If one were to inquire of a Talmudic scholar what constitutes classic “Gemara,” the odds are good that he would reply, “the dialogues of Abaye and Rava,” both of whom were Amoraim from “Bavel” (Babylonia). That is because back-and-forth question and answer, point and counter-point, progressive refinement of the subject matter, which almost always involves the meaning of a Torah Law, but on occasion branches into other areas, is the Talmudic path to Truth.
Abaye “Little Father” was an orphan, and was raised by his uncle, Rabbah bar Nachmani, and his wife. He had enormous respect and affection for Rabbah, and Sukkot 53a records that Abaye would entertain him at the “Simchat Bait HaSho’eva,” the Water-Drawing Celebration that was held during “Sukkot,” (a particularly joyous celebration within the Festival which is itself known as the “The Time of our Joy” by juggling, at which he was a master.
Of course, Abaye was a master not only of juggling, but also of the study of Torah and the art of teaching Torah. He studied at the Yeshiva (Torah Academy) of Pumbeditha, near the Euphrates. There his good friend and study-partner was Rava (not to be confused with Rabbah, the Head of the Academy), with whom he often engaged in debates on various aspects of Torah Law. Great as Abaye was in Torah, Rava was even greater, and over the course of time, beginning in their student years and continuing into their careers as teachers of Torah, many of their disputes are recorded in the Talmud, and of the hundreds of such disputes, the Law is decided according to the opinion of Rava in all but six cases.
Abaye assumed the position of Head of the Yeshiva of Pumbeditha shortly after the retirement of his uncle. He served with distinction in that position, serving as a role model in being one of the greatest Torah scholars of his generation, but also being imbued with refined character traits. He would rejoice when one of his students achieved notable success in his studies.
Abaye was a “Scholar and a Gentleman;” one of his favorite sayings is recorded in Berachot 17a, “One should always strive to be friendly with his brothers, his relatives, and everyone else, and even with the non-Jew in the marketplace, in order that he be loved Above (by HaShem) and Below (by his fellow human beings).
He realized the power of parental influence on the child and said, “What is heard from a child’s mouth in the street is merely a repetition of what he has heard from his parents” (Sukkah 56b), and he realized the imprint left by what one learns as a child, the “girsa d’yankusa,” in determining a person’s strongest memories.
Abaye lived several hundred years after the destruction of the “Beit HaMikdash,” the Holy Temple, in a period when Temple Sacrifices had long been suspended (pending the arrival of the “Mashiach,” and the rebuilding once again of the Temple). But it is he who teaches the Order and Sequence of the fifteen elements of the Temple Service, that is recited each morning at the beginning of the Introduction to “Shacharit,” the Morning Prayer, by an Oral Tradition that he received from Abba Shaul, a Tanna.
Abaye was also a “Kohen,” a Priest, descending from the Family of Eli, and he was caught up in the curse that was placed on that family by HaShem, that no one would ever live out his full years, because of the Desecration of G-d’s Name caused by the misdeeds of Eli’s sons, Chofni and Pinchas, when they were in charge of the Mishkan, the spiritual center that preceded the Temple. Abaye’s righteous behavior staved off the curse for many years but he succumbed to edema at the relatively young age of sixty.