PARTICULARLY PROMINENT both in his views and in personal traits was Rav Judah bar Ezekiel who is usually mentioned in the Talmud without his patronymic as Rav Judah. It appears from his sayings which have survived that he was very sharp-tongued in his dealings with people and when somebody dared to say something that did not please him, he practically murdered that person with his speech.
While Rav (Aba Arecha) was alive, Rav Judah bar Ezekiel was one of his outstanding students with whose opinions Rav was forced to reckon. Whenever Rav had to make a trip in the interests of the community he took Rav Judah along with him in order to have someone to talk to on the road.1)קדושין פ״א א׳, עבודה זרה ע״א א׳. And when Rav sent away his son Chiya to study, he chose Rav Judah as his teacher.2)ערובין ב׳ ב׳, י״א א׳.
Rav Judah bar Ezekiel was born in 219 C. E. on the very same day when Rabbi Judah Hanasi died in Palestine3)קדושין ע״ב ב׳. and died around 299 C. E. His father Rav Ezekiel was also a scholar. It is said that Samuel Yarchinai used to treat him respectfully and would rise when he met him.4)קדושין ל״ג ב׳. Rav Judah received his first instruction from his father.5)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ט׳ הלכה ב׳, תענית פרק א׳ הלכה ג׳. Later he made such progress through his own diligence that when his father was teaching his brother Rami, he permitted himself to tell his father that he was teaching him incorrectly.6)קדושין ל״ב א׳.
When Samuel Yarchinai died the great academy of Nehardea was transferred to Sura under Rav Huna. At that time Rav Judah was about sixty years of age and he founded the academy in Pumbeditha. Even though Rav Judah was the head of that great academy, he was under the influence of Rav Huna in Sura for a long time. As we said Rav Judah was a student of Rav’s and when Rav died he studied a short time with Rav Asi in Huzel. Later he studied with Samuel Yarchinai in Nehardea. It occurred frequently, however, that when Rav Judah would quote some statement of Samuel’s, other scholars would deny that Samuel ever said it. Even Rav Judah’s own brother, Rami bar Ezekiel, once said, “Pay no attention to what my brother says in the name of Samuel.”7)כתובות כ״א א׳, חולין מ״ד א׳. On other occassions when Rav Judah said something in his own name, other scholars said: “What Rav Judah is now saying in his own name is a quotation from Samuel!”8)ערובין ז׳ א׳, יבמות י״ח א׳, כתובות י״ב א׳.
Being extremely sharp-witted and more brainy than emotional, Rav Judah felt that study was the essential thing and prayer merely of incidental significance; and since he never wished to stop studying it is said of him that he prayed only once in thirty days.9)ראש השנה ל״ח א׳. Nevertheless he once said on the same subject that he considered it one of his merits that he observed the commandment of contemplating the prayer.10)שבת קי״ח ב׳. This saying of his was later interpreted in the sense that when he said his prayers once in thirty days, he would cleanse his soul first and only then would he pray.11)ברכות ל׳ א׳.
His mind was of a logical bent and therefore he devoted himself mainly to problems of fiscal law, where he had a broad field for the exercise of his reasoning powers. It was related also that when he came across the laws of ritual purity in the course of his study, or other matters which had no legal significance in his own time, he would say: “Such matters were of interest to Rav and Samuel.”12)ברכות כ׳ א׳, תענית כ״ד א׳, סנהדרין ק״ו ב׳.
Because of his keenness Samuel called him ״שיננא״ which means sharp-witted.13)ברכות ל״ו א׳, ראש השנה כ״ד ב׳.*)The expression ״שיננא״ is found always on occasions where Rav Judah differed from his teacher, Samuel Yarchinai. From the context of the speeches it would seem that the words were used in a complimentary sense. It may be however that this title was used ironically. At another time Samuel said of him that he was not born of woman because he was simply an angel.14)נדה י״ג א׳.
Being descended from very aristocratic stock which traced its descent straight to the prophets, he was very scrupulous in matters of racial purity, and this often involved him in very bitter disputes. He felt that the whole significance of the return of the Exiles in the time of Ezra the Scribe consisted in the fact that Ezra removed all the mixed families to Palestine and left all the pure families in Babylon.
As we have already noted the scholars of Babylon exerted themselves to free the life of the Babylonian Jews from the wardenship of Palestine. However there were always many scholars in the Babylonian academies who felt impelled to go to Palestine. This displeased Rav Judah and he said that “anyone who lives in Babylon is as though he lived in Palestine.”15)כתובות קי״א א׳. And if a Babylonian still wanted to go to Palestine it was no less than a sin as the Almighty warned us through the prophet Jeremiah, “To Babylon they shall come and there they shall be.”16)ברכות כ״ב ב׳, שבת מ״א א׳. For many scholars however their love for Palestine was a stronger force than their teacher’s opposition and they said nothing to him about leaving the country because they knew he would not permit them to leave. One of these students was Rav Aba, a native of Babylon, who studied with Rav Judah and left his teacher without asking his permission.17)ברכות כ״ד ב׳. Rabbi Zeira did the same. Even Rav Judah’s own brother, Rami, did not regard his brother’s opinion and left Babylon to settle in Palestine.18)כתובות קי״א ב׳.
As we said the purity of the family was the most important element in the whole national existence of the Jewish people, according to Rav Judah. And since he was always examining into the purity of various families he found it difficult to get a suitable wife for his son Isaac, who had long been of marriageable age, until Ula, on one of his numberless trips between Babylon and Palestine, arrived in Pumbeditha and heard of Rav Judah’s habit of inquiring into the history of various families. Said he: “How do we know what our own origin is? Perhaps we too are descendants of those pagans which slipped into the fold during the time when the Temple was destroyed?” Because of Rav Judah’s agitation about the problem of purity of families, a number of betrothals were broken off in Jewish homes and there were even a number of divorces. The people grew angry at Rav Judah and a mob once got together in order to stone him. He was not the least bit frightened by the mob and he said: “If they annoyed him, he would reveal that they all came from impure families.” The crowd was frightened and they all threw away their stones and did not trouble Rav Judah any longer.19)קדושין ע׳ א׳ וב׳.
Through his desire to reveal the impure families, Rav Judah once came into conflict with a certain political boss, Bati bar Tobia. This person was a freedman who had managed to win the esteem of king Sapor. In consequence the whole world toadied to him and tried to find favor in his eyes. Only Rav Judah had the courage to say that since the freedman in his pride had not asked his former owner for a certificate of liberation, he was still legally a slave and no free man could marry his children.
As we have already related, a certain person from Nehardea once came to Pumbeditha and went to a butcher to buy meat, just at the time when one of Rav Judah bar Ezekiel’s servants came there. The butcher said to him: “You will have to wait awhile until I give meat to Rav Judah bar Ezekiel’s servant.” The man made a grimace and asked: “Who is this Rav Judah bar Sheveskal, that I must wait for him?” The story was repeated to Rav Judah and he was highly annoyed. And since he was told in addition that the man boasted of an ancestry which reached back to the Hasmoneans and was accustomed to call everyone “slave”, Rav Judah excommunicated him according to Samuel Yarchinai’s long-established rule that “anyone who boasts of his descent from the Hasmoneans is certainly a slave,” because king Herod killed off all the Hasmoneans without exception. The condemned man complained to Rav Nachman bar Jacob about Rav Judah. Rav Nachman did not hesitate a moment but sent Rav Judah a summons to appear before him and explain his actions. Rav Judah would not have heeded Rav Nachman’s summons and would not have appeared for trial. But he went to Rav Huna first to ask his advice. Rav Huna said that by right he should not have to go, because his learning was greater than that of Rav Nachman. But seeing that the latter was the son-in-law of the Exilarch, he should do him the honor of obeying his summons.
When Rav Judah arrived at Rav Nachman bar Jacob’s house he found him making a balcony for his roof, and Rav Judah said: “How comes it that you are doing work unsuited to your social status, which ought to be done by someone else?” And no matter what Rav Nachman had to answer him in the argument which followed, Rav Judah would correct the grammar of each sentence or prove to him that he was wrong as to the law. Yalta, Rav Nachman’s wife, heard the argument and said to her husband: “Send the man away or you will get a reputation as an ignoramus.”20)קדושין ע׳ א׳.
After the destruction of Nehardea, the city of Pumbeditha became a center of the spiritual life of the Jews in Babylonia and when people spoke of the Jews in the Diaspora of that time, they meant Pumbeditha.21)ראש השנה כ״ג ב׳. Later the city of Pumbeditha became a holy city for the Babylonian Jews. People would say that whoever leaves Pumbeditha in order to go somewhere else is as if he left Palestine to live in the Diaspora.”22)כתובות קי״א א׳.
Old documents tell us that Pumbeditha was a very clean city with many sanitary devices and the houses were like palaces. For a long time also there was a sort of competition between the academy in Sura, which was called ״מתא מחסיא״ and the academy in Pumbeditha. One of the scholars enjoined his children that they should rather live “in the dirt of Mata Mechasia than in the palaces of Pumbeditha.”23)הוריות י״ב א׳.
Whenever the academy of Pumbeditha was mentioned, interesting stories were told of the manner of study there and people would say that true wit flourished where Rav Judah had his seat. A story was told of one of Rav Judah’s students, Rami bar Dikola, who once arrived in Pumbeditha from Sura on the eve of Yom Kippur and saw them discarding the udders of their cows: for in Sura they did not eat the flesh of the udders, fearing that a lick of milk might still have remained there, while in Pumbeditha they did eat it after having slit it in two directions. This Rami bar Dikola gathered the discarded udders and ate them. He was brought before Rav Chisda to explain his actions. Rav Chisda asked him what had brought him to eat the udders of cows, knowing as he did that this was not in accordance with the custom of Sura. “I come from the city where Rav Judah is the head of the academy and there it is our custom to eat the udders of cows.” “You know the rule,” said Rav Chisda, “that a stranger who comes to a city in which there is a different religious custom from that of his own town should always follow the stricter practice of the two, and therefore you should not have eaten the udders.” To this Rami answered: “I ate the udders outside the city limits.” “And how did you roast them?” asked Rav Chisda. “With grape twigs,” replied Rami. “So, and what if they were the twigs of impure vines?” said Rav Chisda. Rami replied, “The twigs were more than twelve months old and all dry so that the law of impure vines does not apply to them.”
Later on they noticed that the man did not put on his phylacteries. When asked what was the reason for this, he replied: “I have stomach trouble and Rav Judah has ruled that anyone with stomach trouble is exempt from the duty of putting on phylacteries.” Later on they noticed that that man did not wear the ritual fringes on his garments. When he was asked the reason for this, he answered: “My garment is borrowed and Rav Judah has ruled that a borrowed garment need not be worn with ritual fringes.”
During this conversation Rami noticed that they were bringing in a man to be flogged for disrespect to his parents. When they had bound the man to a post, he said: “Let him go. Wherever the Bible promises a reward for observing a certain commandment, as in the case of the commandment to respect one’s father and mother, where the Bible promises long life for the observance of the law, the punishment for non-observance should be left to God and the courts of man should not deal with such cases.”24)חולין ק״י א׳ וב׳.
Rav Judah bar Ezekiel developed a whole group who were famous as the keen minds of Pumbeditha,25)סנהדרין י״ז ב׳. and were said to be able “to drive an elephant through the eye of a needle” by their sharp logic.26)בבא מציעא ל״ח ב׳. This sort of study was very popular with the younger students. There were others who did not care for Rav Judah’s form of learning, however, and they left his academy. Many of them even used the excuse that they were suddenly seized by a desire to go to Palestine. In truth however we may assume that the sophistry of Pumbeditha was a very important factor in their decision to leave. It may be assumed also that Rav Judah’s method of study was well known in Palestine also, and nobody granted it recognition. And when one of Rav Judah’s students, Rav Aba, decided to go to Palestine he was afraid of being ridiculed for his ways of argument. When he came to Palestine and said something the scholars did in fact laugh at him.27)ביצה ל״ח ב׳.
Two years before the death of Rav Judah, Rav Huna died. Almost automatically Rav Judah became the head of all the Jews in Babylon. Since nobody was elected to take Rav Huna’s place, all his students came to study under Rav Judah in Pumbeditha.
Many of Rav Judah’s sayings prove that he was well-versed in natural history. This is not to be wondered at since he studied under Samuel Yarchinai who was always considered to be a great authority in such matters.28)שבת ע״ז ב׳. He knew also the value of trees for human health and he said therefore that if one were out walking in the month of Nisan and saw the trees being covered with leaves, he must utter a special benediction.29)ברכות מ״ג ב׳, ראש השנה י״א א׳.
There is an interesting story about the conduct of Rav Judah when he was a student in Samuel’s school. Once a woman came, making an outcry about various injuries which had been done to her. Samuel paid no attention to her and to her outcries. Then Rav Judah said: “Don’t you respect the Biblical warning that anyone who stuffs his ears so as not to hear the outcries of the poor will some day have to cry out himself and no one will hear him?”30)שבת נ״ה א׳.
It is related also that one of Rav Judah’s neighbors died without leaving any kin to mourn him; Rav Judah gathered together ten people to sit and mourn for him seven days. After the seventh day that man came to Rav Judah in a vision and thanked him for the kindness he had done him.31)שבת קנ״ב ב׳.
In teaching Rav Judah placed most stress upon the matter of damages and said that “Anyone who wants to pass as pious, must devote his attention to damages.”32)בבא קמא ל׳ א׳. In his academy, too, most of the time was devoted to the study of the laws of damages.33)תענית כ״ד ב׳.
In spite of his greatness, Rav Judah did not make his learning a source of income, for it seems that he made his living from trading in wine.34)בבא מציעא מ׳ א׳, חולין צ״ד א׳.
Rav Judah was one of the tallest men of his time, but he only reached up to the shoulders of Rav.35)נדה כ״ב ב׳. He also had large eyes36)בכורות מ״ד א׳. and when he grew old his eyesight was spoiled.37)גטין י״ט ב׳. He was also a sickly person and would faint from an empty stomach.38)שבת ל״ז ב׳.
Of his regulations we need only mention that he made a rule for the writing of a ״שטר חליצה״ 39)יבמות ל״ט ב׳. and determined the form of the document for freeing a slave.40)גטין פ״ו א׳.