Shiur 6: The aggada about R. Assi and his mother

  • Rav Dr. Yonatan Feintuch



Please daven for a refua sheleima for YHE alumnus 
Rav Daniel ben Miriam Chaya Rut


I. Introduction


As in the previous shiur, in this shiur we will discuss parent-child relationships, examining a story concerning the honor that a child must show his parents.


The story concerning R. Assi and his mother, which appears in the first chapter of tractate Kiddushin (31b), concludes a series of stories/descriptions that illustrate the difficulties of properly fulfilling this mitzvah.


II. The Story


1. R. Assi had an aged mother.

She said to him: "I want ornaments." So he made them for her.
"I want a husband." "I will look out for you."

"I want a husband as handsome as you." Thereupon he left her and went to Eretz Israel.


2. On hearing that she was following him, he went to R. Yochanan and asked him: "May I leave Eretz Israel for abroad?" He said to him: "It is forbidden."

"But what if it is to meet my mother?" He said to him: "I do not know."

He waited a short time and went before him again. He said to him: "Assi, you have determined to go; [may] the Omnipresent bring you back in peace."


3. Then he went before R. Elazar and said to him: "Perhaps, God forbid, [R. Yochanan] was angry?"
[R. Elazar] said to him: "What [then] did he say to you?"

He said to him: "[May] the Omnipresent bring you back in peace."

He said to him: "Had he been angry, he would not have blessed you."


4. In the meanwhile [R. Assi] learned that [his mother’s] coffin was coming.

He said: "Had I known, I would not have gone out." (Kiddushin 31b)


III. Preliminary literary analysis of the story[1]


The four parts of the story


The story is built of four parts, as we divided above. In the first part, R. Assi's mother asks her son for three things: ornaments, a husband, and a man as handsome as R. Assi. R. Assi responds to the first two requests in a positive manner, but the third request causes him to flee Eretz Israel and leave his mother alone in Babylonia. The story does not spell out the reason for his flight, but it may be surmised that R. Assi is startled by the request, which appears less than normative, to say the least.[2] The manner in which his sudden departure for Eretz Israel is formulated ("he left her and went…" – a short sentence with two successive verbs, thus expressing sharpness and suddenness) indicates that he finds it exceedingly difficult to maintain a connection with his mother under the circumstances.


In the second part, R. Assi hears that his mother has set out in his wake. He approaches R. Yochanan, his master in Eretz Israel, seeking his permission to leave the country. At this point, one who reads this story for the first time assumes that R. Assi must certainly want to continue running away. The reader is surprised to discover in the very next sentence that the purpose of R. Assi's planned departure is precisely the opposite - to greet his aged mother. It would seem that R. Assi regrets his escape, and is trying to repair his failure to properly fulfill the mitzva of honoring one's mother. R. Yochanan's response when R. Assi asks a second time is that he does not know which mitzva prevails – the mitzva of honoring one's parents, or the prohibition against leaving Eretz Israel. When R. Assi approaches him a third time, after having waited for a short period, R. Yochanan understands that it is very important to him to leave the country, so he answers: "You have determined to go; [may] the Omnipresent bring you back in peace."


The reader cannot see or hear the manner in which R. Yochanan expresses his answer. The matter is open to two interpretations. It is possible that R. Yochanan's words are uttered with impatience and anger, as if to say: "In any case, you have already made your decision; why, then, are you bothering me with your questions?" A second possibility is that these words are stated with a smile of acceptance and understanding: "I cannot come to a clear halakhic decision on the matter, and therefore I support your decision." R. Yochanan's response is not sufficiently clear in either direction. This leads to the third part of the story: R. Assi fears that perhaps he has angered his teacher. R. Elazar, a devoted disciple of R. Yochanan, who apparently knows him very well, quickly reassures R. Assi that if R. Yochanan blessed him, he is not angry, but rather supports the decision.


In the fourth part of the story, R. Assi receives the news that his mother is arriving in a coffin. He reacts to this news with the statement: "Had I known, I would not have gone out." The two halves of this closing statement can be interpreted in a variety of ways, with the message of the story depending on how this concluding sentence is interpreted. It may simply mean that had he known that his mother had died, he would not have left Eretz Israel, for the factor of honoring one's mother no longer stands against the prohibition to leave the country. The problem with this explanation is the phrase: “in the meantime" that opens the fourth part suggests that R. Assi has not yet left Eretz Israel after his conversation with R. Elazar. It seems, therefore, that the last line in the story takes us back to the beginning of the story, and that it means: "Had I known, I would not have gone out of Babylonia."[3] The sentence as a whole should thus be understood in one of the following ways, which are not different from each other in any essential way: "Had I known that my mother was soon to die, I would not have abandoned her in Babylonia, because I would have wanted to be with her in her final days" / "because I would not have wanted her to die alone" / "because I would have been able to bear the great difficulty in our relationship had I known it was only to continue for a limited amount of time," and so on.


Do the story and the passage end on a pessimistic note?


According to this interpretation, the story has a circular structure, and its end returns to its beginning. The message arising from the story, according to this interpretation, is very pessimistic: R. Assi fails to to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one's mother, and even his final attempt to improve his ways comes too late. His failure stems not from laziness or disregard of the commandment, but from the immense mental difficulty lying in their relationship, as we find not infrequently in families. This message fits in well with the passage as a whole, for our story immediately follows several other stories which also give expression to the great difficulty of this mitzva. Let us mention the most prominent of those stories:


1. The story about R. Tarfon (Kiddushin 31b), who allows his mother to use his body as a step when she goes up and down from her bed. The Sages in the Beit Midrash tell him that such a gesture fulfills the mitzva only half-way.  Full fulfillment of the mitzva depends upon passing a much more difficult test: "Has she thrown a purse before you into the sea without you shaming her?"


2. R. Yochanan, the greatest Amora in Eretz Israel, declares that fortunate is the person who has never seen his parents, and has therefore not been forced to fulfill the exceedingly difficult mission of honoring one's parents. In the continuation, it is related that R. Yochanan himself was orphaned at birth, and that it is this personal life experience that he describes in such positive terms: in his eyes, fulfilling this mitzva seems impossible.[4] It is later reported that Abaye shares R. Yochanan's fate (and apparently also his view on the matter).


On the face of it, it seems that this part of the talmudic passage, which closes with the story of R. Assi and his mother, ends with the pessimistic message that the mitzva of honoring one's parents is in many case a predictable failure. Even R. Tarfon's admirable efforts do not fulfil, according to the rabbis, half of the obligation. However, it is difficult to accept that the Gemara chooses to end the discussion of honoring one's parents on this note. While it is true that the passage contends honestly with various difficulties involved in the mitzva, it is difficult to accept that it has chosen to leave those learning the passage with a message of complete failure. Indeed, a closer literary reading of the story shows that this is not so.


iV. A Second reading of the story


Reading The story as two stories that were consolidated into one


Let us return to the structure of the story: if we carefully examine the structure, we see that part 1 and part 4 refer only to R. Assi and his mother; whereas the two inner parts, part 2 and part 3, record conversations between R. Assi and one of the Sages of Eretz Israel. It is therefore possible to divide the story into two separate stories, each of which can exist independently. One story is about R. Assi and his mother, which consists of her requests and his flight to the land of Israel, and ends with the news of her death and a sense of failure that R. Assi expresses with the words: "Had I known, I would not have gone out." The second story is about R. Assi's discussion with the Sages of Eretz Israel. It begins with the question that he asks R. Yochanan about the halakhic possibility of leaving Eretz Israel for the purpose of honoring his mother, and R. Yochanan's response. It ends with R. Assi's fear that he has angered his master, and R. Elazar's explanation that R. Yochanan was not angry, but rather granted his permission and blessing.[5]


Proof that these two stories exist independently can be brought from the Jerusalem Talmud (Nazir 7:1, 56a), where we find only the middle part of the story by itself:


R. Yasa heard that his mother came to Botzra [on her way to Eretz Israel].

He came and asked R. Yochanan: "What about leaving [Eretz Israel]?"

He said to him: "Because of the dangers of the road, you may leave; but if for the honor of your mother, I do not know."

R. Shemuel bar R. Yitzchak said: "It still needs R. Yochanan."

He was wearisome with him, and he said: "You have determined to go; [may] you come back in peace."

R. Lazar heard and said: "There is no permission greater than that."


The focus of this story is very different from that of the story reported in the Babylonian Talmud. This story deals primarily with a halakhic clarification of the matter of leaving Eretz Israel, which is decided in the end by R. Elazar, who interprets R. Yochanan's response as a positive decision. But without a doubt, this is fundamentally the same story brought by the Babylonian Talmud in Kiddushin. This indicates that the Babylonian Talmud added the parts about Rav Assi and his mother to this story, and artfully wove the two stories together to create one continuous story.


The differences between the stories in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds


It is interesting to consider the minor differences between the stories as they appear in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, which shed light on the design of the Babylonian story. In the Babylonian Talmud, R. Assi asks R. Yochanan a question three times, as opposed to two times in the Jerusalem Talmud. This structure parallels the first part of the story, where the mother makes three requests of her son. With respect to the answers as well, there is a parallelism between the two parts: R. Assi's response to his mother's first request is decisive – he provides her with the ornaments. So too R. Yochanan's first answer: "It is forbidden." R. Assi's second response is more hesitant: "I will look out for you" – he must examine the matter. So too R. Yochanan's second answer is hesitating: "I do not know." Most interesting is the contrasting parallelism between the third responses of these two Sages: The mother's third request, accompanied by pressure, is answered with R. Assi's alarm and flight, whereas R. Yochanan, when R. Assi arrives the third time and pressures him, does not remove himself, but rather draws closer, embraces and blesses him (as explained by R. Elazar). Thus, already at an early stage, the story creates a message regarding the problematic nature of R. Assi's action and the necessary repair.


Another difference in the design is also connected to the third time that R. Assi approaches R. Yochanan (in the Jerusalem Talmud, the second time). In the Jerusalem Talmud, it says that R. Assi is “wearisome (itrach) with him," meaning, he approaches with confidence and pressures R. Yochanan to give him an answer. In the Babylonian Talmud, the word itrach becomes irtach (he waited) - a slight change in the spelling, which changes the meaning. Here, R. Assi waits before questioning his master again, demonstrating a lack of confidence. Here, the story also creates a play on words with what appears later, when R. Assi asks: "Perhaps he was angry?" (mirtach ratach) – R. Assi lacks confidence and is concerned that his master is angry with him.


The Babylonian Talmud joins two stories together, one inside the other, and takes the trouble to link them by way of the parallel threefold structure in the first and second parts, giving unity and consistency to the entire story. The explanation suggested above, that the fourth part of the story relates back exclusively to the first part, is lacking. Were that the case, the Babylonian Talmud could have sufficed with bringing the short story built by joining the first and fourth parts, and nothing would have been missing. The fourth part indeed relates to the second and third parts of the story as well: R. Assi, in his discussion with R. Yochanan and R. Elazar, learns something that changes his perception, and about that he states: "Had I known" – had I known at the outset what I learned from the discussion with R. Yochanan, I would never have abandoned my mother in the first place.[6]


R. Assi's new understanding


What is R. Assi's new insight? After his discussion with R. Yochanan, R. Assi is afraid that his teacher is angry with him. He therefore interprets R. Yochanan’s response in a negative manner, as if he had said: "If in any event you will decide the matter on your own, why do you bother me with your questions?" But R. Elazar, with full confidence, interprets the response of R. Yochanan positively. This sharp transition and the unequivocal manner in which R. Elazar interprets R. Yochanan's response cause R. Assi to reflect upon the manner in which he interprets the responses and desires of others. R. Assi understands that a considerable part of the way he "reads" his communication with other people stems from his internal anxiety, and not necessarily from the reality as it is in the heart of the person standing before him. This insight, which he learns from the difference between the way he understood R. Yochanan and the manner in which R. Elazar understood him, leads him to rethink: did he correctly interpret the requests and wishes of his mother? Perhaps his mother's third request, which in accordance with his patterns of interpretation, he interpreted as a psychologically abnormal request, is in fact something else? Perhaps his mother merely wished to say that she prefers his closeness and love as a son, and not as a partner, but for some reason it was difficult for to say this in a straightforward manner, so she hinted to it by saying she wants someone 'like you'? Is it possible that all that all she had asked for was for more warmth and closeness from her son?


If our understanding is correct, the sentence: "Had I known, I would not have gone," has a double meaning. R. Assi feels not only that he missed out on time with his mother – "Had I known that she was dying" - he also feels, in the wake of his new insight, that the foundation of his attitude toward his mother was wrong. His attitude, he realizes, stemmed from his own internal thought patterns, which do not necessarily reflect reality. This is the way to understand the full meaning of the sentence: "Had I known what I learned from my experience with R. Yochanan and R. Elazar, that the alarming interpretation is liable to be the fruit of my imagination, I would not have left Babylonia and run away from my mother. I would have, instead, tried to examine her desires and feelings more deeply; it is possible that the solution lay in improving the communication between us."


In fact, it seems that one of the ways that the narrator chooses to convey the message that the initial interpretation is not necessarily the correct interpretation is by having the reader go through a similar process while reading. As was mentioned above, in the second part of the story the reader learns of R. Assi's request to leave Eretz Israel, and gets the impression that R. Assi wants to continue running away from his mother, who was coming after him. Only when R. Assi asks R. Yochanan a second time, and explains that he wants to go out to meet his mother, does the reader understand that he has wrongly judged R. Assi, misunderstanding his intentions based on past actions. In this way, the narrator illustrates for the reader that when one interprets another person's intentions, he must leave the door open to several possible directions.


R. Assi also learns another lesson from his encounter with R. Yochanan, which is emphasized by the parallelism between the conversation of R. Assi and R. Yochanan and the conversation of R. Assi and his mother. R. Yochanan responds to R. Assi's repeated appeals with warmth and patience, despite the element of harassment in those appeals. R. Assi learns from R. Yochanan that he could have responded to his mother's "harassments" with warmth and patience, rather than with flight and distance.


Understanding the story and the broader passage in a new way


Now the story and its location in the broader passage assume a new meaning. It is true that R. Assi's personal story remains tragic, seeing that when he reaches his new insight it is already too late: "In the meanwhile he learned that her coffin was coming." However, the story does not leave us with the understanding that honoring one's parents is an impossible task, but rather it allows us to learn an important lesson from R. Assi's bitter personal experience. Frequently, as we see in our own lives, difficulties in relationships with elderly parents stem from communication problems. Age gaps, personality gaps, and generational gaps often lead to a mutual misunderstanding of the needs of each side.


The insight that emerges from the story, that our understanding of another person often stems from our own fixed patterns of thinking and does not reflect the true thoughts of the other person, may make a significant contribution to the relationship between parties, and enhance a person's capacity to fulfill the mitzva of honoring one's parents. As is evident from R. Assi's experience and from other stories in the passage, the mitzva remains a difficult challenge. But the story about R. Assi sheds light on a source of the difficulty of the mitzva, and on the possibility of fulfilling it in a better way.


V. THe three partners in a person


Another key concept in the talmudic passage is the comparison drawn between a person's relationship with his parents and his relationship with God. This point arises at different points in the passage, in statements and in stories. We will cite some of them (Kiddushin 30b-31b):


Our Rabbis taught: It is stated: "Honor your father and your mother" (Shemot 20:12); and it is also stated: "Honor the Lord with your substance" (Mishlei 3:9). Thus Scripture likens the honor due to parents to that of the Omnipresent….


Our Rabbis taught: There are three partners in man: the Holy One, blessed be He, the father, and the mother. When a man honors his father and his mother, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: I ascribe [merit] to them as though I had dwelt among them and they had honored Me….


A tanna recited before R. Nachman: When a man vexes his father and his mother, the Holy One, blessed be He, says: I did right in not dwelling among them, for had I dwelt among them, they would have vexed Me….


R. Huna the son of R. Yehoshua would not walk four cubits bareheaded, saying: The Shekhina is above my head….


When R. Yosef heard his mother's footsteps he would say: I will arise before the approaching Shekhina.


This comparison emphasizes two points:


1. The obligation to honor one's parents and the obligation to honor the Shekhina have a common cause, for "there are three partners in man."


2. Great importance is attached to the mitzva of honoring one's parents, as it is compared to honoring the Shekhina. Presumably, this is a reason that stringent standards characterize the mitzva in the passage.


            However, in the wake of the interpretation that we have suggested of the story concerning R. Assi, a third point arises in connection with this comparison, and this is another contribution of the story to the broader passage: the story raises to our consciousness the difficulty of communication. In this way the story illuminates, in the context of the broader passage and the comparison found in it between parents and the Shekhina, a fundamental difficulty that also characterizes man's relationship with God. One of the most fundamental problems relating to a believer's relationship with the Shekhina is the absence of clear and direct mutual communication. The believer lives, prays and serves his God uncertain about God's desire from him at any given point. Is God pleased with him? Is he going in the right direction, or perhaps he must change the direction of his religious service and of his life? These questions have no clear answers, and this is one of the sources of the believer's difficulties. The passage does not provide a solution for this difficulty; it will continue to be a challenge for anyone who serves God, at least in a world lacking prophecy and revelation.


(Translated by David Strauss)




[1] The literary design of this story was recently discussed at length by J. Rovner, "'Rav Assi had this Old Mother': The Structure, Meaning, and Formation of a Talmudic Story," in Creation and Composition (ed. by J. L. Rubenstein), Tuebingen, 2005. The analysis that we will present below is largely based on Rovner’s analysis. However, with regard to the meaning of the story, we arrive at different conclusions, as will be explained below.

[2] This is the way the matter was understood by some of the commentaries. See, for example, Tosafot Ri ha-Zaken (ad loc.): "And he understood that she had gone crazy, and he ran away, as he could not fulfill his obligation to God." See also Gra's comment (ad loc.).

[3] There is a difficulty with this explanation as well, for in all other instances in the story the term "leave" refers to leaving Eretz Israel. Hence, every explanation has its difficulty, and the story is open to various interpretations. Nevertheless, owing to the specific notation of time at the beginning of the fourth part of the story, we prefer the explanation: "Had I known, I would not have left Babylonia."

[4] This is what follows from Rashi's commentary, s.v. ashrei mi shelo chama'an, Kiddush 31b: "For it is impossible to fulfill the mitzva of honoring them as is necessary, and he is punished on account of them."

[5] This analysis of the structure of the story has been suggeseted by Jay Rovner, "Rav Assi had this Old Mother": The Structure, Meaning and Formation of a Talmudic Story", Creation and Composition: The Contribution of the Bavli Redactors (Stammaim) to the Aggada, ed. J. L. Rubenstein (Tübingen, 2005), pp. 101-124. However, on the basis of the same strucural analysis I suggest a different interpretation to the story than Rovner does.

[6] Most of the points raised up until now were raised already by Robner (above, note 2). From here on, we suggest a different interpretation for understanding the meaning of the story.