July 22, 2024
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As I’ve progressed through life, my titles have gradually increased. I started out as Joshy. I recall the first bar mitzvah invitation where I was addressed as Master Joshua Waxman. This eventually turned to Mr. and so on, until most recently, I received a wedding invitation addressed to Rabbi Dr. and Mrs.1 I thought poor Shmuel, the first-generation Babylonian Amora. Though thoroughly knowledgeable in Torah, medicine and astronomy, no one is calling him Rabbi Dr. Shmuel.

Rav Schacter has spoken of this phenomenon and explained the pattern. For some rabbinic figures, less formality corresponds to greater prestige. So, it is Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda, but just plain Hillel and Shammai. Similarly, while we call Rav Soloveitchik “the Rav,” some in the yeshiva world called him JB.

Why didn’t Shmuel receive semicha and the corresponding title “rabbi”? Semicha was only conferred in Israel. Both Rav and Shmuel went to Israel where they met Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. Sanhedrin 5a describes how Rabbi Chiyya interceded with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi on behalf of his two nephews, Rabba bar Chana and Rav, supporting their ordination in various judicial fields. Meanwhile, Bava Metzia 85b relates how Shmuel Yarchina’a—who is the Shmuel we know and love—was Rebbe’s, that is Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s, physician. Rebbe had eye pain. Shmuel wished to drop medicine in his eye, but Rebbe couldn’t bear it. Shmuel thought to put it in a salve above the eye so that it would eventually get into the eye, but Rebbe couldn’t bear it. Shmuel placed the medicine in a tube of herbs underneath Rebbe’s pillow and that worked.

Perhaps as a reward for this, or perhaps because of Shmuel’s general erudition, Rebbe strove to ordain Shmuel, to no avail. (As Rashi explains, other circumstances intervened, or else they couldn’t gather the requisite Sages. Rav Shteinsaltz explains that Shmuel always demurred.) Shmuel said don’t be upset (that you weren’t successful; or at my refusal), for I saw in the book of Adam HaRishon (containing human genealogy and the leaders of each generation) written that Shmuel Yarchina’a shall be called Chakkim, scholar, but not called rabbi—and Rebbe shall be healed through him. (The quotation of this sefer continues with Rebbe and Rabbi Natan being the end of Mishna and Rav Ashi and Ravina being the end of Hora’ah.) I don’t know if חכים is meant to be a formal titled, or just that Shmuel is acknowledged as a wise scholar.

Tangentially, we know that Shmuel Yarchina’a is Shmuel because this was the big question of the day this aggadah comes to explain—why Shmuel lacks the ordination and title that his first-generation Amora colleague Rav does possess. Also, Shmuel was a doctor. And, as Rashi explains Yarchina’a, see Rosh Hashanah 20b, where Shmuel states he is capable of fixing the calendar for the entire Diaspora. Thus, he is an astronomical expert in the yareach, moon.

Rav Aharon Hyman, in Toledot Tannaim vaAmoraim, discusses the nature of Shmuel’s interaction with Rebbe. He notes Gittin 66b, where Shmuel (directly) cites Rebbe that the halacha is like Rabbi Yossi, that one cannot direct an agent to give verbal directives to another agent. Rav Hyman cites the Mevo HaYerushalmi, a word of Talmudic rabbinic biography by Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, page 124b, who declares that it appears Shmuel never ascended to Israel in his life, attempting to explain away Bava Metzia 85b as Shmuel healing Rebbe via directives sent by letter. Rav Hyman rightly is astonished at the attempt to dismiss an explicit Gemara as to their interaction.

Rav Hyman also cites contemporary scholars who suggested that Rebbe didn’t ordain Shmuel because שמואל ירחינאה חכים יתקרי, he had expertise in intercalating the year. Were Shmuel ordained, Bavel would rely on him and not be drawn after Israel. Hyman dismisses this, for this knowledge wasn’t rooted only in the house of the Nasi, and furthermore, one may not intercalate outside Israel. I don’t fully understand this dismissal, but regardless, the idea seems highly speculative.

Rav Hyman says these scholars don’t appreciate the intricacies of ordination. He notes how, in Sanhedrin 14a, Rabbi Yochanan was upset (with the same language, מצטער עליה) that he couldn’t ordain his dear student, Rav Shimon (Shemen) bar Abba, since he wasn’t present with other students at the right time. In that case, there wasn’t concern about calendars and splitting the Jewish community. Rather, since Shmuel was only in Israel a short while, perhaps Rebbe was ill and wasn’t able to come to the Beit HaVaad for this, for ordination requires publicity and agreement of all the scholars of the academy.

A Title Nonetheless

Despite this lack of ordination, his students still wished to honor Shmuel via a title. Besides possibly chakkim above, in our sugya, Ketubot 89a, after the Gemara asks, “and does Shmuel say one in fact writes a receipt?” Rav Anan says לְדִידִי מִיפָּרְשָׁא לִי מִינֵּיהּ דְּמָר שְׁמוּאֵל, “it was personally explained to me by Mar Shmuel…” This isn’t employed by the Talmud in general, e.g. amar Ploni amar Shmuel, but when we have Shmuel directly mentioned by a student, they might call him “Mar.” See, for instance, Shabbat 108b, where Shmuel is cited as permitting soaking eye salves and placing them over his eyes on Shabbat. Mar Ukva was opening and closing his eyes while applying the salve, and Bar Livai said to him: Master Shmuel doesn’t permit doing this. (Rabbi Yannai then sent to Mar Ukva requesting he send them Mar Shmuel’s eye salves, so perhaps there’s slight support for eye healing via messenger to Israel.)

This title doesn’t mean Mr. as in Modern Hebrew, but Master in the same sense that rav or rabbi means master. We see Shmuel bearing this title on occasion. However, we must be cautious, because there is also a fifth-generation Babylonian Amora named Mar Shmuel, sometimes called Mar Shmuel Mar. If so, we have to carefully examine context to ensure we’re speaking of the right Shmuel.

I’ve also seen it suggested that Shmuel was called by the nickname “King Shapur” as a sign of respect, rather than calling him directly by his unadorned first name. I’m unconvinced, since it’s doubly speculative that he was indeed called this. As I’ve discussed in an earlier article (“King Shapur I”), in Pesachim 54a, the Gemara itself is uncertain whether this appellation was applied to Rava or Shmuel. Further, we can explain the statement that “even King Shapur wouldn’t say this derasha” as referring to the actual King Shapur II, not saying a certain anti-Roman interpretation.


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 I’m kidding, mostly because of my wife’s doctorate.

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