TOWARDS THE END of the third century of the Christian era the persecution of the Jews in Palestine assumed a terrible form and the academies disappeared entirely. Learning continued to flourish in Babylon, however, although it lost its former intensity. After Rava died nobody could be found who was learned enough to fill his place. The academy in Mechoza, which he had headed, disintegrated and the fame of Pumbeditha grew again. But even Pumbeditha was not as brilliant as previously. At the same time a new center of Jewish life and learning was established in the city of Narash (Nares). Then Rav Nachman bar Isaac was chosen as head of the academy in Pumbeditha.*)We must note here that occasionally sayings have been quoted in the Talmud in the name of Rav Nachman bar Isaac and these have been confused with those of Rav Nachman bar Jacob.
Rav Nachman bar Isaac was born about 280 C. E. and died 356 C. E. This was the time when the Babylonian “Amoraim” began to write down their Talmudic teachings. The “Mishnahs” of Rabbi Judah Hanasi as well as the “Boraithas” of Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Oshaya had long been written down. Similarly the Jerusalem Talmud circulated among the scholars in written form even if not complete. Since they were afraid that the teachings of the Babylonian “Amoraim” might be lost, every scholar wrote down for his own use what he remembered of what his predecessors had taught. Rav Nachman bar Isaac had a great part in the written composition of these teachings. Therefore he used to say of himself: “I am not learned nor skilled in interpretation, so that I might express my own opinion. I never say anything on the authority of one man either, because whatever I say I heard in studying in the academy and I always arranged what I heard to meet the approval of my teachers”.1)פּסחים ק״ה ב׳.
Rav Nachman was held in high esteem by his contemporaries for his far-renowned piety and because he was a man of courage and did not fear even the Exilarch. It is related that when he was sitting with Rava, a member of the Exilarch’s family was carried by in a golden sedan-chair, sitting wrapped in a green mantle. Rava hastened to greet the person and Rav Nachman bar Isaac did not stir from his place saying: “Rava may need him, but I do not need him.”2)גטין ל״א ב׳.
As a youth Rav Nachman bar Isaac studied with Rav Nachman bar Jacob. When Rava sat in the same school, Rav Nachman bar Isaac sat one row behind Rava.3)ערובין מ״ג ב׳. Later Rav Nachman bar Isaac studied under Rav Chisda.4)עבודה זרה ס״ג א׳. And while Rav Joseph bar Chiya was still alive and Rava conducted his own school in Mechoza, Rav Nachman bar Isaac was his ״ראש כלה״ (the chief of the lecturers.)5)בבא בתרא כ״ב א׳. Even at that time he was famous for his piety. Abayei said he was very scrupulous in his religious conduct.6)שבת ל״ז ב׳.
Even though Rav Nachman bar Isaac was Rava’s ראש כלה Rava did not treat him with much respect when he asked a question which did not please Rava. On such an ocassion Rava said: “We will have to wait for the prophet Elijah to settle that question for us.”7)ברכות ל״ה ב׳. On another occasion Rav Nachman tried to reply to some ruling of Rava by changing the interpretation of a Boraitha, and Rava grew very angry with him.8)בבא בתרא פ״ז א׳.
Rav Nachman used to call himself “a whole man, son of a half.” Rashi explains that this was because his father was not an ordained scholar. Other commentators say that this was because Rav Nachman was a wealthy man and his father was not.9)תענית כ״א ב׳. It is said that Rav Nachman’s mother always tried to lead her son in the paths of the righteous and when astrologers once told her that her son was destined to become a thief, she never allowed him to go into the street with a bare head, saying, “Cover your head so that you may fear God. You should also pray for his mercy so that evil impulses may not overcome you.”10)שבת קנ״ז ב׳.