Sugya of the Month: Kicking Back with Rabbah bar Rav Huna – BT.Shabbat 157B

Albert Kohn, JTS Columbia University

Tractate Shabbat, one of the longest books of the Babylonian Talmud, contains every type of rabbinic discussion one could imagine. For those slowly working their way through the 157 folios, there is a rare, satisfying blend of technical Halakhic debates and dense Aggadic folklore. Yet, the concluding segment offers a glance at a topic rarely brought to light in rabbinic thought—fun.

The section begins with a citation from the Mishna found on 157A discussing the permissibility of measuring on Shabbat:

ומדבריהם למדנו שפוקקין ומודדין וקושרין בשבת

And from these things [referring to an action done by Abba Shaul ben Botnit] we learn that one may seal a crack, measure and tie a knot on Shabbat.

From here the Talmud cites a story which elaborates upon this ruling:

עולא איקלע לבי ריש גלותא

Ulah went to visit the Reish Galuta [the leader of the Jews in Babylonia]:

חזייה לרבה בר רב הונא דיתיב באוונא דמיא וקא משח ליה

There he saw Rabbah the son of Rav Huna sitting in an Anava (Rashi: an upturned barrel) of water and measuring it.

אמר ליה: אימר דאמרי רבנן מדידה דמצוה, דלאו מצוה מי אמור?

He [Ulah] remarked: It is said that the sages say that one may measure [on Shabbat] for the sake of ritual obligations, but who says one may do so for things not ritually obligated?

אמר ליה: מתעסק בעלמא אנא

Rabbah the son of Rav Huna responded: I am just busying myself in things.

This Aggadah seems to be, in classical fashion, there to demonstrate a Halakhic point: One may measure on Shabbat provided that it is either for a Mitzvah or for no purpose at all. Yet, though this meaning is certainly valid, one may also glean a subtle underbelly of this story by simply envisioning the narrative. Ulah has just walked into the house of the most politically important Jew in Babylonia for a Shabbat visit and finds his fellow-scholar sitting in a barrel filled with water, something in modern parlance I might call a bathtub. Yet, he is not bathing, rather he is busying himself, “מתעסק בעלמא,” by measuring the water as it rises and recedes with the sways of his body  The whole premise of the Halakhic argument is that Rabbah is doing absolutely nothing constructive and thereby his actions are non-reprehensible; not to jump into any philosophical questions, but that sounds like ‘fun’ to me. The playfulness of this scene is only furthered by the fact that it occurs in the home of the Reish Galuta, thereby bringing together both the religious and political leaders of the Jewish people. It is rather refreshing, after fighting through over 150 folios of Halakhic logic and tough Aramaic, to arrive at this serene image of respected Jewish leaders kicking back in a way reminiscent of Sesame Street’s Ernie and Rubber-Ducky. I cannot tell you what the meta-principle being taught here is, but I may suggest that maybe it is telling us that not every moment of our life has to be of grand moral significance and sometimes we just need to kickback in the tub.