AFTER RAV JUDAH BAR EZEKIEL died, the inhabitants of Pumbeditha decided unanimously that the head of their academy should be Rabah bar Nachmani. But he was very poor and in addition a very modest man and did not wish to accept. Since the “Heads of the Academy” in Sura were mostly wealthy men, Rabah thought that Pumbeditha should have the same distinction. So 400 scholars, apparently at the suggestion of Rabah himself went to Rav Huna bar Chiya*)Not to be confused with Rav Huna the head of the academy in Sura or Rav Huna Raba the contemporary of Rabbi Judah Hanasi.. and crowned him head of the academy in Pumbeditha.
However, it became known immediately that Rav Huna bar Chiya made his fortune as a tax-collector over the Babylonian Jews for the Persian king. This occupation was considered highly dishonorable at the time and it was a widely accepted opinion that a Jewish tax-collector who served a pagan king lost his share in Heaven. The scholars therefore sent a special delegation to Rav Huna bar Chiya saying: “Choose one of the two posts, either be head of the academy or tax-collector, for you cannot hold both these posts simultaneously.” Rav Huna bar Chiya immediately resigned his post as tax-collector. But many scholars did not content themselves with the fact that Rav Huna bar Chiya had given up his position as tax-collector, for they felt that once a man had held that position he no longer deserved the respect of the Jews.1)בכורות ל״א א׳.
And in fact the prestige and the honor of the academy in Pumbeditha suffered at that time and when Rav Huna died they had to pick a man for his position who could restore the good name of the Pumbeditha academy by his great learning and his personal virtues. There were only two suitable candidates for this post, Rabah bar Nachmani and Rav Joseph bar Chiya.
Both were famous scholars, the greatest in their time. During the period when Rav Huna bar Chiya was head of the academy in Pumbeditha, Rabah bar Nachmani continued to grow in importance and he was called the “uprooter of mountains,” meaning that he could pull up mountains and grind them to powder by the sheer force of his argumentation. Since they believed that Rabah bar Nachmani would not accept the position, they had to have a second candidate. This was Rav Joseph bar Chiya who was called “Sinai”, because all the laws of the Torah were so systematically arranged in his head that it seemed as though he had really heard them directly from the mouth of God on Mount Sinai. The Babylonian scholars did not know what to do. They sent to Palestine for advice. The Palestinians replied that since “Sinai” is more important than an “uprooter of hills”, they should choose the “Sinai”. But Rav Joseph bar Chiya did not wish to accept the position because an astrologer once told him that if he became the head of an academy he would not live to officiate any longer than two years.2)ברכות ס״ד א׳, הוריות י״ד א׳. Immediately on receiving this news the scholars forced Rabah bar Nachmani to accept the position. He had immediate success in raising the prestige of the academy in Pumbeditha, where twelve thousand people and sometimes more would gather in the school-months of Adar and Elul.
The dates of Rabah bar Nachmani’s birth and death are obscure. The accepted opinion is that he lived no more than forty years.3)מועד קטן כ״ח א׳. In another place it is said that Rabah’s brothers told him to study with Rabbi Jochanan in Palestine4)כתובות קי״א א׳. and later it is said that he was head of the academy in Pumbeditha for twenty-two years5)ברכות ס״ד א׳. and according to the “Chronicle of Rav Shrira Gaon” he died in the year 330 C. E. so that we must conclude that he lived much more than 40 years. Otherwise our Rabah would have had to be less than ten years old when he was a student of Rabbi Jochanan.
According to the Talmud, Rabah bar Nachmani came from a town called Mimla (Mimalis) in Babylonia, the majority of whose inhabitants were priests and, as they then believed, all of them were descendents of the family of the High Priest Eli, upon whom there rested a curse that all the males of his family would die early. Thus every traveller who visited Mimla would wonder at the absence of elderly people.6)בראשית רבה פּרשה נ״ט פּיסקא א׳. It is related also that Rabah bar Nachmani had three brothers whose names were Chailil, Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya, all three of whom were extremely poor. Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya went to Palestine where they made a living making shoes. And since they avoided sin very carefully they were known as “the holy Rabbis of the land of Israel.” Their virtue expressed itself in the fact that although they sat in the market of the prostitutes and sewed their shoes and the prostitutes cast lecherous eyes upon them, they did not pay heed to these glances.7)פּסחים ק״י ב׳.
From early youth Rabah bar Nachmani excelled in acumen. Like many other Babylonian scholars he went to Palestine as a young man to study, and when he returned to Babylon to study with Rav Nachman bar Jacob and with Rav Huna and Rav Chisda, his brothers would continually pound it into his head to go back to Palestine and study there. He obeyed them and returned to Palestine for a short time. However his keen mind found no satisfaction in the simplicity characteristic of learning in Palestine and he returned again to Babylon.
As we have noted Rabah was very poor and in addition he was an ailing person. People used to remark the injustice of fate, saying that Rabah was as great a saint as Rav Chisda had been, and yet Rav Chisda lived to the age of ninety-two and Rabah lived only to the age of forty. Rav Chisda lived to see sixty marriages among his children and grandchildren and Rabah’s household suffered from sixty kinds of ailment. Rav Chisda’s deer disdained to eat the finest wheat and the people of Rabah’s house sought a bit of oaten meal and could not find it.8)מועד קטן כ״ח א׳.
As head of the academy it was Rabah’s effort to try to popularize what he had heard from his teachers. In addition he specialized in the laws of ritual purity and tried to make them intelligible to his students; though he found few auditors for this subject, because people were interested in studying the laws which were still in force and not the laws of the Messianic era. As our Rabah complained: “I am alone in studying the laws of blight and the laws of the impurity of a tent.”9)בבא מציעא פ״ו א׳. In his lectures Rabah bar Nachmani would give all the relevant aspects of a matter with great understanding, and would often weave a bit of legend into his legal disquisitions, to mend the ardure of the law with a portion of poetry. When he was teaching his students he had a custom of starting with a "bon mot" to capture the attention of the students.
For all these reasons the scholars held Rabah bar Nachmani in high honor, both because of his clear grasp of the Torah and his own virtues. Still, since he was a man of truth and very strict in the observance of the laws, and respected no sinner but punished them severely for their transgressions, the mob in Pumbeditha hated him.10)שבת קנ״ג א׳. Once when there was no rain, Rabah ordered a fast and prescribed the prayers to be said. None of this was of any avail. People said to him: “It seems that God held Rav Judah bar Ezekiel more dear because no prayer of his went unanswered.” To this Rabah bar Nachmani answered: “It is not by our fault that God is keeping back the rain, because in our knowledge of the Torah we are greater than Rav Judah’s generation. But what can we do if the people today are not as good as the people of that generation?”11)תענית כ״ד ב׳.
For the greater part of his life Rabah was very poor. As a result he had to depend on the aid of the Exilarch. The heads of the academy in Sura were rich, and usually maintained their students at their own expense. The heads of the academy in Pumbeditha, on the other hand, were poor folk and boxes had to be set up into which anyone who was able to do so threw his contribution to support the head of the academy of Pumbeditha and his students.12)גטין ס׳ ב׳.
At that time there also began a series of religious persecutions against the Jews of Babylon, and even though they were mere child’s play compared to the persecutions which broke out in Palestine at the same time, nevertheless they did upset the political security which the Jews had enjoyed up to that time. The historical accounts of these events are very meager, yet they were serious enough so that Rabah bar Nachmani lost his life through their effects. They came during the reign of king Sapor the Second. He ruled longer than any other Persian king before him or after him, sitting on the throne more than a full human life. (309-380 C. E.) He was crowned king before he was born for the priests placed the crown on the pregnant body of his mother, Ifra Hurmiz in sign that the unborn child was the king of Persia.
Between King Sapor I, who was a friend of Samuel Yarchinai, and King Sapor II there was an interval of about seventy years (240-309 C. E.) In this interval six different kings ruled the Persians, and all maintained the tradition of friendship towards the Jews which had been established by king Sapor I. King Sapor II broke this tradition. Then all over the Persian kingdom persecution of the Jews broke out and because of the Jews the Christians too were persecuted.
Yet the condition of the Jews at that time was better than that of the Christians because Queen Ifra Hurmiz protected the Jews to the extent of her ability. It is said that Queen Ifra Hurmiz had a strong leaning toward the Jewish religion and respected the Jewish scholars. When she saw how severely her son was oppressing the Jews, crushing the marrow out of their bones for taxes, she took a pot of gold to the academy at Pumbeditha and gave it to the scholars to be used as they saw fit. It was decided to use this money to help those Jews who could not pay their taxes and were in danger of being sent to jail by the king.13)בבא בתרא ח׳ א׳.
Concerning those persecutions the Talmud relates that when the royal army came to Pumbeditha, Rabah bar Nachmani and Rav Joseph bar Chiya ran away.14)חולין מ״ו א׳. Then the king was told that there was a certain Jew around whom twelve thousand others would gather two months during the year, once during the winter and once during the summer, thus interfering with the work of the people and causing the king’s treasury damage. The king sent out messengers to catch Rabah. Rabah heard of this and fled and hid among the swamps around Pumbeditha. He lost his way there and came to a forest and sat down under a tree. Suddenly he heard the footsteps of a man, and thinking that he was caught, he died of fright.
This flight and hiding of Rabah bar Nachmani has been adorned with many miracles. It is related that once in the course of his flight he met the king’s messenger at an inn and was miraculously delivered from his hands. Then it is related how Rabah died in a miraculous manner. In the “academy of Heaven” a difference of opinion developed concerning a certain problem in the laws of ritual purity, and God Himself decided “pure”, and the rest of the academy decided “impure”. It was decided to call on Rabah bar Nachmani for his opinion because this was his special field. But this was impossible so long as he was alive and they sent out the Angel of Death to fetch Rabah. But the Angel of Death could not approach him because he did not cease studying a moment. Then the Angel of Death determined upon the above-mentioned trick, making Rabah think that he was caught, and he interrupted his study for a moment. The Angel of Death used this moment to seize his soul and bring it to the “academy of Heaven”. The scholars in Pumbeditha did not know what had happened to Rabah. A note fell from Heaven saying, “Rabah bar Nachmani has been summoned to the ‘academy of Heaven’.”
Then Abayei and Rava along with other scholars went to seek Rabah’s corpse in order to bury it. They did not know the place where his body lay. They went to the swamps where Rabah had been hiding. They saw a flock of birds and the scholars said: “Apparently our dead is lying there.” They mourned for Rabah three days and three nights. Then another note fell from Heaven, upon which was written: “Whoever abandons the dead man now is excommunicated.” The scholars mourned for Rabah seven days longer. Then another note fell from Heaven, saying, “Go home in peace.”15)בבא מציעא פ״ו א׳.
Wherever the Talmud mentions Rabah without a patronymic, it means Rabah bar Nachmani. Concerning the years of his life we must add that apparently he studied with Rabbi Jochanan in his early years, for it is related that Rav Chisda once said to him what he used to say to others of Rabbi Jochanan’s students: “Who pays any attention to you and your teacher, Rabbi Jochanan?”16)נדרים נ״ט א׳. We must remember that Rabah’s brothers insisted on his going to Palestine to study and they wrote him: “Although you are a very learned person, there is no comparison between studying by oneself and studying with a teacher; and if you should say that there is no teacher in Palestine we tell you there is. And who is he? Rabbi Jochanan.”17)כתובות קי״א א׳.
Before Rabah bar Nachmani went to Palestine, he studied with Rav Huna, the head of the academy in Sura18)גטין כ״ז א׳, בבא מציעא י״ח ב׳. and after Rav Huna died Rabah went to Rav Chisda to study. His manner of study with Rav Chisda was not like that of a student and a teacher but like that of two colleagues.19)ערובין ל״ח ב׳, ביצה כ״ח א׳. Not long afterwards Rabah left Sura and went to Pumbeditha to study with Rav Judah bar Ezekiel.20)ערובין מ׳ ב׳.