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.

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Jewish law teaches that we should always bring salt to our table and dip bread in salt before eating it

Jewish law teaches that we should always bring salt to our table and dip bread in salt before eating it. The general explanation given for this is that our table is like an altar; just as sacrifices always included salt, our meals are to be similarly meaningful and thus include salt as well. On a more down to earth level, having just said a blessing on the bread we salt it to make sure we enjoy it as we eat it with gratitude to God. This is similar to the Sefer HaChinuch’s idea that the salt is simply to make the sacrifice tasty.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, “Salt of the Earth”, The Jewish Week (23 March 2012), 52.

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The need for salt on sacrifices can be taken as a metaphorical lesson regarding our prayers

The need for salt on sacrifices can be taken as a metaphorical lesson regarding our prayers, which are like sacrifices before God. Our prayers should include genuine (salty) tears. We are told that, even in dark times of exile, “the gates of tears are never locked.” Just as salt can be destructive or constructive, we must remember that crying can be double-edged: manipulative tears can be a terrible thing; words of hope and prayer filled with genuine tears can lead to redemption on an individual and global scale.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann, “Salt of the Earth”, The Jewish Week (23 March 2012), 52.

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Angels can’t be part of the moral universe. Only humans can be

Angels can’t be part of the moral universe. Only humans can be. If we go in the direction of the Eitz Yosef, melakhim aren’t moral; they have no ethical language; they do exactly what they’re told. Human beings introduced the realm of the normative or the ethical because, for the first time, it’s possible not to do what you’re told. Animals don’t do what they’re told, but they do what they’re driven to do. Angels do what they’re told. And, in the middle, are human brings who are right in between.

Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard, “Created Human Being: A Rabbinic Look at the Human Condition” YCT Yemei Iyun 2006 (June 2006: Teaneck, NJ) {http://www.yctorah.org/component/option,com_docman/task,doc_download/gid,191/Itemid,13/}


Everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television

It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us. Simply reducing the machine’s presence will go a long way toward alleviating the disorder. Which points, in turn, to a dog-not-barking-in-the-nighttime detail that may be significant. In the Better-Never books, television isn’t scanted or ignored; it’s celebrated. When William Powers, in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” describes the deal his family makes to have an Unplugged Sunday, he tells us that the No Screens agreement doesn’t include television: “For us, television had always been a mostly communal experience, a way of coming together rather than pulling apart.” (“Can you please turn off your damn computer and come watch television with the rest of the family,” the dad now cries to the teenager.)

Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame—the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user. A meatless Monday has advantages over enforced vegetarianism, because it helps release the pressure on the food system without making undue demands on the eaters. In the same way, an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.

Adam Gopnik, “The Information”, The New Yorker (14 & 21 February 2011), 130.