World of the Sages: Auspicious signs

The Talmud shows how the theoretical positions of Rava and Abbaye were borne out in their lives.

The Mishna declares that a minor does not join a zimun, the invitational introduction to Grace After Meals (M. Berachot 7:2). Despite this rule, the talmudic sages discuss possible scenarios where minors could be included in the zimun (B. Berachot 47b-48a). The Talmud concludes that of the various suggestions, there is only one license for leniency that is accepted as normative law: A minor who comprehends that we recite blessings to the Almighty may be considered for zimun purposes. The prevailing custom, however, is that minors are not counted in the zimun until they come of age (Remah OH 199:10). The Talmud recounts an incident that illustrates the parameter of a minor who is cognizant of the divine subject of our blessings. Abbaye and Rava were two of the most prominent talmudic scholars. They grappled with inconsistencies in earlier rabbinic texts offering resolutions to such discrepancies, their dicta are regularly quoted and their rulings form a basis for further discussion. In fact, talmudic discussion is at times referred to as "inquiries of Abbaye and Rava" (B. Succa 28a; B. Bava Batra 134a). The Talmud relates a tale from the childhood of these talmudic heroes as they sat before their teacher Rabbah. Rabbah asked them: "To whom do we recite blessings?" The two children answered: "To the Merciful One." Probing further, Rabbah asked: "And this 'Merciful One,' where does He dwell?" The two children were too young to fully articulate an answer to such a deep question, but Rava pointed up to the ceiling of the beit midrash, while Abbaye ran outside and pointed to the sky. Their master Rabbah was satisfied and felt that their answer heralded greatness: "Both of you will grow up to be sages!" The Talmud concludes the tale by quoting a popular adage: "Small pumpkins are a discernable when they burst forth from their sap." As soon as a sprouting pumpkin begins to bud, a trained eye can discern whether it will ripen into a good pumpkin. Thus a perceptive observer can tell from budding youngsters whether they are destined for distinction. Rabbah's astute comment was not only accurate - indeed these two children went on to become talmudic sages of note - but the way Abbaye and Rava answered the question also augured their future. Abbaye, it appears, was more connected to the God of the heavens while Rava was in tune with the divine presence in the beit midrash. Thus the Talmud tells us that Abbaye was greeted by the heavenly academy each Friday (B. Ta'anit 21b-22a). Rava was granted such a gesture only once a year on the eve of Yom Kippur. The Talmud tells us that another person - Abba the bloodletting surgeon - would receive such a greeting each day. Notably, Abbaye was distressed that he did not merit such frequent heavenly acknowledgment. After being told of the greatness of Abba the bloodletter, Abbaye sought to investigate the surgeon and see his conduct firsthand. The Talmud adds that Rava felt distressed that he did not merit a weekly salutation from heaven. Rava sensed that he was less worthy than his colleague Abbaye and Rava was placated only when told that he should not be concerned since the entire city was protected in his merit. Significantly, Rava did not feel the need to probe the divine connection of those who received regular heavenly communiqués; once encouraged, Rava was apparently satisfied with his annual heavenly salutation. Whenever the two sages are mentioned together, Abbaye's name always precedes Rava's name. This may be because Abbaye served as the head of the talmudic academy before Rava (B. Horayot 14a), but may also be connected to Abbaye's unique heavenly connection. Yet Rava was more in tune with the heavenly presence in the beit midrash and thus normative rule always favors Rava's opinion over Abbaye's position, except in six select cases (B. Bava Metzia 22b, and elsewhere). Elsewhere in the Talmud we find an indicative argument between Abbaye and Rava that reflects the different foci of these two sages (B. Rosh Hashana 18a with Rashi). The Talmud tells us that a heavenly decree against a community can always be overturned with heartfelt remorse, unless the decree is coupled with a divine oath. In such a severe case, even repentance cannot reverse the judgment. The source for this distinction is the biblical episode of Eli, who served as high priest and judge. While Eli himself was righteous, his sons, Hophni and Phineas, were lawless. Hophni and Phineas disgraced their office by sending attendants to seize portions of slaughtered offerings to which they were not entitled (I Samuel 2:12-17). Their misconduct went further with licentious behavior (ibid. 22-25). The iniquity was so great that young Samuel prophesied: "Therefore I have sworn concerning the House of Eli, that the sin of the House of Eli will never be atoned for by sacrifice or meal offering" (ibid. 3:14). Thus the decree was irrevocable as it was accompanied by a divine oath. Rava and Abbaye both agreed that while the verdict against the family could not be canceled, it could, however, be mitigated on an individual basis. Rava - who as a youngster had identified the divine presence inside the beit midrash - suggested that the decree could be negated through the study of Torah. Abbaye - who had perceived God beyond the confines of the beit midrash - suggested that the verdict could be alleviated not only with Torah study, but also with acts of kindness. The Talmud shows how the theoretical positions of Rava and Abbaye were borne out in their lives. Both sages descended from the House of Eli. Rava, who dedicated his life to the study of Torah, avoided the dire verdict for 20 years. He lived to the age of 40, 20 years beyond the age of 20 when a person is considered liable for punishment. Abbaye, who engaged in both Torah study and in acts of kindness, lived for 60 years. Our children may seem like they are merely playing, waiting their turn to join the zimun. Yet in their actions, in their questions and in their responses lies hidden signs of their destiny. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.