June 23, 2024
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Sukkah 10: Rav Nachman b. Yaakov’s Prank

Often, knowledge of scholastic relationships (e.g., teacher/student) or academy affiliation (e.g., Sura) provide insight into the dynamics of a sugya.

A mishnah on Sukkah 10a invalidates a sukkah in which sheets were spread under s’chach to catch debris or over s’chach to provide shade. Rav Chisda (third generation, 217-309 CE) observes that this wouldn’t apply to sheets spread for beautification. This leads to a disagreement about the space allowed between the s’chach and this beautifying sheet. Rabbah b. Rav Huna (third generation, 237-322 CE) and Rav Chisda together consider a four handbreadth separation from the s’chach to invalidate. Rav Nachman (b. Yaakov, third generation, 230-320 CE) allows it.

After Rav Huna, the head of Sura academy, passed away (297 CE), his son (Rabbah b. Rav Huna) and his student-colleague (Rav Chisda) took over its leadership. Out of respect, the pair waited two years until Rav Yehuda b. Yechezkel (second generation, 194-299 CE), head of Pumbedita academy, had passed. Rav Chisda, 80 years old, became head, while the humble Rabbah b. Rav Huna, age 60, was a judge in Sura, taking over as head only upon Rav Chisda’s death. Rav Nachman b. Yaakov succeeded his teacher, Shmuel (165-257 CE), as head of a competing academy in Nehardea.

Then, the great prank: Rabbah b. Rav Huna and Rav Chisda together visit the house of the exilarch (reish geluta) on Sukkot. Rav Nachman was married to Yalta (daughter of the exilarch or member of his household), and was in charge of lodging. He placed these two in a sukkah with decorations four handbreadths away from the s’chach. They ate there without complaint. Rav Nachman asked if they had retracted. They explained that they had not, but that since they were engaged in a mitzvah, they were exempt from sitting in a sukkah. Rashi identifies the mitzvah as visiting the exilarch, since one should visit one’s teacher on a festival.

The exilarch would be Mar Ukva, who resided in Kafri, south of Sura—thus, a short journey for the pair. Also, Rav Chisda was from Kafri. Rav Chisda was one of Mar Ukva’s greatest students, and often quotes him (Berachot 10b, 29b, Shabbat 116b, 199b…), so would fulfill the mitzvah as Rashi described.

Rabbah b. Rav Huna had a more contentious relationship with the house of the exilarch and declared his judicial authority to ultimately derive from the nasi in Israel (see Sanhedrin 5a) so it is unclear why this would be considered visiting his rav. Perhaps learning Torah and deriving authority are different; perhaps this mitzvah to visit was based on the exilarch position, or the mitzvah was attending the pirka, a learning event.

It is difficult to temporally place Mar Ukva, and is based on interpreting historical chronicles and ambiguous Talmudic passages. Just as certain names recur for the nasi (Yehudah, Shimon, Gamliel), so a reference to Rabban Gamliel is ambiguous, certain names (Huna and Ukva) recur for the exilarch (Huna and Ukva). Hyman says Rav Chisda’s teacher Mar Ukva, son of Huna, was first generation, guided by Rav and Shmuel. We follow Bacher, who identifies him instead as Mar Ukva II, son of Huna II, a second-generation Amora guided by Rav Yehuda and Rav Sheshet.

Rif rules like Rabbah b. Rav Huna/Rav Chisda. After all, yachid v’rabbim, halacha k’rabbim, we rule like multiple rabbis over the individual. Rav Nachman is the individual. I wonder if it is unfair to consider Rabbah b. Rav Huna/Rav Chisda as separate. They travel and rule in pairs, and represent the new Sura position. Is this dispute between people or academies?

Rosh points us to Ritz Gayut, who rules like Rav Nachman. He argues that the discussion regarding decorations isn’t an isolated dispute, but an outgrowth of an earlier (also Sukkah 10a) three-way dispute about the dimensions of a sukkah above another sukkah, which would invalidate the lower sukkah. For Rav Huna, a mere handbreadth sufficed; for Rabbah b. Rav Huna and Rav Chisda, it was four handbreadths; for Shmuel, it was the height of a valid sukkah, 10 handbreadths. Rav Nachman isn’t an innovative daat yachid, but merely applies his teacher Shmuel’s 10 handbreadth significant distance to the decorations. Meanwhile, Rabbah b. Rav Huna/Rav Chisda are consistent with their earlier standard. Since we rule like Shmuel in the former, we rule like him and Rav Nachman in the latter. (Parenthetically, the Rif rules even in the former dispute like Rabbah b. Rav Huna/Rav Chisda, for the Talmudic narrator interprets the Mishnah in a way that accords with them and not Shmuel. The Ritz Gayat rules like Shmuel despite this. He may find support from Rav Yehuda (also Shmuel’s student) citing Shmuel regarding kilah lacking 10 handbreadths, thus building on that position.) This approach, in which students follow their teacher’s position, is compelling.

What are the parameters of yachid v’rabbim? Do we take a horizontal slice of one generation and consider an individual or a majority? Or, do we look vertically at teachers holding that position as well? Do we apply the principle even for disputes between academies, who may have many unnamed scholars adopting their position, with the leaders just articulating the position? This requires contemplation.


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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