The sage Rabbi Abba decided to make the journey from his native Babylonia to the Land of Israel (B. Berachot 24b). Rabbi Abba, however, faced one serious problem: His teacher, Rav Yehuda, held that it was prohibited to move to the Holy Land before the messianic era. Rav Yehuda's opinion was rooted in the prophetic verse: "They shall be brought to Babylon and there they shall remain, until the day when I remember them - says the Lord - and bring them up and restore them to this place" (Jeremiah 27:22).
In context, this verse refers to the Babylonian exile following the destruction of the First Temple, an exile that ended with the return to Zion and the rebuilding of the Temple. The prophecy and its fulfillment belonged to a bygone era, yet Rav Yehuda understood the biblical passage to be applicable to all exiles. Thus he proscribed leaving any diaspora without the Almighty's approval.
Fearing that his master would forbid the journey (Rashi, Shabbat 41a), or perhaps having already been told that he should not travel (Rashi, ad loc.; Rashi, Ketubot 110b), Rabbi Abba prudently avoided Rav Yehuda as he prepared for the momentous journey.
On the eve of his departure Rabbi Abba was torn - should he totally avoid Rav Yehuda or perhaps he should properly take leave of his master? Eventually he decided: "I will go and stand outside the study hall and learn something from him, and then I will leave."
When he arrived, Rabbi Abba found a reciter repeating a teaching before Rav Yehuda: "If someone was standing in prayer and needed to pass wind, he must first step back four cubits. Once the odor has dissipated, he returns to his prayer, by opening up with the following supplication - 'Master of the universe, You formed us with many openings and many cavities. Our shame and our humiliation that we endure during our lives is revealed and known before You, and at our end maggots and worms await us.' Having completed this supplication acknowledging human frailty, he then continues from the place where he interrupted his prayer."
Without having heard a word from his teacher, Rabbi Abba ceremoniously declared: "If I had come to hear only this thing, it would have been sufficient for me!" And with that, he apparently departed for the Holy Land.
How could Rabbi Abba flout his teacher's stance on relocating to the Land of Israel? Moreover, if Jeremiah's prophecy truly prohibits such a move, how could he act contrary to the prophetic directive?
The Gaon of Vilna (18th century) explains that Rabbi Abba understood the prophecy to be referring to the Temple vessels which are the subject of the preceding biblical verses. He saw no prohibition in returning to the Land of Israel before the advent of the messianic era, and decided to act on this reading.
While there is no concrete evidence that Rabbi Abba disagreed with the interpretation of his teacher, this suggestion may explain his willingness to act contrary to his teacher's position. Nevertheless, we are still left wondering about Rabbi Abba's parting declaration: On the eve of such a meaningful voyage, why was he so moved by a teaching about passing wind during prayer?
The Baghdadi scholar Rabbi Yosef Haim (Benayahu, 19th-20th centuries) explained Rabbi Abba's conduct by recounting a tale he heard of a learned person who had tremendous enthusiasm for Torah study. This scholar was careful not to waste a moment and five minutes would never pass without him learning Torah. Once a relative of this scholar passed away and he thus entered the prescribed seven day mourning period. During mourning, the joyful study of Torah is forbidden, but this scholar was so attached to Torah study that he hid in an inner room and opened the holy books.
While clandestinely holed-up and studying Torah, his peers suddenly entered. Stunned, they found an open book in his hands: "What are you doing?" they exclaimed. "A mourner is forbidden to study Torah!" Sheepishly the scholar replied: "I know that I am transgressing the words of the sages. And I know that I will certainly be called to task for this on the day of judgment. I am, however, willing to suffer the punishment that will be meted out, whatever that may be. You see, I cannot restrain myself in the face of the anguish I feel from not studying Torah; it is as painful for me as death!"
Returning to Rabbi Abba - even though he acknowledged the prohibition against leaving the Diaspora for the Land of Israel, his pining for the Holy Land was so great that he was willing to incur any heavenly penalties imposed, providing he could immigrate to the Promised Land.
Rabbi Yosef Haim continued explaining Rabbi Abba's parting pronouncement. When the student arrived Rabbi Abba heard a law about one whose bodily functions necessitated an interruption in prayer. But what piqued his interest was the additional supplication offered before returning to prayer.
The first interruption was unpreventable, but once the smell had dissipated, an immediate return to prayer was called for. Interjecting other business during the canonized prayers is not permitted, but here Rabbi Abba saw that for the higher purpose of offering a small but sincere apology, the offender was permitted to tarry.
Having heard this teaching, he knew that he had made the right decision: Indeed, returning to the Land of Israel was prohibited so long as the exile endured. Yet for the sake of living in the sacred Promised Land, it was permitted to ignore the prohibition. Thus, this seemingly mundane teaching about bodily functions during prayer strengthened Rabbi Abba's resolve to fulfill his dream.
There may be occasions in our tradition when misconduct is worthwhile despite the penalty it carries. While it is undeniably difficult to identify which values justify such a course, two examples seem to present themselves: Torah and the Land of Israel.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.