RABBAH B. NAḤMANI:
Babylonian amora of the third generation; born about 270; died about 330; a descendant of a priestly family of Judea which traced its lineage to the prophet Eli (R. H. 18a). He was a pupil of R. Huna at Sura and of R. Judah b. Ezekiel at Pumbedita, and so distinguished himself as a student that R. Huna, seldom decided a question of importance without consulting him (comp. Giṭ. 27a; B. M. 18b; B. B. 172b; Yeb. 61b). His brethren in Palestine were little pleased with his residence in Babylonia, and wrote to him to come to the Holy Land, where he would find a teacher in R. Johanan, since it would be far better for him, wise though he was, to have a guide than to rely on himself in his studies (Ket. 111a). Rabbah, however, seems not to have answered this urgent request, and apparently never left Babylonia, all supposed evidence to the contrary being refuted by Bacher ("Ag. Bab. Amor," pp. 97 et seq.). In Shebu. 10b and Ned. 57a, where Rabbah is asked by R. Ḥisda, "Who will listen to thee and thy teacher R. Johanan?" the latter is only figuratively called Rabbah's teacher. There is no foundation for the theory which attributes to Rabbah the authorship of the haggadic compilation Bereshit Rabbah and of the other midrashic works bearing the designation of "Rabbah" (Abraham ibn Daud, "Sefer ha-Ḳabbalah," in Neubauer, "M. J. C." p. 58).Halakist.
Rabbah was not a prolific haggadist and was, therefore, scarcely fitted to project such a collection of haggadot. While most of his halakic aphorisms have been preserved, only about ten of his haggadic sayings are known (Sanh. 21b, 26b; Shab. 64a; Pes. 68b; Meg. 15b; Ḥag. 5b; 'Ar. 8b; 'Er. 22a; Giṭ. 31b); evidently he had little interest in haggadic exegesis. His main attention was devoted to the Halakah, which he endeavored to elucidate by interpreting the mishnaic decisions and the baraitot, and by determining the fundamental reasons for the various Pentateuchal and rabbinical laws and explaining the apparent contradictions contained in them. He often asks: "Why did the Torah command this?" "Why did the sages forbid this?" His keen dialectics won him the name of "'Oḳer Harim" (uprooter of mountains; Ber. 64a), since he deduced new conclusions by separating individual passages from their normal context. He did not confine his interest to the practical ordinances of the Mishnah, however, like his teacher R. Judah, but studied the entire six mishnaic orders (Ta'an. 24a, b), and even in the remoter subject of the Levitical regulations on cleanness and uncleanness he was the leading authority (B. M. 86a).At Pumbedita.
On the death of R. Judah, Rabbah was elected "resh metibta" of the Academy of Pumbedita, which office he held until his death, twenty-two years later (Ber. 64a; Letter of Sherira Gaon, in Neubauer, "M. J. C." pp. 30-31). He greatly increased the prestige of the academy and attracted a host of auditors, so that during the "kallah" months his audience is said to have numbered twelve thousand (B. M. 86a). He was wont to begin his lectures with witty aphorisms and interesting anecdotes which put his audience in a cheerful mood and made it receptive of serious thoughts (Shab. 30b).
Rabbah frequently tested the judgment of his audience, and quickened its attention by captious questions and paradoxical halakot (Ber. 33b). With all his critical ability, however, he was unable to free himself from certain views on demonology which he shared with his colleagues (Ḥul. 105; comp. Bacher, l.c. p. 101, note). Rabbah was highly esteemed by scholars, but was hated by the people of Pumbedita because of his severe and frequent denunciation of their fraudulent proclivities (Shab. 153a; Rashi ad. loc.).
Rabbah and his family lived in great poverty, and seem to have suffered various calamities; even his death was a wretched one. The charge was brought against him that during the kallah months his twelve thousand auditors took advantage of his lectures to escape their poll-tax. Bailiffs were sent to seize him; but, being warned, he fled, and wandered about in the vicinity of Pumbedita. His body, which had been concealed by the birds (B. M. 86a),was found in a thicket where he had hidden from his pursuers. Many legends exist concerning his death (ib.).
- Heilprin, Seder ha-Dorot, ii. 332-334, Warsaw, 1882;
- Weiss, Dor, iii. 190-191;
- Halevy, Dorot ha-Rishonim, ii. 218a-220a;
- Grätz, Gesch. iv. 322-327;
- Bacher, Ag. Bab. Amor. pp. 97-101.