Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rav Aha ben Jacob: Dragon Slayer, The Jewish Beowulf

[Sumerian image of a man or god battling a seven-headed beast. Appearing at: http://www.jewishjournal.com/up_front/article/]

So in my continuing effort to explore Talmudic esoteric masters, I now want to call attention to Rabbi Aha (or Acha) ben Jacob (Yaakov), a 4th Century Babylonian born Amora who later settled in the Land of Israel.

In a famous extended discussion of Job, Aha expounded on the nature of ha-Satan, the adversary, explaining that both "Satan and Peninah have a pious function [in their roles as adversaries/antagonists]" This insight on the divine necessity of spiritual obstacles inspired Satan to appear before Aha in person and kiss his feet (it must be tough to be so misunderstood) (Baba Batra 16a). But Aha was no coddler of evil:

"...Jacob the son of R' Aha bar Jacob: his father sent him to Abaye [to attend Abaye's house of study]. When he [Jacob] returned, he [R. Aha] saw that his lessons weren't sharp. He said to him, "I take priority to you; you return [home] so I can go [study]". (faced with limited resources, the most capable student is should study - perhaps too Aha wanted to see what was wrong). Abaye heard that he was coming. There was a sheid in Abaye's Rabbinical academy, such that when they [students] entered in pairs, even during the day, they would be hurt. He [Abaye] said to them [his community], "Let no person offer him lodgings [forcing him to stay at the academy]. Perhaps a miracle will occur [because of Aha's merit]." He [R. Aha] entered and slept in the academy. It appeared to him as a seven-headed serpent. Every time he prostrated himself [prayed], another head fell off. In the morning he said to them, "Had a miracle not occured, you would have endangered me. (Kiddushin 29b)"

A strange story, for sure. Reminds me a little of Beowulf, where the hero delivers his benefactor from a night-terror that has penetrated into his innermost abode. Most modern interpretations see this as an allegory, that the hydra-like dragon was some kind of educational or interpersonal dysfunction in the institution that Aha resolves through his healing piety. I like that mythic take on how evil can worm its way into a sacred institution, but I also think it was understood on a more factual level. The motif of the seven-headed monster is transcultural. And while infrequent, there are other Talmudic tales of haunting spirits which a sage exorcises by various means. Like in the tales of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, there is an element of chutzpah and tricksterism to the behavior of Abaye. Why didn't he just tell Aha and ask for his help? It is something of a test for our hero, perhaps to make him an example for Abaye's students, but its a rationale that Aha doesn't much appreciate at the time.

Aha's end is also a cautionary tale of the dangers of the Evil Eye (See the earlier entry Reading the Bible with an Occult Eye). According to Baba Batra 14a, he made a Torah scroll so perfect in form and dimensions that his colleagues were overwhelmed with envy, causing his death.
To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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