The Israeli Amora’im
Assi Ben-Natan was an Amora in Israel. He is frequently mentioned in company with R. Ammi. Assi was born in Bavel. He was a student of Mar Shmuél. Assi became R. Yohanan’s student, and so distinguished himself that he came to be called a prodigy. R. Assi’s rabanut in Israel closely parallel’s R. Ammi’s. They were Kohanim and may have been brothers. Ammi was a student of R. Osha’iyah. Later he went to Tiberias and R. Yohanan became his master.
When R Yohanan died, R. Ammi voluntarily observed the avélut applied to near relatives only. He defended the honour of his master against Bavli hubris. In Tiberias he had a large circle of learned friends, among whom were R. Abbahu. He was closest to R. Hiyya b. Abba and R. Assi. R. Ammi was in Israel before R. Assi. They were musmakh at the same time, and were highly regarded for for using simple language and avoiding casuistry. They administered a bét din with R. Hiyya and were denounced to the Roman authorities.
R. Ammi became principal of R. Yohanan’s yeshiva. They preferred to davven in the yeshiva over any of the 13 baté kneset in Tiberias. In addition to the judiciary they organized schools for both children and adult learners. They were also known to practice medicine.
A celebrated Amora in Israel, his Torah education was mainly presided over by R. Yohanan. After his ordination he refused a teaching position and instead recommended a more needy friend, R. Abba of Acre (Acco). It was a personal doctrine to sympathize with a friend in his troubles as well as to partake of his joys is a great mitzva. He attained the principalship of Osha’iya’s yeshiva in Cæsarea. He also established himself at the Kenishta Maradta synagogue.
His halakha on blowing shofar, called Taqanat deR. Abbahu, was universally adopted. He learned Greek which, under the Roman occupation, became the common language. It even began to rival Hebrew in prayer.
Shimon Ben-Abba protested vigourously, but R. Abbahu also taught his daughters Greek. Abbahu became influential with the Roman occupation proconsul. When Hiyya, Ammi, and Assi convened a bet din to punish a certain woman, Abbahu was asked to intercede for them with the Roman governor. He wrote them that he had appeased the informers but not the accuser. He taught in towns other than Caesaria.
Abbahu gathered many halakhot on these journeys. Others turned to him for information on debatable points. His personal practice was to comply with local customs, even though this was not consistent with his own understanding of what was halakha. In his own right he was shomré mitzva but, where the halakha was too hard for most members of the public to follow, he modified the decisions of his colleagues to benefit community observance.
He once ordered some Shomroni wine, but was told that kashrut among the Shomronim was not strictly observed. Hiyya, Ammi, and Assi, assisted his investigation of the matter. When it turned out to be well-founded, Abbahu declared the Shomronim were, al pi halakha, not Jewish.
R. Hiyya was once lecturing in the same town and was deserted for Abbahu, who delivered popular sermons and attracted crowds. Abbahu compared himself to a street merchant with glittering finery and Hiyya to a trader in precious stones. He then followed Hiyya for the remainder of the day to minimise any slight. Tradition relates “Even the statues of Cæsarea cried” at Abbahu’s funeral.
The individual brilliance of leading Bavli sages will soon give way to the academies they run. We’ll learn more of this in the next section.