May 26, 2024
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It’s the Eponymy, Stupid: Ketubot 50a

An eponym is a word derived from a person’s name. For instance, sideburns were named for Ambrose Burnside’s facial hair, and to josh, that is, to joke, derived from humorist Josh Billings. An eponymous Talmudic statement, meanwhile, is one where the statement matches the speaker’s name. For instance, on Ketubot 19a, Rabbi Natan deduces a law of financial transitivity—if A owes B and B owes C, one can take from A and give (וְנוֹתְנִין) to C, based on a derasha of a biblical phrase beginning with וְנָתַן. In Bava Batra 67b, Rabbi Abba bar Memel explains the Mishnaic term מֶּמֶל. In Bava Metzia 25a, Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala’ah (of Migdal) says that to demonstrate they were carefully placed rather than dropped, the three coins must be stacked כְּמִגְדָּלִין, like towers. Or Berachot 53b, where Rabbi Zuhamai says that just as a filthy person (מְזֹוהָם) is excluded from Temple service, so are filthy hands are unfit for bentching. On Nazir 13a, where ben Rechumi (or Rav Rechumi) asks Abaye a question, and he or the Talmudic Narrator, in expanding upon the question, says perhaps the nazir is saying, “I love you (רָחֵימְנָא) as [you love] yourself.”

Rav Ketina was a second-generation Suran Amora, often quoted by Rav Chisda. He appears once in Talmud Yerushalmi (Beitza 1:7) and about 28 times in Talmud Bavli. Ketubot 50a is one such instance. He speaks about positive or negative repercussions of bringing a young child, less than 6, to learn Torah. Interestingly, רב קטינא discusses the case of a קטן, though the term קטן isn’t employed. Similarly, in Bava Batra 93b, after the Mishna teaches that a buyer accepts ¼ kav of impurities per seah of grain, Rav Ketina teaches that these impurities are of legumes, קִטְנִית, not dirt. What should we make of the phenomenon of eponymous statements?

Competing Explanations

Maharatz Chajes (Introduction to the Talmud, chapter 17) first noticed cases such as Rabbi Yitzchak Migdala’ah and Rabbi Zuhamai, Sages who seldom if ever otherwise speak, and suggested that they were named after their halachic or aggadic statement. To expand and riff upon this idea, Rabbi Yizchak Migdala’ah was a second-generation Israeli Amora, different from the fifth-generation Tanna, Rabbi Yitzchak I, and different from the third-generation Israeli/Babylonian Amora Rabbi Yitzchak II. If we want to credit him, debate his ideas, while also distinguishing him from similarly named Sages in close temporal and/or geographic proximity, titling him “Rabbi Yitzchak of the famous towers halacha” works. For Rabbi Zuhamai—appearing in the brayta alongside Tannaim Rabbi Zivai, Rabbi Zilai and Rav [erroneous printing expansion for Rabbi] Acha—perhaps we needed a name for the sake of discussion, or he’s named after his halacha.

Rav Reuven Margoliot (לחקר שמות וכינויים בתלמוד) notes Maharatz Chajes’ position and how several subsequent scholars (e.g. Sefer Yuchsin, Seder HaDorot) similarly explained the names of certain other Sages. However, where scholars applied this to other Sages, such as Rabbi Abba bar Mamal or Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, Rav Margoliot disagrees. Maharatz Chayes himself restricted this explanation to those who otherwise say little or nothing. Rabbi Abba bar Mamal and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish say plenty, so why base their name upon a single obscure halacha or aggada? Meanwhile, we see others by that name or appellation, e.g. Rabbi Yehuda ben Lakish and Rabbi Zeira bar Mamal, as well as plausible geographic explanations for the appellation—it was the name of their city. He proceeds to similarly explain all of Maharatz Chajes’ examples as geographic except for ben Rechumi and Rabbi Zuhamai.

Others discuss this idea at length, but let’s note Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ take (in “Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud”). While he considers it “the height of absurdity” to think the Talmud as a whole is pseudepigraphic (with all names and attributions fabricated), he does believe that “far more than is generally recognised” is pseudepigraphic. He offers many proofs, and I disagree with many, but this is one. Citing Maharatz Chajes, then Rav Margoliot’s rejection, he writes, “Nor is Margaliot’s own solution (that because of their names the scholars were attracted to sayings with a pun on these names) anything but weak. Surely the most plausible explanation is that we have here a literary device in which the names of the scholars were appended to the sayings precisely because of the pun. If this is correct, it can only mean that the scholars did not say these things at all but it is all the work of the editors or, at least, part of the long editorial process.”

Parallel Explanations

I don’t really require a single explanation for this phenomenon. Rather, in the messy natural world, several processes can operate to create a surface feature. Consider the multiple bases for the title rabbi in this article, for Tannaim, Amoraim and more recent scholars. While Occam’s Razor might advance a singular, straightforward explanation, the Talmud favors neither עכו”ם nor razors.

To start, a regular feature of James Taranto’s Best of the Web column for The Wall Street Journal was “It’s The Eponymy, Stupid”, a play on James Carville’s famous expression, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Thus, Mark Reckless “apologised for being drunk in the House of Commons and missing a vote on the Budget.” Or Dave Messing, a spokesman for Continental Airlines, confirmed an incident of sewage flowing down the airplane aisle. Did the BBC and Associated Press respectively fabricate these names for the pun? Explanations include: We are living in a simulation; Hashem has a sense of humor; As Rabbi Eliezer (Berachot 7b) and Rabbi Meir (Yoma 83b) maintain, your name predicts/influences your destiny.

Alternatively, if the chances of such overlap are minute, with a sufficient number of events, such overlap will still occur. See the law of large numbers. See how in NLP, to detect collocations (words which habitually go together) in a corpus, e.g. “red wine” and “white wine,” we distinguish them from chance juxtapositions, e.g. “burgundy wine” based on frequency of co-ocurrence vs. expected frequency by chance, as the product of each word’s frequency. How often does the Sage (Rav Ketina), or topic (natan) occur? Might the overlap be coincidence? I’ve written about many topics, including arguing that wax candles are preferable to oil lamps for Chanukah, but not because my name is Waxman. I also like to josh.

A few obscure Sages could be named for their halacha. In other instances, a Sage might gravitate to topics or derivations which play on their names. Rabbi Abba bar Mamal might be motivated to know and transmit what a “memel” is, just as my name and Levitical status draws me to discuss Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. Further, the Talmud was transmitted orally for centuries, so mnemonics are helpful. The second-generation Rabbi Yitzchak of Migdal spoke of coin towers, but as the Talmud continues, he simply echoes a brayta. Perhaps several Sages repeated it, but the pun makes him and his statement easy to remember. Additionally, the Sages love wordplay. For ben Rechumi, רָחֵימְנָא לֵיהּ כְּווֹתָיךְ isn’t essential to the question, so perhaps he (or the Talmud) phrased that aspect that way for the pun.

Further, dittography might erroneously produce eponymous attributions. See Pesachim 113a, מַאי ״סוּדָנָא״? אָמַר רַב חִסְדָּא: סוֹד נָאֶה, וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים. Several manuscripts (Rab. 1608, Vatican 125 and 134), have Rav Huna, e.g. מאי סדנא אמ’ רב הונא סוד נאה וגמילות חסדא. Also, the preceding statement is by Rav Chisda. This is scribal error, not editorial malfeasance!

Finally, a word on improbable names as clear inventions. (See Jacobs, footnote 34, about Ayo and ben Rechumi, where he may be influenced by the name’s strangeness, not just the fit.) First, manuscripts of Nazir 13a such as Munich 95 and Vatican 110 have Rav Rechumi, not ben Rechumi, and he interacts with Pumpeditan Abaye. We find Rav Rechumi arguing with Rav Yosef Eruvin 11a, speaking to Abaye in Pesachim 39a and frequenting Rava’s presence in Mechoza in Ketubot 62b, so a Pumpeditan association is well-established. The name Rechumi admittedly sounds weird, but isn’t it merely the Aramaic form of Ahava, as in Rav Ada bar Ahava? The name Ayo in Eruvin 36b, discussing a case of establishing an eruv when we don’t know whence (thus Jacobs, not the Talmud: ayo) the visiting Sage is coming, seems strange, but other Amoraim are named איינו, אילא and אימי. Similarly, who would name their kid Zuhamai, filthy? But this Tanna appears alongside Zivai and Zilai, the latter the name of Rabbi Meir’s father-in-law. Z names may be common in that time and place. And Zaham is King Shlomo’s grandson (II Divrei Hayamim 11:19), and a fine Arabic boy’s name, meaning “to be close.”

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. See Rabbi Nachman Levine’s JSIJ article, על מדרשי שמות תלמודיים: עיצוב ספרותי ומשמעותו, and particularly footnote 4.

2. “In the case of Ben Rehumi and Ayo, for instance, it is as clear as can be that the names have been invented by the editors.”

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