Spotlight on the Talmudic Sages: Rav Nachman bar Yaakov

Texts and beliefs By Janine Stein 22nd Nov 2018

Rav Nachman: ‘Chutzpah even towards God is warranted.’ (Sanhedrin 105b)

This statement by Rav Nachman is one of the hundreds of statements attributed to him in the Babylonian Talmud. He is one of nearly 400 named Amoraim (Jewish sages who lived between 200CE and 500CE) who contribute to the debate in the Talmud as we read it today. Rav Nachman bar Yaakov is a third generation Babylonian Amora, associated with the town of Nehardea, and then later, Mehoza. He is understood to be wealthy and married to Yalta, the daughter of the Exilarch, the political leader of the Jewish community in Babylon. I have long been intrigued by him, as he is often outrageous in legal discussions and yet, in Aggadic stories, he is long-suffering at the hands of sages who want greater separation from women and resist changes to Biblical law.

Here are some examples.

In Kiddushin 70, Rav Nachman is hard at work. He is building a parapet around his roof, when Rav Yehuda arrives at his house. Rav Nachman offers him hospitality and encourages him to send greetings to the lady of the house, Yalta. Rav Yehuda refuses, justifying his position with his teacher Shmuel’s statement that ‘kol b’isha erva’ – ‘a woman’s voice is licentious’. He also strongly criticizes Rav Nachman for using Babylonian words, and for being seen to do actual work.

In Berachot 51b, Rav Nachman is, once again, showing honour to a difficult guest. This time it’s Ulla, a sage from Eretz Yisrael who is visiting. Once more Rav Nachman asks his guest to send something to his wife Yalta, which is refused by the guest.

In the previous story, the guest refuses to send words of greeting. In this story, the guest refuses to send a cup of blessed wine. Yalta, Rav Nachman’s wife, is offended and breaks 400 amphora of wine in the wine cellar. In between the offended wife and the offending guest, Rav Nachman continues to hold the middle path between the two sides. He remains polite to his guest, but insistent on the wife’s inclusion in the blessing.

In Gittin 36b, the Talmud explores the specific halachic issue of Prozbul, and debates the rabbinic authority to uproot Torah laws in general. The two sides of the debate are represented by Rav Nachman, who strongly supports Hillel’s Prozbul taqana (amendment), and Shmuel, who strongly opposes it. Shmuel supports traditionalism, a return to how things were and the fixing of literal Torah law. Rav Nachman does not.

How we understand the Talmud today depends on this crucial difference. I encourage you to read these stories in full, to see the brilliance of our inheritance and our long history of debate.

Janine Stein is a copywriter and Talmud student, and a member of New North London Synagogue

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