Shiur #09: The aggada concerning R. Adda B. Abba – part III

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch

In memory of Rebbetzin Miriam Wise, Miriam bat Yitzhak veRivkah z”l,
whose yahrtzeit is on 9 Tevet.
By Rav Yitzchak and Stefanie Etshalom

a. Preface

In the previous shiur, we examined the connection between the aggada about R. Adda and the halakhic discussion preceding it in the sugya, on the topic of competition in the marketplace and the enactment extending special privileges to scholars. We saw that in relation to this discussion, the aggada about R. Adda represents, inter alia, a call for caution and sensitivity in implementing the enactment.

However, a review of the entire Talmudic expansion on the Mishna that appears in Bava Batra 20b reveals some interesting connections between the story of R. Adda and the previous part of the sugya, which deals with the establishment of an educational system and competition in the field of teaching. Earlier in the sugya (21a), we find two differences of opinion between Rava and Rav Dimi of Nehardea – who are important characters in the first part of the aggada of R. Adda. R. Dimi of Nehardea does not appear very often in the Gemara.[1] The mention of him together with Rava – both in these arguments and in the aggada – draws our attention to the connection between these two parts of the sugya, as we shall see. In any event, the connection to this part of the halakhic sugya is more surprising, since it is not juxtaposed to the story of R. Adda.

b. The first argument between Rava and R. Dimi of Nehardea

“Rava also said: If we have a teacher who teaches [by rote] and there is another who covers more material than he does, we do not replace the first by the second, for fear that the second, when appointed, will become indolent. R. Dimi of Nehardea, however, held that he would exert himself even more if appointed, since ‘the jealousy of scribes increases wisdom’ [i.e., the sense of competition will increase the motivation among the scholars in general to study more and to remember it with greater accuracy].”

Rava argues that a teacher should not be appointed in place of an old one solely on the basis of how much he has studied and is able to repeat by rote. Such an appointment would cause the new teacher to become arrogant, and this will lead to negligence (inaccuracy) in his instruction.

However, this approach might lead to suppression of the competitive spirit among scholars: if teachers are not appointed on the basis of their knowledge, then they will have little incentive to invest effort in increasing their knowledge – and the general level of teaching will be adversely affected. Indeed, R. Dimi disagrees with Rava, maintaining that the more outstanding teacher should be appointed, since this competitiveness – the “jealousy of scribes” – means that the teacher’s position is not guaranteed; in order to keep it, he must maintain a high level. Another perspective on this debate is R. Dimi’s encouragement of “new blood” as an element that invigorates the system, while Rava seems to prefer a situation in which the personnel remain in their positions in the long term.

The story of R. Adda reflects a similar debate. It is from the beit midrash of Rava, who is perhaps less enthusiastic about introducing new personnel from the outside, that R. Adda emerges. Rava, in his disagreement with R. Dimi, looks to the long-term quality and stability of Torah study: he fears that the teachers who might, owing to their superior knowledge, be appointed instead of the existing ones, will become arrogant. However, R. Adda absorbs only the external message: that the small, limited circle of teachers should remain tightly closed to outsiders. In his attempt to protect his “circle” (the disciples of Rava), he ends up falling into arrogance and competition. Thus, the aggada points out the dangers that must be avoided if Rava’s approach is to be adopted. An outward resistance to new personnel from the outside may cause, through a distorted interpretation by certain students, precisely the situation that it is meant to prevent: arrogance that harms the scholars and, ultimately, their instruction.

The position upheld by R. Dimi is likewise problematic, since positive competition may likewise degenerate into negative competition. The aggada points to this danger by showing how competition between students or their teachers might end up looking. The result is rather similar to the competitive atmosphere of the commercial world.

c. The second disagreement between Rava and R. Dimi of Nehardea

“Rava further said: If there are two teachers, one of whom covers much material but is inaccurate, while the other is accurate but knows less material, we appoint the former, since the mistakes will correct themselves. But R. Dimi of Nehardea said: We appoint the one who is accurate but lacks vast knowledge, because once a mistake is implanted it cannot be eradicated.”

At this point, R. Dimi (or the Gemara) brings a brief aggada that illustrates his point:

“It is written, ‘For six months Yoav and all Israel remained there until he had cut off every male in Edom’ (Melakhim I 11:16).  When Yoav came before David, the latter said to him: ‘Why have you acted thus?’ He replied: Because it is written, ‘You shall blot out the males [zekhar] of Amalek’ (Devarim 25:19). David said, ‘But we were taught to read, ‘[You shall blot out] the remembrance [zekher] of Amalek’!’ He replied: ‘I was taught to read ‘zekhar’. He[2] then went to his teacher and asked: ‘How did you teach that it be read?’ He replied, ‘Zekhar.’ Thereupon he drew his sword and threatened to kill him. ‘Why do you do this?’ asked the other. He replied, ‘Because it is written, ‘Cursed be he who does the work of the Lord negligently’ (Yirmiyahu 48:10). He said to him, ‘Suffice it then that I am cursed.’ To which He replied, ‘[It also says], ‘Cursed be he who holds back his sword from blood’ (ibid.). Some say that he killed him; others say that he did not kill him.”

This aggada offers a midrashic interpretation of the verses from Melakhim I 11, which record that Yoav killed all the males of Edom:

(14) And the Lord stirred up an adversary to Shelomo – Hadad the Edomite, of the king’s seed in Edom.

(15) And it was, when David was in Edom, and Yoav the captain of the host had gone up to bury the slain, after he had smitten every male in Edom

(16) (for Yoav and all Israel remained there for six months, until he had cut off every male in Edom),

(17) that Hadad fled, he and certain Edomites of his father’s servants with him, to go into Egypt; Hadad being only a small child.

(18) And they arose out of Midian, and came to Paran, and they took men with them out of Paran, and they came to Egypt, to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who gave him a house, and bread, and gave him land…

(21) And when Hadad heard, in Egypt, that David [now] lay slept with his fathers, and that Yoav, captain of the host, was dead, then he said to Pharaoh: Let me depart, that I may go to my own country.”

The verses demand explanation, since it is not clear on what basis Yoav killed the males of Edom. It is this gap that the midrash comes to fill. The aggada recounts that David asks Yoav why he acted as he did, and his question can be interpreted in two different ways:

The first possibility is, “Why did you kill the males of Edom?” Seemingly, this reflects the plain meaning of the text, since this difficulty arises from the verses themselves (i.e., the lack of any mention of the background to this slaughter of Edom).

The second possibility is, “Why did you kill only the males of Edom?” This represents the understanding of Rashi, among others. The principal justification for this interpretation is the continuation of the aggada. Yoav’s response to David draws a connection between Amalek and Edom, because Amalak is indeed from the seed of Edom (Amalek himself was the grandson of Esav; see Bereishit 36:12). According to this possibility, Yoav (following in the footsteps of his teacher) is negligent in carrying out the commandment to wipe out Amalek – which, as we know from the story of Shaul, is a most severe sin. David, according to this interpretation, rebukes Yoav for his negligence in “wiping out Amalek.” The advantage of this interpretation is that the quote with which Yoav concludes his words – “And cursed is he who holds back his sword from blood” – now assumes dual significance: on the plain level, it is directed towards the future, such that he becomes obligated to punish by the sword the teacher who was not accurate in his teaching. The “blood” referred to here is that of the teacher, especially according to those who “say that he killed him.” On a different level, the quote is an evaluation of what happened in the past: owing to the inaccuracy in the verse as it was studied, the sword was held back from the females of Edom.[3]

However, the transition from Amalek to Esav is not a simple matter at all, since the Torah gives no permanent command concerning the annihilation of Esav (in contrast to Amalek). On the contrary, the permanent command concerning Esav is, “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother…” (Devarim 23:8). According to the first interpretation, it is precisely this problem that David expresses in his question: what is the basis for this shift from Amalek to Edom? In addition, a review of the characters of David and Yoav in Tanakh shows that in most conversations between them, David asks or rebukes Yoav about a needless killing. The same idea arises from the language of his question here: “For what reason have you acted thus?” The question concerns an action that has been carried out (Why did you kill them?) rather than an action that was not carried out (or not carried out in full: Why did you not kill all of them?) Despite these questions, the commentators – led by Rashi in his interpretation of the sugya – prefer the second understanding. The second understanding is further reinforced by David’s second question, which seemingly accepts without question the quoting of the verse concerning Amalek in a context that concerns Edom, and seeks to clarify only Yoav’s reading of the verse. Yoav reads “zekhar,” and therefore wipes out the males. However, the proper reading (and Masoretic tradition) is “zekher,” and this being so, the women, too, should be put to death. The only way of accepting the first explanation requires a severance of David’s two questions from each other. First he asks, “Why did you act thus [killing the males of Edom]? Yoav gives a dual answer: firstly, Edom is Amalek. Secondly, it is written, ‘Wipe out the males [zekhar] of Amalek.” Now David asks his second question: “But according to your understanding, you should have killed them all!” However, it must be acknowledged that this interpretation, separating David’s questions rather than viewing them as part of a single progression, is not a simple one, and it is most probably for this reason that the commentators prefer the other option.[4] In any event, both interpretations have strengths and weaknesses, and the story can easily be read either way.

From Yoav’s answer, it turns out that his actions are based on an inaccurate reading of the verse, “You shall blot out the memory (zekher) of Amalek.” This is a vindication of R. Dimi’s argument: “Once a mistake is implanted it cannot be eradicated.” A corruption that is imbibed as part of one’s learning penetrates the consciousness and has an impact, and may lead to consequences so severe that the negligent teacher is deserving of death.

d. The connection between the parts of the sugya: Parallels between Yoav and R. Adda

Let us now return to the connection between the aggada of R. Adda on the one hand, and the disagreements between Rava and R. Dimi and the aggada of Yoav on the other. There is no way of knowing with certainty which came first – the disagreement between Rava and R. Dimi and the aggada of Yoav, or the aggada of R. Adda which concludes the sugya. It is possible that the two segments were deliberately molded together within the sugya, with the intention of creating a link between them. Either way, it is clear that they share a significant thematic bond: the disagreement between Rava and R. Dimi concerns the question of whether the scope of a scholar’s knowledge is the principal consideration – as Rava maintains, or whether it is the accuracy of his knowledge that is most important – as R. Dimi believes. In this context one cannot but think of R. Adda, who unquestionably excels in quantitative study, as we learn from the story involving R. Nachman b. Yitzchak, for whom R. Adda serves as a “Tanna.” However, as we have seen, R. Adda is less strong in the area of accuracy. He takes the views and instructions of Rava in directions that diverge wildly from Rava’s intent. Indeed, from Rava’s opinion in the above debate we can see why R. Adda, who excels in his breadth of knowledge, is his student. The aggada about R. Adda lends support to R. Dimi’s opposition to this sort of disciple, for it illustrates quite eloquently where breadth of learning but not accuracy can lead. (It might, in fact, have been in the wake of this incident, and his own bitter personal experience, that R. Dimi arrived at his view that “we appoint [the teacher] who is accurate.”)

It is not for nothing that the aggada about David and Yoav appears in the context of the above dispute. A few words about Yoav, son of Tzruya, as known to us from Sefer Shmuel: Yoav is a hot-tempered loyalist who, like his brother, Avishai, is willing to kill on the spot in order to protect the life or honor of David (David refers to them jointly as “sons of Tzruya” when he criticizes this trait).[5] Sometimes, they seek to put someone to death in the name of defending David’s honor, while David himself does not want the person harmed: examples include Shaul (Shmuel I 26) and Shim’i ben Gera (Shmuel II 16). At other times, it is their own honor that they seek to defend; this is their motivation for killing Avner ben Ner (Shmuel II 3) and Amasa ben Yeter (Shmuel II 20). Thus, we note a similarity between the relations between David and Yoav and the relations between Rava and R. Adda. Another parallel in these relations might be the deaths of R. Adda and of Yoav: David commands Shlomo concerning Yoav, “You shall not let his hoar head go down to Sheol in peace” (Melakhim I 2:6) – in other words, that at the very least he should cause Yoav’s death in an indirect way,[6] while Rava believes that it was he who caused R. Adda’s death (“And Rava said: It was on my account that he was punished…”).[7] Admittedly, the stories are not exactly parallel, for it is not Yoav himself who is an example of someone who “covers much material but is not accurate,” but rather his teacher[8] – who indeed is found deserving of death in the wake of the inaccuracy that was passed on, in practice, to Yoav. Nevertheless, the connection to R. Adda and his problematic personality is clear.[9]

The quoting of the verse from Amos in relation to R. Adda

The connection between the aggadot is reinforced significantly through the verse that Yoav quotes to his teacher (Yirmiyahu 48:10). The chapter in Sefer Yirmiyahu from which it is taken is a prophecy concerning Moav, with a call to the enemies striking at Moav to carry out their mission properly  (which is what God wants them to do):

(1) “Against Moav, thus says the Lord of hosts…

(7) For because you have trusted in your works and in your treasures, you shall also be taken, and Kemosh shall go out into exile, his priests and his princes together.

(8) And a spoiler shall come upon every city, and no city shall escape; they valley shall also be ruined, and the plain shall be destroyed, as the Lord has spoken.

(9) Give wings to Moav, that it may flee and get away, for her cities shall be desolate, which any to dwell in them.

(10) Cursed be he who does the work of the Lord negligently, and cursed be he who keeps back his sword from blood…”

In the aggada of Yoav, v. 10 is read as referring to Yoav’s teacher (who possibly symbolizes R. Adda), whose inaccuracy causes Yoav to err in his battle against Edom. Now the choice of R. Yosef, in the aggada of R. Adda, to specifically quote the verse, “for three transgressions of Moav, but for four I will not turn away its punishment, for he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime” becomes clear. We now understand why this verse is chosen: like the sin of Moav, according to the verse in Amos, Yoav’s teacher causes death in Edom. Moreover, referring to his teacher, Yoav cites the verse of punishment (from Yirmiyahu) that is uttered against Moav because of its slaughter of Edom. Likewise, the verse of punishment (from Amos) that is cited in relation to R. Adda addresses Moav following the slaughter in Edom.[10] Thus a connection is drawn between R. Adda in the aggada at the end of the sugya, and Yoav’s teacher who, through his inaccuracy, causes death in Edom.

From the above analysis, it turns out that the aggada of R. Adda is related to the part of the sugya that speaks about education, through the mention of the identical names of sages (Rava and R. Dimi of Nehardea). In addition, there are thematic ties between the aggada of R. Adda, on the one hand, and the disagreement between Rava and R. Dimi and the following short aggada on the other: both address teacher-student relations, competition among students, and corruptions of learning that involve matters of life and death, resulting from inaccuracy in the student’s learning or in the teacher’s teaching.

e. The contribution of the connections between the parts of the sugya to its reading

The exposure of the connection between the various parts of the sugya lends them a new perspective. In light of this connection, an important message arises from a reading of the aggada of R. Adda, along with the issue of privileges in commerce for scholars: the clash between Rava and R. Dimi turns our attention to the “well-versed but inaccurate” R. Adda. This aspect of his personality is the key to his actions as described in the aggada: the fact that he has great breadth of knowledge causes him to be arrogant, and the fact that his grasp of this knowledge is not precise is expressed in his deviation from the mission that Rava entrusts to him, with an assumption of authority that Rava never intended, and with grave consequences. The aggada also illustrates the lesson that it is not always possible to correct errors later on. The model of Yoav and David serves to illuminate the problematic relationship, as described in the aggada, between Rava and R. Adda.

 At the same time, when we consider the disagreement between Rava and R. Dimi in light of the aggada, each opinion becomes more clearly defined – especially the view of R. Dimi, whose words the aggada come to illustrate. The aggada imbues this sugya about education with an important message: a teacher must be alert and monitor his students very closely. Even if they are good students, the teacher must take care to ensure that they follow his instruction and guidance and do not deviate, using their status to harm or offend others. R. Adda takes the instructions of Rava in a negative direction, showing scorn towards other scholars to the point of causing grave insult to their honor or livelihood.

Another message arising from all parts of the aggada is the obligation to exercise great care when it comes to the honor due to scholars. Each of the different claims against R. Adda, explaining his death in different ways, is based on the dishonor that he shows, one way or another, towards scholars. This message, too, is appropriate to a sugya dealing with the establishment of an educational system.

In summary, we have explored various different connections, on different levels, between the aggada and the halakha in our sugya. The aggada of R. Adda is related to the halakhic discussion to which it is appended, which discusses commercial privileges extended to scholars. It conveys a moral message that illuminates the complexity of the law that is presented – as noted in the previous shiur. At the same time, the aggada maintains linguistic and thematic ties with a different part of the sugya, too – the section dealing with education, the relations between a teacher and his students, competition among scholars, and the honor due to them.

Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]      See B. Kossovsky, Otzar ha-Shemot le-Talmud Bavli, Jerusalem 5736, vol. I p. 358; his name is listed as appearing 18 times in the Bavli excluding our sugya.

[2] It is not clear whether Yoav himself went to his teacher, or whether David went to Yoav’s teacher. In the meantime the difference is not significant; later in our discussion we will assume that it was Yoav who approached his teacher.

[3] Or, as Rachel Grossman suggested to me, it is possible that these two interpretations lead into each other: Yoav expresses regret over not having properly fulfilled the commandment to rid of Amalek/Edom, and therefore is determined to start correcting his mistakes by killing the teacher.

[4]  There may also be another reason for their preference: there are other midrashic sources that draw an analogy between Amalek and Edom (see, for example, Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, piska 3 [Mandelbaum edition, vol. I, pp. 37-41]; Shemot Rabba 27,1; Bamidbar Rabba 14:1.)

[5]  “What have I to do with you, sons of Tzruya?” (Shmuel II 16:10)

[6]  Which is in fact what happens (see the continuation of Chapter 2 of Melakhim I).

[7]  Moreover, Yoav ultimately meets his death as a result of his betrayal of Shlomo, David’s son. Thus, by extension, he behaves improperly towards David. R. Adda likewise behaves inappropriately towards the emissary of Rava, and thus against Rava himself, and Rava believes that it is for this reason that R. Adda dies.

[8] Some of the Rishonim (for example, Ran and Rashba) explain that Yoav’s teacher taught him “zekher” and it was Yoav himself who erred. In this case, the teacher is guilty not of the initial transmission of the inaccuracy, but rather of failing to monitor Yoav and allowing him to persist in his error. Further on, Ritba argues that “covering material but without accuracy” does not mean actually teaching something that is not accurate, but rather failing to supervise the students carefully to ensure that they are learning properly. According to this interpretation, there is a perfect symmetry between the aggadot: R. Adda parallels Yoav insofar as both are quick to kill; both are mistaken in their interpretation of the words of their teacher, and as a result they act improperly. Yoav’s teacher parallels Rava, who indeed has a precise knowledge of the verse, but fails to ensure that his student has an accurate understanding of it, and thereby causes damage.

[9] In fact, we might say that the character of R. Adda in the story is something of a composite of the characters of Yoav and his teacher. Perhaps Yoav’s killing of his teacher symbolizes the fact that R. Adda brings about his own death through the combination of two negative qualities: the inaccuracy of Yoav’s teacher, along with Yoav’s own zealousness for his leader – which in some instances is a genuine quality, but can sometimes be a cover for personal interests.

[10]  This is especially appropriate if we accept the first interpretation above – i.e., that Yoav killed too many, rather than too few. However, even according to the second interpretation, a connection (albeit more general in nature) can be made between Yoav’s error, leading him to the wrong approach concerning Edom, and the improper approach of Moav towards Edom, which R. Yosef compares to R. Adda’s treatment of R. Dimi.