Talmud pages

Bava Kamma 117

Rabbi Yohanan, wounding healer.

Our daf offers a long story that begins when Rav Kahana kills a fellow Jew in Babylonia. Why? Because the man was preparing to share information with the imperial authorities that would bring harm to another Jew — and refused to heed Rav’s stern warning not to do it. Now Rav Kahana, having killed one man to protect another, is himself in danger from the authorities, so Rav advises him to run away to the land of Israel. There, Rav suggests, he can study with the illustrious Rabbi Yohanan, with one caveat: 

Accept upon yourself that you will not raise any difficulties to the statements of Rabbi Yohanan for seven years.

We don’t initially know why Rav told Rav Kahana not to challenge the great teacher of the land of Israel, though the reason becomes clearer as the story progresses. Rabbi Yohanan turns out to be extremely sensitive — and dangerous.

When Rav Kahana arrives in the land of Israel, he first seeks out Reish Lakish, who immediately recognizes the former’s enormous intellect and reports it to his close friend and colleague, Rabbi Yohanan:

A lion has ascended from Babylonia.

Neither Reish Lakish nor Rabbi Yohanan are aware that Rav Kahana promised to refrain from challenging Rabbi Yohanan’s teachings for seven years, so they do not know why he offers nothing of substance the next day during Rabbi Yohanan’s lectures. His silence leads Rabbi Yohanan to mistakenly believe that Rav Kahana is not much of a scholar, and he demotes him from the first row of students to the eighth row in the back of the classroom, derisively remarking to Resh Lakish:

The lion you mentioned has become a fox

An exile now relegated to the back of a foreign classroom, Rav Kahana prays to God to allow his “seven row demotion” to replace his seven-year promise to hold his tongue. The next day, the “lion” shows his true abilities — posing learned challenges to Rabbi Yohanan’s teachings the latter cannot refute. As Rav Kahana’s challenges land in rapid succession, Rabbi Yohanan sequentially removes the seven cushions upon which he sits, physically lowering himself to acknowledge Rav Kahana’s scholarly supremacy. 

In this encounter, Rabbi Yohanan was gracious. However, his darker side now emerges:

Rabbi Yohanan was an old man and his eyebrows drooped over his eyes. He said to his students: “Uncover my eyes and I will see Rav Kahana” … and he saw that Rav Kahana’s lips were split and thought that Rav Kahana was smirking at him. He was offended, and Rav Kahana died.

Rabbi Yohanan, who is a well-known healer in the Talmud, is also known to use his powers to destroy others when he is offended or angered. But in this case, the offense was completely misplaced — Rav Kahana wasn’t smirking at all, parted lips were just part of his usual appearance. Rabbi Yohanan learns this truth from his students the next day. Chastened, and presumably horrified, Rabbi Yohanan hurries to Rav Kahana’s burial cave. When he arrives, he finds that a snake has wrapped itself around the mouth of the cave, placing its own tail in its mouth to make a tight loop, and refuses to let him enter until he humbly acknowledges Rav Kahana as his teacher. Only then does the serpent move aside by — fittingly — opening its mouth (as Rav Kahana had done).

Later in the Talmud, on Bava Metzia 84a, we will read a similar story in which Rabbi Yohanan’s dark emotional reaction to a perceived slight causes the death of a colleague — this time his close friend and havruta, Reish Lakish. Rabbi Yohanan never recovers from that horrific tragedy.

On today’s daf, there’s a happier ending. Once Rabbi Yohanan gains entry to Rav Kahana’s burial chamber, he prays for divine mercy and brings Rav Kahana back from the dead. The two have a chat and become reconciled. Together, they return to the house of study.

Our story is tightly organized by groups of seven and ironic reversals. This contrasts with its wildly chaotic themes of killing, hypersensitivity, and rapid fluctuation between gracious humility and arrogant petulance. Rabbi Yohanan’s irascible hypersensitivity is on full display here as elsewhere in the Talmud where, more than once, his temper, combined with his enormous power, causes him to wound or even kill others.

The theologian Henri Nouwen describes spiritual leaders as wounded healers who help others achieve wholeness by accompanying them through life’s struggles. Recognizing their own brokenness, they can empathize with and help others who are broken. Rabbi Yohanan, sadly, is a healer who is both wounded and, all too often, wounding. Sometimes, his own brokenness causes him to break others. His story reminds us that those in possession of enormous powers of healing must be very careful how they wield it.

Read all of Bava Kamma 117 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 27, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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