Title: The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity
Volume V: The Yeshivot of Babylonia and Israel
Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau
Maggid has just published the fifth volume in Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau’s series The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity. The series consists of Lau’s character sketches of the sages of the Mishna and Gemara and this latest volume’s focus and subtitle is “The Yeshivot of Babylonia and Israel.” More specifically, it focuses on the second generation of Talmudic sages who founded the great academies in both Israel and Baylonia after the passing of Rav and Shmuel.
Coming a number of years after the previous volume, Lau’s series humanizes the Sages, giving information about the time period and place they lived in, character attributes gleaned from Mishna and both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. This is most definitely not hagiography and Lau includes unflattering episodes, character flaws, and tension between sages in his biographical sketches. The end result is a very human presentation of the Sages allowing the reader to vividly imagine their personalities and interactions with their contemporaries.
As source material, Lau uses the primary texts themselves, collating excerpts from all over Bavli and Yerushalmi to build his profiles, as well as bring information from Medieval commentaries and works less commonly found in the traditional beis midrash like academic articles and citations to R’ Saul Liberman’s Tosefta Kifshuta.
In addition to the character sketches, Lau includes primary teachings of these sages, frequently bringing full annotated versions of their discussions and disagreements with their colleagues.
One of the things that I found most fascinating about Lau’s approach is how he brings divergent perspectives on the Sages into the discussion. For example, in the section on the tension-filled relationship between Rav Hisda and Rav Huna, he offers different interpretations of the Gemara in Bava Metzia 33a that suggests some degree of reconciliation between them. Lau cites both Ze’ev Yaavetz and M.B Lerner’s reading that they renewed their friendship while Rabbi Z.H. Chajes suggests there was a rupture. Through presenting differing perspectives, Lau leaves it to the reader to form their own impression.
The human element is also fascinating, as with his bringing Rav Ada Bar Ahava’s response to Rav Huna taking advantage of his Divine protection by engaging him in Torah conversation in an unstable building until Rav Huna’s wine was safely removed from the premises or discussing Rav Ada bar Ahava’s zealous insistence on performing a bris on his son, who was born circumcised and its tragic outcome. The inclusion of details gathered from the Jerusalem Talmud’s version as well as the Babylonian one brings out the poignancy of the story and highlights the down side of excessive zeal.
In addition to the stories and sketches of the Sages themselves and the yeshivot they established and/or led, the book also features excellent, intriguing footnotes that add fascinating background information and additional material to the character sketches. For instance, when he cites the well-known Gemara in Bava Metzia where Rav tells Rabba bar Hana to pay the wages of workers who had carelessly broken a barrel of his wine, Lau sources a disagreement among the Rishonim as to whether this is halacha or just moral advice.
Similarly, in a discussion of Rav and Rav Nahman’s practice of marrying a woman for a day when they traveled, in addition to pointing out the Talmudic editor’s discomfort with the practice, Lau brings differing perspectives from Rashi and Rambam on the one hand and R’ Yoel Sirkis (the Bach) on the other.
In general, the footnotes offer more than just citations, elaborating on ideas, quoting differing opinions, and offering much additional richness.
The Sages offers much to think about regarding these second-generation Talmudic leaders including their perspectives on life, the way they dealt with conflict, their relationships with colleagues, students and family members, all the way up to how they behaved on their deathbeds. By presenting them in this humanized way, Lau leads the reader to better understand and relate to them and their teachings.