From Theology to Comedy: The Story of R. Adda bar Ahavah and Matun

A talmudic discussion about why God no longer makes miracles ends with a surprising comedy of errors. What message is the Talmud trying to convey? And how is this story used in a 20th century halakhic responsum about women’s pants? 


Talmudist 1925 by Yehuda Pen (1854–1937). Wikimedia

One of the more intriguing features of rabbinic literature is the use of humor in the midst of a serious discussion. At one moment, the text will be speaking in sober prose aimed at revealing eternal, cosmic realities. Then, with the transition hardly being detectable, the narrative will take a humorous turn.

A Conversation about Miraculous Divine Providence

One such talmudic text begins with a conversation between two fourth-century Babylonian amoraim about why manifest miracles were performed for the early sages, who lived just a few generations before them, while such wonders do not occur in their own time:

תלמוד בבלי ברכות דף כ. אמר ליה רב פפא לאביי: מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא, ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?
b. Berakhot 20a Rav Pappa said to Abaye: What is different about the earlier generations, for whom miracles occurred and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur?

This question is not purely philosophical. Rav Pappa wonders why God, who showed His affection for the preceding generations, was no longer willing to intervene in His world and violate natural law by performing clear miracles.

Reasons for the Absence of Miracles

The Talmud considers, and dismisses, the possibility that Torah study may be a factor for God’s diminished direct presence:

אי משום תנויי – בשני דרב יהודה כולי תנויי בנזיקין הוה, ואנן קא מתנינן שיתא סדרי!
If it is because of Mishnah study; in the years of Rav Yehuda all of their Mishnah learning concerned the order of Nezikin, yet we teach all six orders!
וכי הוה מטי רב יהודה בעוקצין האשה שכובשת ירק בקדרה ואמרי לה זיתים שכבשן בטרפיהן טהורים אמר: הויות דרב ושמואל קא חזינא הכא – ואנן קא מתנינן בעוקצין תליסר מתיבתא!
[Furthermore,] when Rav Yehuda would reach in tractate ‘Oqatzin [the case of] a woman who pickles a vegetable in a pot – and some say when (the case of) olives pickled with their leaves are pure – He would say: I see the disputes of Rav and Shmuel here. We [on the other hand] teach thirteen study sessions regarding ‘Oqatzin.

Despite this, the Talmud relates, God seemed closer R. Yehuda’s generation:

– ואילו רב יהודה, כי הוה שליף חד מסאניה – אתי מטרא, ואנן קא מצערינן נפשין ומצוח קא צוחינן – ולית דמשגח בן!
Yet Rav Yehuda, when he would remove one of his shoes [in preparation for supplicating God, during drought] the rain would come, while we torment ourselves and cry out and no one notices us.

Thus, the reason God does not perform miracles for them could not have been because they strive less mightily in Torah study. Instead, they concluded:

אמר ליה: קמאי הוו קא מסרי נפשייהו אקדושת השם, אנן לא מסרינן נפשין אקדושת השם
He [i.e., Abaye] said to him [Rav Pappa]: The earlier ones would give of their souls for the sanctification of God’s name, while we do not give of our souls in sanctification of God’s name.

An Example of Religious Heroism

The Talmud then brings an illustrative narrative. To the reader’s great surprise, however, the story casts the tremendous heroism of the preceding generations – the passage uses a classic term of martyrdom (“מסרי נפשייהו אקדושת השם – they would give of their souls for the sanctification of God’s name”) – in an ironic, even pathetic, light:

כי הא דרב אדא בר אהבה חזייה לההיא כותית דהות לבישא כרבלתא בשוקא,
Like this [case where] R. Adda bar Ahavah [a sage who preceded them by two generations] saw a non-Jewish woman wearing a karbalta [a garment/accessory seen as problematic – see the discussion below] in the marketplace.
סבר דבת ישראל היא, קם קרעיה מינה;
Thinking that she was a Jewish woman, he rose and tore it from her.
אגלאי מילתא דכותית היא,  שיימוה בארבע מאה זוזי.
[When] it was discovered that this woman was a heathen [and he had to pay the damage that he caused her, it transpired that] the assessment [of the cost of that garment] was four hundred zuz.
אמר לה: מה שמך?
He [i.e. R. Adda bar Ahavah] asked her:
– אמרה ליה: מתון.
what is your name, she replied: “Matun.”
אמר לה: מתון מתון ארבע מאה זוזי שויא.
He said to her: “Matun, matun – that is worth four hundred zuz.

It would not be hard to imagine what Matun felt about R. Adda when she sued him. Nonetheless, the amicable – and rather light – conversation between them at the end of the vignette shows the good spirit in which this conversation is held. The rabbi takes an interest in her and inquires about her name. After she answers him, he seems to apologize through a wordplay on the word matun, which can connote moderation and prudence: “Matun, matun – that is worth four hundred zuz.” R. Adda is saying that were he to have exhibited the traits of metinut, he would have saved four hundred zuz – another wordplay, since in Aramaic matan means 200, and twice matan equals 400.

A Heroic Act?

The reader of the talmudic sugyah expects to hear of an awesome act of unparalleled self-sacrifice, one that will prove that such a deed is worthy of God’s miracles.  We read instead an amusing tale of a sage whose excessive zealousness and rashness led him to fall upon a strange woman in the street and tear off her clothes. How are we to understand this incongruity?[1]

A few possible approaches present themselves:

Myth vs. Theology — The twentieth century American mythologist, Joseph Campbell, differentiated between myth and theology and suggested that theology is totally serious, while myth frequently contains a strange mixture of heroism and humor.[2] The tendency of the talmudic editors is toward the mythic way of thinking, thus they end this story on a humorous note.[3]

Putting things into Proportion —  Humor softens the seriousness of the discussion. There is only so much mental energy to invest in heavy existential questions. The heroic farce offers a break from such an inquiry, and a reminder that even our heroes possess human frailties.

Beyond First Impressions — Another approach suggests that the sugyah’s main theme is how to see beyond initial impressions, whether of the presence of the Divine in the world or the quality of the people with which we come into regular contact. The story’s conclusion has a man of halakha who lacked patience (metinut) and jumped to conclusions. Rav Adda saw the outer clothes and acted impetuously, without – as the Talmud would encourage each of us – properly evaluating a situation before coming to judgment.

The humorous ending of the story,  in which a gentile woman whose name connotes moderation teaches the final lesson, encourages us to  cultivate our own patience, moderation, and humanity both as readers of the sugya, and also in our everyday dealings.

A 20th C. Halakhic Take on the Tale of Rav Adda and Matun’s Garb

R. Wosner. 90 צילום פלאש

Generation upon generation of Talmud commentators and halakhic decisors devoted attention to our curious tale. The surprising literary structure, which juxtaposes theology and comedy alongside one another, was not noticed by the commentators and halakhic decisors. The former were instead busy making sense of the passage’s basic meaning while the latter were focused on what the story can teach us about the kinds of clothing women are allowed to wear in public – an issue that has intensified in modern times, given the dramatic shifts in women’s fashion.

Are Women Permitted to Wear Trousers?

Matun’s garb was the topic of a discussion by R. Shmuel Halevi Wosner (1913-2015), a prominent Israeli posek who was the rabbi of the Zikhron Meir neighborhood in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak.

The responsum deals with whether to permit:

…מה שנפרץ בזמנינו שהנשים לובשות מכנסיים כאנשים
“…this that is common in our times, namely, that women wear trousers like men…”[4]

In his lengthy response, Rabbi Wosner cites numerous sources as proof that women are totally forbidden from wearing trousers. At the end of the responsum, he adds the following, decisive argument supported by our talmudic narrative:

אפילו יתעקש אדם נגד כל הנ”ל … מ”מ עדיין אינו נפלט מאיסור גמור הוא המבואר ברמ”א יו”ד סימן קע”ח דאסור לצאת במלבוש פריצות.
And even if someone were to insist against all these the preceding arguments […] at any rate, there still is no escape from a total prohibition as explained in RM”A Y”D 178 that it is forbidden to go out in licentious [i.e., immodest] garb.

Red or an Expensive Garment

As we noted in the translation of the talmudic passage, above, the Talmud does not tell us what was wrong with the garment Matun was wearing. R. Wosner’s assumption that her garb was licentious is based on the opinion of R. Solomon Luria (Poland, sixteenth century), who wrote that the garment was red.[5] Thus, according to R. Wosner , the story proves that:

ואין דרך בנות ישראל להתכסות בו שהוא פריצות ומביא לדבר עברה.
It is not the way of Israelite women to dress in it [= red clothing], which is licentious, and leads to transgression [that is, women wearing red clothing arouses sexual desire among men].

Alternatively, according to the interpretation of Rashi (Berakhot, loc. cit.) who explained that the karbalta was an important garment, R. Wosner suggests that

נראה שהפריצות היתה שהלכה במלבוש חשוב בלי כיסוי סרבל עליו
it seems that the licentiousness consisted of her wearing an important [i.e., expensive and luxurious] garment, without a cloak covering it.

Regardless of the nature of that garment,[6] it can be deduced from this narrative that if a Jewish woman walks in the street in immodest garb – in this case, pants – then men should have the courage to forcibly tear such impudent garb from the women of our generation, in plain view, following the example set by R. Adda bar Ahavah:

ואם זה נחשב לפריצות עד שמסרו נפשם על זה כמבואר שם, ק”ו בן בנו של ק”ו בבגדים אלו שהם פריצות שאין כמותם על אחת כו”כ.
And if this [karbalta] was considered to be licentious to the point that they gave their souls for it, as was explained there, then all the more so with these [current] clothes which are incomparably licentious [should we give our souls]

We may wonder about the logic that underlies this puzzling halakhic fiat, where tearing clothes from the woman only adds to the existing lack of modesty. We might assume that the halakhic authorities deem this threat sufficient to deter women from wearing such a garment, and so it was necessary to carry out this threat only in very rare instances.

Regardless, R. Wosner assumes that in an ideal world, men would take such action against women wearing immodest garb. The reason they do not do so is only that such actions would not be permitted under Israeli civil law. The rabbi thus determines in his final ruling that

לצערנו אין ביכולתנו להעמיד הדת על תִּלָּהּ בכל אלה הדברים אבל (ל)עניין שאלתו שעדיין ב”ה לא נפרץ ברוב בתי ישראל הכשרים  עלינו לעמוד בפרץ בכל עוז וה’ אתנו
unfortunately, we are incapable of putting religion in its proper place in all these matters [i.e., to issue an official ruling to rip off the pants worn by insolent women in our streets], but as to the question [in principle, whether to permit women to wear trousers, then in the communities] in which, thank God, this is not widespread, [that is,] in most fit Jewish households [then in those places] we [= the rabbis] must stand in the breach with all our strength [and forbid women from wearing trousers] and God is with us

In idealizing the tragicomic figure of R. Adda bar Ahava, this twentieth century halakhic author evidently did not comprehend the ironic structure of the sugyah.



Prof. Admiel Kosman, is Professor for Jewish Studies at Potsdam University as well as the academic director of Geiger College, a training school for liberal rabbis, in Berlin. The author of several books and many articles in the field of talmudic research, and of collections of Hebrew poetry. His latest academic book is Gender and Dialogue in the Rabbinic Prism (Berlin, Walter de Gruyter), and his most recent collection of poetry is Approaching You in English: Selected Poems (Boston, Zephyr Press).