Rava had difficulties dealing with Jews in his city, but was able to navigate issues

While relations with the government and non-Jews were full of potential dangers and pitfalls, Rava’s need to deal with dissidents in his own community was no less delicate and complicated. As the Maharsha recognized, Rava’s community also contained people who were skeptical of the authenticity of Torah she-be’al Peh and of rabbinic authority (amei ha-aretz; see Maharsha on Mak 22b s.v. kammah tipsha’ei, where he points to Sanh 99b-100a), and Rava had to deal with such people as well. As the Gemara testifies, he kept them in the community by responding to their arguments when necessary, but also by employing a certain ironic humor at times (Sanh 99b-100a), and veiled threats at other times (Shab 133b). It would seem that Rava succeeded, at least in his own lifetime, but it may be significant that none of his talmidim stayed in Mahoza after his petirah; R. Nahman b. Yitzhak reestablished Pumbedita as a place of learning, R. Papa moved to Naresh, and Ravina apparently went to Mata Mahasiya, a suburb of Sura. It may be that none of them felt able to take up the challenge of dealing with Mahoza’s Jewish community, or as one of Hakirah’s editors suggests, they felt unable to deal with the royal court  across the river – or both.

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 68.

Rava was able to expound mi’utim and some of the other middot…

We do not find an Amora in all of the Bavli expounding a vav after the time of Rav and Shmuel, who, as members of the transition generation between the tannaitic era and that of the Amoraim, were in a special category (Rav Tanna hu’ u-palig, Ket 8a, Git 38b, BB 42a, Sanh 83b). The system of midrash halakhah was already closing down, though we find that Rava could still expound mi’utim and make use of some other middot.

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 78.

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The Assyria of yesterday could, for modern Israel, be Turkey, Iran, India or China tomorrow

The Assyria of yesterday could, for modern Israel, be Turkey, Iran, India or China tomorrow. Being initially called in to resolve local differences or protect Israel from an attack by an immediate neighbor, they may find the temptation to meddle in Israeli affairs too great to resist. Perhaps none of these states would actually seek to control the Jewish state. Economic influence, however, is an entirely different matter, and a powerful outsider, initially viewed as a protector, might impose one-sided trade or economic agreements on a weakened Israel. The fact that the United States has never done so, despite Israel’s dependence on Washington for its support in so many ways, simply underscores the exceptionality of the United States and its unique role as a superpower. Others simply will not behave the same way.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 13-14.


The ultimate pesak is not bound to the peshat of any one Amora, even when we decide according to his view

Of course, the ultimate pesak is not bound to the peshat of any one Amora, even when we decide according to his view. A sugya can combine the views of one Amora with the principles of another in order to apply the halakhah in question to various situations. It is up to the poskei ha-dor to determine the relevant halakhah for their time. That is why halakhah ke-batra’ei, the halakhah follows the later opinion (within the limits of Masorah, of course). But if Talmud Torah is pursued with the proper derekh, or, more precisely, with one or more of the proper derakhim, then, as Rav Hutner זצוק”ל pointed out, the result is “a positive creation of new Torah values.”

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 64-65.

Understanding Rava’s approach to interfaith dialogue and his context

In Shab 116a the Gemara reports that various Amoraim disagreed as to whether they should attend an interdenominational discussion in a Bei Abidan. While Rashi (as quoted by Tosafot in A.Z. 17a, see below) understands this phrase as referring to an idolatrous temple, Tosafot suggest that it was merely a neutral place where discussions were held on various matters (see Tosafot A.Z. 17a, s.v. harheq mealeha), and presumably not a place for religious discussions—even though it is clear from the Gemara that there were kisvei qodesh kept there. Tosafot conclude that the Bei Abidan was not a place of minut (meqom minut mammash) but rather a place where gentile scholars would gather to debate their laws (nose’im ve-notenim be dinim). Indeed, Rav would not go, Shmuel would, and a certain Mar b. Yosef went enthusiastically, while Rava excused himself because of the difficulty of reaching that particular Bei Abidan. It is noteworthy that Tosafot seem to have had a different girsa in Shabbat, since they note that R. Nahman went and endangered himself. If this girsa is correct, it may have been the experience of his own rebbe that convinced Rava not to go to these debates, simply because of the dangers to which such attendance could lead. Despite all of this, however, it is noteworthy that kitvei ha-qodesh were kept there, indicating that there was some religious dimension to the discussions, and the fact that Rav could refuse to attend indicates that these were not medieval style “forced debates.”

Nevertheless, Rava was careful to maintain good relations with the non-Jewish communities around him, and thus did not refuse outright, but pointed to a large palm tree in the way, which, even if uprooted as the government offered to do, would leave a large hole in the road leading up to the Bei Abidan. Indeed, his excuse is plausible, since we know that his rebbe, R. Nahman, travelled in a palanquin (presumably carried by four men) (Git 31b), and Rava himself (when he became a dayyan of the Resh Galuta?) would do so as well (B.M. 73b); as convenient as a palanquin was for the passenger, a large hole in the ground would have made passage difficult and dangerous. He would send Bar Sheshakh, apparently a pagan Babylonian, gifts even on idolatrous festivals, since he was certain that Bar Sheshakh was not himself an idolater (AZ 65a). He also maintained friendly relations with Issur the Ger, and even once based a pesak on information he had gotten from him (AZ 70a). In this connection it should be noted that Mahoza, Rava’s town, was a suburb of the Persian winter capital of Ctesiphon—it was right across the river, and as a consequence, many non-Jews lived there. Both the Jewish Resh Galuta and the Christian bishop of Ctesiphon resided in Mahoza (called Kokhe by the Christians). We can understand then why there were many gerim in Mahoza (Qid 73a), as opposed to Pumbedita and Mata Mahasia, where R. Yehudah and R. Ashi observed that there were none (Ber 17b). The Mahozan Jewish community was, for better or worse, much more open to outsiders than Pumbedita’.

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 66-68.

Rava is one of only two Amoraim to whom the principle that “a verse does not depart from its plain sense” is attributed

[Rava] is one of only two Amoraim to whom the principle that “a verse does not depart from its plain sense” is attributed; he was sharply attentive to the problem of pesukim for which derashot were missing. In his work on midrash, he learned from earlier Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael, some from his father-in-law-to-be, R. Hisda, and some of which he pioneered himself. While we have aggadot in the name of earlier Babylonian Amoraim, aside from scattered derashot, midrash halakhah seems not to have been of great interest in Bavel before Rava’s time and, to a lesser extent, that of R. Hisda, his rebbe. This interest was carried on by his talmidim. Among those who are associated with the many discussions of rabbinic biblical exegesis attributed to Rava in the Bavli are R. Papa, R. Mesharshiah, and R. Zevid; these discussions were continued in the next generation by R. Papa’s disciples in Naresh, eventually engendering those large exegetical sugyot so typical of the Bavli (and so rare in the Yerushalmi).

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 70-71.

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By ignoring the differences, the individual nature of each de’ah and shittah, we lose an important aspect of Torah.

Most of the time, the texts of Torah she-be’al Peh—the Mishnah, the Tosefta, the Bavli, the Yerushalmi—provide the names of those Tannaim or Amoraim who hold a certain view, (and in doing so bring redemption to the world). But even in those cases where these sefarim don’t cite the name of the authority holding a particular view, Hazal go out of their way to track it down. This is particularly significant, since, at least in the case of the Mishnah, it was Rebbe who omitted the name of the Tanna in order to indicate that the Halakhah followed his view, and, as we know, the Gemara often notes that a particular mishnah does not follow the view of a particular Tanna. Thus, it is important to identify views that are not dominant—halakhah le-maaseh!

By ignoring the differences, the individual nature of each de’ah and shittah, we lose an important aspect of Torah.

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 62.


Historically, there’s something suspect about a story told as a cliffhanger, but there’s something to celebrate about it

Cliffhangers are the point when the audience decides to keep buying—when, as the cinema-studies scholar Scott Higgins puts it, “curiosity is converted into a commercial transaction.” They are sensational, in every sense of the word. Historically, there’s something suspect about a story told in this manner, the way it tugs the customer to the next ledge. Nobody likes needy.

But there is also something to celebrate about the cliffhanger, which makes visible the storyteller’s connection to his audience—like a bridge made out of lightning. Primal and unashamedly manipulative, cliffhangers are the signature gambit of serial storytelling. They expose the intimacy between writer’s room and fan base, auteur and recapper—a relationship that can take seasons to develop, years marked by incidents of betrayal, contentment, and, occasionally, by a kind of ecstasy.

That’s not despite but because cliffhangers are fake-outs. They reveal that a story is artificial, then dare you to keep believing. If you trust the creator, you take that dare, and keep going.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 70.

Exploring reasons for linking amoraic opinions

At times the Gemara also traces the reasons for Amoraic opinions, as it does in the case of asmakhta in matters of commercial law. But, on the whole, it only began the task of providing the links between the various Amoraic statements. In the case of Rava, who is mentioned 3,800 times in the Bavli, the observation that ve-azda Rava le-ta’ameih—that his opinion in one place follows his shittah in another—appears only 13 times in Shas. In other words, the process of showing Rava’s consistency in his memrot was only at its start when the Bavli was closed. In this respect, as in many others, the Rishonim (and especially the Baalei Tosafot, see below) continued the task. The expression azda R. Peloni le-ta’ameih, is used some 60 times in all, and another 28 times if more than one Tanna or Amora is involved, but only 30 times in relation to Babylonian Amoraim: thirteen times for Rava, twelve times in relation to Shmuel, once each for Rabbah (Ket 34b) and R. Hisda (Qid 63b), twice for R. Nahman (BM 26a, Hul 25b), and, finally, once for R. Ashi (Shab 100b). Three of these observations concern Amoraim closely associated with Rava: R. Hisda, his teacher and eventual father-in-law, R. Nahman, his rebbe muvhak, and Samuel, who was, at least to some extent, R. Nahman’s teacher (see BM 16b). This is not surprising since these Amoraim are among the most influential in Shas. But, as we noted regarding R. Meir, the baalei ha-Shas are concerned about this issue even when the man de-amar is not necessarily of that level of prominence—it is a consistent concern. The Gemara notes the consistency of the views of Tannaim with the expression be-shittat (22 times) or le-shittato (5 times). Although this is still far from systematic, enough examples of this derekh survive to demonstrate that the ba’alei ha-Shas considered this a legitimate way of understanding the words of the Tannaim and Amoraim.

Why is understanding the link between Amoraic opinions important? There are at least two reasons. Since the Torah’s laws are not, has veshalom, arbitrary or haphazard (even if, as in the case of huqqim, the reason is hidden from us), understanding the link between Amoraic opinions allows us to see the reason behind their shittot. In most areas of Halakhah, we are encouraged to seek the reasons for every din because it is only by means of such study that one makes Torah one’s own—it becomes part of one’s being. If one does not understand something, it remains foreign—outside oneself.

Secondly, generally speaking, understanding a memra kifeshuto— understanding it in its immediate context—is a key to understanding it in its multiple contexts, including that of pesak. In the end, when we deal with halakhic texts, we must understand the memra in the broader context of Halakhah, from Humash and Shas through contemporary Poskim. But on the peshat level we seek to understand a particular memra in the context of the Amora’s views and approaches, his shittot. Generally speaking, his shittot will be consistent not only within themselves, but also within the wider context of those of his rebbes and talmidim, that is, his beit midrash. In the case of the Babylonian Amoraim, this means understanding, say, R. Huna’s memrot in terms of the views of his rebbe, Rav, and his talmidim, Rabbah b. R. Huna and R. Hisda. In the case of Rava, it means—when possible–tracing his views back to his rebbes R. Nahman and R. Hisda, to R. Nahman’s rebbes, Rabbah b. Avuha and Shmuel, but also seeing the view of Rava’s talmidim, R. Papa, R. Huna b. R. Yehoshua, R. Zevid, and others.

Yaakov Elman, “Rava as Mara de-Atra in Mahoza”, Hakirah 11 (Spring 2011), 63-64.


In the late nineties, television took a great leap forward

In the late nineties, television took a great leap forward. This story could be told in many ways: by focussing on the quality cable dramas, starting with “The Sopranos”; by emphasizing luminous genre myths like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; or by highlighting experimental sitcoms, such as the British version of “The Office,” themselves a reaction to the advent of reality television. Pugnacious auteurs emerged, resistant to TV formulas. The result was one innovation after another: juggled chronologies, the rise of antiheroes, and a new breed of challenging, tangled, ambitious serial narrative. Dramas often combined a plot of the week with longer arcs, a technique pioneered by “The X-Files,” allowing for subtler levels of irresolution. Some ambitious comedies incorporated serial elements, while others, like “Arrested Development,” satirized cliffhangers in much the way that “Soap” had.

Emily Nussbaum, “Tune in Next Week”, The New Yorker (30 July 2012), 74.