Sunday, 25 September 2016

Bava Kamma 117: Rav Kahana's Rebirth: Trickery and Sneakiness

As they continue to understand how and when to reimburse victims of robbery, our rabbis discuss when an action is fined and when the consequence of breaking a halacha is enough punishment.  We are reminded that if the larger criminal action is punishable by death, any other punishment - a fine for stealing, for example - for another crime committed along the way is null.  An example is when a person's wine is stolen and used toward a libation toward idol worship.  In such a case, the death penalty trumps the fine that would be assigned for stealing the wine.  The rabbis question in which cases the victim should be reimbursed for his loss, even though the robber is punished with death.

When a person is coerced by Gentiles to commit a crime, it is usually necessary for that person to reimburse the victim of theft.  The Gemara provides us with a number of short scenarios which act as examples of such cases.  

The Gemara dives into a narrative about Rav Kahana on the topic of one Jew saying he was going to show another Jew's straw to Gentile authorities.  Rav insisted that he refrain.  We learn that this is because a Jew who brings to the attention of Gentile authorities any problem within the Jewish community is putting the lives of many Jews at risk.  The Jew responded to Rav by saying that he certainly would go to the authorities.  Hearing this rude and dangerous response to Rav, Rav Kahana broke the Jew's neck.  Rav suggested that the new Greek authorities would punish Rav Kahana for murder, and that he should go Eretz Israel.  He should study with Rabbi Yochanan for seven years without raising any difficulties about Rabbi Yochanan's teachings.

Rav Kahana went to Eretz Israel and made it clear to Reish Lakish, who was reviewing Rabbi Yochanan's lecture, that he had a number of difficulties with that lecture.  Reish Lakish then told Rabbi Yochanan that a lion had ascended from Bavel, and that Rabbi Yochanan should be ready for this new person at the next day's lecture.  

Rav Kahana was seated in the first row that day, but he raised no difficulties.  Each day, Rav Kahana was seated back by one row as he listened silently to the lectures.  After seven days he was in the back row of the academy.  Rabbi Yochanan told Reish Lakish that his lion had become a fox (he was not knowledgeable).  Rav Kahana decided that each row that he moved back represented one year of time meant to be spent learning quietly and respectfully from Rabbi Yochanan.  He began raising difficulties and he was moved again to the first row.

Rabbi Yochanan was sitting on seven pillows.  He removed one pillow for each difficulty raised by Rav Kahana that could not be answered.  Finally he was sitting on the ground in deference to this new pupil.  He called his students to lift his eyebrows so that he could see Rav Kahana and they did this with a silver eye brush.  I cannot quite imaging what this silver eye brush looked like.  When he saw Rav Kahana's smirk - caused by a birth defect that widens the corners of the mouth - he was offended and Rav Kahana died as punishment for offending his teacher.  

The rabbis then explained to him that Rav Kahana was not smirking.  Rabbi Yochanan went to Rav Kahana's burial cave and saw a serpent circling it; its tail in its mouth.  Rabbi Yochanan begged the serpent three times to open its mouth and kill him.  When the serpent finally opened its mouth, Rabbi Yochanan begged mercy and then raised Rav Kahana from the dead.

Rabbi Yochanan said that if he had know that Rav Kahana looked this way, he would not have been offended.  He invited Rav Kahna back to the study hall.  Rav Kahana asked that Rabbi Yochanan request divine mercy so that he would not die again, he would join his teacher.

What a bizarre story!  Are we to understand that a person can bring another person back to life?  Or was the death meant to be a spiritual death?  or a death of excommunication and isolation from one's community and thus no ability to fulfill many of the mitzvot?  Are we to believe that one should sneakily defy one's teacher's instructions?  Humiliate one's elder teachers?  Shouldn't Rav Kahana have been learning humility and discipline rather than learning how to teach others that he was the most knowledgable person in the room?  Very disturbing.

The Gemara then turns back to cases of individuals who are robbed of items that are not theirs to lose.  They consider what should be done when a robber steals money set aside to redeem captives.  In such a case, the money is not reimbursed by the person responsible for watching over that money, for they are potentially redeeming captives in that very moment.  Other examples demonstrate that the rabbis do not want to punish those who chase thieves, even though the Torah might suggest otherwise.   This is a wonderful example of our rabbis interpreting Torah law toward their vision of societal cohesion.

A new Mishna tells us that if a river floods a field that has been stolen, the robber may say to its owner, "that which is yours is before you".  Thus he can give back the field's ownership.  This is because flooding would have happened whether or not the field was robbed, and so that victim has not suffered a loss due to the robber but due to natural causes.

The Gemara begins a conversation about why a robber would not owe the victim another drier field.  In this discussion, the rabbis consider the hermeneutical principal of amplifications followed by restrictions followed by amplifications.  This comes from Leviticus (5:21-24): If any one sin, and commit a trespass against the Lordand deal falsely with his neighbour in a matter of deposit... or anything about which he has sworn falsely, he shall restore it in full".  "... sin... trespass... deal falsely with his neighbour," is an amplification.  "In a matter of deposit" is a restriction.  "...anything about which he has sworn falsely..." is another amplification.  The rabbis end our daf deciding whether or not the "deposit" refers only to movable property.

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