16 December 2013

Rabba bar bar Chana and the Arabian Nights

Rabbi Geometry once mentioned a Gemara about a sea where metal nails fly out of ships.Say, said I, that sounds familiar. There is a sea like that in the story of the "Third Calender" in the Arabian Nights.

The Nights were set in writing c. 1450, but they are set in Baghdad under the Abbasid Caliphate in, oh, the 700's.

 It occurred to me the other day that the yeshivos of Sura and Pumbedisa were for a time located in the exact same time and place as the Arabian Nights -- occasionally one turned up in Baghdad itself -- so I dug my copy out of the basement to see if I could find any Gaonim wandering around in the perfumed gardens of Caliph Haroun al-Raschid.

While I was there, I got distracted: the stories of Sinbad the Sailor are so famous, and I never read them... so I read the first one.


The first voyage of Sinbad the Sailor -- or at least the nut of it -- is taken almost verbatim from the story of Rabba bar bar Chana and the whale fish, on Bava Basra 73b.

(Once upon a time, says Rabba bar bar Chana, he and some others went a-sailing on a ship, and saw what appeared to be a mossy island. They disembarked and began to cook a meal on it... but it was really a whale; and, feeling the heat of the cooking fire, it rolled over; and had they not been close to the boat, they would have drowned.

The first time I heard this story, it was explained as a metaphor for Jewish history: we land on what looks like a safe kingdom to live in... but we better stick close with the Torah!)

Fancy meeting you here!
In the end, I did not find any mention of contemporary Jewish society in the Nights (I only skimmed the Victorian children's version); but it is obvious that there was Jewish influence on them here and there.

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