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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works


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Samuel bar Abba
Hebrew Name(s): שמואל
Other Names: Samuel of Nehardea, Samuel, Mar Samuel, Samuel Yarḥinai
Period: Amoraim — 3rd Century
Location: Nehardea, Babylonia
Dates: 165–257

Samuel of Nehardea (or Samuel bar Abba) was a Babylonian Talmudist, an Amora of the First Generation. He was the son of Tabbi Abba bar Abba (aka. Father of Samuel), and head of the Yeshiva at Nehardea. Samuel was a teacher of halakhah, a judge, physician, and astronomer. He was born about 165 CE at Nehardea, in Babylonia and died there about 257 CE. Samuel studied under Levi ben Sisi (who was in Babylonia before the death of Judah HaNasi) and later in Palestine under the pupils of R. Judah, especially Ḥama ben Ḥanina. On returning to Babylonia he became respected for his great knowledge and ability as a teacher of Law. Being well acquainted with civil law he was appointed a judge at the beit din in Nehardea where he was associated with Kama.
In Talmudic texts, Samuel is associated with Abba Arikha with whom he debated many issues.
Samuel became the director of the academy at Nehardea after the death of R. Shila. At that time the academy at Sura under Rav (Abba Arikha) and the Academy at Nehardea under Samuel flourished to the extent that the independence of Babylonian intellectual Jewry was established. No longer was it necessary for Jews from Babylonia to travel to Palestine to study. Babylonia became in a real sense a second "Holy Land" so that Samuel taught, "As it is forbidden to migrate from Palestine to Babylon, so is it forbidden to migrate from Babylon to other countries" (Ket. 111a). After the death of Rav, no new director was appointed at Sura and R. Huna, Rav's greatest pupil who became president in Sura subordinated himself to Samuel, asking his decision in every religious question. The school at Nehardea became the most important in Babylonia and the highest authority for Babylonian Jews.
Samuel's reputation grew, not only in Babylonia but in Palestine to the extent that R. Joḥanan, having read a large number of Samuel's responsa on important ritual laws exclaimed, "I have a teacher in Babylon" (Ḥul. 95b).
Following the example of his teacher, Levi ben Sisi, Samuel collected traditions handed down to him. He compiled a collection of baraitot which is called Tanna debe Shemu'el in the Talmud (Shab. 34a; Er. 70b, 86a,89b; Pes. 3a, 39a,b ; Bezah 29a; R.H. 29b; Yoma 70a; Meg. 330a; Zeb. 22a). He also did much to elucidate the Mishnah, by precise paraphrasing and textual explanations. Samuel's influence was also important for his new theories and independent decisions in both ritual and civil law. He formulated the important principle that the law of the country in which the Jews are living is binding upon them (Baba Kama 113b). This principle, which was recognized as valid from a halakhic point of view, made it a religious duty for the Jews to obey the laws of the country. Thus, although the Jews had their own civil courts, Mar Samuel thought that the Persian law should be taken into account and that various Jewish regulations should be modified according to it (B.M. 108a; B.B. 55a).
Samuel of Nehardia was proficient in the sciences, particularly in mathematics and astronomy which he taught at the school in Nehardia. His interest in the calendric science, led him to a method for calculating the beginning of the month as it was determined in Palestine, a method which he claimed removed the necessity for celebrating holy days over two days in the Diaspora. He computed a Hebrew calendar with an intercalation of months which covered sixty years which he sent to R. Joḥanan. His expertise in calendrical science led to his name "Samuel Yarḥinai, Yarḥina'ah" (Ḥul. 95b), a name derived from Yeraḥ, the Hebrew word for "month".
Samuel is remembered as a man for whom community was of central importance. The Talmud records his words, "A man may never exclude himself from the community, but must seek his welfare in that of society" (Ber. 49b). This meant that one's personal behavior should be beyond reproach, that improper conduct should be punishable by law, and that one should be aware of the circumstances of others, acting to prevent difficulties where necessary (Ḥag. 5a). His personal attitudes influenced his public work and is reflected in the laws he enacted as Gaon: To protect the interests of the poor Samuel limited the profits that merchants might make (B.M. 90b) and his concern for orphans prompted him to insist that every court take on the responibility of a father to them (Yeb. 67b; Giṭ. 37a, 52b), and that no loan taken from an orphan was to be cancelled in the Sabbatical year.
Judah ben Ezekiel was a student of Samuel.


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