The Gemara on today’s daf describes the circumstances that led to the passing of Rabba bar Nahmani – one of the great Babylonian amora’im of the third generation. According to Rav Kahana, Rabba died because of fear of religious persecution by the Babylonian government.
The story goes as follows: Word got to the Babylonian government that there was one Jewish leader who kept 12,000 Jews from paying taxes two months a year – one month in the summer and one month in the winter. The reference apparently, was to the Yarhei Kalla – the two months, Elul and Adar, when Rabba invited the community to come and study in his yeshiva. It may be a reference to the common practice of freeing religious scholars from certain taxes and since many thousands of individuals came to study, they claimed tax relief based on their status as scholars.
The government sent soldiers to arrest Rabba, who traveled from one community in Bavel to another in an attempt to avoid arrest, miraculously avoiding arrest and escaping from the authorities. He hid in a swamp where he sat on the stump of a palm tree and began to learn. While learning he heard a heavenly dispute on the topic of ritual impurity, where God ruled that a doubtful case is tahor – ritually pure – while the heavenly scholars ruled that it was tameh – ritually defiled. Unable to reach agreement, they decided that the matter would be resolved by Rabba bar Nahmani, and they sent a messenger to bring him. The angel of death could not approach him, since he was continuously learning Torah, so he brought a wind that rustled the branches and made him think that the soldiers had found him. At that point he decided that it was better to die than to be arrested by the government, allowing the angel of death to take his soul. His last word was the ruling that he made in the disputed case; he said “tahor, tahor.” A heavenly voice came out and proclaimed that Rabba was, himself, pure, as symbolized by the fact that his final words were tahor.
The Shita Mekubbetzet suggests that perhaps this story was a dream that was shown to Rabba close to his death, whose purpose was to assure him that his scholarship was valued in the heavens, and that he was being “called” to heaven and not dying a simple death.