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Rabbah bar Naḥamani

RABBAH BAR NAḤAMANI (c. 270–330; d. 321/22 according to Iggeret R. Sherira Ga'on, ed. by B.M. Lewin (1921), 87; according to Hyman c. 260–340), Babylonian amora. Rabbah was the scion of a priestly family, which traced its lineage to the high priest Eli (RH 18a). He studied under *Huna at Sura, and under *Judah b. Ezekiel at Pumbedita (Er. 17a). To such an extent did Huna respect him that he seldom decided a question of importance without consulting him (Git. 27a; BM 18b; BB 172b, et al.). On one occasion his contemporaries in Ereẓ Israel suggested that he join them and study under *Johanan, maintaining that he would learn more with a guide than by studying by himself (Ket. 111a). From Nedarim 59a, it would appear that he took their advice, although Bacher maintains that he never left Babylonia. He certainly spent most of his life in Babylonia, where his most constant colleague was Joseph (BB 114a). Rabbah's main interest was in the halakhah, and he was renowned for his interpretation of the Mishnah and for his elucidation and clarification of the apparent contradictions contained in various texts. He was particularly versed in the regulations concerning ritual purity, in which he was regarded as an authority (BM 86a). Whereas Joseph's encyclopedic knowledge of traditions earned him the title "Sinai," Rabbah was known as oker harim ("uprooter of mountains"), for his exceptionally skillful dialectic ability (Ber. 64a.). Only ten aggadic sayings are quoted in his name (e.g., Shab. 64a; Pes. 68b; Meg. 15b; et al.), and there is no foundation for the statement of Abraham ibn Daud in the Sefer ha-Kabbalah that he was the author of such aggadic compilations as Genesis Rabbah.

Judah's death left the post of the head of the academy of Pumbedita vacant. Joseph declined the office, whereupon Rabbah was elected. He held the post for 22 years, until his death (Ber. 64a; Iggeret R. Sherira Ga'on, 85–86), and under his leadership the academy achieved its greatest renown. The number of regular students rose to 400 (Ket. 106a), and during the *kallah months of Adar and Elul, the audiences numbered 12,000 (BM 86a). Rabbah's own contribution as a teacher was significant. He used to put his audience in a receptive mood by beginning his lectures with witty aphorisms and interesting anecdotes (Shab. 30b), and he would frequently invite comment on paradoxical halakhot and deliberately captious decisions (Ber. 33b). However, although highly esteemed by scholars, he was intensely disliked by the members of the Pumbedita community, whose behavior he frequently and severely denounced (Shab. 153a and Rashi ibid.).

Little is known of his private life other than that he was poor. The Talmud explicitly contrasts his poverty with Ḥisda's comfortable economic position (MK 28a). Rabbah died in tragic circumstances. Charged with aiding his large audiences to avoid paying poll tax during the kallah months, Rabbah was forced to flee the bailiffs who had been sent to seize him. He wandered about in the vicinity of Pumbedita, and it was there, in a thicket, that his body was ultimately found (BM 86a; Iggeret R. Sherira Ga'on 78–87). According to the aggadah, it was on that day that the Heavenly Academy was debating whether, if the bright spot appeared after the white hair (cf. Lev. 13:1–3), the leper was clean or unclean. The Almighty maintained that he was clean, the Heavenly Academy that he was unclean. Rabbah was asked for his opinion, and, as he called out "Clean, clean," he expired. At that moment, a heavenly voice was heard to declare, "Happy art thou, O Rabbah b. Naḥamani, whose body is pure, and whose soul has departed in purity" (BM 86a). According to Rosh Ha-Shanah 18a (MK 28a) he was only 40 years old at his death. However, this figure is unacceptable on chronological grounds and has generally been emended to 60. He was survived by a son also called Rabbah (Shab. 123a). *Abbaye, who grew up in his house (Ber. 48a), was his nephew and pupil.


Halevy, Dorot, 2 (1923), 435–40; Hyman, Toledot.

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