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Nareshkeit in Dating: Rosh Hashanah 8a

In last week’s column I speculated that a disagreement between Rav Chisda and Rav Yosef (third-generation Amoraim) about dating legal contracts was based on the Sasanian cultural influence in their respective towns. Both Amoraim agreed that years reckoned via Jewish kings start in Nisan. What about via gentile kings? Rav Chisda lived near Sura, captured by the Sasanian King Shapur I, and the Sasanian calendar year began in Tishrei. Thus, contracts dated via gentile reigns start the year in Tishrei. The Babylonian secular calendar it replaced, used by the Parthian dynasty, began in Nisan. Pumbedita, home to Rav Yosef, hadn’t yet felt this Sasanian cultural impact, and Rav Yosef reckons contract years for Jewish and gentile kings starting in Nisan.

However, this week (Rosh Hashanah 8a), we see Rav Pappa reckon contract years starting in Tishrei, either for gentile kings or all kings. He was a student of Abaye and Rava, who were of Pumbedita academy. Shouldn’t he propound a Nisan start?

First, some background. The first Mishnah doesn’t explicitly state that Nisan or Tishrei is the new year for contracts. Rather, Nisan 1 is the new year for “kings” and Tishrei 1 is the new year for “years.” Rav Chisda (2a), a third-generation Amora, interprets “kings” as contracts, and also (3b) clarifies that this is just for Jewish kings, but the count of gentile kings is from Tishrei. The Mishnah also ambiguously says that Tishrei 1 is the new year for “years.” Rav Pappa, a fifth-generation Amora, closely echoes Rav Chisda’s language and interprets “years” as for contracts.

I won’t rehash the entire Gemara in detail, as my assumption is that the reader of this column studies the Gemara separately. The Gemara considers harmonizing Rav Chisda and Rav Pappa as talking about Jewish vs. gentile kings and considers whether Rav Chisda understands the word “years” in the Mishnah like Rav Pappa. If he does, his words would be redundant. In the first answer, he does, yet isn’t redundant for reason X. In the second answer, Rav Chisda understands “years” in the Mishnah differently, though still reckons years from Tishrei for gentile kings.

Curiously, the Rif and Rosh entirely omit both of Rav Chisda’s statements (that “kings” means contracts and the Jewish/gentile distinction). They cite Rav Pappa’s statement about “years” reckoned from Tishrei 1 in the Mishnah meaning contracts, but omit the Gemara’s harmonizing distinction between Jewish and gentile kings. Those who study Rif know that what he omits is as important as what he includes. I’d suggest that, once we sever Rav Chisda from Rav Pappa in the second answer, we also sever Rav Pappa from Rav Chisda and can discard the Talmudic Narrator’s initial harmonizing answer of ָא קַשְׁיָא כָּאן לְמַלְכֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּאן לְמַלְכֵי אוּמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם. Rav Pappa applies a Tishrei cutoff across the board, and the halacha is like him, since he is batrai (a later generation).

Now back to our initial inquiry, we have Rav Pappa either holding like Rav Chisda (Tishrei just for gentile kings) or even more extremely like the secular calendar (Tishrei across the board). Does this work with his cultural milieu, or should we abandon our earlier speculation, echoing Shimon HaAmsuni (Pesachim 22b) that we receive reward for retraction just as for interpreting?

Rav Pappa (fifth generation, 296-370 CE) is associated with Pumbedita, studying from both Abaye and Rava (fourth generation), though Rava was his primary teacher. After Rava’s death (355 CE), he established an academy in Naresh, a town in Sura’s proximity, with himself as rosh yeshiva and his colleague/frequent disputant Rav Huna b. Rav Yehoshua as the reish kallah, in charge of the advanced students (Brachot 57a). This academy possibly (depending on which variant of academy was specified) was attended by more that 200 scholars (Ketubot 106a). The Sura academy had meanwhile been closed, or without a rosh yeshiva, since the death of Rav Chisda and Rabba b. Rav Huna (third generation), but Rav Ashi (sixth generation), Rav Pappa’s student, reestablished it under his own leadership. Another point: While Abaye presided as rosh yeshiva in Pumbedita, Rava established a yeshiva in his hometown of Mechoza. After Abaye’s death, Rava became the rosh yeshiva and the united Pumbedita academy moved to Mechoza. Mechoza was near Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital.

Since Rav Pappa was head of Naresh, near Sura, we can point to the same Sasanian influence as for Rav Chisda. Furthermore, this was two scholastic generations later than Rav Pappa, so the Sasanian influence would have more time to take hold. Dates on contracts reflect the intent of the authors, so he could describe how these dates were used rather than establishing by fiat how they should be employed.

Also, we see the Sasanian royal family interacting with Rav Pappa’s primary teacher, Rava. In Niddah 20b, Ifra Hormidz (wife of King Hormizd II, mother of King Shapur II) presented Rava with blood, and by smelling it he was able to distinguish between dam niddah and dam chimud. In Chagigah 5b, Rava’s contemporaries looked at him with suspicion because of how well he was treated by the royal household. He told them of the many bribes he was forced to give, and indeed, King Shapur II imprisoned him to extort more money. In Pesachim 54a, either Rava or Rav Pappa joke that even King Shapur wouldn’t say a certain wondrous interpretation. The Sasanian influence is clearly evident.


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.

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