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Pseudepigraphic Attributions? Yevamot 75-76

Am I wasting my time writing this column? My sustained focus is on understanding a sugya or rabbinic pronouncement based on what we know about the Tanna/Amora who speaks it, or discovering details about a Tanna/Amora based on statements they have made. But there is debate in the scholarly community, when the Talmud says Rabbi X said Y, whether Rabbi X actually said it, or the late editors simply made up the attribution, position and back-and-forth arguments. (See e.g., Neusner and Jacobs.) Indeed, the discourse and competing legal derivations are just pious fictions to justify the desired halachic outcome. Now, if these attributions are fabricated, nothing can be learned about Rabbi X and the culture in which he lived, nor can such external knowledge be used to glean inside about Rabbi X’s scholarly statements.

However, I’m extremely skeptical of this idea/conspiracy theory. Just because an approach casts aspersions on the authenticity and integrity of a traditional Jewish text, that doesn’t make it more credible or scholarly. I feel that diachronic analysis of the Talmud reveals different positions and analyses in different eras and textual strata. (See Halinvy, Shamma Friedman.) Additionally, that rabbis, even with rejected positions in a particular sugya, often maintain a conceptual consistency, methodological consistency and attitude across different disputes, something at times only realized after deep analysis. Statements by named Amoraim can often be linguistically divided into the Hebrew original and the Aramaic addition and reframing. All this would be hard to fabricate, and to no useful end. I don’t think that editors falsified the records of a social network like Twitter or Facebook. These modern scholars have their evidence and arguments, other scholars have counter-evidence, and we aren’t going to get to the bottom of it in one column, so I’ll revisit the topic later.

Respecting One’s Elders

One point in favor of authentic attributions is the respect, or lack thereof, of rabbis for their contemporaries vs. those of earlier eras. Richard Kalmin explores this in “Talmudic Portrayals of Relationships between Rabbis: Amoraic or Pseudepigraphic?” So, for example, I’ve written in this column how “Rav Pappa Respects Rav Huna” (Chagiga 4a), by respectfully couching his disagreement as a matter of Rav Huna not having seen a particular brayta, rather than Rav Pappa presenting himself as a worthy adversary. A sample from Kalmin: “Examination of statements by Rav supports my contention that hostile commentary is attributed almost exclusively to contemporaries and near-contemporaries. One Amora separated from Rav by a full generation responds negatively to Rav’s statements and actions with relative frequency. Specifically, Rav Sheshet remarks seven times [Yevamot 24b and 91a, [I’d add 109b], Baba Kamma 47b, 65a, and 67b, Bechorot 23b, and Niddah 60a] that ‘Rav said this while lying down drowsing.’ Later Amoraim, however, never express comparable sentiments.”

Kalmin’s point is that Rav Sheshet didn’t seem to have direct contact from Rav. He hears Rav’s statement via Rav Huna, Rav Nachman or Rav Yirmeyah, so there’s an intervening generation. Evaluating respectfulness might be subjective. Rav Aharon Hyman writes that the halachot of Rav were so important to Rav Sheshet, that when someone said something in Rav’s name that seemed incorrect, he said that Rav said it while dozing, for he disbelieved it came from Rav. Also, as I noted in “The Exceptional Rav Sheshet,” Rav Sheshet was so learned in Tannaitic sources that Rav Chisda’s lips would tremble at the mere thought of his challenges. Indeed, Rav Sheshet often recalibrates or readjusts Rav’s statements in light of a brayta. He’s the exception that proves the rule. He might also be giving the intermediary a hard time; see Yevamot 24b, where Rav Huna repeats Rav’s statement, and first Rav Nachman attacks Rav Huna’s formulation. Thereafter, Rav Sheshet attacks.

A Contemporary Insult

All this went through my mind when examining the insult leveled by a contemporary Sage in our sugya (Yevamot 75b). Several Sages weigh in about medical matters, and which conditions would classify a man as unfit to marry into the congregation due to sterility. In Pumpedita, where Abaye had previously presided, an incident occured. Abaye’s son/student, Rav Bibi, a fifth-generation Amora, sought to declare the man fit. (Rav Hyman suggests that even though students moved to Rava’s yeshiva after Abaye’s death in 338 CE, Pumpedita academy still remained, headed by Rav Bibi bar Abaye.) Rav Pappi, another fifth-generation Amora, whose primary teacher was Rava, disagreed with this ruling, saying: מִשּׁוּם דְּאַתּוּ מִמּוּלָאֵי אָמְרִיתוּ מִילֵּי מוּלְיָתָא, “because you come from truncated [mimula’ei] people, you speak truncated matters.” (See Rav Pappi employ this insult also in Eruvin 25b, and Bava Metzia 109a. See also Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua, another fifth-generation Amora/student of Rava, in Bava Batra 137b, where inheritance after Rav Bibi’s eventual death is relevant, 151a; and Ketubot 85a.)

Mula’ei/truncated apparently refers to the Biblical curse (I Shmuel 2:31-33) of Eli the Kohen’s descendants having short lifespans. Thus, Rabba bar Nachmani studied Torah and lived to age 40, while his nephew Abaye engaged in Torah and good deeds, so lived to 60. They thereby partly evaded the curse (Rosh Hashanah 18a). Uttering such an insult to your disputant after his father’s death, even if you think he’s ignorant, even if you follow Rava and he follows Abaye, seems rather harsh. There admittedly was tension between the Abaye and Rava academies; see Rav Adda bar Ahava’s attempt to poach students, saying, “Instead of gnawing the bones in the school of Abaye, you would do better to eat fatty meat in the school of Rava” (Bava Batra 22a). Still, this seems overly harsh.

Alternatively, mula’ei more directly refers to people from an area called Mamila. In Bereishit Rabbah 59:1, Rabbi Meir travels to Mamla, sees they all had black hair (rather than the hoary head achieved in old age), and suggests they may be from the house of Eli. They request he pray for them, and he instructs them to engage in charity. If so, the insult to Rav Bibi can be mere wordplay on his originating from Mamla, which is more palatable.


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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