Talmud

Bava Metzia 114

Elijah in Eden.

According to the biblical Book of Kings, Elijah the prophet never died but, at the end of his life on earth, was swept up into the heavens in a fiery chariot. Ever since, the Jewish people have been telling stories about their encounters with him as he comes back to visit the land of the living.

Today, we read a story about Rabba bar Avuh bumping into Elijah in a non-Jewish cemetery and taking advantage of the moment to ask — what else — a variety of legal questions, including one about debtors (which connects the story to the legal material we have been studying). Elijah answers the halakhic questions and then Rabba bar Avuh asks a more personal one:

Is not the master a priest? What is the reason that the master is standing in a cemetery? 

The Bible says nothing about Elijah being a priest, but some traditions imagine that he is. Priests are prohibited from coming into contact with the dead and so Elijah’s presence in a cemetery is alarming to Rabba bar Avuh. But here too Elijah offers a legal answer:

Has the master not studied the mishnaic Order of Tahorot? As it is taught in a beraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai says that the graves of gentiles do not render one impure …

It’s difficult to judge the tone of this answer. Was Elijah expressing genuine surprise that Rabba bar Avuh had not studied this more arcane and difficult tractate? Or was he chiding him for not doing so? Either way, Rabba bar Avuh does not seem to take offense, but rather points out that he is not learned enough to be expected to know this material:

Rabba bar Avuh said to him: If I cannot be proficient in the (more commonly studied) four (orders of the Mishnah), can I be knowledgeable in all six?

Again, Elijah offers an answer that is deceptively simply:

Why?

Why is Rabba bar Avuh not more learned? Once again, it’s not clear if there is an edge of critique, or if this is just a straightforward question. Rabba bar Avuh answers simply that he has to work to support himself and his family so he does not have as much time to study as he would like. You might be surprised as to what happens next:

Elijah brought him (Rabba bar Avuh) into the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Remove your cloak, gather up and take some of these leaves lying around.” Rabba Bar Avuh gathered them up and took them. 

For the rabbis, the Garden of Eden is not just the primordial paradise, it is also the place where the righteous will spend their days when their time on earth has ended. As will soon become clear, even the leaves that have fallen from the trees in Eden have great value in the world of the living and, in giving Rabba bar Avuh access to them, Elijah seeks to provide him with sustenance so that he will be unimpeded in his studies. But as Rabba bar Avuh, his cloak bundled around a pile of leaves, turns to go, a heavenly voice cries out:

Who else consumes his World-to-Come like Rabba bar Avuh? 

Understanding that it is wrong to borrow from his portion of Olam ha-Bah (the World to Come) to support himself in Olam ha-Zeh (the present world), Rabba bar Avuh drops the leaves before he exits the garden. But, the Gemara reports:

When he brought his cloak back, he discovered that the cloak had absorbed such a good scent from those leaves that he sold it for 12,000 dinars and divided the sum among his sons-in-law.

Even the lingering aroma of Eden is enough to provide financial security for his family, allowing Rabba bar Avuh to turn his attention to the study of Torah. Talmudic tradition reports that he rose to become the exilarch and his teachings are recorded throughout the Talmud.

The story of Rabba bar Avuh’s encounter with Elijah offers hope to those facing the struggles of this world: Be on the lookout for Elijah who may come to lighten your burden and transform your life. Yet, in our world, where the mythical Elijah rarely materializes to support those who are struggling, perhaps we should take a different lesson: Be like Elijah and use what you have to help uplift someone who is in need of support. You might just earn your place in Olam ha-Bah by helping someone else fulfill their destiny in Olam ha-Zeh.

Read all of Bava Metzia 114 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 22, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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