Tes Zayin Teves, 5778
The Great Rav
Bar Ayvoh, (who became known as Rav) was one of the great Jewish scholars who lived in Babylon the same time as Rabbi Yehuda the Prince led the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. Because of his fine, impressive appearance, he also was given the nickname Abba Aricha, or "the tall Abba."
Rav began his illustrious career when he arrived in Israel to study under the tutelage of his uncle, the noteworthy scholar, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abbah, with whom he was very close. Eventually, Rabbi Hiyya appointed his brilliant nephew to serve as an interpreter, a special scholar whose function it was to explain the teachings of the dean of the academy. Abba grew in Torah knowledge and stature, and when his uncle introduced him to Rabbi Yehuda, he made a very favorable impression.
Rav returned to Babylon and during his stay both of his parents passed away. Upon his return to Israel, Rabbi Hiyya inquired whether his father was still alive. Reluctant to give bad news, Abba responded with a question, "Why do you not inquire if my mother is alive?" Rabbi Hiyya then asked, "Is your mother alive?" To which Abba replied, "And does my father live?" From this cryptic exchange, Rabbi Hiyya understood that Abba's parents had died.
After his return to Israel, Rav joined the yeshiva of Rabbi Yehuda, becoming one of the outstanding students there, and following Rabbi Yehuda to Tzippori, when he moved his court there. His fame spread, and the Talmud reports the esteem in which his colleagues held him. Once, Issi bar Hinni referred to Rav as "Abba Aricha" in the presence of Rav Yochanan. Rav Yochanan angrily retorted: "You dare to call him 'Abba Aricha'? Why, I recall when I sat 17 rows behind Rav in Rabbi Yehuda's yeshiva. Sparks of fire passed from Rav's mouth to his Master's mouth, and back to Rav's mouth, and I could not even understand their conversation!"
Rav's brilliance was not confined to his knowledge of Torah. He was learned in the whole spectrum of secular studies, including medicine, nature, nutrition, zoology, geography, business and trade. He studied all of these secular fields in order to be able to decide the many legal questions which came to him. The Jerusalem Talmud relates that Rav spent 18 months studying with a shepherd to learn how to distinguish between blemishes which are permanent and those which are temporary, in order to render a decision as to the fitness of a first-born animal. In addition to all his other talents, Rav was an accomplished linguist, conversing fluently in Persian, Greek and Aramaic.
Many sayings in the Talmud are attributed to Rav and illustrate his wisdom and sagacity. "Better to be cursed than to curse" (Sanhedrin 49); "A camel came begging for horns, so his ears were clipped," (Sanhedrin 106); "Better to have a pot of earth than a large amount on the roof," (Pesachim 113). Rav used to say that a father should never show more love to one child than to another because such action causes jealousy between children, as was the case of Joseph and his brothers.
Rav was very humble and always sought peace. If someone happened to offend him, Rav was always the first to go out and try to make peace.
In later years, Rav returned to Babylon to strengthen Torah and Judaism there. There were great scholars in residence there when he arrived, and although he was greater than they were, he refused to assume any of their positions. In fact, he arrived anonymously and was not recognized. One day, Rav Shila had need of an interpreter, and Rav volunteered. It was soon apparent that he was no ordinary scholar, and Rav Shila recognized him. He exclaimed, "I am not worthy of having you as my interpreter!" Rav replied simply, "When one hires himself out for the day, he is duty bound to perform whatever job he is given."
In his great humility Rav greatly respected all Torah scholars, even those on a far lower level than himself. Only in the instance of a possible desecration of G-d's Name did he speak brazenly, saying, "When a question of the desecration of the Holy Name arises, one need not respect the feelings of even a great person" (Brachot 19b).
Rav owned a brewery, but was unsuccessful in business and lived in poverty. When Rav Shila died, Rav refused to step into his position. Instead, Rav left Nehardea to travel from town to town, teaching and attracting many disciples. He finally settled in the town of Sura, which had not yet been established as a Torah center. Eventually, his yeshiva grew very large. His financial position also advanced, and he became intimate with the royal family.
Although Rav didn't care for his personal honor, he was scrupulous toward the honor of the Torah. It is related in the Talmud that once Rav summoned a wealthy man to appear in court. The rich man was very haughty and instead of coming, he sent a message saying, "Do you know how rich I am? All the camels of the Arabs would not be able to carry even the keys to my treasures."
When Rav was given that message, he remarked that the rich man would soon be relieved of his riches. Very soon after, the king issued an order that all the rich man's possessions be confiscated. When that happened, the rich man ran to Rav, begging for his forgiveness. Rav forgave him at once. Soon, all his possessions were returned to him.
What Rabbi Yehuda the Prince was to Jews in Israel, Rav was for the Jews in Babylon. He is considered one of the greatest scholars of his time.