Our Gemara relates that Rav Dimi returned to Bavel from a visit to Israel and he quoted a teaching in the name of Rabbi Yohanan. Upon hearing this, Abaye presented a question that stumped Rav Dimi, and he could offer no explanation. Abaye, upon reconsidering his question, suggested an approach that rang true to Rav Dimi who exclaimed karkapana, hazitay le-reisheikh beinei amudei ki amar Rabbi Yohanan le-ha shema’ata! Literally translated this means “You with the head. I saw your head between the pillars when Rabbi Yohanan taught this lesson.”
What did Rav Dimi mean with this comment?
The Aruk presents two possibilities to explain the first word – karkapana. One suggestion is that it means “you with the great skull.” Alternatively it can be understood to mean “man of distinction.”
Tosafot suggest that the reference to his “head” being between the pillars when the lesson was taught is a reference to Abaye’s teacher, Rabba, who had traveled from Bavel to Israel to study with Rabbi Yohanan. Although Tosafot refer to Ketubot 111a, there is little evidence in the Talmud that indicates that Rabba ever visited Israel. More likely Rav Dimi was using an expression, saying that Abaye successfully recreated Rabbi Yohanan’s thought process, as if he had been present at the lecture.
The reference to his being “between the pillars” is apparently a reference to the beit midrash in Tiberias where Rabbi Yohanan lectured. Archaeological excavations have shown that both the synagogue and the study hall that stood in Tiberias during the post-Mishnaic period were built in the style of a basilica – that is to say, that their roofs were supported by a series of columns. Thus Rav Dimi was describing the lecture hall where he had heard Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching that led to this conversation.