“And the halakha is in accordance with Abaye [when he has a dispute with Rava] with regard to six halakhot, [as represented by the mnemonic] yod, ayin, lamed, kuf, gimmel, mem” (Kiddushin 52a)
If you heard the words “Yael Kegam” and thought that it is the name of a friend from high school or your third-grade teacher, you would be incorrect. Yael Kegam is a mnemonic for the only six times that halacha is decided according to Abaye and not his partner Rava. Without going into too much detail, we have six different halachic cases, respectively dealing with: lost objects, witnesses, constructing an eiruv, marriage (our case), divorce, and invalidating a witness. In each case Abaye and Rava argue and the law goes according to Abaye’s opinion. In all the hundreds of other disputes that the pair have, the law goes according to Rava.
Who are these partners and why are they always linked? Abaye and Rava are the Gemara equivalent of peanut butter and jelly, always together but very different. Their arguments are so pervasive in the text that another name for Gemara study is “הוויות אביי ורבא“ “havayot Abaye veRava,” the disputes of Abaye and Rava (Sukkah 28a). They are both fourth generation Babylonian amoraim, who lived in the early fourth century CE.
Abaye was born an orphan. His father died when his mother was pregnant and his mother died giving birth to him (Kiddushin 31b). Despite this terrible tragedy, it seems that he had a warm home environment. He was brought up by his uncle, his father’s brother Rabba bar Nahmani. This also explains his curious nickname, Abaye, my father. His real name was Nahmani, after his grandfather, but Rabba did not want to call him by his father’s name, feeling this was disrespectful. So he called him Abaye – my father – and the name stuck. Abaye also had a strong mother figure in his life. He often quotes his “mother” about medical advice, folk sayings and general knowledge, using the phrase אמרה לי אם, my mother told me. But the Gemara and Rashi explain that this was his foster mother who brought him up, and he felt that she was a real mother to him.
Abaye’s main teacher, besides his uncle, was Rav Yosef. This brilliant Talmudist became ill later in life and Abaye helped him to remember his very own teachings when he was unable to (see here). For some of his life, Abaye was very poor, almost to the verge of starvation (Shabbat 33a), as well as sickly. Eventually he was able to own land and became financially stable. Besides his great Torah knowledge, Abaye was known for his kindness and respect for others. Here is a beautiful saying that shows his character:
“Abaye said: As it was taught: “And you shall love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5), which means that you shall make the name of Heaven beloved. He should read Torah, and learn Mishna, and serve Torah scholars, and he should be pleasant with people in his business transactions. What do people say about such a person? Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah, fortunate is his teacher who taught him Torah,” (Yoma 86a)
Before we get to Rava’s biography, let’s clear up some confusion. Rava רבא is NOT Rabba רבה. Rabba (with a “B”) is the third generation amora who raised Abaye. Rava (with a “V”) is the fourth generation amora who is Abaye’s contemporary. Rava is a shortening of Rabbi Abba, helpful if you want to remember that his name is spelled with an aleph at the end.
Rava was born in the Babylonian town of Mahoza. His teachers were Rav Nahman and Rav Hisda and he eventually married Rav Hisda’s daughter (see here) He was also a student of Rav Yosef, like Abaye. Unlike Abaye he was wealthy as well as influential with ties to the government. He was very strict about not wasting time but also understood how his students needed to make a living, and he instructed them not to come to the yeshiva during the harvest season so that they would have food for the year (Berachot 35b). This balanced approach is reflected in one of his beautiful teachings:
“Rava said: when a person is brought to judgment [after death] they say to him: Did you conduct business faithfully? Did you designate times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you await salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom or understand one matter from another? And, nevertheless, beyond all these, the fear of the Lord . . .” (Shabbat 31a)
Abaye and Rava appear together in many halachic disagreements as well as in stories. They seem to have known each other as children, as this charming tale illustrates:
“Abaye and Rava, , were seated before Rabba. Rabba said to them: To whom does one recite blessings? They said to him: To God, the All-Merciful. Rabba asked them: And where does the All-Merciful reside? Rava pointed to the ceiling. Abaye went outside and pointed toward the heaven. Rabba said to them: You will both become Sages.” (Berachot 48a)
They continued on similar paths and when their mutual teacher, Rav Yosef died, it had to be determined who would become the next head of his yeshiva in Pumbedita. Abaye and Rava were both candidates but Abaye ended up being the chosen successor (Horayot 14b according to Margoliot). Rava moved back to his hometown of Mahoza (about a day’s walk away – Pumbedita was on the banks of the Euphrates and Mahoza on the Tigris) and ran the yeshiva there. When Abaye died, Rava was chosen to carry on the yeshiva in Pumbedita but he chose to relocate it to Mahoza and that became the only yeshiva in Babylonia.
יהונתן, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Although Abaye died before Rava, when the Gemara lists supernatural events that happened when Sages died, it puts them together
“When Abaye and Rava passed away, the tops of the bridges of the Tigris collapsed and touched each other.” (Moed Katan 25b)
Kever Abaye veRava (Abbie Rosenbaum)
Perhaps because of their long association in life, they are mentioned together in death. And indeed, since the 16th century, there has been a cave in the Biriya Forest in the Galilee that is said to the resting place of both of them. They could have been brought for burial in the Land of Israel, Abaye especially was an admirer of the Sages of Israel and advocated for using Hebrew in everyday speech. Whether it is their actual resting place or not, it is a beautiful spot with views of the whole Galilee.
View from Kever Abaye veRava (Abbie Rosenbaum)