Unpublished and incomplete article.
Z.H. Chajes (1805-1885), in his well-known notes to the Babylonian Talmud printed in the Vilna Romm edition, observes that the story of Abba Hilkiah (Ta’anit 23a-b) is paralleled by the passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 1: 4, 64b-c) where the hero of the story is not Abba Hilkiah but a certain saint (hasida) of Kfar o Immi. Chajes remarks that the phenomenon is often found in Midrashim and Aggadot of attributing the same story to persons living in different places and times. This is well-known, as Chajes states, to students of the Rabbinic Midrash. What Chajes does not explain is why the stories themselves appear in two different versions. The aim of this article is to compare the two versions and note the differences in presentation. First the two different versions are given in paraphrase.
The BT version
Abba Hilkiah was the grandson of Honi Ha-Meagel. It once happened that rain was needed so the Rabbis sent a pair of scholars to him that he should pray for the rain to fall. They went to his house but did not find him at home. They went to the field where they found him hoeing the ground. They greeted him but he ignored them, in the evening he gathered chips of wood and, on his way home, he carried the wood on one shoulder and his cloak on the other shoulder. All along the way home he did not put his shoes on but when he had to cross water he put them on. When he came to thorns and thistles he lifted up his garments. When he came to the city, his wife came out to meet him dressed in her finery. When he reached the gate of his house, he let her go in first and he followed her. He sat down to eat his meal but did not invite the scholars to join him. When he apportioned the bread to his children, he gave one portion to the older child but two to the younger. He said to his wife: ‘I know that the scholars have come to ask me to pray that the rain should fall. Let us go onto the roof and offer supplication, perhaps the Holy One, blessed be He, will accept our prayers and the rain will fall’. H e stood in one corner and his wife in another corner. The clouds appeared first near the corner where his wife stood. When he came down from the roof he asked the scholars why they had come to him. The scholars replied: ‘The Rabbis sent us to the Master to offer supplication that the rain should come’. He said: ‘Blessed be the Omnipresent who has not placed you in need of Abba Hilkiah’. The scholars said: ‘We know full well that the rain has come because of the Master but we should like the Master to explain his astonishing conduct: Why, when we greeted the Master, did the Master ignore us?’. ‘I hired myself out for the day and could not spare the time’. ‘Why did the Master place the wood on one shoulder and the cloak on the other?’ ‘It was a borrowed cloak. It had been lent to me for this purpose but not for the other’. ‘Why did the Master not wear shoes all along the way but put them on when reaching water?’ ‘All the way along I could see what was in front of me but in the water I could not see’. ‘Why did the Master lift up his garments when he came to the thorns and thistles?’ ‘Because the one heals, the other does not’. ‘Why did the Master’s wife come out to greet him in her finery?’ ‘So that I should not gaze at other women’. ‘Why did the Master let his wife go in first and then followed her?’ ‘Because I had not known if you are to be trusted’. ‘Why did the Master not invite us to take the meal with him?’ ‘There wasn’t enough for you and I did not want you to thank me for nothing’. ‘Why did the Master give only one portion to the older son but two to the younger?’ ‘This one stays at home but the other goes to school’. ‘Why did the clouds first appear over the corner where the Master’s wife stood?’. ‘Because a woman stays at home and the benefit the poor receive from her is more immediate. Or it may be because of certain ruffians in our neighbourhood. I prayed that they should die but she prayed that they should repent of their evil ways’.
The JT version
It was shown to the Rabbis in a dream that when a certain saint in Kfar Immi would offer prayers the rains would fall. The Rabbis went to him but his wife told them that he was working on the mountain. ‘Be strong’ they greeted him but he made no reply. When he sat down to eat he did not invite them to join him. Before he made ready to leave he gathered some wood and placed the cloak over. When he arrived home he said to his wife: ‘These Rabbis want me to pray for rain but if I pray and the rain will come it will prove to be a disgrace to the Rabbis. On the other hand, if I do not pray it will result in a profanation of the divine name. So let us both go up and pray together, if the rain falls we can say to the Rabbis that Heaven has already performed miracles and if not we can protest that we are not worthy to pray ad fast’. So they went up to pray and the rain did fall. He said to them: ‘Why did the Rabbis bother to come to us this day?’ They replied: ‘To ask you to pray for rain’. He said: ‘You have no need for my prayer since Heaven has already performed the miracle’. They asked him: ‘Why, when wished you: “Be strong”, on the mountain you ignored us?’ ‘I was at my work and could not be distracted from my work’. ‘Why, when you sat down to eat, did you not invite us to join you?’ ‘Because I only had enough for my own needs and did not wish to trick you into believing I was really offering you some of it’. ‘Why, when you began to leave did you put the cloak on top of the wood?’ ‘It was not my cloak and was only lent to me that I pray in it and the wood might have torn it’. ‘Why was your wife wearing drab garments when she was at home and yet wearing immaculate garments when she came out to meet you?’ ‘When I am working on the mountain she wears drab garments so that strange men should not find her attractive. But she wears immaculate garments when I am at home that I might not be tempted to find other women attractive’. They said to him: ‘You Sir, are indeed worthy to pray and fast for the rain to come’.
The basic thrust in both versions is to demonstrate that the saint with a reputation as a rainmaker tries to hide his powers, both out of humility and out of the need not to embarrass scholars who, while greater than he in learning, do not have his spiritual and moral qualities. In both versions the saint is not at home to receive the people who clamour at his door, as we might have expected a miracle worker to be, but is busy at a quite ordinary occupation by which he earns his bread. In order to hide his charisma, he, at first, leaves the scholars puzzled by what appears to be bizarre conduct. He is rude to the scholars, he does not invite them to join him at his meal, he carries his cloak instead of wearing it, and his wife comes out to greet him in her finery, as if they were newly wedded love birds. The impression the scholars get, and this is his intention, is that, far from being a great saint with his mind on heavenly things, he is a coarse nobody and gauche to boot. Moreover, while he knows his powers, he exercises these in stealth and is aided by his wife. But the scholars eventually see through his subterfuge, especially when he gives a moral explanation for his odd behaviour. We are reminded of the very late legend (probably influenced ultimately by Talmudic stories such as this) of the Lammedvovniks, the hidden saints who appear as quite ordinary men; with the difference that the Lammedvovniks remain hidden while in our story the hero’s secret is eventually out. Yet even when the saint is acknowledged as such, he leaves a loophole through which a subtle question mark is inserted : is it true that he can bring rain or can it all be a mere coincidence?
The two versions are linguistically at variance, obviously so since the Aramaic of the JT is different from that of the BT. But there are differences also in the presentation, in the plotting of the story. The JT version knows nothing of the saint removing his shoes; of him lifting his garments; of the saint’s two children, to one of whom he gives a double portion; of the clouds appearing at the wife’s corner and the reason for this; and of the wife going in first because the scholars can possibly be suspected of molesting her. In the BT version it is far from clear for what purpose the garment was lent to the saint for use in the field (was it to keep him warm while he is working outside?). In the JT version it was a special garment used for prayer. In the JT version he carries both the wood and the garment together but, contrary to what people usually do, instead of placing the garment on his shoulder with the wood on top he places the garment on top so that it is not torn by the pressure of the wood. In the JT version the saint partakes of his meal while he is working on the mountain. In the BT version he eats on his return home, probably so that the account of him feeding his children in the strange way can be introduced since the children would not have been there in the field to be given their portion. There is nothing in the BT about the wife wearing drab clothes at home, only that she came out to meet the saint with her finery. In the JT version, the scholars first inquire of the wife where the saint is and they therefore know that she wears drab clothes at home. This whole matter of the wife wearing different clothes (instead of ‘finery’ as in the BT version) enables the JT version to introduce the idea that not only has the saint to be protected from having his mind on other women but the wife willingly dons drab clothing in order to avoid other men lusting after her. It would seem almost certain that the section about the ruffians is an interpolation from the story, in virtually the same words, of Beruriah and Rabbi Meir (Berakhot 10a) The section about the scars on the skin healing while the rents in the garment do not heal is obviously taken (see the marginal note of Mesorat Ha-Shas) from Bava Kama 91b.
The saint’s reputation is established in the BT version because he is the grandson of Honi Ha-Meagel; the special powers were in the family so to speak. In the JT version, the Rabbis see in a dream that such a saint can be found in Kfar Immi. In both stories, the Rabbis are desperate because their own powers are evidently insufficient to bring rain. Perforce they must turn to a saint whose capacity to work miracles had never been tested but who might help, either because the Rabbis saw it in their dream (JT) or because (BT) there was good reason to believe that the grandson could probably repeat the mighty deeds of his grandfather. Because, after all there is uncertainty, the Rabbis have to approach the supposed saint circumspectly. Behind it all is the tension, ever present in Judaism, between the learned and the saintly who is comparatively ignorant.
The editors of the JT version have inserted the story in this particular place because there are similar stories there of the powers of the saint seen in a dream by the Rabbis. The editors of the BT version have inserted the story in the section about Honi Ha-Meagel. After telling the miracles of Honi there is naturally introduced the story of Abba Hilkiah and this is followed by the story of Hanan the Hidden, another grandson of Honi. Further investigation is required into the manner of transmission of these two stories. It is possible that the JT version was the original of which the BT version is an elaboration. But it seems more likely that the story was floating around, told and retold, and then used by the two versions (or the final editors of both) so as to fit in with the particular passage.
Additional, handwritten pages could not be transcribed.