Denials of the reports have only fueled speculation of a sweeping coverup and efforts to dig up more evidence.
Sura, September 5 – Rumors are swirling in this Mesopotamian city that the venerable scholar who runs the prestigious academy has been deceased for years, and that a lookalike has taken his place.
Disciples and townspeople have buzzed for months with the reports that after a confrontational session of debate over the proper version of a text in Tractate Nedarim, Rav Ashi stormed out of the yeshiva and drove home on his donkey, only to be involved in a fatal crash. Authorities at the Sura academy are said to have held a clandestine lookalike contest and chosen as his replacement a man named Helbo.
Despite repeated denials of the story by Rav Ashi himself and the press office of the Sura academy, discussion of the story has remained intense, with new alleged pieces of evidence brought to bear. Chief among them, according to those monitoring the phenomenon, is that the text being refined in the academy in exploration of Tractate Nedarim of the Mishna, if spoken in reverse, produces the words, “Rav Ashi is dead; I buried Rav Ashi,” and that at the twice-yearly gathering of scholars in Sura three years ago, the scholar was seen walking out of step and barefoot along Abba Road in procession with other dignitaries.
“It’s an amazing social and psychological phenomenon,” observed Kahana, a local scholar. “People love a good story of intrigue, and the feeling of knowing better than others what the real story is. I’m not sure how a reasonable person could entertain the notion that anyone could hope to fill Rav Ashi’s shoes, least of all some random schmo who happens to look like him. Rav Ashi moves in elite circles, knows all the ins and outs of King Yezdegerd’s government. There’s no way his diplomatic skill, erudition, political acumen, and administrative capabilities rest on this other guy too.”
Denials of the reports have only fueled speculation of a sweeping coverup and efforts to dig up more evidence, but in the meantime, interest in Mishna and Talmud texts has soared, an outcome about which the heads of the academy have expressed some satisfaction.
Rumors surrounding the death of prominent figures in Jewish lore have spread before. Three centuries ago in the Land of Israel, a man was said to have risen from the dead after execution, and followers of that rumor have since risen to prominence and assumed control of the Roman Empire. More recently, scholars in the West, as the Holy Land is known in Babylon, debated the notion that the patriarch Jacob did not actually die, a teaching that remains current despite Biblical narrative attesting to his death, embalming, and burial.
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