Bavli Gittin 55b-56b: An Aggadic Narrative in Its Halakhic Context

By Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 1997 | Go to article overview

Bavli Gittin 55b-56b: An Aggadic Narrative in Its Halakhic Context


Rubenstein, Jeffrey L., Hebrew Studies Journal


This study analyzes the aggadic narrative of Qamza and Bar Qamza, the siege of Jerusalem and R. Yohanan b. Zakkai's escape, found in Bavli Gittin 55b-56b. The first section presents a close reading of the story with attention to literary and stylistic features. The second section discusses the story in its halakhic context, namely the Mishna with which it is juxtaposed and the content of the proximate chapters of Tractate Gittin. While many scholars have analyzed aspects of this story, they have focused primarily on historical issues or source-critical questions regarding the four versions that appear in different rabbinic documents.' To date there is no comprehensive literary analysis of the version found in Bavli Gittin, nor an assessment of the story's setting in that section of Talmud. (2)

A brief word on composition and structure is in order. The Bavli narrative begins with the episode of Qamza and Bar Qamza and concludes with R. Yohanan b. Zakkai's escape from Jerusalem and encounter with Vespasian. Two semi-autonomous scenes come between these two main episodes: an account of Nero's approach and the tragedy of Martah. In addition, two statements attributed to R. Yohanan and two attributed to Rav Yosef or R. Akiba interrupt the otherwise anonymous voice of the narrator. I shall refer to the sections as follows:

Ia. R. Yohanan's lemma; Prov 28:14

I. Qamza and Bar Qamza banquet scene

II. Bar Qamza, the blemished sacrifice, and R. Zecharia b. Avqulos

IIa. R. Yohanan's comment on the meekness of R. Zecharia b. Avqulos

III. Nero's approach and conversion

IV. Vespasian's siege; the rich men, the thugs, and the rabbis

V. Martah tragedy

VI. Abba Siqra and R. Yohanan b. Zakkai; the escape

VII. R. Yohanan b. Zakkai greets Vespasian as king; snake parable

VIIa. Comment of Rav Yosef / R. Akiba

VIII. The messenger; the shoes; Vespasian grants a request

VIIIa. Second comment of Rav Yosef / R. Akiba and response

The four main episodes (Qamza and Bar Qamza, Nero, Martah, R. Yohanan b. Zakkai) probably were independent originally. (3) The Bavli storytellers wove the traditions together into a larger composition by creating a sequential plot and adding connecting phrases (4) III connects to II with the opening phrase "He sent Nero Caesar against them." The indefinite "He" refers back to the emperor mentioned in II who had "sent a fine calf" with Bar Qamza. IV depends on the earlier scenes with the opening phrase "He sent Vespasian Caesar against him," which echoes the sending of Nero in III and refers again to the emperor in II. After IV concludes with the statement "there was famine," V relates how Martah sought food to no avail. (This connection derives from the flow of the plot, not from a connecting phrase.) R. Yohanan b. Zakkai laments Martah's death at the end of V and then approaches Abba Siqra, the head of the thugs (baryone) in VI. Moreover, the conflict between thugs and rabbis in VI continues the conflict between the two parties in IV. VII-VIIIa continue the story of R. Yohanan b. Zakkai following his escape from Jerusalem. These sections refer to Vespasian with definite pronouns, and we know his identity only because we have been told that he besieged Jerusalem in IV.

I belabor this point because it is crucial to define the boundaries of the story. Some scholars consider this passage a collection of independent stories rather than one extended story and treat the constituent parts rather than the whole. (5) Yet these connections demonstrate that the episodes depend on one another and that they should not be read outside of the present framework. If we are to understand what the story meant to the Bavli storytellers, we must analyze it in its entirety.

The story is structured by an orderly temporal and causal sequence. A consistent narrative voice relates one scene after the next in chronological order.

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