THE JEWS OF BABYLONIA were isolated from the non-Jewish environment. This isolation was enhanced by the fact that they possessed an autonomous administration which regulated their religious and national life. To the central government they merely had to pay taxes in exchange for which they were promised protection, insofar as governments could protect their citizens at that time.
The taxes that were levied on the community were generally not paid to the government directly. Instead there were agents who were empowered to collect the taxes. There thus came into being a class of middlemen who acted as go betweens of the Jews and the government. Every time that one of these go betweens had to hand over the taxes gathered to the king or to his representative, he had an opportunity to request more efficient protection or to exert his influence against those regulations which the Jews considered to be harmful. Since the Jews knew that these men were close to government circles, they accorded them authority also in internal Jewish matters and in time these men assumed the right of expressing opinions in all internal Jewish matters.
The “Exilarch” was such a representative of the Jews and his authority extended over the entire region about the Persian gulf and between the Tigris river on the West to the Indian border on the East. The influence of the “Exilarch” was still further enhanced by the coincidence that like the Nasi in Palestine he was also a descendant of the royal house of David.
We may assume that not all those who bore the title of Exilarch were generous in their relations with the people. The Talmud refers to Exilarchs who “rule over Israel with the rod and the cane” as against the “Nasi” of Palestine, the descendant of Hillel who devoted himself to cultivating the knowledge of the Torah among the children.1)סנהדרין ה׳ א׳, הוריות י״א ב׳.
Unfortunately there exists no chronological record of the Exilarchs. The Talmud only mentions four or five of them by name and it is difficult to determine who preceded whom. A more exhaustive list is offered in the “Chronicle” of R. Jose but many of the names mentioned in that work have been proved by historians to be incorrect.
According to “The Chronicle of Rav Sherira Gaon,” Mar Ukba succeeded Rav Huna to the office of Exilarch. Rav Huna lived at the time of Rabbi Jehudah Hanasi. But there exists a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud to the effect that Mar Ukba once sent a letter to the Exilarch chiding him for his custom of going to sleep and waking in the morning to the sounds of musical instruments.2)ירושלמי מגלה פרק ג׳ הלכה ג׳. This statement is interpreted by some to indicate that Mar Ukba was not an Exilarch. However, it is possible that at the time he wrote the letter he was not the Exilarch but that he later assumed that office.
It is known that when Rav came to Babylonia he was appointed by the then Exilarch to be in charge of weights and measurements in the market place of Nehardea. While holding this office, Rav did not fulfill his duties to the satisfaction of the Exilarch who had him arrested.3)ירושלמי בבא בתרא פרק ה׳ הלכה ה׳. We may assume that the Exilarch referred to in the above story was not Mar Ukba for he was a kindly and pious man and he would never allow a man like Rav to be arrested.
Another proof that Mar Ukba was an Exilarch is the fact that he was kept informed concerning the order of the leap years.4)ראש השנה י״ט ב׳. He also found two letters from the high court in Palestine that were sent to a previous Exilarch in which the high court announced its decision to declare a leap year.5)ירושלמי מגלה פרק א׳ הלכה ה׳.
One thing is certain, that at some time during his career Mar Ukba was only head of the court. In this capacity he conducted an academy and exerted an influence on the development of Jewish life in Babylonia.
It is possible that Mar Ukba was a son of the Exilarch Rav Huna and succeeded him to the office. The Exilarch of the time of Rav may have been a different person. But of Mar Ukba’s father we know only that he was an important man in the Jewish community. When the question arose as to how long one must wait after eating meat before he may eat cheese, Mar Ukba said: “In this respect I am as vinegar is to wine when compared to my father. Whenever he ate meat he would not eat cheese until the following day.”6)חולין ק״ה א׳.
Mar Ukba held court in the city of Kafri in Babylonia.7)קדושין מ״ד ב׳. Shmuel Yarchinaa was one of the associate judges of Mar Ukba. Although was like a pupil of Shmuel and often quoted his statements, he nevertheless presided over the court. Thus it was related that whenever the two were engaged in study, Mar Ukba would sit four ells in front of Shmuel as one does in front of his master; but when they were sitting in judgement the order was reversed and Shmuel occupied a particularly low seat.8)מועד קטן ט״ז ב׳. Shmuel knew how to honor Mar Ukba and he told his pupil that he should consider Mar Ukba as the master of his master.9)שבת נ״ה א׳.
Mar Ukba often quoted laws in the name of Shmuel.10)ערובין פ״א א׳, בבא קמא קי״ב ב׳. It is also probable that Shmuel imparted to him some of his medical knowledge for we find an instance of Rabbi Yanai of Palestine who sent to Mar Ukba for some eye salve of Shmuel.11)שבת ק״ח ב׳. Similar instances relate that when Rav Acha bar Joseph felt a pain near his heart, he came to Mar Ukba for treatment.12)שבת ק״מ א׳. Mar Ukba followed a custom, which he probably adopted from Shmuel, of not sitting in judgement on hot days.13)ערובין ס״ח א׳.
Aside from being a pupil of Shmuel, Mar Ukba apparently also studied with Shmuel’s father and with Levi ben Sisi.14)שבת ק״ח ב׳, מועד קטן כ״ו ב׳.
The stories that were told of Mar Ukba’s generosity are of great interest. As he was blessed with great wealth, and his wife was also of a kind nature, he could distribute as much as he chose. Thus it was told that a poor man lived in the neighborhood of Mar Ukba and he wanted to aid him secretly lest the man refuse to take charity. He therefore placed four silver coins on the doorstep of the poor man so that he could easily notice them as he enters his house. When Mar Ukba saw that the man bought food with the money he repeated the same procedure for many days. But the beneficiary of these gifts once decided to find out who his benefactor was and he waited in his house all day until he heard a commotion at the door. As the door opened Mar Ukba fled and as he was being pursued he jumped into a lime pit and he burned his ankles.
Another story concerns a poor neighbor of Mar Ukba to whom he sent four hundred silver coins every year on the eve of the Day of Atonement. One time he sent the money with his son who returned, bringing the money back, and declared that those people did not need it since he saw them using valuable wines. Mar Ukba was angered with his son and said: “If that poor man is used to a luxurious life, the money should be given to him.”
Mar Ukba’s piety and kindness is also evident from his will. As he approached death, he asked that an account be given to him of the money that he had spent for charity. Finding the sum not to be more than seven thousand dinars, he was saddened and said: “Are these all the provisions that I have prepared for such a long trip?” He then commanded that half of his wealth should be distributed to the poor after his death.15)כתובות ס״ז ב׳.
Mar Ukba’s fame spread as far as Palestine and when the scholars of that country wrote to him they addressed him as “the one whose nobility is equal to the nobility of Moses who was like a son to Bathya the daughter of Pharaoh.”16)סנהדרין ל״א ב׳
It is also related that when a son of his brother-in-law died, Mar Ukba wished to observe thirty days of mourning out of respect for the feelings of his wife, and Rav Huna, the pupil of Rav, then came to console him.17)מועד קטן ב׳ ב׳.
At about the same time it occurred that a student named Gneiva had a dispute with Mar Ukba which greatly saddened the latter. The same Gneiva also disputed the opinions of Rav18)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ב׳ הלכה ח׳. although on other occasions he quoted the decisions of Rav.19)ברכות כ״ה א׳, עבודה זרה ל״ו ב׳. Because of this tendency to dispute, Gneiva was called the “half educated” by Rav Hisda and Rav Huna. Rashi interprets this nickname to signify “one who disputes”.20)גטין ל״א ב׳.
Mar Ukba then turned to Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath, in Palestine, with the following question: “There are people who rise against me and I can report them to the government. What shall I do? Rabbi Elazar replied to him with a verse from Psalms: — I have thought that I will guard my path from sinning with my tongue; I will make a lock for my mouth as long as the wicked one is confrontong me. Mar Ukba replied with another verse from Psalms: — Wait for God’s help and hope on Him. Rabbi Elazar answered him by interpreting the verse to mean: — Hope to God that He will overthrow your enemies.21)גטין ז׳ א׳.
The story ends that Gneiva finally fell into the hands of the government and was condemned to death.22)ירושלמי גטין פרק ו׳ הלכה ה׳.