14 Jun 2006

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.

Rava was the best friend and study-partner of Abaye at the “Yeshiva” (Torah Academy) of Pumbeditha for many years. During those years, they began their series of Torah disputes, of which hundreds are recorded in the Talmud. Great as Abaye was in Torah scholarship, Rava was even greater, as shown by the fact that the Law is decided according to the opinion of Abaye in only six of those cases; in all of the rest, the Law is decided in accord with the opinion of Rava.

When Rabbah bar Nachmani (not to be confused with Rava), the Head of the Yeshiva of Pumbeditha, retired, the position went to Abaye. At that point, Rava returned to Machoza, in Bavel, where he had studied as a youth, and established an advanced Torah Academy. After the death of Abaye, many of his students moved from Pumbeditha to Machoza, to join Rava’s Yeshiva, which had become one of the intellectual centers of the Babylonian Jewish Community.

We find in Eruvin 54a an interesting anecdote: Apparently, Yosef, one of Rava’s teachers, was upset with him for some reason. As Yom Kippur approached, Rava decided to regain his good will by using his expertise in wine preparation, to mix a special goblet of wine for him. We see also in Bava Metzia 73a that Rava was a wealthy man involved in the wine business, the “Baron Herzog” of his day.

Rava was a much earlier advocate of the Hirschian idea of “Torah im Derech Eretz,” the study of Torah combined with proper behavior. Or a later exponent of the thought expressed in Pirkei Avot (3:21) by Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, “If there is no Torah, there is no proper involvement with the world; if there is no proper involvement with the world, there is no Torah…” Rava said in Berachot 17a, “The goal of wisdom is repentance and good deeds, so that one should not study Torah and Mishnah, and then despise his father and mother because of their ignorance…”

He taught that honesty is the best policy; “…When one is brought for his Heavenly Judgment, the first question he is asked is, ‘Did you deal honestly with your fellow human beings?…” (Shabbat 31a)

And he revealed his belief that “all men are created equal” when in response to the following question: “The ruler of my city told me to kill Mr. X, or I will be killed. What should I do?” he said “Let yourself be killed. Who said your blood is any redder than his?…”