Rav Papa belonged to the fifth generation of the Amoraim of Babylon. He lived about 1,600 years ago. He was a student of Abaye and Rava in Pumbeditha. When Rava died, Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak became head of the academy in Pumbeditha, and Rav Papa established a Yeshiva in Nehardea, where many students came to study under him. Rav Papa had a very devoted friend who was also a distinguished scholar. His name was Rav Huna bar Rav Joshua. The two friends never parted. When Rav Papa became head of the Yeshiva in Nehardea, his friend Rav Huna became "Resh Kala" (Chief Lecturer). They had over two hundred senior students in the Yeshiva in Nehardea.
Rav Papa's father was a well-to-do merchant, and he fully supported Rav Papa throughout the many years of his study. Later Rav Papa became self-supporting. He engaged in making beer from dates, and also traded in poppy seeds from which oil was made. Rav Papa became a rich man, and he was able to support many of his poor students. As he carried on his business in partnership with his friend Rav Huna bar Rav Joshua, the latter also became rich. On one occasion, Rav Papa and his friend hired shippers to carry a load of poppy seed for them across a river, arranging with the shippers that they would be responsible for any mishap that might normally damage the shipment. The river became obstructed, and Rav Papa and his partner suffered a loss. They sued the shippers, and all appeared before Rava for trial. Rava ruled in favor of the shippers, saying that they had never undertaken to be responsible for this kind of mishap, which was so unusual.
Rav Papa was very careful in his dealings with other people, and often acted in a way that was more than the law required of him. Thus, he once bought a field from a man who needed the money to buy an ox. After the sale was duly concluded, the seller found later that he no longer needed the money, and he was sorry to have sold the field. On learning of this, Rav Papa cheerfully returned the field to the man. Rav Papa earned a very fine reputation not only among Jews, but also among non-Jews.
As the head of the Jewish community, Rav Papa took care of the poor people of his city. He would especially take care of the poor people who were ashamed to beg. Beggars would also receive his support, but not in the same measure as those who would be ashamed to go from door to door begging.
Rav Papa, as a great scholar and a businessman, was quite familiar with human nature, for he had gathered considerable experience in his travels, and in his dealings with all kinds of people. He was therefore wise in matters of the world, and many are the sayings and proverbs in the Talmud which display his practical wisdom. We will mention a few of them:
"At the door of a house full of food, there are many brothers and friends, but at the door of hunger there are no brothers and no friends."
"Let a quarrel stand over night, and it will disappear by itself."
"Anyone who acts in the midst of anger is likely to destroy his house."
He had some good advice on choosing a wife. In business one may sometimes have to make a quick decision, and even take a chance, but one should not do this in selecting a wife. Said he: "Be quick in buying a field, and slow in taking a wife." He also advised against taking a wife that was superior to the husband; but one should always look for superior friends. He put it this way: "Step down a rung to choose a wife; step up one, to choose a friend." He urged a husband to consult his wife, even though she was not his equal, as he once said, "People say, 'If your wife is short, bend down to whisper in her ear.'"
He knew that in most cases where the peace of the home is disturbed, it is because of no fault of either the husband or wife, but because of temporary circumstances. In this vein he said, "When the grain runs out of the jar, conflict comes into the house."
Rav Papa taught that no work was too degrading for a man to make an honest living, and no one should "snub" anyone because of his trade or profession. Said he, "If you wish to talk to a wool-washer, do not be ashamed to call him out to the gate and sit down near him."
Though Rav Papa was very rich, he never indulged in things he could do without, for he considered it a sin to waste money on luxuries. In this connection he said, "Anyone who can drink beer but insists on drinking wine, transgresses against the commandment, 'Thou shalt not destroy.'"
After Rava's death, many of his prominent students came to Rav Papa, and acknowledged him as their teacher. Some of them sometimes embarrassed him with difficult questions, but Rav Papa used to pray that they should not be punished by G‑d for shaming him in public. One bright student was Rav Shimi bar Ashi (who later became the father of the great Rav Ashi, who, together with Ravina, edited the Babylonian Talmud). Rav Shimi often asked Rav Papa difficult questions. Once, Rav Shimi overheard his teacher praying to G‑d to deliver him from Shimi's embarrassing questions, and never again did he ask any more such questions. This shows the humility of Rav Papa, for he could have expelled any difficult student from the Yeshiva, but he swallowed his pride.
Rav Papa had a unique distinction of being blessed with ten sons, all of whom were great scholars. All ten sons of Rav Papa ("Chanina bar Papa, Rami bar Papa," etc.) are mentioned in the special prayer which is recited when making a Siyum (completion) of a tractate of the Talmud. The prayer, which begins with words addressed to the tractate just finished, starts with the word Hadran ("May we return to thee...and may thee return to us"; it also means, "Our beauty is from thee...and thy beauty is upon us."), and goes on to enumerate all the ten sons of Rav Papa. Tradition has it that this prayer, and especially the mention of Rav Papa's ten sons, is good for the memory.