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A Threefold Cord

Welcome to Bava Kamma! Even those who are not so familiar with Gemara may know that there are four 鈥渁vot nezikin,鈥 categories of damage. But wait a second: just a few pages into our tractate we have a tradition from a Rabbi Oshaya that there are not four but thirteen avot nezikin! (Bava Kamma 4b) The Gemara goes on to discuss what is added and why our Mishnah does not include those categories but we want to know why Rabbi Oshaya鈥檚 tradition, so clearly different than that of our Mishnah, is important enough to be preserved. Rabbi Oshaya is called the 鈥渇ather of the Mishnah鈥 (Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 4:6) and his tradition is considered to be one of the most authoritative in the Oral Law:

鈥淩abbi Zeira said to him: Didn鈥檛 I tell you that any baraita that is not taught in the study hall of Rabbi 岣yya or the study hall of Rabbi Oshaya, is corrupted, and you may not raise objections based upon it in the study hall?鈥 (Hullin 141b)

Rabbi Oshaya鈥檚 (also known as Rabbi Hoshaya and Rabbi Oshaya Rabbah) authority comes from a number of places: his family, his teachers and his own brilliance. He was a member of the transitional generation between the Tannaim and the Amoraim; the students who studied under Rabbi Judah the Prince and then went on to form their own schools. He lived in the early part of the third century CE and studied in some of the most important centers of Eretz Yisrael before founding his own center in Caesarea. He came from Lod, in the south, an important center for scholars. Both his father, Rabbi Hama, and his grandfather, Rabbi Bisa, were great scholars. The Gemara relates two fascinating family stories about him. In one, Rabbi Hama returns home after studying for many years away from his family. He stops in at the local study hall and meets a brilliant young scholar. He wonders if his own son could have reached such heights if only he had stayed home to educate him. When Rabbi Hama leaves the study hall to go home, the young man goes too. Only when they reach the house does Rabbi Hama鈥檚 wife enlighten him that this IS his son, who has grown to be a great sage. (Ketubot 62b)

In a different story, Rabbi Hama and Rabbi Oshaya disagree and they go to Rabbi Bisa, the grandfather, to determine who is correct. Rabbi Bisa sides with Rabbi Oshaya. Upon hearing this story, Rami bar Hama exclaimed:

鈥淩ami bar 岣ma read the verse about him: 鈥渁nd a threefold cord is not quickly broken鈥 (Ecclesiastes 4:12), saying that this applies to Rabbi Oshaya, son of Rabbi 岣ma, son of Rabbi Bisa,鈥 (Bava Batra 59a)

Tosfot notes that there were other scholars whose fathers and grandfathers also were rabbis, why does Rami bar Hama emphasize this family in particular? The answer is that they all merited to be alive at the same time and to discuss Torah with each other. Rabbi Benny Lau points out that this is particularly unusual in the generation of Rabbi Oshaya, a generation after the terrible Bar Kokhba Revolt that decimated the Torah world.

Rabbi Oshaya was fortunate not only in his family but in his teachers. He studied with his neighbor Bar Kapra, a student of Rabbi Judah the Prince (Rebbe), while in Lod. After that he went to Zippori, in the Galilee, to study with the great Rabbi Hiyya who came from Babylonia to learn with Rebbe. Rabbi Oshaya also studied with Rabbi Judah Nesia, Rebbe鈥檚 grandson. The traditions of Rebbe were therefore well known to him and he could have the authority to compile his own baraita, as well as be able to speak authoritatively about Rebbe鈥檚 corpus of law.

After Rabbi Judah Nesia died, the scholars went off to create their own schools. The best student of Rabbi Oshaya, Rabbi Yochanan, went to Tiberias, Rabbi Yannai went to Achbara and Rabbi Oshaya went to Caesarea. Caesarea was different than the other places Rabbi Oshaya had studied and taught. It had a Jewish population but also a pagan and a Christian population; it was much more cosmopolitan (or non-Jewish) than his other homes.

Jewish artifacts from Roman and Byzantine Caesarea

Hanay, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In Caesarea, besides continuing to teach and to be visited by his students (Rabbi Yochanan would visit him regularly even after he himself had a great yeshiva), it seems that Rabbi Oshaya was drawn into the world of interfaith polemics. Caesarea had a famous library of Christian and Biblical texts and one of the 聽well-known residents of the city in the early third century was a Christian theologian and Bible scholar named Origen. Origen was born in Alexandria but established a school in Caesarea and became the most important authority for the early church in the Land of Israel.

Christian artifacts from Byzantine period Caesarea

Hanay, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Besides his theology, Origen is famous for creating the Hexapla, a critical edition of the Bible that included six columns (hence its name): the original Hebrew, four different Greek translations, and a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew. To create such a work, Origen must have either known Hebrew or worked alongside scholars who did. Did he study with or argue with Rabbi Oshaya? He wrote a commentary on the book of Bereshit that shares interesting parallels and refutations to the rabbinic midrash Bereshit Rabbah, composed around the same time. Scholars have posited that there was dialogue between Origen and the Jewish Sages, particularly Rabbi Oshaya. An interesting conversation in Bereshit Rabba pits Rabbi Oshaya against a 鈥減hilosopher鈥- could it be Origen?

鈥淎 certain philosopher once asked Rabbi Hoshaya, saying to him: 鈥業f circumcision is so dear to Him [God], why was it not given to Adam the first man?鈥 The explanation is that everything that was created during the six days of Creation requires some action [to bring it to its perfected state], e.g., mustard requires sweetening, lupines require sweetening, wheat requires grinding. And even man needs to be perfected.鈥欌 (Bereshit Rabba 11:6)

Another passage refutes the idea that a human could be a deity:

鈥淩abbi Hoshaya said: When the Holy One blessed be He created Adam the first man, the ministering angels erred concerning him and sought to proclaim 鈥渉oly鈥 before him. . . What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He cast a deep slumber upon him, and everyone then knew that he was [merely] a man.鈥 (Bereshit Rabba 8:10)

Rabbi Oshaya鈥檚 brilliance and savvy were matched by his compassion. A beautiful story at the end of Masechet Peah shows his respect for all people:

鈥淭he teacher of the great Rebbi Hoshaya鈥檚 son was blind and he used to invite him to eat with him every day. One day there were guests and he did not ask him to eat with him. In the evening, he went to him and said: Please, Sir, do not be angry with me. Since I had guests, I did not want risking injuring the Sir鈥檚 honor, therefore I did not eat with you today. He said to him, you assuaged him who is seen but does not see; may He be appeased by you Who sees but is not seen鈥 (Yerushalmi Peah 8:8)


Idomeir, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons



Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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