מעשה ברבי אליעזר ור' יהושע ור' אלעזר בן עזריה ור' עקיבא ור' טרפון שהיו מסובין בבני ברקWhat is the meaning of בבני ברק? Sometimes the most obvious answer is the true answer. It was a town called Benei Berak.
So why bother to even say this? What a pointless blog post!
The answer is that Abarbanel offers a different explanation. To read it, click on the image and you will see a much larger text. This is from the sefer / haggada of Abarbanel called Zevach Pesach, available at HebrewBooks.
Basically he considers the explanation that it means the residents of the city of Berak, and gives reasons why it cannot mean that. Therefore, he determines that benei berak means shining vessels, thus beautiful vessels in honor of Pesach, to show that they were free.
Of course, as a matter of peshat, Abarbanel here is simply incorrect. Bnei Brak is the city, just as it is today. Proof of this is that the city of Bnei Brak is mentioned in sefer Yehoshua, in Yehoshua 19:45:
וִיהֻד וּבְנֵי-בְרַק, וְגַת-רִמּוֹן
Indeed, the Arabs have an old town over that ancient town, which they call Ibn Ibraq. And in Sanhedrin 32b, we see that this is the seat of Rabbi Akiva's court:
"Our Rabbis taught: justice, justice shalt thou follow,' this means, Follow the scholars to their academies. e.g.. R. Eliezer to Lydda, R. Johanan b. Zakkai to Beror Hail, R. Joshua to Peki'in, Rabban Gamaliel [II] to Jabneh, R. Akiba to Benai Berak, R. Mathia to Rome, R. Hanania b. Teradion to Sikni, R. Jose [b. Halafta] to Sepphoris. R. Judah b. Bathyra to Nisibis, R. Joshua to the Exile, Rabbi to Beth She'arim, or the Sages to the chamber of hewn stones.
And there are other references to Bnei Brak in the Bavli, as a place:
In Bava Batra 154:
מעשה בבני ברק באחד שמכר בנכסי אביו ומת ובאו בני משפחה וערערו לומר קטן היה בשעת מיתה ובאו ושאלו את רבי עקיבא מהו לבודקו אמר להם אי אתם רשאים לנוולו ועוד סימנין עשויין להשתנות לאחר מיתה
We could interpret this as a city called Bnei Brak, or as an incident which happened to the residents of Brak, but it is hard to see how to interpret this as beautiful vessels.
And the pattern of "Maaseh be-location name" occurs elsewhere as well, so it makes sense to read the entire "Bnei Brak" as a location.
Also, in Sanhedrin 96b:
ומאן נינהו שמעיה ואבטליון מבני בניו של המן למדו תורה בבני ברקwe can interpret this as a place called Bnei Brak or as with the residents of Berak (*perhaps*), but as "with beautiful vessels" does not work.
Also, in Tosefta Shabbos 4:2:
א"ר יהודה מעשה במרחץ של בני ברק שסתמו נקבין שלו מעיו"ט והיה ר"ע ור"א בן עזריה נכנסין ומזיעין בתוכו ויוצאין [ורוחצין] בצונןwith some of the same participants. Perhaps it can refer to the residents of Berak, and more likely to the town of Bnei Brak, but how in the world can this mean "beautiful vessels?"
What is fascinating is that Abarbanel did not suggest this correct answer. It makes sense in that he did not know of the modern Bnei Brak or the Arab town. And in terms of gemaras and Toseftas, these are few and far between, and Abarbanel was much more a commentator on Tanach than on Talmud, so this too makes sense. More surprising is missing the pasuk in Yehoshua, for Abarbanel is an expert in TaNaCh. Had he known of it, it surely would have warranted a mention! It would seem that he was unaware of this pasuk. The answer would seem to be that this, too, is an obscure pasuk, such that this town has a single mention, and not in a particularly interesting way. This would not necessarily be the type of thing Abarbanel covers in his peirush. (And Abarbanel did not have a Snunit or Bar-Ilan search available to him, either.)
(Perhaps one can argue that in all those other places, it meant the location, or the residents of the location, but in this specific instance in the haggadah it has this entirely separate meaning. Label this possibility "p". This divergence of explanations makes this particular explanation offered seem even more unlikely.)
Yet if Abarbanel is wrong here, it is interesting how people will still cite him, without dealing with the straightforward and correct explanation. There is some aspect to it, that since it was said by a rishon, it has the status of a devar Torah to be said over at the seder regardless of its merits in terms of truth. Also, there is an element of broken telephone in play, where it does not become clear that Abarbanel never considered the possibility of the phrase "Benei Berak" in its entirety to be the name of the city, but rather that he rejected the possibility after due consideration, for some reason. Or perhaps they will turn to apologetics and offer explanation "p." I do not know, but it is interesting to explore.