June 11, 2024
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Rabba as Abaye’s Anonymous Master: Bava Metzia 107a

Vatican 134 manuscript, Pesachim 108a.

In Bava Metzia 107a, Abaye explains Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s position in the preceding Mishna: “It is like Mar. For Mar said that if one prefers to plant his field, yet have it fertile as if it lay fallow, he should plant wheat one year and barley the next year; one year lengthwise and one year crosswise.”

I don’t know whom Abaye is referring to as Mar / Master.1 Mar is occasionally an Amora’s name (Mar bar Rav Ashi) or title (Mar Shmuel). Sometimes, when drilling down into a source mentioned earlier, it’s introduced with “Amar Mar.” An Amora may directly address his Amoraic teacher, or sometimes even colleague, respectfully as Mar. When referring to that person— I’d expect specifically a teacher —– to other Amoraim, he may call him Mar. If Mar here is Abaye’s teacher, is this Rav Yosef or Rabba bar Nachmani?

Rashi identifies “Mar” here as Rabba, Abaye’s teacher (and uncle), for Rabba raised him in his household.2 Let us explore Talmudic evidence of Abaye calling Rabba as “Mar.” There’s a recurring issue of some manuscripts having Rava instead of Rabba, but certainly some should indeed be Rabba.


Mar’s House

Rashi may be basing himself on Pesachim 108a. A dilemma was raised whether a student is required (or may) recline on Pesach in his teacher’s presence. The Gemara brings evidence by quoting Abaye: “When we were in Mar’s house, we reclined on each other’s knees (for want of space), but when we came to Rav Yosef’s house, he told us ‘You don’t need to do this, for fear of one’s teacher is like fear of Heaven.’” Thus, Mar is contrasted with Rav Yosef as Abaye’s other teacher, Rabba.

Why was בֵּי מַר / Rabba’s house so crowded? Was this true when Abaye was growing up in his uncle’s house? An alternative  is, following Vatican 134, to replace בֵּי מַר with בי רב. The academy at Pumbedita would have many yeshiva students but no teacher (Rabba or even possibly Rav Yosef) present. Meanwhile, when invited to Rav Yosef’s personal home, in a more intimate setting, even fewer students didn’t recline at all because of what Rav Yosef pointed out about having awe of one’s teacher.

In Pesachim 101a, the Talmudic Narrator asserts that “even Rabba” held that kiddush was only valid in the place of one’s meal, as Abaye stated: When I was in בֵּי מַר, he’d tell us to taste some food, lest the lamp be extinguished when you get to your lodging, and you won’t be able to have kiddush in the place you are eating. The Narrator contrasts this with another Abaye statement, that everything Mar does is like Rav with three exceptions. Again, this isn’t intimate, for shouldn’t Abaye be eating with his uncle? It is directed at students of the academy, eating and sleeping elsewhere. The Narrator certainly equates Mar with Rabba. Yet, as we’ll find typical, some manuscripts (Mosseri fragment, Columbia, Enlau, Rab 1623) have Rava instead of Rabba.

Bei Mar also appears in Menachot 33b: Abaye says the porticos in Mar’s house had doorposts but no mezuzot; and in Megillah 7b (see below), where Abaye is satiated when he leaves Mar’s house.


Directly Addressing Rabba

Often, Abaye directly addresses Rabba and calls him Mar. Thus, In Berachot 61b, Oxford 366 manuscript, Rabba says that “middling people (as opposed to good or bad) are folks like us.”Abaye responds, “Mar hasn’t left room for any creature to live!” However, printings / Munich 95 have Rava, not Rabba.

Shabbat 129a relates how they broke a bench to build a fire for Rabba’s (printings and Oxford 366; Rava in Munich 95, Vatican 108) health when he underwent bloodletting. Abaye asked him, “Didn’t Master violate Bal Tashchit?”

Shabbat 153a relates that you can tell if a deceased person has a share in the World to Come if people are stirred by his eulogy. In printings, Abaye asks Rabba (Rava in Munich 95, Oxford 366, and Vatican 1084), “What about Mar, whom everyone in Pumbedita hates?” Rabba replies, “It’s sufficient for me if you and Rabba bar Rav Chanan are stirred.”

A baraita on Shabbat 156a states that one born under the influence of Mars will be a shedder of blood. In some manuscripts, Rabba (Rava in Oxford 366 and Vatican 108) objects that he was born under Mars, yet he doesn’t kill. Abaye responds that “Mar” judges capital cases.

In Eruvin 93b, Rabba (Rava in Pisaro printing, Munich 95 and Oxford 366) suggests that “Perhaps the Mishna can be explained where the courtyard was breached before Shabbat,” and Abaye responds that Mar shouldn’t say “perhaps” but “certainly.”

In Megillah 7b, Abaye is sent to deliver mishloach manot back and forth between Rabba (Rava5 in Gottingen, Columbia, Oxford 366, and Vatican 134) and Mari bar Mar, with the latter providing choicier food. In describing the gifts, Abaye says, “Now, Mar will say that I sent him sweet items and he sent me pungent ones.” Later, in describing the incident to others, Abaye says “When I left Bei Mar, I was already satiated,” but was then able to eat an incredible amount at Mari bar Mar’s house.

In Gittin 37b, someone takes Rabba’s statement literally about abrogating a debt and doesn’t pay. Abaye asks Rabba, “Why is Mar sad?” then pursues the fellow and asks him, “Did you bring the money to Mar?” This is both a direct address and directed to others, with no Rava variants.

In Shavuot 10b, Rabba (Rava in Munich 95 and Vatican 140; also in the Arachin 5a parallel sugya) sits and recites a halacha from Rabbi Yochanan. Rav Chisda objects somewhat rudely, “Who will listen to you and your teacher Rabbi Yochanan?” Rabba and Rav Chisda have a back-and-forth. Finally, Rabba justifies Rabbi Yochanan based on X. Abaye challenges X, saying “Isn’t it (you) Mar, who said the reverse of X?”

Similarly, in Chullin 43b, Rabba (Hamburg 169, Vatican 122: Rava) checks for a tereifa by inspecting a gullet from the outside. Abaye asked him, “Doesn’t Mar maintain that it must be inspected from the inside?” Rabba inspected the inside and found blood. The Gemara notes that Rabba only did this to sharpen Abaye. That indicates a teacher-student relationship.

Finally, in Avodah Zarah 15b, Rabba sells a donkey to a Jew in a potentially problematic manner, and Abaye asks him, “Why did Mar act in this manner?” They argue the point.


Rabba in Third Person

Infrequently, Abaye refers to Rabba as “Mar” to others. These three passages involve ambiguity, since no name is explicitly mentioned; they also involve correcting initial practices or beliefs. Thus, in Shabbat 23a, Abaye reports that, initially, Mar would seek sesame oil for Chanukah lamps. After hearing Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s statement, Mar would seek olive oil because its light is clearer. We aren’t told whether Mar is Rabba or Rav Yosef. Still, Rav Yosef was blind! On the other hand, some Rishonim relate stories in which Rav Yosef blinded himself.

In Bava Batra 8b, Abaye relates how “Mar” initially refrained from sitting on mats in shul, since they had been purchased with charity funds and would establish two purses, one for the poor of his city and one for the poor of the world. In both cases, Mar changed his practice upon hearing a source obviating the requirement.

In Chullin 105b, Abaye relates how Mar disabused him of several initial halachic misimpressions. For instance, collecting bread crumbs after a meal was not due to cleanliness concerns, but because it would increase vulnerability to poverty.

This exhausts the Talmudic instances of Abaye referring to Rabba as Mar, thus supporting Rashi’s identification. Still, there are instances of Abaye calling his colleagues and his teacher, Rav Yosef, Mar. We aim to explore this contrary evidence next week.

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.


1 Munich 95 interestingly omits Abaye as speaker. This either makes no sense or expands what Mar may refer to,  quoting from tradition.

2 Rabba was Abaye’s uncle and Abaye was orphaned at birth.

3 See also Masechet Kalla Rabbati 2, where Rav Yosef (!) is the one who reports what Mar said, and there was only one location, with Mar reacting to the students reclining on their fellows’ knees.

4 Still, I’d side with the eulogized being Rabba, given that the correct girsa (version) in Berachot 48a describes  a minor Abaye and Rava bar Rav Chanan in Pumbedita in Rabba bar Nachmani’s house, where they are grilled to find if they can count for the mezuman. They would thus be the next generation, surviving Rabba and be on friendly terms.

5 But, would Rava indeed sent his contemporary Abaye as a shaliach? Also, Abaye invoked an expression of a farmer becoming a king, which would apply upon Rabba’s rise to power, not to Rava.

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