June 18, 2024
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Yoma 84: Dating the Dental Discussion

In Yoma 84a, Rabbi Yochanan (a second-generation Amora of Israel, 180-279 CE) is treated on Thursday and Friday by a matron for his tzafdina, bleeding gums and teeth. Since he might need the cure on Shabbat, he asks for the details of the cure. She only reveals it to him after he swears to keep it secret, but then he expounds the details of the cure in public. (The Gemara clarifies that he phrased his oath in such a way that he wasn’t violating it, and also informed the matron of his trick prior to revealing the cure.) With such a story behind it, a good assumption is that the cure works. But what is this cure? Many scholastic generations later, Amoraim discuss this:

מַאי עֲבַדָא לֵיהּ? אָמַר רַב אַחָא בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַב אַמֵּי מֵי שְׂאוֹר שֶׁמֶן זַיִת וָמֶלַח. רַב יֵימַר אֲמַר שְׂאוֹר גּוּפֵיהּ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת וָמֶלַח. רַב אָשֵׁי אָמַר מִשְׁחָא דְּגַדְפָּא דַאֲווֹזָא. אָמַר אַבָּיֵי אֲנָא עֲבַדִי לְכוּלְּהוּ וְלָא אִיתַּסַּאי עַד דַּאֲמַר לִי הַהוּא טַיָּיעָא אַיְיתִי קַשְׁיָיתָא דְזֵיתָא דְּלָא מְלוֹ תִּילְתָּא וּקְלִינְהוּ בְּנוּרָא אַמָּרָא חַדְתָּא וְאַדְבֵּיק בְּכַכֵּי דָרֵיה עֲבַדִי הָכִי וְאִיתַּסַּאי.

The details of these cures don’t concern us in this column so much as the people discussing them, and when and where they lived.

The first describing a cure (involving מי שאור) is Rav Acha b. Rava, a sixth-generation Babylonian Amora (d. 419 CE) and student of Rav Ashi, who eventually headed Pumbedita academy. Only in printings (Constantinople, Venice, Vilna), do we have “Rav Acha b. Rav Ami,” who is Rav Achdevai b. Ami, a third-generation Babylonian Amora, in Rabbi Yochanan’s temporal proximity. However, this is a scribal error, in which רבא מי was redivided as רב אמי (see image). Furthermore, Rav Acha b. Rava fits with Rav Yemar and Rav Ashi. Finally, the parallel text in Avodah Zara 28a has Rav Acha b. Rava in all printings and manuscripts. Some manuscripts here have Rav Acha b. Yaakov (third generation), but we prefer “Rav Acha b. Rava.”

Next to describe a cure (involving שאור itself) is Rav Yemar, a sixth/seventh-generation Babylonian Amora and colleague of Rav Ashi. He replaced Rav Ashi as the head of the Sura academy for a span of five years (432 – 437 CE). It could instead refer to Rav Yeva/Yemar the Elder (third generation) but the appellation Sava doesn’t occur, and based on the Amoraic company, we prefer the sixth/seventh generation Amora.

Next to offer a cure (involving goose fat) is Rav Ashi, the famous sixth-generation Babylonian Amora (352-427 CE) who refounded the academy of Sura and redacted the Babylonian Talmud. These three Amoraim all studied under Rav Kahana of Pum Nahara. (In the parallel sugya in Avodah Zara 28a, מי שאור and Rav Yemar don’t appear. Alongside Rav Acha b. Rava is Mar b. Rav Ashi (seventh generation), that is, Rav Ashi’s son who headed the Sura academy from 455 until his death on Yom Kippur 467 CE.)

These are Babylonian Amoraim, while Rabbi Yochanan lived in Israel. Further, these Amoraim are quite late, when the Talmud was being redacted, while Rabbi Yochanan lived more than a century earlier. Perhaps they are relating competing traditions, but more likely they assume that an efficacious and popular contemporary Babylonian cure is the one Rabbi Yochanan revealed.

Abaye comments, “I tried all these medicines and wasn’t cured until a certain Arab told me: take olive seeds…” Abaye (279 – 339 CE) was a fourth-generation Babylonian Amora who headed the Pumbedita academy.

Often, when we see discussion and interaction of several Amoraim, we can utilize their respective lifespans to find a span of years in which they would have conversed. We might then answer questions such as: Did this Amora say this when he was young or old? In which academy was this discussion? Was this statement said before that statement?

Here, we seem to have painted ourselves into a corner. Abaye died in 339 CE while Rav Ashi was born more than a decade later, in 352 CE. How could Abaye react to these late Amoraim and say that he tried their cures? We could backtrack to Rav Yeva Sava and Rav Acha b. Yaakov, third-generation Amoraim who precede Abaye, but this seems wrong. Besides, Rav Ashi or his son is still present.

Possible answers are: (a) “I tried all of these” is idiomatic, or refers to other cures; (b) these cures were known earlier, in Abaye’s days, so he is not reacting to these later Amoraim; (c) without manuscript support, replace Abaye (who, at the start of the sugya in Avodah Zara, discusses sipping vinegar to relieve tooth pain) with אביו (thus Rav Ashi), or with Rav Pappa.

A bit later, in Avodah Zara 29a, familiar Amoraim discuss preparing a medicine for heart ailment, rather than tzafdina. Specifically, Rav Acha b. Rava and Rav Ashi discuss how to prepare it, but this time Rav Pappa rejects it, saying “I tried all these medicines and wasn’t cured until a certain Arab told me: Take a new jug…” Rav Pappa (300-375 CE), a fifth-generation Amora, was Rav Ashi’s teacher. Rav Ashi was 20 years old in 372, so the conversation may have occurred around then, in Naresh.

Munich 6 manuscript of Yoma 84a, showing Rav Acha b. Rava. Note the proximity of the word מי.


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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