כ״ו באדר ב׳ ה׳תשע״ו (April 5, 2016)

Kiddushin 25a-b: Hot and Cold Fish

Aside from straightforward discussions of halakha we also find that the Gemara includes true-to-life experiences of how certain questions of Jewish law are decided both inside and outside of the study hall. In the course of discussing the laws about freeing a non-Jewish slave whose master injures him, the Gemara relates the following story:

The elders of the city of Nezonya (according to Rabbenu Hananel, a small city in Bavel, near Sura and near Rav Ḥisda’s hometown) did not attend Rav Ḥisda’s lecture. Rav Ḥisda instructed Rav Hamnuna to excommunicate them for their failure to attend. When Rav Hamnuna inquired into their absence, the elders explained that they no longer show respect to Rav Ḥisda since he refused to respond to one of their questions. Rav Hamnuna offered to listen to their question and respond, but upon hearing it he could not come up with an answer. Our Gemara relates that the elders mocked him, saying “your name is not Hamnuna, but Karnuna!”

Although it is likely that Rav Hamnuna’s name has its source in the Greek word for song – hymn – the city elders were playing with his name in some fashion. Some suggest that it is a reference to horns (karnayim). Rashi connects the expression with yoshvei keranot – people who sit on street corners instead of in the study hall. The Ritva takes this idea further, suggesting that Hamnuna implies trustworthiness, meaning that he is someone who can be relied upon in his learning.

The rishonim question this approach, arguing that the fact that Rav Hamnuna could not respond to their question is not reason enough for accusations of his not being a scholar. Most rishonim follow the approach of Rabbenu Hananel that it is a play on words. Ham-nuna means “hot fish” – tasty fish. Kar-nuna, “cold fish” is not tasty, just as his inability to respond to their question left them disappointed.

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