Taanit 9

Notes from the road.

Some people can’t get enough of traveling for business. They love traveling around the country, visiting new locales, seeing the sites, and sampling new cuisine, among other things. Others can’t bear the thought of sleeping anywhere but their own bed, preferring the comfort of home and all of its amenities.

We’ve met the nakhotei before, Amoraim who travelled between Israel and Babylonia and furthered the exchange of knowledge, legal decisions and a lot of other information between the two rabbinic centers. Today, we read about Ulla, one of the nakhotei, and learn a bit about how he responded to life on the road. Most of the time, the Gemara shares the teachings that Ulla brings with him when comes to Babylonia. On today’s daf, we get a glimpse of his travel journal, as it were:

Ulla happened to come to Babylonia, he saw erupting clouds. He said to the local residents: Put away your vessels, as the rain is coming now. Ultimately, despite the presence of erupting clouds, rain did not fall. 

Ulla sees clouds in the sky which suggest to him that rain is on the way. He confidently shares his meteorological projection with the locals that he encounters. When the rains fail to materialize, rather than reflect inward about his perhaps patronizing inclination to help strangers prepare for rough weather or the foolishness of his assumption that he could interpret weather patterns in a strange place, Ulla exclaims:

Just as Babylonians are liars, so too, their rains are liars.

While it’s not clear if he is speaking about Babylonians in general or about the Jewish community in Babylonia in particular, it is apparent that he is not enamored by the residents of the place to which he travels regularly. 

The Gemara continues with another story about Ulla’s disgruntlement in Babylonia:

Ulla happened to come to Babylonia. He saw a basket full of dates on sale for one dinar, and he said: One can buy a basket full of honey dates for a dinar, and yet these Babylonians do not occupy themselves with Torah!

Ulla quickly calculates the length of the work week that is needed to fill one’s cupboards with dates, based on the food prices he observes in the local market. Given how cheap the food is, he ungenerously determines that his local colleagues should have plenty of hours left for the study of Torah and could, or should, be producing much more Torah than they actually are. 

But this time, Ulla learns a new lesson:

Ulla himself ate many dates, but during the night they caused him pain. 

Ulla takes advantage of the bargain price and acquires his own basket of honey dates. He eats his fill or, perhaps, more than his fill and winds up with a stomach ache. (Not an uncommon experience for a tourist!)

He subsequently said: A basket full of knives for a dinar, and yet somehow these Babylonians are able to occupy themselves with Torah!

The experience reverses his perspective. This time, Ulla’s tone is not accusatory but laudatory. Given how poorly these dates digest, it’s amazing how anyone learns any Torah in Babylonia!

These stories give us insights into human nature and display a range of responses to being away from home. Ulla depicts how people can be judgmental of others and how experiences can change perspective. His story cautions us about jumping too quickly to judgement and the dangers of over indulging in tasty treats. And this too is Talmud.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 21th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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