AS WE HAVE PREVIOUSLY POINTED OUT, the political and economic situation of the Jews of Palestine was indescribably tragic at that time. But there seems to have been a constant migration from and into Babylonia. The Roman authorities did not object to the fact that many Jews of Palestine went to Babylonia to seek a livelihood while Babylonian Jews came to Palestine to study. This was the case despite the fact that the Babylonian Jews had by that time attained a higher degree of development of learning. They then enjoyed full liberty in the observance of the religious regulations; they had their own courts and they passed sentences as they saw fit. It was only rarely that they had to consult the High Court in Palestine. The determination of the beginning of the months and of the holidays was the only thing that the Jews of Babylonia could not do. Nevertheless they considered the teachings emanating from Palestine as the only correct ones and they believed that despite the destruction of the Temple the rule that out of Zion would come learning was still sound.
Rabbi Aba bar Kahana was one of the “Amoraim” who came to Palestine from Babylonia at this time. He brought with himself numerous Hagadic interpretations which he repeated in the name of Rav (Aba Arecha).1)ירושלמי סוטה פרק ט׳ הלכה י״ג, בראשית רבה פּרשה ד׳ פּיסקא ט׳; ויקרא רבה פּרשה ל״ה פּיסקא ט׳. Some people therefore claim that he was a disciple of Rav but the dates of the lives of the two men do not coincide and at the time that Rabbi Aba began to study, Rav had undoubtedly died already. It is more probable that Rabbi Aba had been a pupil of a disciple of Rav. This view is also substantiated by the fact that he sometimes quoted Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi who had been a pupil of Rav.2)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ו׳ הלכה ו׳; שבת פרק ג׳ הלכה ד׳, פרק ו׳ הלכה ה׳, יבמות פרק ד׳ הלכה ו׳.
When Rabbi Aba bar Kahana arrived in Palestine, Rabbi Chanina bar Chama was probably still alive, for we find him quoting statements in the name of Rabbi Chanina.3)שבת קכ״א ב׳.
Another reference concerns a question which he asked of Rabbi Ami.4)ירושלמי פּסחים פרק ד׳ הלכה ט׳. But we possess little information concerning the personality and the life of Rabbi Aba bar Kahana. On one occasion he mentioned the name of Kfar Chitaa and we may assume that he lived there, but it is unknown whether he conducted a seminary there.5)בראשית רבה פּרשה ס״ה פּיסקא י״ב.
Like his contemporaries Rabbi Aba was also a master of exposition. The people were then tired of legal disputations, but they responded eagerly to Hagada. We thus find hundreds of expositions of Rabbi Aba. Many of these are not clear for his interpretations of the Biblical verses often seem incomprehensible. We will therefore cite only a few to illustrate his method of interpretation.
Speaking of the verse “the sun rises and the sun sets,” Rabbi Aba said: “What is the intention of this verse? Does not everyone know that the sun rises and sets every day? But this verse intends to show how God conducts the world. Before the sun of Moses set, the sun of Joshua ben Nun rose; the sun of Samuel rose before the sun of Eli set and on the day that Rabbi Akiba died Rabbi Jehuda ha-Nasi was born.”6)בראשית רבה פּרשה נ״ח ב׳; קהלת רבה פּרשה א׳ פּיסקא י׳.
The verse “if a snake bite without venom”, Rabbi Aba explained in a different manner than the other scholars did. The word ״לחש״ means both, “venom” and “whisper”. Rabbi Aba interpreted this verse to mean that a snake would not bite unless it had been commanded from above, nor would a lion stalk its prey without heavenly sanction, nor would a government oppress its people unless it was so commanded from above.7)קהלת רבה פּרשה י׳ פּיסקא י״ד.
Of the effect of a false oath Rabbi Aba said: “Some things which are not consumed by fire are consumed by a false oath. Wood is burned by fire but stones are not, but a false oath will consume both.”8)ויקרא רבה פּרשה ו׳ פּיסקא א׳.
“The slightest command of the Torah”, Rabbi Aba said, “is rewarded as well as the greatest. God thus determined the reward of commandments in order to encourage the people to lead honest lives. The easiest commandment is to send the mother bird away from the nest when the fledglings are taken, in order that it may not suffer the anguish of seeing them killed. The hardest commandment to observe is honoring one’s father and mother. These two commandments are nevertheless rewarded by long life.”9)ירושלמי פּאה פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
The following interpretation of a Biblical verse by Rabbi Aba gives a picture of the mood of that time: “The anguish of death has surrounded me” (in Babylonia); “rivers of wickedness have horrified me” (in Media); “the suffering of the grave surrounded me” (among the Greeks); “the traps of death were set for me” (in Rome). The fact that the term “death” was employed in the first and the fourth of these Rabbi Aba explained by saying that both, Babylonia and Rome, undertook to annihilate the Jews; the Babylonians destroyed the first temple and the Romans destroyed the second temple.10)מדרש שוחר טוב פּרשה י״ח.
Like many other scholars of that time Rabbi Aba also believed that a war between Babylonia and Rome would result in the liberation of the Jews. He therefore said: “Whenever one will see many Babylonians in Palestine it will be a sign of the approaching redemption.”11)שיר השירים רבה ה׳ י״א; איכה רבתי א׳ מ״ג.
In a discourse concerning the peoples that lived in the neighborhood of Palestine, Rabbi Aba bar Kahana explained the Biblical verse to indicate that the “Pathrothim” and the “Kasluchim” intermarried freely and from these mixed marriages were descended giants like the Philistines and dwarfs like the “Kaphtorim.”12)בראשית רבה פּרשה ל״ז פּיסקא ח׳.
Rabbi Chanina bar Papa was also of great prominence at that time and his name is constantly linked with R. Avahu, R. Yitzchak Napcha and R. Ami. In the Jerusalem Talmud as well as in the Midrashim his first name at times appears as Hinna or Chananiah. The name Papa is an Aramaic form of the Greek name Papos.
Rabbi Chanina bar Papa was a pupil of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani who praised him for his knowledge of the Scriptures.13)ירושלמי שביעית פרק ד׳ הלכה ג׳. Rabbi Chanina was also a close friend of the outstanding disciples of Rabbi Jochanan and he frequently debated with R. Chama bar Chanina and with R. Acha bar Chanina. The Talmud contains some statements of this time whose authorship is in doubt and these are generally introduced by “R. Zeira said, but others claim that R. Chanina bar Papa said”.14)ברכות ה׳ א׳.
Rabbi Chanina par Papa also differed with Rabbi Zeira in the matter of explaining the good deeds of the Israelitic King Abiyah the son of Jeroboam.15)מועד קטן כ״ח ב׳. The Talmud also cites some of his public lectures but one of these is sometimes ascribed to R. Simlai.
The personality of Rabbi Chanina is surrounded with numerous legendary adventures. One of these relates of an attempt made by a Roman matron to seduce him. When she failed in her attempt, she commanded that Rabbi Chanina be found and he was forced to hide all night in a bath house which was reported to be haunted by evil spirits, but since he did not succumb to sin, he escaped unharmed.16)קדושין ל״ט ב׳. Another time Rabbi Chanina encountered an evil spirit while he was on a mission of charity. The spirit said to him: “Have you not learned that one must not tresspass the boundary of another?”, intending to say that evil spirits are in control at night and that no man should appear outside at that time. But Rabbi Chanina replied: “The Bible says that he who gives charity secretly appeases wrath.” As he said this he turned around and fled.17)ירושלמי פּאה פרק ח׳ הלכה ח׳.
When the hour of his death approached, Rabbi Chanina implored the Angel of death to grant him thirty days in which he could review his learning. The Angel of death granted him this request and Rabbi Chanina asked him to show him his place in Paradise and also to let him hold his sword on the way. But the Angel of death refused this last request remembering what had happened when he granted such a request to R. Joshua ben Levi. When Rabbi Chanina died, his body was surrounded by a pillar of fire and none could approach it. Rabbi Alexandri then asked the body to cause the pillar of fire to depart. “Do it for the sake of the scholars who have come to your funeral”, Rabbi Alexandri said, but the pillar of fire did not depart; “do it for the honor of your father”, he continued to implore and still the pillar of fire remained; “do it for your own honor that we may be able to approach to mourn for you and to attend to your burial”. The pillar of fire thereupon vanished.18)כתובות ע״ז ב׳.
The following of Rabbi Chanina’s maxims are among the most interesting:
“One who is favored with grace is also a God fearing man.”19)סוכה מ״ט ב׳.
“One who enjoys something in this world without pronouncing a benediction is like one who robs God and all of Israel.20)ברכות ל״ה א׳; סנהדרין ק״ב א׳.
“He who criticizes his master is like one who criticizes the Shechina.”21)סנהדרין ק״י א׳.
23) בראשית רבה נ״ב ז׳.
The verse “the lions roar for prey”, Rabbi Chanina interpreted that lions refer to the unbelieving peoples (כפירים־ כופרים) who deny God and who seek to devour the Jews who depend upon God. God also feeds the poor and the rich alike.22)מדרש שוחר טוב פּרשה ק״ד.
Balaam ben Beor was considered by Jews to have been the greatest prophet among Heathen. Rabbi Chanina asked: “What is the distinction between Jewish and Heathen prophets?” He replied that God spoke to Jewish prophets directly as a king who removes the curtains of his palace to speak to his friends. To the Heathen prophets he spoke indirectly as a king who speaks to strangers through a partition.23)בראשית רבה פּרשה נ״ב פּיסקא ז׳.