Humor: The Refuge of the Wise

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Avraham (Rami) Reiner[1]


Some Talmudic passages are unforgettable. Images of Moses visiting Rabbi Akiva’s study hall (Menahot 29b), of Rabbi Eliezer’s suspension of the natural order to prove the correctness of his opinion about the oven of Akhnai (Bava Metzia 59b), and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s thirteen-years hiding in a cave (Shabbat 33b) are but a few examples of stories that linger long after we have turned the page. More typically, however, we encounter technical argumentation about matters of law. Perhaps more accomplished Talmudists remember the details of these passages, but for the rest of us, the back-and-forth discussions become indistinguishable after a while.

Then there are the rare occasions when we encounter a passage that seems almost but not quite typical. Something odd is happening beneath the surface, and on further investigation, a new dimension is revealed.

Such a passage appears in Bava Batra (149a). At the center of the discussion is a man with the odd name of Issur (which literally means “prohibition”). Issur converted to Judaism along with his wife while she was pregnant with their son, Mari. This Mari grew up to be one of the sages of the Talmud. The story begins with Issur on his deathbed. Since the family members are all converts, the question of bequests and inheritance among relatives becomes complicated, for conversion is deemed a rebirth: “A convert, upon conversion, is like a newborn baby.” All prior family relations are considered null with regard to inheritance and other matters, so upon Issur’s death, his son would not inherit him.

Issur, we learn, deposited 12,000 zuzim with Rava. Now, on his deathbed, he wants to give them to his son, Rabbi Mari, using a halakhically acceptable method for effecting a transfer of ownership. If Issur’s attempt fails and he dies before making the gift, all that money will become Rava’s. Since Issur, being a convert, has no legal heirs, his assets become ownerless upon his death. Because the money is already in Rava’s possession, he would take ownership automatically.

Those surrounding Issur’s bed as he breathes his last breaths understand the high stakes of the case at hand, and they raise various legal solutions to ensure the orderly transfer of the money from Issur to his son.

The Talmud attributes the presentation of the legal problem to Rava, who asks: “How can Rabbi Mari acquire these zuzim?” It seems as though Rava is making an honest effort to resolve the legal question raised here. In fact, Rava is not content to present the question. He subsequently suggests several potential solutions. His first suggestion, that Rabbi Mari simply inherit Issur, is rejected out of hand, for Mari, conceived while his parents were not yet Jewish, “is not eligible to inherit.”

This suggestion and its rejection are too obvious. It seems that their whole purpose is to get us to the second suggestion: let Issur give his son the money as a deathbed gift, matnat shekhiv mera in rabbinic parlance. This would take effect while the patient is still alive, before the formal laws of inheritance apply. But Rava rejects this solution, too. The institution of matnat shekhiv mera, designed to streamline the gift-giving process and circumvent complex legal procedures when a person is dying and has no time for formalities, was limited to those who are subject to the laws of inheritance. A convert who has no lawful heirs cannot avail himself of these leniencies.

Lest we forget, if Issur’s attempt to transfer his assets to Rabbi Mari fails, Rava will assume ownership of Issur’s large deposit. Does Rava really want to help Issur and Rabbi Mari overcome this technical halakhic obstacle, or is the Talmud suggesting that Rava – heaven forfend! – has a vested interest in the outcome of the case, and his various statements, those that we have encountered and those that will appear later in this passage, are only meant to demonstrate (and assert?) that Issur has no way of transferring ownership to Rabbi Mari, and therefore, with Issur’s death, he – Rava – will become the lawful owner of a sum that just fell into his lap?

Our suspicions about Rava’s agenda only seem to intensify as the discussion progresses. Every suggestion raised is rejected by Rava himself:

What about [transferring the money] by pulling it? They are not with him.

What about [transferring the money] by means of [symbolic] barter (halipin)? Money cannot be acquired by means of halipin.

What about [transferring the money] by way of acquiring land? [Issur] has no land.

During those fateful minutes, as Issur’s life ebbs away, along with his ability to assure the transfer of his wealth to his beloved son, Rava is throwing up legal obstacle after legal obstacle to prevent the transfer from taking place – and to ensure that Issur’s deposit remains in his hands.

Still, one might contend that this reading of Rava and his motives is uncharitable, perhaps even subversive given Rava’s stature in the pages of the Talmud. This lingering doubt is dispelled by the next attempt to resolve Issur’s predicament:

What about [transferring the money] by means of [verbal instruction] in the presence of all three parties [i.e., the giver (Issur), the recipient (Rabbi Mari), and the custodian (Rava)? If he sends for me, I shall not go!!

If Rava really wants to help Issur and Rabbi Mari, he would rush to make sure that the transaction takes place before it is too late. But instead Rava says that he has no intention of attending a forum that could resolve the issue in favor of Issur and Rabbi Mari. Our fears have borne out! Our suspicions are confirmed! Rava, one of the most prominent, outstanding sages of the Talmud is depicted – by the Talmud itself! – as being completely rapacious.

Eventually, a solution was found. The Talmud describes how a sage named Rabbi Ika ben Rabbi Ami proposed yet another solution: Issur can formally confess, before witnesses, a debt to Rabbi Mari. The son could then lawfully collect his due from the father’s estate. Sure enough, such a confession is issued from Issur’s house; Rabbi Mari would receive all that his father wished to bequeath to him.

How did Rava respond to this resolution? The Talmud relates:

Rava became angry and said: “You are teaching people what to claim [in court] and causing me to lose money.”

The passage ends here, with Rava angrily complaining that a fellow sage deprived him of what was rightfully his.

What are we to make of this passage? Is it a formalistic discussion of the laws of inheritance and methods of acquisition? Is it a barely-concealed critique of one of the Talmud’s most important sages? Is its lesson that no one, not even Rava, is immune from having his judgment affected by personal interests? Or that no one is above warranted criticism?

But perhaps both the formalistic and critical readings of this passage miss the point. It seems to me that the right way to read it, and others like it, is as comedy. We should be alert to its sarcastic, ironic, and even borderline grotesque elements. In such a reading, Rabbi Ika was not needed to save us from obvious injustice, and Rava is depicted not as a boundlessly greedy money-grubber, but as a comic actor in a performance that he stages by Issur’s deathbed.

The discussion we read is embedded within a larger treatment of the institution of matnat shekhiv mera. The general principle underlying the leniencies that Halakhah proffers to a dying person is that their final instructions should be upheld, even if their deteriorating condition makes it impossible to execute the formal transactions required by Talmudic law under normal conditions. Rava, the sole actor in the theater of the absurd that he stages by Issur’s deathbed, illustrates just how farcical it is to conduct a formalistic legal-monetary debate – at which Rava, the great sage, normally excels – at such a time. The goal of Rava’s theatrics is didactic; he aims to show how ridiculous such formal discussions are when a person, a righteous convert like Issur, is dying. Rabbi Ika, who rushed to Issur’s house and suggested a formal confession as a solution, thought he was resolving this ethical-legal quagmire, but in Rava’s eyes, Rabbi Ika is a manifestation of the problem, not its solution. The only words that Rabbi Ika can utter as he approaches the bedside of the dying Issur are legalistic formulae. Rava’s outburst, which concludes the passage, is not about Rabbi Ika’s advice to Issur, but about the very notion that this is what is important at the most significant moments of someone’s life (or death). According to the naïve reading, Rava is rapacious and Rabbi Ika’s ethical vision triumphs over injustice. Now it turns out that Rabbi Ika is trapped within a world of legalistic, Talmudic terminology, unable to grasp the piercing irony and bitter sarcasm underlying Rava’s critique of engaging in halakhic discussion at such a time.

Rabbi Ika is not the only one caught in the formalistic trap of halakhic law. Over time, this passage became the cornerstone of the laws of inheritance for converts, with all its harsh halakhic ramifications. Based on this passage, Rabbenu Tam,[2] one of the leading Tosafists, concluded that not only are converts not subject to the laws of inheritance and bequests, and not only are they unable to will their assets through the vehicle of matnat shekhiv mera, but even the Talmudic principle that “it is a mitzvah to uphold the instructions of the deceased” does not apply to instructions issued by a convert. The whole gist of this principle, “it is a mitzvah to uphold the instructions of the deceased,” is to tell the dying, “Focus on substance, not the details, for we, the living, promise to execute your wishes regardless of this or that legal formality.” And yet, in Rabbenu Tam’s hands, it becomes just another detail within a tightly-woven web of legalistic minutiae.

Rabbenu Tam, and many other interpreters of the Talmud in his wake, read this passage with customary gravitas for reading, studying, interpreting, and inferring practical conclusions from Talmudic passages. This aligns completely with the trend, which began in the Geonic era, to isolate the legal elements of the Talmud and read them using only legal interpretive techniques. However, the gates of interpretation are never closed, and every generation develops new methods for reading and interpreting the Talmud.

We have suggested that this passage and others like it demand a reading that is open to the possibility of irony, sarcasm, didactic humor, and other heretofore unexplored modes. Read in this way, the passage is not quite so grim, and its implications not only reflect on the developing world of Halakhah, but also enrich our understanding of its modes of discourse, and consequently of the eternal truths contained within the Torah.

[1] Translated from Hebrew by Elli Fischer.

[2] Sefer Ha-Yashar, Responsa, §52 (pp. 110-1 in Shraga Rosenthal’s edition [Berlin, 1891]). It is worth noting that Rabbenu Tam’s nephew, Rabbi Isaac of Dampierre (Ri Ha-Zaken) disagreed with his illustrious uncle and teacher. This is one of a series of disputes between Rabbenu Tam and Ri Ha-Zaken regarding proper treatment of gerim.

Avraham (Rami) Reiner is a professor of Talmudic interpretation and the history of Halakhah in medieval Europe in the Dept. of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His latest book (along with Prof. Pinchas Roth) is: ‘Responsa of Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Dampierre - A Critical Edition’. His new book ‘Rabbenu Tam: Interpretation, Halakhah, Controversy’ is being published by Bar-Ilan University Press (Hebrew).