Text Based Learning

Sayings & Sayers of the Sidrah: Ulla
Date Uploaded: 
Thursday 1st May 2014

Chumash: ‘You shall not make idols for yourselves…and in your land you shall not place a flooring stone upon which to prostrate yourself, for I am the Lord, your G-d’. (Bemidbar 26:1)

Talmud: ‘Ulla said: “the Torah only forbids prostration which involves [fully] spreading out one’s arms and legs”’. (Megillah 22b)

Ulla was one of the leading Amoraim (lit. ‘sayers’, referring to the generation of Rabbis after the completion of the Mishnah c.200 CE) in the Land of Israel. On his frequent visits to the communities of Babylonia, he was often invited by the Exilarch to deliver public lectures. The Talmud relates one particularly traumatic incident about Ulla. On a return trip to Israel, his travelling party was attacked by bandits, fatally wounding one of Ulla’s entourage. Bizarrely, the murderer sought Ulla’s Rabbinic approval for this action as the victim lay prone. Fearing for both his own and others’ lives, Ulla acquiesced. But he pleaded that the murderer should finish the job off quickly so as to minimise the existing victim’s suffering. After Ulla returned in safety to Israel, he was tortured by feelings of guilt – perhaps he had encouraged the heinous crime. His colleagues assured him that he acted in acceptable self-defence.

Ulla was strict in his legal rulings. Once, when he heard his colleague Rav Huna use an expression in a legal context with which he disagreed, he commented: "As vinegar to the teeth, and as smoke to the eyes, so are the words of Rav Huna". Ulla also used this passionate form of expression elsewhere. For example, he was asked to what extent one must perform the commandment of honouring one’s parents. He cited the case of a non-Jew who was asked to perform a business venture for a very large sum of money. However, there was one slight hitch – the key to the vault containing the goods was underneath the pillow that his father was resting on. Out of respect, he passed over on the deal rather than disturb his father’s slumber.

Ulla produced a number of poignant aphorisms, including: ‘since the day that the Temple was destroyed, G-d has nothing in this world save for the space within which halacha is found’.