Have you ever sat chatting with a friend when someone you both know, and don’t really like, comes by? It is an awkward situation at best. What if that acquaintance is also someone powerful – what should you do? Rav Huna and Rav Hisda encounter this problem on our daf:
“Rav Huna and Rav Ḥisda were sitting, and Geneiva passed by them. One said to the other: Let us stand before him, as he is a son of the Torah. The other said to him: Shall we stand before a quarrelsome person?” (Gittin 31b)
While they are deliberating, Geneiva comes over and asks what they are discussing. He then proceeds to add some Torah to their conversation. In an almost identical scenario on Gittin 62a (perhaps the same story, divided into two parts), they have an even longer dialogue, where Geneiva quotes more Torah for them after greeting them as kings. Who is this Geneiva: a scholar, a troublemaker or both?
Geneiva’s name appears in a number of places in the Gemara. He quotes Rav and it seems that he was his student and contemporary. In the Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 5:8) Rav explains that he and Geneiva differ in their opinions but that’s OK because “he is a scholar (zaken) and I am a scholar.” Geneiva is also quoted by other scholars, both in halacha and aggada. As Rav’s younger contemporary, he lived in the third century CE, and his meetings with Rav Huna and Rav Hisda place him in Babylonia, probably in Sura, the southern Babylonian yeshiva where those two scholars, as well as Rav, were active.
However, unusually for a scholar and student of Rav, Geneiva has no rabbinic title and seems to have not been given a position in Rav’s yeshiva. He is also branded a quarrelsome person, someone that Rav Huna and Rav Hisda do not want to honor by standing. In order to understand that part of Geneiva’s story, we must look at a strange tale involving Geneiva and the Resh Galuta, the exilarch or leader of the Babylonian Jews.
A diorama of the Exilarch’s court, Diaspora Museum
Sodabottle, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Earlier in Gittin (7a) we came across Geneiva’s name, where he is presented as the tormentor of Mar Ukva, the Resh Galuta. Mar Ukva is so distressed that he sends a letter to Rabbi Elazar ben Pedat in Tiberias in the Land of Israel. He explains that there is someone who is bothering him and he asks Rabbi Elazar if he, Mar Ukva, has the right to inform on him to the government. Rabbi Elazar, following his philosophy that scholars should bring peace to the world (Brachot 64a), tells Mar Ukva to sit tight and not respond. When Mar Ukva writes again, saying that things have gotten worse, Rabbi Elazar advises him to spend more time in the study hall and things will resolve themselves. At that moment, the tormentor’s nature and his fate (although not what he said to Mar Ukva!) are revealed. It is Geneiva, who is slapped in a “kolar,” some form of irons, and taken to be executed.
What is going on here? What could Geneiva have done that was so terrible to warrant him being sent for execution by the government? In addition, why does Mar Ukva have to turn to the Land of Israel for advice, rather than to the local scholars? Does the story with Rav Huna and Rav Hisda take place before or after this event and is it connected?
Historians who study the Talmudic period have tried to unwrap this problem. In an article written in 1962, Professor Moshe Beer of Bar Ilan University made a fascinating suggestion, one that ties together the various strands of the story. He explained that when Rav died, there was a vacuum of Rabbinic leadership in Babylonia. No successor for his yeshiva of Sura had been appointed, and the other major yeshiva, Nehardea, had been closed because of war. Into that vacuum stepped the exilarch, Mar Ukva. Unlike his predecessors, he tried to intervene in the selection process of the new rosh yeshiva of Sura. He favored Rav Huna, not only because he was a scholar but because he was connected to the royal family (Rav Sherira Gaon tells us he was from the family of the Nasi, the exilarch).
Seal of Exilarch Rav Huna son of Rav Natan
Hanay, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
This intervention did not sit well with Geneiva, and perhaps with other rabbis. While Mar Ukva was also a scholar, he was not in the position to choose the head of the yeshiva. When Geneiva objected furiously. Mar Ukva could not complain about him to Rav Huna, since Rav Huna was directly involved. Instead, he had to send a letter to faraway Eretz Yisrael to ask for advice. Ultimately, Geneiva lost the battle and was clapped in irons and later (it seems) executed. This would explain why he has no title or position and why he is considered a troublemaker despite his extensive knowledge. And what about our conversations with Rav Huna and Rav Hisda? Professor Beer (and later Rabbi Benny Lau) add a layer of meaning to the dialogue. Let’s examine the stories more carefully.
In the conversation in Gittin 62, Geneiva greets the two rabbis enthusiastically as kings: greetings to you o kings!. When they question this title, he explains that Sages are considered like kings. Beer suggests that there is an undertone here of the battle – you, Rav Huna, are connected to kings so you have power, unlike me. Then Geneiva continues and quotes a few laws, all in the name of Rav. He is hinting that these scholars, who have reached such heights, don’t even know the basic Torah of Rav, their master and predecessor!
The Ben Yehoyada, years before Beer, also picked up on the significance of the “kings” greeting. His explanation is that Geneiva was implying that he, like Mar Ukva, is a king, and kings war against each other, so he should be forgiven for bothering Mar Ukva. Rabbi Lau in turn adds meaning to the first story – here they are discussing wind, רוחות; Rabbi Lau quotes Rabbi Margoliot who says they are hinting about the teaching in the Ethics of the Fathers: be like someone that רוח הבריות נוחה הימנו, that people’s spirits are pleased with, i.e., not quarrelsome.
The unpacking of this small, seemingly insignificant story, tells us a lot about the balance of power in Babylonia. Although Geneiva lost the battle, he ultimately won the war. In the future, exilarchs would interfere only very rarely in the workings of the yeshiva. Checks and balances of the ancient world?
GR Stocks, Unsplash
P.S. I confess to not having heard of Professor Beer (1924-2002) before writing this article. When I looked him up, it turned out that he was born in Bratislava, in Slovakia, where my father was born. Then he made aliya to Israel, helped found Kibbutz Massuot Yitzchak, and was taken prisoner in the final battles of Gush Etzion in 1948. Those battles took place a ten-minute walk from my home in Alon Shvut. Coincidence or connection?