Meet the Bar Papas, a Transnational, Intergenerational Nuclear Family

I came across something tonight rather by accident, which led me down a rabbit hole from which I am still trying to re-emerge.

In preparing a unit on the history and people of Gemara for my 6th graders, I came across a story regarding Rav Huna (our current subject) in Gemara Ta’anit 21b. What is of significance to us here is only the introductory line: “אמר ליה רבא לרפרם בר פפא: לימא לן מר מהני מילי מעלייתא דהוה עביד רב הונא!” “Rava said to Rafram bar Papa, ‘Tell us please, sir, some wonderful stories about the actions of Rav Huna!”‘ To which Rafram replies that he did not know Rav Huna when the sage was young, but he can recount stories of Rav Huna’s old age. To most people, including myself until a few days ago, this line would not be felt worthy of further investigation. But it gave me pause because it made me feel at first like all of my research and charts I have prepared for my students have been in error. Rav Papa was a 5th generation Babylonian Amora who lived from approximately 300-372 and headed the Narash Yeshiva (a branch of Neharda’ah) from 353-372. Rava was a 4th generation Babylonian Amora who lived from around 279-353 and headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva (in its transplanted home in Mechoza) from around 339-352. All of those facts are more or less as brought down in Rabbi Berel Wein’s Vision and Valor, the two-volume Hebrew אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים, and the relevant Wikipedia articles. But if those facts are correct, Rafram bar Papa, assuming at the moment that he was the son of the 5th generation Amora Rav Papa, had he overlapped with Rava at all, would have been very young and not worth the great Rava’s asking for stories about the second-generation Rav Huna, who predated both of them. (Rav Huna lived from around 215-298 and headed the Sura Yeshiva from 255-298.)

But my mistake was in assuming that Rafram bar Papa and Rav Papa were related. I assumed this because Rafram is one Rav Papa’s ten sons (or are they his sons?) mentioned at every siyum. Yet even within אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים, there is no reason to believe that Rav Papa and Rafram bar Papa were related. Rav Papa is listed, as he should be, as a 5th generation Amora, and Rafram bar Papa as a member of the 4th generation, so clearly Rafram could not be Rav Papa’s son. Meanwhile, Rafram’s “brother” Chanina bar Papa (also mentioned at every siyum) is listed as a 3rd generation Israeli Amora – so he, too, would not have been a son of Rav Papa. Another “son,” Surchav bar Papa, is mentioned only a couple of times in Gemara when he quotes the second generation Zeiri, so it doesn’t seem that Surchav could be a son of Rav Papa either. So when we recite the “Bar Papa” names at a siyum, these are not sons of Rav Papa, notwithstanding the note to the contrary on the Hadran page in the ArtScroll Gemara. Unless Rav Papa happened to have sons with identical names to other Amoraim in far-flung countries spanning many hundreds of years, the names listed in the Hadran are simply not his sons.

Meanwhile, according to אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים, Rafram bar Papa was a 4th generation Amora and a student of Rav Chisda, who in turn was a colleague of Rav Huna. Rava, also a member of the 4th generation, was a student of the more contemporary Rav Nachman. So it is possible that Rafram bar Papa would have better access to information or stories about Rav Huna, as his own Rebbe (Rav Chisda) was Rav Huna’s colleague, whereas Rava’s Rebbe Rav Nachman was not. So the story in Ta’anit checks out as long as we can dislodge from the notion that Rav Papa was Rafram bar Papa’s father. It seems undeniable that Rafram bar Papa has no relation at all to Rav Papa, and when we mention Rafram bar Papa and the others at a siyum it is not with any intent to invoke Rav Papa or his wealth or magnanimity. Note that אנציקלופדיה לחכמי התלמוד והגאונים does not mention anything about Rav Papa’s children, and Rabbi Wein mentions only one son and one daughter. So why are these ten disparate people whose fathers were all named Papa mentioned together at a siyum?

I am glad that the brief Hebrew Wikipedia article on Rafram bar Papa affirms my conclusion: “בניגוד לדעה נפוצה, לא היה בנו של רב פפא, המאוחר לו,” “In contrast to popular belief, he was not the son of Rav Papa, who lived later than him.” But this “popular belief” is quite widespread, as a quick Google search for “the sons of Rav Papa at a siyum” unearths dozens of websites that assume per force (or per ArtScroll) that the names recited at a siyum are Rav Papa’s ten sons. That is remarkable, because one of them, our Rafram, would have had to be born long before his own father Rav Papa, who was born in 300, if he were to have known Rav Huna, who died in 298! I suppose there could be two Rafram bar Papa’s – one who was the son of Rav Papa and lived in the 5th or 6th generation, and one earlier Amora who knew Rav Huna. And two Chanina bar Papa’s, one a 3rd generation Israeli Amora and the other a son of the 5th generation Rav Papa. But that doesn’t sound overly likely. And by the way, wouldn’t the people mentioned at the siyum be “Rafram b’rei D’Rav Papa,” “Surchav b’rei D’Rav Papa,” and so on? Wouldn’t Rav Papa’s sons be referred to as the sons of “Rav Papa,” not just “Papa?”

More questions than answers here at this point. Maybe I will update this post at a later date with a better explanation as to why these people are mentioned at a siyum, given that they have no connection to each other or to Rav Papa, and the recitation of their names at the siyum is startlingly short on context. A historical review of old Gemara volumes seems in order. When did this tradition start? Was there at some point more clarity on why this list is said? Is the list borrowed from somewhere else? Why is the list said at that particular point in the siyum ceremony, just after praying that our children and grandchildren be immersed in Torah study? (I have long added a simple “כ” at the beginning of the list, the connection then being that we hope to be as successful in raising our own children as Rav Papa was in raising his.) In any case, צריך עיון for now, and thanks for coming down the rabbit hole with me.

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