An Intellectual History of R. Nahman b. Yaakov: Cultural and Legal Aspects
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R. Nahman b. Ya’akov of Mahoza plays a central role in the Babylonian Talmud as the teacher of Rava – arguably the most influential sage in the entire Babylonian Talmud1 – and perhaps more importantly as one of the most authoritative figures in the history of Talmudic jurisprudence during the Sasanian period.2 R. Nahman was the son-in-law of the exilarch (reish geluta), as well as a leading judge (dayyan) in the exilarch’s court in Mahoza, a cosmopolitan center of Jewish, cultural “accommodation.”3 His scholarly output frequently consisted of an emphasis on logical reasoning (sevara), as opposed to the formalistic tendencies of other sages.4 Over the course of many important studies placing Babylonian rabbinic culture within its Sasanian Persian context, Yaakov Elman has convincingly identified R. Nahman as “the quintessential Persianized Mahozan Jewish aristocrat.”5 He named his daughter after the founding queen of the Sasanian dynasty, Denag;6 he traveled through Mahoza on a gilded palanquin befitting a nobleman;7 he allowed female family members too much freedom for the taste of some prominent rabbinic figures;8 he employed Persian terms in everyday conversation instead of utilizing rabbinic or Aramaic terms,9 and he was more than capable of punning in Middle Persian. 10 Perhaps most revealing, he contracted temporary marriages while away from home – a decidedly Persian practice.11
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