The Rime of the Ancient Talmudist (Ketubot 62b)

Rabbi Chanina ben Chakinay set out for the home of his rabbi at the end of the wedding of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Chanina, “Wait for me, and I’ll come with you.” He [R. Chanina] did not wait. He went, and he sat learning at the home of his rabbi for twelve years. By the time he left, all the roads of the city had changed, and he did not know how to get home. He went and sat by the river. He heard young girls calling out, “Bat Chakinay, Bat Chakinay, fill up your jug and let’s go.” He said, “This must be our child!” He followed her. His wife was sitting and sifting flour. She lifted up her eyes, saw him, her heart leaped up, and her soul fled from her. Bar Chakinay said, “Master of the Universe! Is this a proper reward for the humble?” He asked for mercy upon his wife, and she lived. (Ketubot 62b)

This aggadah is part of a longer series of aggadot about Torah scholars who choose the value of study over the value of spending time at home. Following on the heels of a mishnah about the frequency with which a Torah scholar is obligated to have sex with his wife, this next aggadic section of the Gemara describes several rabbis who abandon their wives for long periods of time in order to study in the Beit Midrash. One rabbi stays away from home for so long that his young bride becomes infertile; and another stays in the study house for so many years that his community assumes he is dead. Essentially, then, this sugya is about the tension between family and career – in amoraic terms.

Of all these aggadot, it is the one I quote above that intrigues me most, perhaps because of its rich matrix of symbols and associations. The story begins at the end of a wedding, which marks the start of married life. Instead of internalizing the values and obligations outlined in the ketubah, the ever-pious wedding guest (with long grey beard and glittering eye) rushes off after the festivities to go study Torah. Yet the Talmud suggests that perhaps Bar Chakinay knows, on some level, that his conduct is not entirely above-board. After all, he refuses to wait for his newly-married friend who wishes to come with him to the Beit Midrash. Bar Chakinay may simply be too compulsive to delay his journey; but I suspect that he realizes that it would not be wise for his friend to desert his new bride. And so he sets off alone.

O sweeter than the marriage feast, ‘Tis sweeter far to me…

Twelve years go by, and then it is time to go home. The Gemara does not explain why Bar Chakinay leaves the Beit Midrash when he does. Does he suddenly feel pangs of longing for his wife and children? Does his rabbi insist that he return home? Did an albatross suddenly fly through the fog? In any case, by the time he finally leaves, all the roads of the city have changed – a magical realist trope worthy of Borges or Allende. Bar Chakinay has, quite literally, lost his way – he has no sense of orcha d’milta, the path that a person should follow in this world. And so he sits by the river, the place of weeping, and stares off into space.

I looked upon the rotting sea / And drew my eyes away.

But God seems to want Bar Chakinay to find his way home. Suddenly he hears the name of his own daughter shouted out by the children playing at the water’s edge. Or rather, it is his own name that he hears, since she is just Bat to his Bar. The children cry, “Fill up your jug and let’s go” – a reference, perhaps, to filling up the empty vessel that is his wife’s womb, a task Bar Chakinay has long neglected. “This must be our child,” he says, and his use of the plural is striking. Perhaps he feels so estranged from his daughter that he cannot call her “my daughter” anymore. Presumably he would not even have recognized her had the children not identified her, since she was no more than a baby when he left home.

Bar Chakinay, who has chosen the value of Torah above all others, follows his daughter along the new and unfamiliar roads of his hometown. At the threshold of his house, he finds his wife sifting flour, a task that stands in contradistinction to Torah study. “Im ein kemach ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein kemach,” as the Mishnah teaches in Pirkei Avot. Man cannot live either by Torah or by bread alone.

Bar Chakinay’s woman of valor has managed to survive for over a decade without her husband. She has raised her children to Bar Mitzvah age; she has made a living by means of the work of her own hands. A few times each year, in moments of weakness or prayer, she would look out through the window longingly — though she dared not whisper “He comes, he comes.” And then, when she had all but given up hope, he came. Bar Chakinay’s wife looked up, saw her husband standing before her, and died of shock — “parach rucha.” She was so accustomed to a world in which her husband did not exist that the sight of him upset her whole sense of reality.

The souls did from their bodies fly.

Fortunately, Bar Chakinay, after twelve years in the Beit Midrash, was on intimate terms with God. He was able to revive his wife through his prayers alone, on the merit of all his years of study. Herein lies the paradox. Had Bar Chakinay not studied for so long, God might not have interceded on his behalf. But had he not been away at the Beit Midrash for so many years, his wife would not have been so surprised to see him, and she would not have suddenly died. In any case, God answers his prayer, and she is revived.

He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.

Did Bar Chakinay ever go back to the Beit Midrash? Or did the red-lipped, white-as-leprosy Life-in-Death of his wife jolt him into an awareness of the value of being a good husband and father? I’d like to think that the couple lived happily ever after, sifting flour together while teaching Torah to their daughter….

A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.

One thought on “The Rime of the Ancient Talmudist (Ketubot 62b)

  1. Philipos says:

    I’m not sure we can easily translate the sugya as being about the modern “tension between family and career”. After all, the woman stays at home and makes kemach, meaning she pursues a career. It seems that being with your family and providing for you family on the one hand, are contrasted with spiritual pursuits on the other hand. I was intrigued by your happy ending. Never going to the beit midrash is probably better than never staying at home with the family but I’m not sure it’s the perfect happy ending.


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