DAMA, SON OF NETINA


DAMA, SON OF NETINA, according to the aggadah (TY Peah 1:1, 15c, Kidd. 1:7, 61b), a gentile council president (Gr. patēr boulēs) who lived in Ashkalon sometime in the first century C.E. According to R. Joḥanan, when R. *Eliezer was asked about the extent of the obligation to honor one's parents, he pointed to Dama as a perfect example of filial piety. The outline of the story as told in the Jerusalem Talmud is as follows: It happened once that one of the precious stones fell out of the High Priest's breastplate, and was lost. Seeking a replacement, the sages were referred to a certain Dama ben Netina who purportedly had the exact jewel they required in his possession. They offered him one hundred dinar, and Dama accepted their offer. When he went to fetch the jewel he discovered that he could not access it without waking his father. So he returned and informed his clients that he could not provide them with the item they sought. Assuming that he was trying to renegotiate the price, they increased their offer until they reached a sum of 1000 dinar. When his father finally woke up he brought them the jewel, and they were still willing to pay him their final offer of 1000 dinar. Dama, however, was only willing to accept their initial offer of one hundred, saying: "What? Do you think that I would sell the honor of my fathers for mere coins? I refuse to derive any tangible benefit from the honor of my fathers!" The Jerusalem Talmud goes on to ask what heavenly reward Dama received for such meritorious behavior. The answer given was that on that very night a pure red heifer – essential, according to Num. 19, for attaining ritual purity – was born to Dama's cow, and so the Jews purchased this extremely rare item from him for a small fortune.

In the past, Jewish historians have assumed that talmudic stories like these reflect accurate and reliable descriptions of events that occurred in the Land of Israel in the last decades before the destruction of the Second Temple. As a result some Jewish historians have sought to derive from this story, and from the parallel version in the Bavli (Kidd. 31a), important historical information concerning both the actions of the Sanhedrin (Büchler), and the forms of local Roman government (Krauss) during that period. Recent research has shown that these stories are often highly sophisticated literary works, reflecting multiple levels of editorial revision. Critical study of this story has shown that the literary and historical foundation of the tale lies in what might seem at first sight to be a secondary issue: the red heifer which was born to Dama's cow as a reward for his meritorious behavior.

In the earliest level of tannaitic literature (Sifre Zuta, Num. 19:2, p. 300) we find a dispute between R. Eliezer and his companions, in which R. Eliezer maintained that it is forbidden to purchase a red heifer from a gentile. His companions, who held that it is permissible, brought a legal precedent in order to support their position: "There was a case in which they bought a [red] heifer from the Arabs, and they called it damat damat, and it would run back and forth." In the parallel version in the Tosefta (Para 2:1, p. 631) the case is described somewhat differently: "There was a case in which they bought a [red heifer] from the Gentiles in Sidon, and it was called doma." Neither of these two versions informs us as to R. Eliezer's response, if any, to the legal precedent brought by his opponents, and which apparently refutes his position and permits the purchase of a red heifer from a gentile.

In the Jerusalem Talmud's version of the story cited above, a number of additional changes have been introduced into the narrative. First the story has moved from Sidon to Ashkelon. Second the name doma has ceased to be the name of the heifer, and has become Dama, the name of the heifer's gentile owner. Third, and most importantly, the dramatic focus of the story has shifted. It is no longer concerned with the halakhic issue of whether or not it is permissible to purchase a red heifer from a gentile. The central issue has moved to the moral and religious plane. The storyteller in the Jerusalem Talmud wants to know through what extraordinary act of righteousness did this gentile in Ashkelon merit the almost miraculous birth of a pure red heifer from his cow in the first place. In answering this question, he has told a tale of a man whose behavior reflected universal moral values – behavior recognized and rewarded by God because of its inherent worth, not because it was explicitly commanded, and with no regard to the religious affiliation of the man himself.

This basic story line was embellished and expanded in the Jerusalem Talmud, and further refined and elaborated in the Babylonian Talmud. It was told how his mother once humiliated him in public, striking him with her shoe while he was sitting in session as the head of the city council. Out of respect for his mother, he suffered the humiliation in silence, and even bent down to pick up the shoe which had fallen from her hand to return it to her (cf. Deut. R. 1:15). The Jerusalem Talmud goes on to say that Dama would never sit upon any stone that his father had sat upon, and that even after his father's death he would continue to treat the stone as an object of reverence. The Babylonian Talmud further develops the theme of this gentile's righteousness, stating that he limited the amount he was willing to take for the red heifer born into his flock to the sum that he had given up in the previous transaction over the jewel for the priestly breastplate, "although I know that you are prepared to pay all the money in the world for it" (Av. Zar. 23b).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

A. Büchler, The Sanhedrin (Heb., 1975), 88; A. Büchler, Studies in the Period of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Heb., 1968), 149; S. Krauss, Persia and Rome in the Talmud and the Midrashim (Heb., 1948), 120; J. Frankel, Studies in the Intellectual World of the Aggadic Story (Heb., 1981), 141–144; S. Valer, Women and Femininity in the Stories of the Talmud (Heb., 1993), 96–99, 134–137; S. Friedman, "On the Historical Figure of Dama ben Netina: A Chapter in the Study of Talmudic Aggadah," in: The Jonah Frankel Jubilee Volume (Hebrew, forthcoming).

[Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.