...Paired in life, and beyond...
by Chana Katz
They were one of history's most famous pairs, noted, of all things,
for their intense arguments with one another! But in the end they were
inseparable. They were buried together in one of the most elevated and
scenic sites in northern Israel, where, on a clear day, you could almost
Abbaye and Rava, as they were known, lit the study halls in ancient
Babylonia with their fiery Torah debates, ensuring their niche among the
most quoted sparring partners in the Talmudic period known as the Amoraim
(explainers or interpreters), from about 200-500 CE.
so great about always arguing? one might ask. It says in Ethics of Our
Fathers (Pirkei Avot) that a controversy which is for the sake
of heaven, such as that of Hillel and Shammai, will endure, whereas arguments
that are not for the sake of heaven in the end will not endure.
Those of Abbaye and Rava did endure and many of the discussions between
the two were preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. Today one can enter the
study hall of even young children learning Torah and see them waving their
thumb in a clockwise motion saying, "....Abbaye said...."
Although both Abbaye and Rava introduced the Torah student to noted points
of view, still, a final decision must be made when it comes to halacha,
or Jewish law, and it is said that in all but six instances the halacha
was based on Rava's interpretations. But in the end it was Abbaye, who
was engaged in acts of good deeds as well as Torah study, who outlived
his colleague by 20 years.
* * *
Abbaye and Rava were among the many bright spots in what started out
as a dismal and bitter exile from Eretz Yisroel to Babylonia, a period
which spanned some 1,500 years. When the Babylonians captured 10,000 Jews
from Israel and took them from the Holy Land, it didn't look like a very
bright future for the Jewish nation. But as it turned out, these initial
10,000 captive Jewish souls actually planted the seeds for what was to
become the greatest center of Torah learning in its time, culminating
with the rendering of the Babylonian Talmud.
Abbaye, who was also known as Nahmani ben Keilil, lost his father before
he was born and then his mother died upon his birth. He grew up in the
home of his uncle, the famous Torah sage, Rabbah. Upon the death of Rav
Yosef, Abbaye was chosen from among four candidates (including Rava) to
head the prestigious learning academy at Pumbedita.
Both Abbaye and Rava are recorded as having descended from the famous
house of Eli, the high priest and mentor of Samuel the Prophet.
Rava, who opened a school in Mahoza on the banks of the Tigris, was
said to have been very poor and cultivated his vegetable plot by night
in order to be able to learn by day.
One of Abbaye's most notable halachic opinions is one in which he permitted
the Hebrew language to be used in all matters and places, in opposition
to those who sought to preserve it for only sacred places and activities.
By now, one must be wondering what a discussion between Abbaye and Rava
sounded like. Since they are probably the most quoted partners in the
Talmud, finding such an example is not so difficult, such as this one
brief example found in Tractate Nedarim, p. 39b:
"It was taught: There is no measure for visiting the sick. What
does 'no measure' mean?
Rabbi Yosef explained: This means the rewards for doing so are unlimited.
But Abbaye said: Is there a definitive measure of reward for carrying
out any commandment? ... Rather, 'no measure' means that even a great
person must visit a lowly one who is sick.
Rava said: A person must visit the sick even a hundred times a day."
* * *
Now that some of us know a little more about Abbaye and Rava, the fun
begins. Getting to their burial site from Tsfat is one of the most beautiful
local outings and the clearer, the crisper the day, the more invigorating
the experience and more splendid the view!
To get there from Tsfat, head out of the city toward the Haifa-Acco
Road but don't turn left there, instead head straight up the hill in the
direction of the Bat Ya'ar Ranch and Amuka. The Biriya Forest will be
ahead but you will want to make a right turn first at a sign that says
Biriya Watchtower and Fort Biriya. You will see a cement barricade which
leads into an army base. Before that you will see a sign in Hebrew: kever
Abbaye & Rava, 0.8 kilometer.
There you will take a left off the paved road onto a rocky path. You
will soon find yourself in the midst of a lovely, peaceful forest. Then,
in an almost roller-coaster setting, you will drive up a very steep slope
but it will level off faster than you'd think and more radar stations
(pointing in the direction of Syria) will be visible and a sign that says
To the left you have already come to a clearing and what a view! Even
on a hazy day you can still make out the outline of Israel's largest mountain
in the distance, Har Hermon. You can take the car all the way to the entrance
of the kever but the rocky road is narrow, so you may want to park and
walk the remaining short distance listening to the whoosh of the wind
and the stones grinding under your shoes on the sandy path.
it is, a white cement canopied pavilion with a blue dome and a sign in
Hebrew saying Abbaye and Rava. (Directly right above it is the kever of
R. Yehuda Nasiya, the great-grandson of R. Yehuda haNasi).
This burial cave is unlike many others in the northern Galilee in that
one does not have to crouch down to get inside. Walk down 76 modern steps
and you will pass under an arched corridor. Another 14 steps and you will
get a strong whiff of the earthy cave smell. There's green moss on the
walls and a fly buzzing by, its simple noise reverberating in the outer
tunnel. Inside, a stone floor covers the usual dirt and rock bottom found
in similar caves.
And until a large jeep pulls up to exit with a tour guide and a group
of visitors, you are alone with Abbaye and Rava, a very large tzedoko
(charity) box and a table filled with prayer books and Tehillim.
Although the sun's heat is getting stronger outside, nature's air conditioner
provides comfort in this cave, where one can only wonder what Abbaye and
Rava are learning today in the heavenly academies. Are they partners there,
too? What magnificent Torah truth and purity are they beholding as one?
guidebooks to Safed and the Galilee at the Kabbala
[Chana Katz, a former South
FLorida journalist, lives in Tsfat. Her articles on life in Israel have
reached publications throughout the world.]