June 22, 2024
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Yoma 77: Abaye’s Rationalist Tendencies

Was Abaye a rationalist or a non-rationalist? The answer might help us understand his statement on Yoma 77b.

תְּנָא דְּבֵי מְנַשֶּׁה: רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר: מְדִיחָה אִשָּׁה יָדָהּ אַחַת בְּמַיִם, וְנוֹתֶנֶת פַּת לַתִּינוֹק, וְאֵינָהּ חוֹשֶׁשֶׁת… מַאי טַעְמָא? אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: מִשּׁוּם שִׁיבְתָּא.

While one may not bathe on Yom Kippur, one may wash one’s hands for cleanliness. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel allowed a woman to wash one hand before feeding her child. Abaye explains that the concern is “shivta.” Is “shivta” an evil spirit, a physical malady or a physical malady conceptualized as a spirit?

Rashi says that Shivta is the name of a demon, an evil spirit which manifests on bread taken with hands which weren’t washed in the morning. Tosafot agree that this is an evil spirit, but one that manifests on food if one doesn’t wash immediately prior to feeding a four/five-year-old, and chokes him. Aruch puts the child’s age between 2 months and 7 years, describing how it dries out the gidin at the back of the throat, causing a fatality, and how it occurs when a mother nurses her infant immediately after coming from the privy or river.

This sounds like a hygienic concern, but in the ancient or medieval world, it is possible that disease was either thought of, or conveniently described, in terms of ruach ra’a, an evil spirit, even by rationalists and doctors. Nowadays, we know the germ theory of disease, based on microscopic bacteria. Beforehand, how would one describe an invisible force which causes illness? Regardless of the underlying conception, presumably Chazal, and these Rishonim, made observations and connections between this unhygienic behavior and symptoms.

The specific ruach ra’ah connection to “Shivta” appears in Geonim/Rishonim, not the Talmudic passage itself. Perhaps it describes the disease rather than the disease-causing spirit. Shivta appears in Taanit 20b: Rav Huna, a second-generation Amora, hangs a water jug from his doorpost so that people can wash and avoid “Shivta.” Sokoloff suggests two distinct meanings, the demon Shivta of Yoma and the medicinal motion of Taanit, while noting that Rashi equates the two. However, Rashi is correct. In Taanit, Shivta appears in the Talmudic narrator’s (setama digemara’s) framing of a second version of the event, and as I discuss elsewhere, the Talmudic narrator only operates on ideas stated elsewhere by named Amoraim. Again, in Taanit, it is Rashi, rather than the gemara itself, who refers to demons. (We might also point to the Akkadian שיבטו/Mandaic שיבטא, meaning plague, though note the ט. See also how the Rab. 218 manuscript of Yoma has סיכתא, which could refer to infection/pus).

Chazal are not monolithic. How would Abaye, in particular, conceive of this ailment? Abaye was a fourth-generation Amora, who died in 339 CE at the age of 60. His father died before he was born and his mother died in childbirth, so he was raised by his uncle, Rabba b. Nachmani. Abaye quotes numerous remedies from his “mother” (who was either his stepmother or nursemaid), such as (Eruvin 29b) treating heart weakness with the meat of a ram’s right thigh roasted in the dung of cattle grazing in Nisan, after which one drinks diluted wine. This may seem superstitious to modern ears, but could just be effective or ineffective folk medicine. On Shabbat 67a, Abaye and Rava assert that there is no concern of darkei Emori where there is an aspect of healing. Abaye and Rava frequented Bar Hadaya, a renowned dream interpreter (Berachot 55b), but that seems to be regarded as science rather than magic. Abaye famously adopts the idea that simana milta, omens have substance, and therefore one should consume certain foods at the start of the year (Keritot 6a), though we might regard this as a form of tefillah. On Yoma 84a, Abaye (in some manuscripts; others omit the attribution) describes a cure for a rabid dog bite via an incantation written on hyena hide, and drinking water from a copper tube lest one see the image of the demon.

Yet, Chullin 105b depicts Abaye as a possible rationalist, who repeatedly explains avoided practices as etiquette or for the sake of health, instead of demons or what we would regard as superstition. For example, “Initially I believed that people collected crumbs after a meal because of cleanliness, but Master (Rabba b. Nachmani, or Rav Yosef b. Chiyya) told me it was because it made one vulnerable to poverty.” One shouldn’t sit under a gutter either to not be splashed with waste water or, rather, because demons are present. Eating bundled vegetables either appears gluttonous or, rather, makes one vulnerable to witchcraft, and so on. Abaye’s initial assumptions are consistently rationalistic. If he is retracting in earnest, this shows willingness to accept non-rationalist explanations. Yet, he (subversively) still mentions his initial straightforward explanation of each of these practices.

I think that Abaye has a rationalist streak, but is willing to relate healing practices related to demons. It would not be surprising if Shivta turned out to be a demon. However, one would prefer more definitive evidence before assuming that Abaye was discussing a demon rather than a disease.


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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