AT THE TIME WITH WHICH we are concerned the Jews of Palestine were suffering terribly from material need and political oppression. Large sections of the country lay waste and uninhabited. As a result any Jew who could possibly leave the country did so, and anyone who was able to go to Babylonia was considered lucky. The whole neighborhood of Jerusalem was inhabited by Gentiles and in Babylonia, on the other hand, a new sort of Jewish life began to flourish. Since the community was based from the beginning upon the functions of prayer and study, the Torah was held in high honor and the scholars were the real leaders.
One of these scholars was Rav Huna of Diakora, called “Diokra” and “Diokereth” in the Talmud, who must not be confused with Rav Hunah Rabah, the “Exilarch” of Babylonia, who lived at the time of Rabbi Judah Hanasi. This should be carefully noted, since the existence of several Rav Hunas has led some comentators to interchange the two men. Our Rav Huna of Diakora was born about 216 C. E. He spent most of his life in the academy at Sura where he arrived in his early youth as a student of Rav (Abba Arecha) and remained until the end of his days.
Like Rav Chisda, Rav Huna was called the pious Babylonian”1)תענית כ״ג ב׳. and it was said that he was worthy to have had the Holy Spirit rest upon him. But this did not happen because he lived in Babylonia.2)מועד קטן כ״ה א׳. Most of Rav’s enactments have reached us through Rav Huna’s hands. In addition many of the sayings of Rav Huna are obviously quoted from Rav although this is not declared expressly. One should know also that Rav often spoke to Rav Huna in a contemptuous tone.3)ערובין ט״ז א׳, חולין צ״ה א׳.
Right after Rav’s death Rav Huna became the head of the academy in Sura. During the life of Shmuel Yarchinaa, however, Babylonian Jews considered the academy in Nehardea as the more important. For a certain time Rav Hamnuna was considered the spiritual heir of Rav. In addition many of the scholars of Sura left in order to continue their studies elsewhere, in the new academies which were beginning to develop. Only after the death of Shmuel Yarchinaa and when the academy in Nehardea began to lose its former significance, and especially after the destruction of Nehardea, did Rav Huna receive the title of “Head of the Academy” in Sura.
Rav Huna’s parents are not known. Since we know however from the “Chronicle” of Rav Shrira Gaon that he was descended from the family of the Exilarch, many historians state that he was a grandson of Rav Huna Rabah, who was Exilarch in the time of Rabbi Judah Hanasi. He himself does not mention his ancestors anywhere.
It is interesting to note the mention of Rav Huna’s wealth. At first stories are told of his poverty and suddenly he seems to have become a wealthy man. When he was still poor, it is related, he used to labor in his own field, and when people came to him for judgment he would say: “Get someone to do my work for me while I listen to your arguments and I will undertake the judgment.”4)כתובות ק״ה א׳. On another occasion it is said, Rav Huna was letting his cattle graze in the pasture, when someone approached him and asked him to give testimony for him in a certain matter, about which he seems to have been well informed. Rav Huna said to him: “If you will pay me what I will lose by leaving my work, I will bear witness for you.” Similarly when two persons came before him for trial while he was up in a date palm picking the fruit, he replied; “If you will come up here and take my place, I will take on your case.”5)ירושלמי סנהדרין פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
It was from this time also that he derived his knowledge of trees of which he used to avail himself later in deciding cases.6)שבת ג״ד ב׳. Other stories relate that when he once needed money for wine for the Sabbath, he pawned his girdle and belted himself with a rope. When Rav saw him enter school in this fashion he asked him what this meant. Rav Huna told him the whole story and Rav blessed him that another time he might be girded in silk.7)מגלה כ״ז א׳.
Then suddenly we hear that Rav Huna owned many fields and vineyards which he no longer cultivated himself, but hired out to tenants, and his flocks of sheep were pastured in the broad plains of southern Babylonia.8)ברכות ה׳ א׳, בבא קמא פ׳ ב׳. At this time his family, too, had grown great in sons, daughters, in-laws and grandchilden, and when Rav Huna married off his son Rabah, he sat on a divan in a side room and, being short of stature, he remained unnoticed. Then his daughters and daughters-in-law cast their silken robes upon him and covered him up completely. When he was later uncovered, people were reminded of the time of his poverty when he belted himself with a rope and came so into the school, and Rav blessed him that he might some day be wrapped in silk.
A story is told of the accomplishments of Rav Huna and of his wealth, that whenever there was a storm, of the sort which often uprooted trees and overturned houses in Sura, Rav Huna would take a walk through the streets of Sura after it was quiet, and when he saw a shattered wall which had been damaged by the storm and was about to cave in, he would order his slaves to tear down the wall so that it might not injure passers-by, and then had a new one constructed at his own expense if he knew that the owner could not afford to do so.9)מגלה כ״ז א׳ וב׳.
When Rav Huna sat down to eat, he opened the doors of his house wide and invited anyone who was hungry to eat with him.10)תענית כ׳ ב׳. It is related that in the months of Adar and Elul when the students of the academy would gather, he would feed eight hundred students at his own expense.
In those two months Rav Huna was surrounded by thirteen scholars who acted as interpreters and whatever they heard him say was repeated to the students in a simplified form. In this connection we are given an idea of the number of students who sat at the feet of Rav Huna in his academy. “When they stood up and shook the dust from their clothes, they would becloud the sun in Palestine.11)כתובות ק״ו א׳.
He said, “whoever devotes himself entirely to study, and does not act generously towards his fellows, is like a man without a God.”12)עבודה זרה י״ז ב׳. Nevertheless the scholars were never timid about it when Rav Huna needed upbraiding. Thus one time he had four hundred barrels of wine turn sour and suffered a great loss in money. The scholars came to console him and said; “Now is the time when you should consider your past actions, for it is inconceivable that the Almighty should punish somebody unless he deserved it. You have probably treated your tenant unjustly and have not given him his proper share of the grapes.” Rav Huna listened to their words and began to better his ways.13)ברכות ה׳ ב׳.
Rav Huna is supposed to have been “Head of the Academy” in Sura for forty years. Under his guidance the Jews in Babylonia slowly began to liberate themselves from their dependence in religious matters upon the Palestinian scholars. Rav Huna was the first to cut off relations with Palestine in many cases. He said: “We have made ourselves like unto Palestine.”14)גטין ו׳ א׳, בבא קמא פ׳ א׳. In fact the learning of Babylon surpassed that of Palestine at that time and it was only devotion to the old home of the Jewish faith that made the Jews continue to send their inquiries to Palestine for decisioin of such cases as the Babylonian scholars did not wish to decide on their own responsibility. It was an accepted rule among Babylonian scholars that “one of them (Palestinian scholars) is as good as two of us, and one of ours who goes there is as good as two of theirs.”15)כתובות ע״ה א׳. So long as Rabbi Jochanan (the compiler of the Jerusalem Talmud) was alive in Palestine, Rav Huna’s prestige was great only in Babylonia, but when Rabbi Jochanan died, Rav Huna’s importance was recognized even in Palestine, where he was called “the head of all the chiefs.”16)ירושלמי חגיגה פרק א׳ הלכה ח׳. Even though he was not of priestly family he used to read the first chapter in the synagogue on Sabbath and holidays, and the Palestinian “Amoraim”, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi, who were both high-born priests permitted him to do so.17)מגלה כ״ב א׳, גטין נ״ט ב׳.
In examining Rav Huna’s sayings one finds traces of the spirit of Rav, and a similarity of concise style which said everything in one word. Only in a few places does Rav Huna show a tendency to oppose Rav. Nevertheless he himself proclaimed the rule that “the law in all religious matters is as Rav said, and in civil suits as Samuel said.”18)ברכות מ״ט ב׳. In other places we find Rav Huna yielding to a tendency to hair-splitting which led him to go away from the point at issue.19)בבא בתרא מ״ז ב׳, חולין מ״ט ב׳, ערכין י״ד א׳. It is characteristic of Rav Huna also that even when he disagreed with his friend and contemporary Rav Nachman bar Jacob in a matter of law concerning money he conceded that “the law is probably on Rav Nachman’s side because he is more familiar with these matters than I am.”20)בבא בתרא ס״ה א׳.
Rav Huna’s statement is revealing as to the spirit of the times when he spoke concerning the problem of the books which were rescued from fire on the Sabbath. The Mishnah says that translations of Holy Scriptures which are not even read in the synagogue may be rescued on Sabbath and in any case should be hidden away and not left without care. Rav Huna, on the contrary, felt that “Holy Scriptures in Aramaic translation or in other languages should not be rescued from fire on the Sabbath.”21)שבת קט״ו א׳.
Certain moral teachings of Rav Huna’s should be mentioned, as for instance, what Rav Helbo said in his name: “Whoever sets aside a definite place for his prayer, is helped by the God of Father Abraham, for Abraham too had a definite place for his prayers.” And further, said Rav Helbo, when such a person dies, he is mourned in the following manner: “Alas, what a modest and pious man he was, one of the disciples of Father Abraham.” Again Rav Helbo said in the name of Rav Huna that in leaving the synagogue one should not walk with long paces. And if a person makes a custom of praying behind the synagogue such a man should be called an evil-doer. One should be very careful to say the vesper prayers for the prophet Elijah was aided by God in his battle against the prophets of Baal during the time of vespers. One should know also that the words of the God-fearing are heard in Heaven. On another occasion Rav Helbo said in the name of Rav Huna that “one who knows that his friend is accustomed to greet him should greet him first. If one person greets another and the latter does not respond to the greeting he is worthy of being called a bandit.”22)ברכות ו׳ ב׳.
Like many other scholars of the time, Rav Huna regretted that the Jews were no longer able to offer sacrifices and whenever he would come to the passage “and Abraham called the name of the place God will see as is said today on the hill of God shall be seen” (Genesis, 22:14) in the course of his reading in the Bible, he would shed many tears and say “Oh how sad that a slave whose master wishes to see him should be forced to remain apart from his master!” It was the same way when he would reach the verse “and thou shalt offer up peace-offerings and thou shalt eat there” (Deuteronomy, 27:7) he would weep and say: “O that a slave whose master wishes to eat at his table should be forced to remain apart from his master!”23)חגיגה ד׳ ב׳.
It is probable that Rav Huna lived over eighty years and he was never sick until the day of his death. His significance was so very great that his successors used to pray that the Almighty might give them the wisdom of Rav Huna.24)מועד קטן כ״ח א׳.