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The Death of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi

BS”D

 

Thought I wanted to share this short written assignment I did for my class in Classical Jewish texts, which also can be seen in context of my comparative studies of the Talmud.

I am thinking about expanding it and adding parts of the analysis I didn’t find room for in the assignment, if anybody would be interested. Let me know.

 

The death of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – as it appears in Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 104a and in Talmud Yerushalmi, Kilayim 9:3

 

 

The death of an authority like R. Yehudah HaNasi certainly would not happen without some attention, which is reflected in the two accounts presented for us in the Babylonian and Palestine Talmud. Both accounts give an interesting understanding of how the news of his death was accepted (or not accepted), his role and significance among the Jews of his time, as well as how later authorities viewed him, since though the accounts are prescribed his immediate surroundings, I would expect the written and presented accounts to be much later, and thus have changed in some regards, though these might not be so obvious.

Since I do not wish to make too an extensive an analysis, caused by the lack of space and time, I will only attempt to deal with the most obviously similarities and differences in the two accounts.

 

Similarities:

 

First and most obvious, both accounts deal with the death of the great compiler of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, as his title is in Hebrew[1]. Both accounts have reactions to his death, which show people taking the news rather bad, having people stating that whoever tells of his death, would be killed. Both accounts have Bar Qappara involved as the one giving the news, though he denies answering the question of R. Yehudah haNasi’s death directly. Both accounts have Bar Qappara telling about his death in a parable, mentioning the struggle between the “ones below” and those who “fly on high” for either the tablets of the commandments (the two Luhot haBrit, as they are called in Hebrew), or the Holy Ark (the Aron haQodesh), the two of them clearly symbolizing R. Yehudah HaNasi, and the “ones below” the living world, while those who “fly on high” would be the angels, which hints at his struggling with the illness he died with, having to give up his breath in the end.

 

Differences:

 

There are differences both in length and content. Even though both accounts have the overarching theme in similarity, the account as it is told differs strongly, and would not have a hard time telling which account is told, should he be told it. The account of the Palestinian Talmud is much more concise, only telling of the “people of Zipori” not wanting to accept the death of R. Yehudah HaNasi, then having Bar Qappara visiting them, already having his head covered and clothes rent[2], giving them the parable of the “ones below” and the ones who “fly on high” fighting for the tablets, with the latter winning this one, to which the people of Zipori ask whether Rebbe[3] has died. Knowing well the danger involved by giving news of his death, Bar Qappara answers “you said it,”[4] making them accept the news, and then mourn over him, a mourning powerful enough to be heard in Pepta three miles away.

The account in the Babylonian Talmud is much longer, double the length, introduced with the information that R. Yehudah HaNasi was ill, and therefore the scholars declared a fast “to ask for mercy,” while in the same time stating that everyone telling of his death, will be “stabbed with a sword”. It further adds an account of R. Yehudah haNasi’s maidservant going to the roof, stating that the “ones above and the “ones below” are asking for him, and that may it be the will of God to listen to the ones below, but when seeing how he suffers, she asks that the “ones above” may win, so he would be relieved from his sufferings. From there we jump to the Sages, who were continuous praying for his recovering, which – understood from the context – would be them engaged in the struggle to keep him alive, making them the “ones below,” until a vessel certainly was taken up and dropped, disturbing them enough to interfere their prayer, and letting R. Yehudah HaNasi give up his breath. They then send Bar Qappara to investigate his state, who finds out that he had died, and then we return to the account of Bar Qappara giving news of his death, still with the difference that here he turned his cloak around so it would not appear what had happened. Also in this account we are not told how they react from the news, ending with Bar Qappara’s indirect answer.

 

Seeing how the Babylonian account have so much extra material interwoven, I would imagine that this account is a later than the Palestinian, wanting to tell what the Palestinian account is leaving out and explain what was going on. The parable about the “ones below” and the “ones above” becomes much more concrete in the Babylonian account, while the question on why God would let him die, when righteous men are praying for him also is being answered. R. Yehudah HaNasi is also elevated to a higher status in the Babylonian account that in the Palestinian one, concluded on the context of the narratives, though the Palestinian account in no way gives the impression that it was “just a rabbi” who died here, highlighted by the response to the news of his death.

 

What I have not focused on so much here, is the style of the accounts, nor the elements, only going through the accounts as they are told, and by that comparing them. I have mentioned the latter indirectly though, pointing out material that is added in the Babylonian account, but more could be said about that.


[1] His name –  being the son of Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel – would be Yehudah ben Shim’on.

[2] A sign of mourning.

[3] R. Yehudah HaNasi.

[4] Taking him to court it would be impossible for them to claim that he said that R. Yehudah HaNasi was death, since he never claimed that, but they would still understand what had happened.


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