THIS RAV NACHMAN is often mentioned without the name of his father and he was one of the younger “Amoraim” of Babylonia. He was close to ninety years old when he died, and his period of influence extended between the year 235 and 325 C. E. His life occurred during an age of freedom. The Jews of Babylonia, living under conditions of comparative political security, were characterized by a certain self-confidence and gaiety.
As we have said, the city of Nehardea was attacked during the time of Raba bar Avuha and the academy there was forced into exile. This seems to have lasted only a few years, however, and it had no influence upon the situation of the Jews in general. Raba bar Avuha remained in Mechoza and may have died there. But his son-in-law, Rav Nachman, returned to Nehardea and guided his own academy which continued the work of Shmuel Yarchinaa and Raba bar Avuha.1)בבא בתרא קנ״ג א׳.
As son-in-law of the “Exilarch” Rav Nachman had very lordly manners, and the reproach which Mar Ukba once directed against another “Exilarch” that he did wrong because he went to sleep and awoke to the sound of music2)ירושלמי מגלה פרק ג׳ הלכה ג׳. could have been applied to Rav Nachman in a much more severe form, although he was only a son-in-law of the “Exilarch” and yet he lived in a style which was unparalleled among Jews at that time. Servants armed with staffs and whips always encircled him when he appeared in the street, or when he sat in court, ready to beat anybody who did not pay him the proper respect or refused to accept his decisions.3)קדושין ל״ג א׳. His father-in-law had appointed him to the position of “Chief Justice” in Nehardea, and he felt himself superior to all his colleagues because of his position and he used to tell them that they had no right to criticize his decisions because he was the judge and not they.4)כתובות צ״ד ב׳.
He never allowed for circumstances in making his decisions. A typical story tells of an old woman who came to him to complain about the servants of the “Exilarch” because they robbed her of a few planks in order to build a religious Tabernacle (סוכה) for the “Exilarch”. She screamed that the “Exilarch” and all his guests were feasting in a stolen “tabernacle”.
During the woman’s testimony Rav Nachman paid no attention to her and he did not even heed her cries. This made the woman angry and she said, “Why don’t you listen to my outcry? Are you proud of your army of servants? Who do you think I am? I am a daughter of Father Abraham and in my father’s house there were three hundred and eighteen servants, though nobody pays any attention to my cries here!” Rav Nachman answered, “She is a noisy woman and all she gets is the money for her wood.”5)סוכה ל״א א׳.
In his pride of office, Rav Nachman once asked Rav Huna, “Is the law as you say or as I think?” Rav Huna answered, “The law is certainly as you think, for you are close to the house of the Exilarch where the judges sit.”6)בבא בתרא ס״ה א׳.
Until Rav Nachman’s time it was an accepted rule that civil suits were heard by three judges. Only occasionally were such cases allowed to be heard by a single judge; Rav Nachman did this constantly, thus breaking with a longstanding rule.7)[סנהדרין ה׳ א׳]. On another occasion when the case of a note of indebtedness was being judged, Rav Judah bar Ezekiel having torn up the note because he held it to be invalid, Rav Nachman said that only a “child” would have torn up that note, and added that “they were all children compared to me.”8)בבא מציעא ס״ו א׳.
Rav Nachman was also ruthless in his treatment of his slaves. Whenever Shmuel Yarchinaa examined a female slave for medical purposes, it was his custom to pay the slave four gold coins to compensate for any shame which he was forced to cause her. When someone asked him why he did this, he answered, “The Bible says, to be sure, that a slave must work forever, which we must understand as meaning that a slave is our property for work but not to humiliate.” Rav Nachman, on the other hand, had no regard for the shame of his female slaves. Shmuel Yarchinaa, too, used to marry his female slaves to his male slaves, according to their own choice. Rav Nachman would mix them up at will, and when he chose he would take a woman from one of his slaves and give her to another, without regard to their moral sensibilities.9)נדה מ״ז א׳.
Rav Nachman also made an innovation in trial procedure. It had been the custom until then that when one party claimed a debt and wished to be repaid by a second party who entirely denied the debt, the second party did not have to pay and did not even have to take an oath, for they believed that when a person owed someone money, he would never have the nerve to deny it outright. In Rav Nachman’s time, however, there was an increase in the number of daring swindlers who denied their debts and could not be forced to back up their denials with an oath. Rav Nachman ordained a so called ״שבועת היסת״ which was an oath administered in cases where the claimant had no witnesses to substantiate his claim of debt and the accused denied the debt completely. Rav Nachman thought that a debtor would ordinarily deny his debt if he knew that he would not be forced to swear but nobody would claim a debt where it did not exist.9)בבא מציעא ה׳ א׳, שבועות מ׳ ב׳.
There is a great deal of comment concerning Rav Nachman’s wealth. His wife, Yalta, once flew into a rage because a certain scholar did not wish to send her the “cup of blessing”, and she broke 400 barrels of wine. It is related, also, that Rav Nachman would drive out in a golden wagon, covered with a robe of purple dyed wool and led by slaves.10)גטין ל״א ב׳.
It is related that once one of the Palestinian scholars named R. Isaac came to visit Rav Nachman. Rav Nachman welcomed him very cordially and after the guest had eaten and drunk his fill, Rav Nachman asked for his blessing. In answer R. Isaac told him the following story:
Once a traveller had lost his way in a desert and was wandering about tired, starved and thirsty. He came upon a tree unexpectedly, with sweet fruit, pleasant shade and watered by a stream which flowed under it. The wanderer ate the tree’s fruit, sat in its shade and drank from the spring.
When he was ready to go on the wanderer turned to the tree and said, “With what shall I bless thee, o thou excellent tree? Shall I say may your fruit be sweet? It is sweet already. Shall I say may your shade be pleasant? It is pleasant already. Shall I ask for a stream to flow beneath you? There is such a stream already. Then I will merely wish that all the plants that are cut from you may grow up to be like you.”
“It is the same with you,” R. Isaac added, “How shall I bless you? Shall I bless you with learning? You have learning enough already. Shall I bless you with riches? You have riches already. Shall I bless you with children? You have children already. Then I will merely wish that all of your descendants may be like you.11)תענית ה׳ ב׳, ו׳ א׳.
Rav Nachman’s scholarly activity dealt mainly with the regulation of practical life and money matters. His decisions in these fields were considered binding by later Babylonian judges. As they said, “In any money matter, the law is as Rav Nachman said.”12)כתובות י״ג א׳, קדושין נ״ט ב׳, בבא מציעא י׳ א׳. In his decisions Rav Nachman was not bothered by the fact that very often the literal law of the Mishnah was opposed to his stand. Following the precedent of Shmuel Yarchinaa who held that the law of the Gentiles was valid, he adopted certain Persian regulations as part of Jewish law. It should be remarked also that in spite of his strict principles he often tried to moderate the severity of religious custom: for instance, he said that bricks or other building materials which had been left after a building was completed might be removed on the Sabbath because they were in the same category as vessels and utensils, no longer being considered as building materials.13)ביצה ל״א ב׳.
Concerning “Claims through possession” Rav Nachman said that the household of the “Exilarch” could lay no claim to the property of others on the basis of possession and vice versa: if a member of the Exilarch’s household occupied the fields of another person, this did not constitute a claim of possession, just as it was not a valid claim of possession if anyone held some of the Exilarch’s property, because the Exilarch’s household could not be denied anything and they were allowed to do anything they chose. Similarly there could be not talk of claims of possession against the Exilarch’s property, because his servants used to let strangers live in their houses and cultivate their fields and said nothing, because they did not care if other people took care of the Exilarch’s houses or fertilized his fields, since they knew that they could take everything back by force whenever they wanted to do so.14)בבא בתרא ל״ו א׳.
Once there was talk of the Messiah in Rav Nachman’s presence, and various opinions were expressed as to who the Messiah was. Rav Nachman said that “if the Messiah was alive it might be that it was he himself.”15)סנהדרין צ״ח א׳. On another occasion one of the scholars studying with Rav Nachman quoted the “Boraitha” which said that since the death of R. Judah Hanasi humility and piety had vanished. Said Rav Nachman in answer: “As long as I am alive you need not say that piety has disappeared.”16)סוטה מ״ט ב׳.
Once Rav Nachman dared to order Rav Judah bar Ezekiel, the head of the academy in Pumbeditha, to appear on trial before him in Nehardea. The story was as follows: a certain Nehardean came to Pumbeditha to buy meat at a butcher’s. He came at the same time as one of Rav Judah bar Ezekiel’s servants. The butcher said to the fellow, “Wait a while until I give Rav Judah bar Ezekiel’s servant his meat.” The man made a grimace of distaste and said, “Who is this Rav Judah bar Shveskal, that I should wait for him.” The story was related to Rav Judah who was considerably annoyed, and having heard similar tales about the same fellow, he had him excommunicated. The man complained about Rav Judah to Rav Nachman. Without hesitation Rav Nachman sent a “summons” to Rav Judah to appear and explain his action. Rav Judah would not have paid any attention to Rav Nachman’s summons, if he had not gone to Rav Huna first and asked him what to do. Rav Huna told him that by right he should not go because his learning was greater than that of Rav Nachman. However, since he was the son-in-law of the Exilarch, Rav Nachman should be paid the respect of having Rav Judah appear before him.17)קדושין ע׳ א׳.
The scholars of Babylon were generally angry at Rav Nachman because he presumed too much upon the authority of his father-in-law, the Exilarch, and even expressed himself about earlier scholars in a manner which was considered sinful. For example he once swore in a discussion of a law of R. Jochanan’s that he would not accept it if he heard it from R. Jochanan himself.18)חולין קכ״ד א׳.
As we said above, Rav Nachman’s wife was a woman of peculiar character and she also wore the pants in the house, so to speak. This may have been the reason why when Rav Nachman came to the city of Shchenziv he ordered his servants to find him a woman who would be willing to be his wife during his stay in the city and agree to a divorce thereafter.19)יומא י״ח ב׳, יבמות ל״ז ב׳.
There is also a frightful story about Rav Nachman’s daughters who were captured by pagans. At first they used to stir the boiling pots on the oven with their bare hands so that whoever saw it would think that because of their great virtue they did not feel their hands burning. Later, however, Rav Ilish was captive together with them and wanted to ransom them because they were Rav Nachman’s daughters. But he once heard them in conversation and they said: “What do we lack here? In Nehardea we had man and here we have them, too. Let us have them take us far away from here so that our husbands cannot come and ransom us from captivity.”20)גטין מ״ה א׳.
It is interesting that when Raba sat by Rav Nachman’s bed as he was dying, Rav Nachman promised him that he would appear to him from the next world. When Rav Nachman did appear to Raba, he asked him if he had felt any pain at death. Rav Nachman said that the departure of his soul was like drawing a hair out of milk. If the Almighty wanted to send him back now to whence he had come, he would not accept because he would be afraid to suffer once more the pains of life and the fear of the Angel of Death.