WHEN PAPA BAR NETZER destroyed Nehardea such famous scholars as Rav Nachman bar Jacob, Raban bar Avahu and Rav Joseph bar Chama had to flee. Among those who fled was also Rav Sheshet who did not become the head of the academy in his new residence and not even the judge; even though he conducted his own school and many of the most prominent “Amoraim” of that time were his students. All those scholars who fled from Nehardea dwelt in Mechoza, in Pumbeditha or in some other city near the Tigris, where new centers of Jewish life sprang up at the time. Rav Sheshet settled in Shilhi (Fhoum al Selhi).
In his youth Rav Sheshet was among the pupils of Rav Huna, when he occupied the seat of Rav (Aba Arecha) in Sura.1)כתובות ס״ט א׳. Later Rav Sheshet sat in Rav Chisda’s school and often disagreed with him about various problems of law. His diligence in study was so great that even in the midst of prayer he did not cease studying.2)ברכות ה׳ א׳. He was blind and his memory was so strong that he knew not only the whole Mishnah by heart, but all the “Boraitoth” and “Toseftoth”. Many of the scholars said about him therefore that he was a man as hard as iron.3)מנחות צ״ה ב׳.
Rav Sheshet was also a pupil of Rav Jeremiah bar Aba, who was a student and a friend of Rav.4)ערובין י״ב א׳, מנחות ל״ט א׳. But he did not always show the proper respect for Rav’s opinions and when he did not like them, he dared to say: “Rav could have said such a thing only when he was sleepy or snoring.”5)יבמות כ״ד ב׳. On another occasion he said, “Rav’s words on this matter are like those of a Kuthite (meaning an “Ignoramus”).6)נדה ס״ט א׳.
If there was any difficulty in anything studied, all one had to do was to ask Rav Sheshet. When Rav Chisda once met Rav Sheshet he was afraid to speak to him of matters of scholarship, lest he be overshadowed.7)ערובין ס״ז א׳. In addition he was very keen-witted. Rav Chama of Nehardea said that the verse “Wisdom is good with inheritance” referred to Rav Sheshet and meant that it is good to have wisdom and acuteness together with the inheritance of the Mishnah.8)בכורות נ״ב ב׳.
Nevertheless it sometimes happened that in spite of his great keenness and prodigious memory Rav Sheshet forgot something. When this happened once he asked his students: “When you ever catch me forgetting something, do not tell anyone about it.”9)ערובין י״א ב׳, ל״ט ב׳.
It is evident that Rav Sheshet did not care for logic-chopping in contriving new laws or in deriving them out of old ones in a hair-splitting fashion. Once when there was a debate about the question of whether a prisoner should be considered as dead and his children permitted to receive their inheritance even though it is not certain that he had died, an attempt was made to derive this law from the verse “and I shall kill you and your children will be orphans and your wives widows.” It was remarked that if God wanted to kill anyone there was no need to add that his children would be orphans and his wives widows, since this was self-evident. Then what was the purpose of these words in the verse? We must infer therefore that the verse intimates that the widow of the dead man would desire to remarry and would not be allowed to do so and his children would desire to inherit his property and they would not be allowed to do so. This interpretation was told to Rav Sheshet by one of his students as an answer to the problem, and Rav Sheshet said to him: “I see that you are one of those people from Pumbeditha who can drive an elephant through the eye of a needle.”10)בבא מציעא ל״ה ב׳.
Rav Sheshet himself always supported his views by a quotation from the Mishnah.11)יבמות ל״ה א׳, זבחים צ״ו ב׳. When he studied he was interested in finding the origin of every law, whether it came from the Mishnah or from the Boraitha.12)כתובות ס״ח א׳. He also had a man with him who was engaged in composing the “Boraithoth.”13)סנהדרין פ״ו א׳, הוריות ט׳ א׳.
Here we may mention that just as Rav Nachman bar Jacob’s decisions in matters of money were considered authoritative, so were Rav Sheshet’s decisions in matters of permitted and prohibited actions.
It is not known who and what Rav Sheshet’s father was. And since he once said himself: “I am no scholar and I am not the son of a scholar,” many historians believe that Rav Sheshet’s father was not a scholar. But this cannot be proved by this statement, for he says that he too was not a scholar.14)עבודה זרה ב׳ ב׳.
Rav Sheshet was blind and a story is related about this. Once the people of his town went to welcome the king and Rav Sheshet went along. A certain wag wanted to fool him. Whenever a party of the king’s company went by that wag said to him: “Here comes the king!” But Rav Sheshet was not fooled. When at last it grew quiet and the wag said nothing, Rav Sheshet understood that the king had really come. And when the wag later asked him how he knew when the king was coming even though he was blind, Rav Sheshet explained that it was in the same way that the prophet Elijah recognized the presence of God’s Majesty when He came to him in the cave where he was hiding from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel.15)ברכות נ״ח א׳.
We may assume that Rav Sheshet was not born blind. How he went blind is explained in the interpretations of the elderly Talmudists who apparently had it from earlier generations. It seems that since Rav (Aba Arecha) never lifted his eyes from the ground so that he would not see any impure thing. Rav Sheshet and Rav Joseph bar Chama wanted to imitate him and they strained their eyesight by not lifting their glances from the earth until they grew blind.
There are many who seek to prove that Rav Sheshet was not born blind by the fact that he is said once to have seen a snake in a dream and killed it.16)ברכות נ״ז ב׳. For if he had been blind from birth, he would not have had any conception of the appearance of a snake and he would not have been able to dream about it. On another occasion it is related that his mother came into his school once to pray for a student of his named Ahadboy bar Ami who had been stricken dumb because he had taken a notion to mock at Rav Sheshet. When Rav Sheshet refused to listen to his mother’s pleas, she cried out: “See the breast which you suckled.” And if he had been born blind she would not have used the word “see.”17)בבא בתרא ט׳ ב׳.
Rav Sheshet did not make his living from scholarship but from trade. It is related that he dealt in clothes which he used to sell on credit.18)גטין י״ד ב׳. He also used to carry burdens on his shoulders for pay and he would say: “Work is a great thing because it warms people up.”19)גטין ס״ז ב׳.
Rav Sheshet was a delicate soul who ate meagrely and had a weak stomach. If he ate something in the morning, he could not eat at night. Therefore he fasted on the Eve of Passover so that he could eat the matzoth with appetite at night.20)פּסחים ק״ח א׳. Nevertheless his spirit was as hard as steel.21)מנחות צ״ה ב׳. It is related that Rav Sheshet had continual conflicts with the Exilarch and his household. It seems that the people of the Exilarch’s house would treat the scholars with contempt and they were careless in the observance of the commandments also. When Rav Sheshet once sent one of his people, Rav Gada, to set up the “Eruv” at the Exilarch’s house he was arrested there.22)ערובין י״א ב׳.
The Exilarch often invited Rav Sheshet to eat with him, but Rav Sheshet always excused himself with one alibi or another. Once he claimed that the servants of the Exilarch served meat that was torn from the living flesh.23)גטין ס״ח א׳. Another time Rav Nachman bar Jacob and Rav Chisda were at the Exilarch’s table on the second day of the holiday and they were served a stag which was caught on the first day of the holiday and slaughtered on the second. Rav Nachman and Rav Chisda ate the deer’s meat but Rav Sheshet refused.24)ערובין ל״ט ב׳.
The cause of Rav Sheshet’s conflict with the Exilarch is not known. It may be that Rav Sheshet felt insulted because the Exilarch once told him: “Although you are all very famous and venerable Rabbis, the Persians have better manners at the table.”25)ברכות מ״ו ב׳.
Rav Sheshet was not fortunate enough to have any sons to whom to hand on his learning. When he became a widower he was asked why he didn’t marry a second time and have a son, he answered that his daughter’s children were as dear to him as though they were his own.26)יבמות ס״ב בי.
When Rav Sheshet was about to die it is said that the Angel of Death met him on the street and tried to take away his soul. So he said to him: “You want to kill me on the street like a steer? If you want to take my soul come into my house.”27)מועד קטן כ״ח א׳.