A TALMUDIC BALLAD
To Yavneh Rav Kahana came,
Preceded by renown
Which he had earned among the wise
Who taught in Babylon.
Rav said to him “You are welcome here,
For we have heard your praise,
But though you are great in Babylon,
You do not know our ways.
“Therefore I bid you promise
That you will sit and hear
And ask no questions of the rav
For the space of seven years.”
He vowed, and thereon made his way
To Rav Yochanan’s study hall,
Where sat before him in seven rows
His diligent students all.
Seven cushions had those students brought
To make Rav Yochanan’s seat,
That from above them he might teach,
As surely was most meet.
They seated Rav Kahana
With the foremost and the best,
Looking to hear wise questions
From the distinguished guest.
Rav Yochanan gave his lesson,
He clinched his point, and ceased,
And looked at Rav Kahana—
Rav Kahana held his peace.
“And have you then no questions?
Is there no more to know?
I think, dear Rabbi, that your place
Is in the second row.”
Rav Kahana got up and changed,
Though it grieved his heart full sore;
And since he would not break his word,
This happened six times more.
And when he sat in the seventh row,
He said, “It seems to me
That seven rows are seven years,
And therefore I am free.”
Then up got Rav Kahana,
He stood up on his feet
And called unto Rav Yochanan,
“What you have said, repeat!”
Rav Yochanan fulfilled his wish
And his first lesson retold,
The questions Rav Kahana asked
Were hard as iron cold.
“Well asked, well asked indeed!” declared
Rav Yochanan forthwith,
And bade his guest move up a row
And listen from the sixth.
Rav Yochanan spoke, Rav Kahana asked,
And each time changed his place
Until once more the two of them
Were sitting face to face.
When the eighth time Rav Yochanan spoke,
Rav Kahana questioned fair,
Rav Yochanan got up and gave
Him a cushion from his chair.
And as six times the same recurred,
Rav Yochanan sat on the floor.
Then he looked at Rav Kahana straight on,
Which he had not done before,
And lo, Rav Kahana’s lip seemed curled
With a sneer of scorn and pride –
Rav Yochanan flashed him a look of fire
So he toppled down and died.
Then someone* rushed up to explain:
“It was no sneer you saw.
Rav Kahana’s mouth was ever wry—
It is a facial flaw.”
Rav Yochanan revived him then,
But still the lesson’s clear:
Whomever sits up front to teach
The student must revere!
*probably Eliyahu HaNavi