Initial Considerations of Occurrences of Incidents in Which Rav Yehudah Quotes Rav and Shmuel

Rav Yehudah was a leading rabbinic figure in Persia in the third century (220-299) who often directly quoted his teachers, Rav and Shmuel, the leading rabbinic figures in Persia in the first amoraic generation.[1] One particular set of texts that piqued my curiosity were statements that involved the phrasing of מעשה ב- “an incident of/with” – how do Rav and Shmuel speak of such legal narrative incidents[2] as quoted by Rav Yehudah?

The formulation of מעשה is nothing unusual in earlier Tannaitic literature: “The Ma’aseh unit is a common unit in the Tannaitic literature. It is found in each of the Tannaitic literary sources and is very prevalent in the Tosefta and Mishnah. This is the most common narrative discourse unit.”[3] Also, “The Ma’aseh until usually comes alongside a halakah or halakic opinion, and is perceived as an inseparable part of the halakic sequence, as the event it describes is related to a halakah or halakic opinion, and is often an event involving a halakic ruling.”[4]  Even the specific language of מעשה ב- is nothing novel, as it occurs in various places in the Mishnah.[5]

Rav Yehudah quotes Shmuel many times in the Babylonian Talmud, with five of these employing the “incident with” formula. Just more than half (3) of these occur as an “incident with one man” (Bava Batra 146a, Hagigah 22b,[6] and Bava Kama 114b(=Ketubot 26a)), with another two involving disciples of tannaim (Bekhorot 45a and Shabbat 40b). Of these three “incident with one man” stories, they all focus on just that man, rather than in relation to anyone else in the story.[7] The topics of these incidents are a potpourri of various halakhic issues.

On the other hand, the incidents that Rav Yehudah quotes Rav as recounting are not as varied.[8] There are more than twice as many of these, as Rav Yehudah quotes Rav twelve times employing the “incident with” formula.[9]  Just more than half (7) of these occur as an “incident with one man” (Bava Batra 146a, Bava Batra 146a-146b, Gittin 35a, Gittin 58a, Moed Katan 8a,[10] Hagigah 23a(=Yevamot 115b)[11], and Sanhedrin 75a). What stands out about these “incident with one man” stories is that they mostly involve a man with a woman: four of them are between a man and a woman (with two of these being wives) and one involves a man with a widow. The others involve a man and his father-in-law and the other involves just a man by himself. In the man-and-wife incidents, there is a tension between them, as there also is with the man-and-widow incident. The “one man and one woman” incident (Sanhedrin 75a) describes less a tension than a hazy [physical/emotional] distance between them.[12]

The five other stories, on the other hand, feature women. One is of Queen Shalzion (Shabbat 16b), one is of the daughter-in-law of Rabbi Oshaia (Eruvin 80a), one is of the daughter of Nakdimon, son of Gurion (Ketubot 66b), and one is of a gentile woman (Sanhedrin 64a). The final one involves the son and daughter of Rabbi Yishmael, son of Elisha (Gittin 58a). It is curious that that the stories involving these [mostly] particular named women (even if we don’t necessarily read of their names) are not as general as the incidents involving the unnamed men. Could it be that the deployment of the “one man” language somehow universalizes these incidents, while the stories involving particular women somehow distinguish them? (I don’t have an answer, but it’s worth considering.)

What strikes the reader is that the incidents that Rav Yehudah tells of Rav recounting are very much about the friction between men and women (whether sexual or otherwise), including husbands and wives. This is all the more striking considering that the occurrences of Rav Yehudah quoting Shmuel recounting incidents do not refer to intergender issues. Even the prostitute’s dissection incident (Bekhorot 45a) is not about the prostitute or even about gender relations inasmuch as it is about scientific discovery.

It would almost seem as if Rav Yehudah’s perspective of Rav is more about women and men’s friction – sexual, social, and/or otherwise – at least in the incidents he recounts in his quoting of him. Of course, you could point out that Rav Yehudah may have forgotten other incidents that Rav spoke about, but only remembered the ones involving women, or maybe that the editors of the Talmud were primarily interested in those stories. Whatever the case may be, the Babylonian Talmud seems to present the occurrences of Rav Yehudah quoting Rav in recounting incidents as to be largely concerning women and men interacting with women.

One wonders how much insight this provides into sexually-related things in the Babylonian Talmud involving Rav, such as his very excited sexual activity (Berakhot 62a (=Hagigah 5b)), as well as his permitting of a man sexually turning over his [perturbed] wife, saying that she is no different than a fish (Nedarim 20b). It should be kept in mind that when Rav visited Dardeshir, he asked who would be his woman for a day (Yevamot 37b). He also advised Rav Ahsi to not marry two women simultaneously, but, if you do, you should add a third (Pesahim 113a). It seems Rav was quite interested in women, both sexually and socially. Even Rav Yehudah’s quoting of Rav discussing how the people of Jerusalem used to speak regarding their experiences (Shabbat 62b-63a), with Rav Hisda pointing out that Rav was speaking about sexual promiscuity. One wonders about the discussion between Rav and Shmuel concerning Numbers 11.5 whether “fish” in that verse refers to actual fish or to forbidden sexual activities (Yoma 75a), as it would seem to be safe speculation that Shmuel was the one opining that “fish” meant fish, while Rav opined that “fish” meant forbidden sexual activities.

Having considered this, I am now curious as to how Rav Yehudah quotes Rav and Shmuel in non-incident quotations.


[1] I hope to eventually tabulate how many direct quotations there are in the Babylonian Talmud of Rav Yehudah quoting Rav, as well as quoting Shmuel. Suffice it to say until that tabulation that it is frequent in the Babylonian Talmud.

[2] “The term legal narrative describes stories that implicate the law and are located within halakhic Sugyot.  In other words, the relevance of these narratives for law is twofold – they contain legal information inherently and they are mobilized by the redactor within a legal context.” (Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, “Legal Narratives in the Babylonian Talmud,” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2005), 13.)

[3] Rivka Shemesh, “On the Narrative Discourse in Tannaitic Language: An Exploration of the מעשה (Ma’aseh) and פעם אחת (Pa’am Ahat) Discourse Units”, Hebrew Studies, vol. 49 (2008), 110.

[4] Shemesh, “On the Narrative Discourse in Tannaitic Language”, 123.

[5] While the “מעשה ב” formula occurs roughly forty times in the Mishnah, the specific language of מעשה באחד (“an incident with someone”) is used nine times (Gittin 4.7, 7.5, Yevamot 12.5, 16.4, Arakhin 8.1, Nedarim 5.6, Kilayim 7.5, 4.9 (in Zalmon), and Bava Mezi’a 8.8 (in Sepphoris), with the very similar language of מעשה באשה אחת being used three times (Nazir 3.6, Yadayim 3.1, and Niddah 8.3).

[6] While the Vilna edition shows מעשה באחד (as does MS Goettingen 3), most of the manuscripts witness מעשה באדם אחד (MSS London – BL Harl. 5508 (400), Munich 6, Munich 95, Oxford Opp. Add. fol. 23, and Vatican 134).

[7] While the incident of the man who remembered having been hoisted upon his father’s shoulders as a child (Bava Kama 114b=Ketubot 26a), his father is not significant to the incident. And, in the case of the man who visited his father-in-law’s house (Bava Batra 146a), his father-in-law is not part of the story.

[8] It’s also worth noting that there are no occurrences in the Babylonian Talmud of Rav speaking of an incident not being quoted by someone else.

[9] There are also two further statements of Rav Yehudah quoting Rav in which מעשה occurs, although not in the “incident with” formula: Ketubot 14b-15a and Eruvin 65b.

[10] While the print editions of Pesaro 1515 and Vilna show אמר רב כהנא אמר רב יהודה אמר רב, it seems that the more common text witnessed throughout the manuscripts is correct: אמר רב כהנא אמרי לה אמר רב יהודה אמר רב (MSS London – BL Harl. 5508 (400), Munich 95, NY – Columbia X 893 T 141, and Vatican 108). While other manuscripts come very close to this formulation, it is clear that Rav Kahana is not quoting Rav Yehuda quoting Rav.

(MS Goettingen 3 witnesses אמר רב כהנא אמרי לה אמר רב יהודה (although having dropped the quotation of Rav), MS Oxford Opp. Add. fol. 23 is also quite close – אמר רב כהנא אמרי לה אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל – although it ends up quoting Shmuel instead of Rav, and MS Vatican 134, which witnesses אמר רב כהנא אמר רב אסי אמר רב, seems a far outlier.)

Furthermore, while Rav Kahana is recorded as having quoted Rav directly (Berakhot 14b, Gittin 71a, Yevamot 102a, Ketubot 79b, Megillah 18b, Menahot 32a, Shabbat 38a, Ta’anit 12b), he does not, however, employ the מעשה ב formulation.

[11] While the Vilna printing witnesses מעשה באדם, all of the manuscripts witness מעשה באדם אחד (MSS Moscow – Guenzburg 1017, Moscow – Guenzburg 594, Munich 141, Munich 95, Oxford Opp. 248 (367), and Vatican 111). It may have originated with the 1509 printing of the Talmud in Pesaro in which אחד was omitted, since this was the left-most edge of the line in the Pesaro printing, the phrase “אחד” may have simply been left off.

[12] For an early treatment of this incident, see here. For an expanded treatment of this incident, see my “Sages and Doctors Face-Off: A First Consideration of a Story in the Talmud” in Talmudic Musings: 50 Essays on Talmudic Terms, Ideas, and More (Saarbrücken, Germany: Hadassa Word Press, 2017): 78-84.

One thought on “Initial Considerations of Occurrences of Incidents in Which Rav Yehudah Quotes Rav and Shmuel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *