Our Gemara describes the difficult relationship that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – who was often simply called “Rebbe” – had with one of his closest students, Bar Kappara. From the stories in the Gemara it appears that Bar Kappara was an incorrigible comic who refused to stop, even upon Rebbe’s request. It appears that Rebbe – who carried himself with great seriousness and dignity, to the extent that he was called “Rabbeinu HaKadosh,” our holy Rabbi – did not want to engage in levity. The Maharsha explains that Bar Kappara believed that it was a great mitzva to bring joy to people generally, and specifically to those who were, by their nature, somber and serious.
Among the specific incidents that are mentioned by the Gemara, one takes place at the wedding reception of Rabbi Shimon, Rebbe’s son. Bar Kappara asked Rebbe a series of questions, which were actually riddles related to the meaning of words in the Bible, and he succeeded in refuting all of his answers. Bar Kappara agreed to tell Rebbe the answers only if Rebbe would dance before him and have his wife serve him wine. Although Bar Kappara’s intent may have been to add to the levity of the affair, the Gemara reports that the Rebbe’s son-in-law, ben Elasa, was so offended by the spectacle that he and his wife left the wedding.
Bar Kappara was one of the last tannaim, a student of the Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and a friend of Rabbi Ḥiyya. We are never told his first name, although some suggest that his father was Rabbi Elazar HaKappar, who died before he was born, and that he, too, was named Elazar. He was knowledgeable in both Torah (authoring a collection of baraitot known as Mishnat bar Kappara) and in general knowledge, which is why he was sent on several occasions as the Jewish emissary to the Roman government. Almost all of the first-generation amoraim in Israel were his students. He was known as a satirist with a healthy sense of humor, and even offered critique that extended to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and his family, which may explain why – his close relationship with the Rebbe notwithstanding – he did not receive Rabbinic ordination until after Rebbe’s death.