They said to Rava: Why did you not come down to the house of Abidan?
He said to them: There is a certain palm tree on the road, and it is difficult for me to navigate around it.
They said to him: We’ll uproot it.
He replied: That route will still be difficult for me to navigate.
Rava, full of dubious excuses, is obviously reluctant to visit the mysterious “house of Abidan.” But why?
The house of Abidan is first mentioned on today’s daf by Yosef ben Hanin who asks Rabbi Abbahu if one is permitted to save its books from a fire on Shabbat. In the case of Jewish-owned sacred writings, the answer, as we learned yesterday, is unambiguous: yes. In the case of the books of the house of Abidan, Rabbi Abbahu isn’t sure. This suggests that the house of Abidan is a non-Jewish place, but possibly contains writings sacred to Jews.
The ambiguity doesn’t end there. The Talmud reports that while some Babylonian sages eschew the house of Abidan, others don’t. Rav, like Rava, refused to go — but Shmuel did. Mar bar Yosef is more positive, declaring: “I am one of them, and I do not fear them.” Yet, we also learn that one time, “they sought to endanger his life.”
It is hinted that the danger of the place is not physical, but intellectual and spiritual. According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, channeling the writings of the geonim (post-Talmudic Babylonian sages), one of the greatest Talmud scholars of the last century, “the house of Abidan was a well-known courtyard in which there were books of knowledge from all nations. Scholars and wise men from all nations gathered there to discuss wisdom.” Rashi goes a step further, calling it a place for religious disputation which housed Jewish books used by its members to prepare arguments against Judaism. Some scholars suggest that it was populated specifically by early Judeo-Christians; or perhaps that it was a place for idolatrous feasts to which Jews were summoned during the Hadrianic persecutions.
The house of Abidan comes up again in a more sinister narrative about the trials of Rabbis Elazar ben Perata and Hanina ben Teradyon, set during the Hadrianic persecutions. On Avodah Zarah 17b, the sages recount that Roman prosecutors tried to force Rabbi Elazar into confessing that he was guilty of teaching Torah and other crimes, including failing to answer a summons to the house of Abidan. Like Rava, Rabbi Elazar offers weak-sounding excuses that, conveniently, flatter the prosecution: I was old and feared that perhaps I would be trampled under foot due to the huge crowds. And yet a third mention of the house of Abidan appears on Shabbat 152a where, again, it seems that a rabbi was summoned, rather than invited — he too offered an excuse of being too infirm to attend.
To this day, the identity (or identities) of the house of Abidan remains a mystery. Rashi apparently reads these stories through the lens of the religious disputations which were a defining part of the medieval European Jewish experience. Steinsaltz, a contemporary scholar, imagines a place in which wise people from all nations come together to engage with each other intellectually (mirroring some of his own experience). The uncertainty is embedded in the Talmud itself; the sages are not sure if it’s a place that is safe to visit — or if its sacred books should be rescued from fire on Shabbat.