Shiur #08: The Aggada about R. Adda B. Abba – part II

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch


a. Introduction

In the previous shiur, we analyzed the first part of the Aggada of Rav Adda bar Abba, found in Bava Batra, 22a. We described the encounter between him and Rav Dimi from Nehardea, as a result of which R. Dimi is insulted and loses his merchandise. After R. Dimi complains about the insult to R. Yosef, R. Yosef assures him that God will soon bring retribution (“He who did not delay to avenge the wrong done to the king of Edom will not delay to avenge the wrong done to you”). Indeed, the Aggada goes on immediately to record the death of R. Adda. Our literary analysis showed that the story focuses on the inter-personal relations among scholars with different study approaches. R. Adda, the disciple of Rava, appears to cross the line separating an “argument for the sake of heaven” from a personal attack, and damages R. Dimi’s good name and livelihood. We will now look at the rest of the Aggada, which offers a broader perspective on R. Adda.

Analysis of part II of the story – various explanations for R. Adda’s punishment (lines 16-20)

Let us first recall part II of the story:

1.R. Yosef said: "It is on my account that he has been punished, because I cursed him."

2.R. Dimi from Nehardea said: "It is on my account that he has been punished, because he made me lose my figs."

3.Abaye said: "It is on my account that he has been punished, because he used to say to the students: 'Instead of gnawing bones in the school of Abaye, why do you not eat fat meat in the school of Rava?'”

4.Rava said: "It is on my account that he has been punished, because when he went to the butcher's to buy meat he used to say to the butchers: 'Serve me before the servant of Rava, because I am above him.'"

5.R. Nachman b. Yitzchak said: "It is through me that he has been punished."

R. Adda – a problematic personality

This part of the Aggada comprises a series of statements by different Amoraim, most of whom have already made an appearance in the story, each regarding himself as the cause of R. Adda’s death.[1] The proliferation of problematic actions attributed to R. Adda makes an important contribution to our understanding of his harsh punishment. The statements by the Amoraim show that the conflict with R. Dimi is not an isolated incident that caused his death. R. Adda turns out to be responsible for a long string of actions that collectively form what appears to be a fixed mode of behavior, for which he is sentenced to death. The Amoraim are thus expressing their opinions about the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” The composite picture created by their statements is a troubling depiction of behavior that might figuratively be related to the “jealousy, desire and honor” which “remove a man from this world:”[2] zealousness for Rava’s study circle, which causes R. Adda to scorn other Sages, most of them greater than himself. Thus, new light is shed not only on the death of R. Adda, but also on the hostile attitude that R. Dimi encounters on his part. It turns out that R. Dimi is not alone in this experience; this was R. Adda’s usual behavior, and R. Dimi is just another “victim” of it.

The list of claims against R. Adda in this part of the story also sheds light on the words of R. Yosef in the previous section, where he connected R. Adda’s behavior and his fate with the first verse of the second chapter of Amos: “'Thus says the Lord, For three transgressions of Moav, and for four I will not turn away the punishment thereof...” If we count up the claims, we find four instances in which R. Adda acted improperly: the instance of R. Dimi and his figs;[3] the insult to Abaye; the snubbing of the servant of Rava; and the incident involving R. Nachman bar Yitzchak. The discussion among the Amoraim concerns the question of which was the last (“fourth”) sin, which, so to say, sealed R. Adda’s fate. This is precisely the meaning of the verse cited by Rav Yosef, who connects his punishment with the fourth sin in a series of sins.[4] However, it is still not clear why, out of all the many verses in Sefer Amos dealing with a fourth sin in a series,[5] specifically this verse is selected. We will address this point further later.

The meaning and significance of the conflict with the servant of Rava

As to the statements themselves, it is interesting to note that in the various claims against R. Adda, there is a conspicuous recurrence of details and images relating to eating and to meat. Abaye’s complaint, depicting R. Adda’s scorn for Abaye and preference for Rava, is formulated with the words, “Instead of gnawing bones in the school of Abaye, why do you not eat fat meat in the school of Rava?” Rava’s complaint is likewise related to meat: the issue at stake here is who should receive meat at the butcher’s first, R. Adda or the servant of Rava. The conflict between R. Adda and the servant of Rava recalls a similar conflict that appears in Masekhet Kiddushin (70a):

“A man from Nehardea entered a butcher’s store in Pumbedita. He said, ‘Give me meat.’ They said to him, ‘Wait until we give to the servant of Rav Yehuda bar Yechezkel, and then we will give to you.’ He said, ‘Who is this Yehuda ben Sheviskael [a deliberate distortion of the name] who takes precedence over me and takes before me?....”

The parallel between the two stories strengthens the sense that R. Adda offends not only the servant of Rava, but also Rava himself. It would seem that the use of images relating to meat in some of the claims against R. Adda is related to the competitiveness that he demonstrates. Some aspects of R. Adda’s conduct are apparently unworthy of a scholar of his stature, but more appropriate to the meat market.

It is interesting to note that the story cited above from Masekhet Kiddushin likewise presents a conflict between adherents of the same two battei midrash – Nehardea and Pumbedita (the latter being represented here by its founder, Rav Yehuda, for whom the student from Nehardea displays contempt.) This strengthens the hypothesis raised earlier concerning the tension between these battei midrash. Ideally, such tension reflects a healthy difference of opinion “le-shem shamayim” (for the sake of Heaven), resulting in greater and deeper understanding of the Torah. In certain students, however, this tension is translated into conflict and disdain.

The claim that Rava raises against R. Adda has another very important role in the story, beyond the motif of meat. Rava’s criticism of his disciple serves as the narrator’s clarification that in committing the acts attributed to him, R. Adda was not acting as Rava’s emissary or representative – even where he might have sought to create this impression, such as in the story involving R. Dimi. This message is reinforced through a presentation of the conflict between R. Adda and a genuine emissary of Rava – the servant. From this conflict, it becomes clear that R. Adda’s actions cannot be regarded solely as an “argument for the sake of heaven” or as a disciple’s attempts to uphold the honor of his teacher. By placing Rava in the same category as the other Amoraim who bring claims against R. Adda, the story effectively clears Rava of responsibility for R. Adda’s actions: if he had been party to R. Adda’s “crime,” he surely would not be fit to stand in judgment now, along with R. Dimi who was clearly wronged.

However, it must be pointed out that Rava’s criticism of R. Adda serves to diminish the weight of the differences in study emphases between the two battei midrash as the foundation of the conflict: here, R. Adda turns against the servant of Rava, his own teacher. On the other hand, part II does give expression to conflicts against the background of study, as emerges from the complaint of Abaye (line 18). We have also already noted the parallel story in Kiddushin, which likewise points to a conflict concerning study methods. Indeed, the situation seems quite complex, and we must therefore seek a more accurate understanding of R. Adda’s conduct. Rava’s complaint indicates that the arguments between the sages and the study methods provide only a partial explanation for R. Adda’s motivation in insulting R. Dimi. A more significant factor, common to all the complaints against R. Adda, is his problematic personality, which produces his disrespectful behavior towards the sages, from R. Dimi to Rava himself.

b.Analysis of part III of the story: the story of R. Adda and R. Nachman bar Yitzchak (lines 21-29)

Let us first recall part III of the story:

21. R. Nachman b. Yitzchak was the regular preacher [on Shabbat].

22. Every time before he went to give his discourse, he used to review it with R. Adda b. Abba; and only then would he go and give his discourse.

23. One day R. Pappa and R. Huna the son of R. Yehoshua got hold of R. Adda b. Abba because they had not been present at the concluding discourse [of Rava on tractate Bekhorot],

24. and said to him: "Tell us how Rava discussed the law of the animal tithe."

25. He told them, “This is what Rava said….”

26. Meanwhile it had grown late and R. Nachman b. Yitzchak was still waiting for R. Adda b. Abba.

27. [The Rabbis] said to R. Nachman b. Yitzchak: "Why do you not arise and commence the discourse?”  

28. He said: "I am waiting for the bier of R. Adda b. Abba."

29. Soon after the report came that R. Adda b. Abba was dead.

30. The most likely opinion is that R. Nachman b. Yitzchak was the cause of his punishment.

The offense to R. Nachman bar Yitzchak and the participants in his shiur

Like part I of the Aggada, which we examined in the previous shiur, part III is also a story that stands alone. Within the framework of our Aggada as a whole, this third part of the story is directed towards the second, central part – in other words, it explains and expands on the claim of R. Nachman bar Yitzchak that he is the cause of R. Adda’s punishment. In this part we learn that R. Adda, who was supposed to help R. Nachman b. Yitzchak prepare for his shiur to the general assembly, is delayed.[6] This causes R. Nachman bar Yitzchak to be delayed in delivering his lesson, since he is unwilling to stand and deliver his address without R. Adda. The story says that R. Adda would run through the traditions with R. Nachman before R. Nachman gave the address. This seems to imply that R. Adda was R. Nachman’s “Tanna” (a student who stores all the mishnayot and baraitot in his head, and recites them by heart before the Sage who delivers the shiur). At a certain stage, the audience comments on the delay – a delay that is disrespectful towards R. Nachman bar Yitzchak and is wasting the audience’s time. The reason for the delay is the request by Rav Papa and Rav Huna son of Rav Yehoshua, that R. Adda repeat for them the shiur that Rava had given concerning animal tithes.

Here, R. Adda appears in the pose already familiar to us from the preceding parts of the Aggada – his preference for Rava’s honor (in this case, Rava’s discourse before his students) at the expense of honor due to others. Rav Papa and Rav Huna son of R. Yehoshua, ask about what was said concerning the animal tithe. Like the expression “he tapped him on his shoe” which we discussed previously, the inclusion of the question about “that which was said concerning the animal sacrifice” in this Aggada is not coincidental. It refers to a sugya in Masekhet Bekhorot (61a, Perek Ma’aser Behema, at the end of the masekhet) in which we find a teaching by Rava concerning the separation of the animal tithe:

“It has been stated: If one says to his agent: ‘Go and tithe on my behalf,’ R. Papi in the name of Rava says: ‘If he called the ninth the tenth, it is sanctified, but if he called the eleventh the tenth, it is not sanctified.’ But R. Papa in the name of Rava says, ‘Even if he called the ninth the tenth, it is not sanctified, for he [the sender] can say to him, ‘I sent you to do the right thing, not to do it wrong’….”

The sugya in Bekhorot deals with a situation in which a person appoints an agent to tithe his animals for him, and the agent makes a mistake – instead of correctly labeling the tenth animal as the tithe, he erroneously labels the ninth thus. The second opinion, that of Rav Papa in the name of Rava, addresses not the issue of the sanctified status awarded to the wrong animal, but rather to the essence of the agency. Rav Papa argues that an agent’s actions have validity only when he acts properly and as expected, but not when he deviates from his mission in such a way that it is to the detriment of the person who sent him.

This parallel alludes once again to the same defect in R. Adda’s behavior: he behaves as though he is Rava’s agent, but he distorts his mission rather than carrying it out as he should – as is especially apparent in the story of R. Dimi. R. Adda is described there as using his position in order to act supposedly on behalf of Rava, to defend him – but these are actions that Rava never commanded or imagined. The story involving Rav Nachman b. Yitzchak thus reinforces the molding of R. Adda, as depicted in the earlier parts of the Aggada, as a problematic personality focused on matters of honor while dishonoring other Sages. In this instance, he shows disrespect to R. Nachman bar Yitzchak and his audience. R. Adda prefers to give over to other Sages the lecture that had been delivered by Rava, at the expense of the honor due to R. Nachman bar Yitzchak and those waiting for him. The same problem of disrespect towards other Sages is apparent here, too.

c.Analysis of the Aggada in the context of the sugya

Privileges extended to Torah scholars

Having examined each of the three parts of the Aggada, let us now consider the relationship between the Aggada and the halakhic sugya in which it is embedded. As noted in the previous shiur, the Aggada appears at the end of a sugya discussing competition in trade. The sugya concludes with a rabbinical enactment ensuring that the rights of the local merchants are protected and have preference over itinerant merchants from outside of the city:

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: R. Huna the son of R. Joshua also agrees that itinerant spice-sellers cannot prevent one another from going to any given town, because, as a Master has stated: Ezra enacted for Israel that spice-sellers should go about from town to town so that the daughters of Israel should be able to obtain finery. This, however, only means that they are at liberty to go from house to house [in the strange town], but not to settle there. (22a)

While these merchants are permitted to sell their wares in the town, by virtue of Ezra’s enactment, they may only “go about” in the town; they may not open a permanent stall, since this right is reserved for inhabitants of the town. In this context, the Gemara mentions the special privilege extended to Torah scholars: “If, however, the seller is a Torah student, he may also settle.” Rashi explains, “For he is occupied with his study; he is not accustomed to going about the town.” In other words, the purpose of the enactment is to save the scholars precious time, which should better be spent on their study. Immediately thereafter, we find an incident illustrating this law:

Just as Rava permitted R. Yoshiya and R. Ovadya to open a store, in contravention of the general rule. What is the reason? Since they are Torah scholars, they would be disturbed in their studies [if they had to return to their own town].

This is followed by two more stories, about basket-sellers and wool-sellers, which are not related to Torah scholars, but pertain to the general rule concerning merchants who come to the town from elsewhere. Thereafter we find the Aggada about Rav Adda.[7] On the simplest level, it appears here because of its connection with the discussion about privileges to Torah scholars. However, the privilege discussed in the law above concerns the possibility of “settling,” i.e, opening a permanent stall. In the story of Rav Dimi, the privilege extends much further: it is proposed that a scholar be permitted to sell his merchandise without any competition at all. In any event, what he is offered is a commercial privilege, and the connection between the Aggada and the relevant laws is therefore quite clear. The question remaining is: what role does the story play in this sugya?

The problematical nature of privileges extended to scholars

We might define the reciprocal relations between the Aggada and the halakhic sugya as follows: the story of Rav Adda addresses the ethical level of the same enactment that is discussed in the halakhic section. On the ethical level, the Aggada offers us a more complex perspective on the privilege extended to Torah scholars. The complexity of the perspective is highlighted against the background of the instance cited just prior to this in the Gemara – the very simple and straightforward description of two scholars, Rav Yoshiya and Rav Ovadia, arriving and receiving the privilege due to them in accordance with the enactment. The story of Rav Adda adds an element of complexity, expressed mainly in the tension that may arise between the theoretical law and its execution in practice. Even if, on the theoretical level, there is a real and justified need to strengthen Torah scholarship through various privileges extended to scholars, so that they will be able to devote themselves to their study, in practice this entails certain dangers, as we see in the story. Firstly, privileges of this sort might cause some scholars to become arrogant or pretentious. Creating the impression that scholars are in some way superior to others may cause the scholars to believe that they deserve additional privileges, not included within the enactment – such as precedence in receiving meat at the butchers, as Rav Adda demands (line 19). Secondly, there is a possibility that the privilege will be exploited by unworthy scholars. Thirdly, extending a privilege to a certain group creates a need to determine the boundaries of that group – i.e., to define who belongs to it. This opens the door to jealousy and competition within scholarly society – as we see happening in our story.

Thus, we might propose that this Aggada is included within the sugya in order to establish some “warning signs” concerning the execution of the enactment (which is worthy on its own). The messages arising from the Aggada concerning the dangers entailed call for maximum caution and sensitivity in implementing the law. Obviously, it must be emphasized that the Aggada does not come to nullify the enactment, nor does it suggest that there is no room for such privileges. Rather, it emphasizes that careful moral consideration and sensitivity must be exercised in every instance where the enactment is carried out, so that the jealousy that exists among scholars will be only zealous pursuit of knowledge and arguments that are for the sake of heaven, never degenerating into the ugly, competitive arena that sometimes characterizes commerce.

Human relations in the world of the Sages

However, analysis of the story shows that the specific enactment in the realm of commerce – the privilege extended to scholar-merchants – is not necessarily the main subject. It seems that the story addresses a more fundamental issue: the interpersonal relations and human conduct in the world of the Sages. Indeed, the connection between the Aggada and the halakhic sugya is not confined to the ties we have examine thus far, surrounding the laws of competitive commerce. A broader perspective on the sugya as a whole reveals a new and surprising connection to a different, earlier part of the sugya. In the next shiur, we will look at that section and its connection to the story of Rav Adda, and with that will conclude our discussion of this Aggada.

Translated by Kaeren Fish




[1] The Tosafot notes: "Each of them mourned having been the cause of R. Adda's death, for it was taught… ‘Anyone whose fellow is punished on his account, is not brought into the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He….’” However, a plain reading of the text does not reveal any particular emotion on the part of the Amoraim – neither sorrow nor fear. They simply offer statements that attempt to explain the punishment.

[2]      Pirkei Avot 4:21

[3]      I include R. Yosef’s verdict, from the previous section, along with the insult to R. Dimi, , since both refer to the same sin.

[4]      The Iyun Yaakov understands the verse in this way (Ein Yaakov ad loc).

[5]  See Amos 1:3,6,9,11,13; 2:1,4,6.

[6]      For discussion of the concept of the ‘kallah’ see Y. Gafni, Yehudi be-Khol Tekufat ha-Talmud, Jerusalem 5751, pp. 198-200.

[7]  Attention should be paid to the issue of the order – i.e., why the Gemara first cites one instance involving Torah scholars, then two instances that do not involve Torah scholars, and then the story about Rav Adda, which once again concerns a scholar. Perhaps this order has something to do with the length of the story of Rav Adda, causing it to be left to the end of the sugya.