַבִּי זֵירָא אָמַר רַב מַתְנָה אָמַר רַב. Rashi says this is the same person, and Rabbi Zeira assumed the title after moving to Israel. Tosafot has contrary evidence in Menachot 40b, where Rav Zera and Rabbi Zeira take contrary opinions as to why not to put tzitzit on a linen cloak, but as Rav Aharon Hyman (upon whom I rely for most of this) notes, we can resolve this by saying that Rabbi Zeira changed his mind after moving, by adopting Rashi’s girsa. Note girsaot in which Rav Zeira says נמי, that it’s an additional reason. In our Moed Katan sugya, he interacts with Rabbi Abahu, in Israel, so the title “Rabbi” is appropriate. Also, most manuscripts have ר’ זירא, not spelling out the title.
Rabbi Zeira’s principal teachers in Bavel were Rav Huna and Rav Yehuda (second generation). However, he also cites statements from Shmuel, Rav Chisda, Rav Nachman, Rabba b. Yirmeya, and others. He cites many statements of Rav and Shmuel via their students (e.g., Rabbi Zeira said that “Rabbi Abba b. Yirmeya said that Shmuel said” in Niddah 11b). As discussed previously regarding his interaction with Rabbi Abba b. Zavda, Rabbi Zeira was punctilious in spelling out the full chain of transmission. He often drove himself to exhaustion in learning, whereupon he’d position himself at the entrance to the study hall to stand for the Sages in respect (Eruvin 28b).
His colleagues include Rav Huna and Rav Yehuda’s students, such as Rabba and Rav Yosef. He desired to go to Israel to learn directly from Rabbi Yochanan, but didn’t think himself worthy, until he saw barley in a dream (Brachot 57a), implying expiation of his sins. While many of Rav Huna and Rav Yehuda’s students went to Israel, Rav Yehuda was opposed, asserting that whoever did so violated a positive commandment. Rabbi Zeira therefore avoided Rav Yehuda for a while, yet heard one halacha from him before he left (Shabbat 41a; see Brachot 24b for Rabbi Abba). He fasted 100 fasts to forget the Torah of Bavel so that he’d be more receptive to the different style of learning in Israel. He ascribed his wisdom to Israel’s enwisening air (Bava Batra 158b). In Israel, he learned directly from Rabbi Yochanan, Resh Lakish and Rabbi Eleazar (b. Pedat), and cited halachot from scholars of the previous generation. He learned from Rabbi Yochanan’s greatest students (such as Rabbi Assi), though many were younger than him.
Expanding on his relationship to Rabbi Abahu (Rabbi Yochanan’s third-generation student), to whom he posed the aforementioned stunning question: Rabbi Zeira was Rabbi Abahu’s student/colleague, from whom he received many of Rabbi Yochanan’s rulings (Nedarim 36a; Gittin 57a). He often posed questions to Rabbi Abahu (our sugya; Gittin 9b, Zevachim 12a). Rabbi Zeira referred to Rabbi Abahu as “Rabbi” (equivalent to Mar/Master in Bavli; Yerushalmi Brachot 8:2). He saw Rabbi Abahu floating in a bathtub on Shabbat but was uncertain whether he lifted his feet (Shabbat 40b). He cited Rabbi Abahu on multiple instances.
For his part, Rabbi Abahu accorded Rabbi Zeira great honor. He restricted pounding spices on Yom Tov, in part because he knew Rabbi Zeira felt it could have been done the day before (Yerushalmi Beitza 1:9). When he took over Rabbi Ami’s yeshiva, Rabbi Zeira was his close companion. Rabbi Abahu pledged a banquet for the Sages if Rabbi Zeira recovered from an illness. At that banquet, he called Rabbi Zeira “Mar” and tried to honor him with HaMotzi (Brachot 46a).
Rabbi Zeira was blessed with longevity for various merits (last week, Megillah 28a). He didn’t accept gifts from the Nasi’s house, but would accept invitations—though that’s another Sage’s enumerated longevity merits. He never referred to another by a nickname. Interestingly, Zeira means short and Rabbi Abahu (and others) called him “the little man with scorched legs” (Brachot 46a).
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.