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Rava the Masorete; Sukkah 39

In Sukkah 38-39, Rava (b. Yosef b. Chama, a fourth-generation Babylonian Amora, 280-352 CE) rules that when reciting Hallel, one must say the full phrase “Baruch HaBa B’sheim Hashem,” rather than pausing after “haba.” Similarly, in Kaddish, one must say the full Yehei Shmei Rabba Mevarach rather than pausing after “Rabba.” Each time, Rav Safra says to him: “Moshe, did you speak well? Either way, it is the conclusion of the matter and we have no concern with it.” Rava’s name was presumably Abba, not Moshe. Rashi explains that by “Moshe,” Rav Safra means the gadol hador. By calling him this while questioning his ruling, Rav Safra was either being respectful or snarky. (In Beitza, Rashi takes this as an oath: By Moses!”)

Rav Safra (older than Rava, a second/third-generation Amora who traveled back and forth between Israel and Babylonia) often employs this expression. Aside from the two instances in our sugya, in Shabbat 101b, Rava interprets the Mishnah’s permit of carrying between two boats tied together as including transport via an intermediate smaller boat. Rav Safra objects, “Moshe, did you speak well?” and interprets the Mishnah as aligned with a case in a brayta. In Beitza 38, Rabbi Abba (second-third generation) ascends from Babylonia to Israel and prays that his words be accepted. Alas, he finds a company of Sages discussing a Mishnah, makes a suggestion, and they laugh at him. Insulted, he asks them, “Did I take your cloaks, that you shame me?” They laugh at him again. Rabbi Oshaya announces that they were correct to laugh at his proposal. At this, Rav Safra says to Rav Oshaya, “Moshe, have you spoken well?” To me, the tension and hurt feelings suggest the snarky interpretation. In Chullin 93a, Rabbi Abba cites Rav Yehuda citing Shmuel that the veins of the foreleg are forbidden. Rav Safra objects, calling him “Moshe.” Rava then offers a rejoinder, playfully referring to Rav Safra as “Moshe.”

I take Rava’s concern to be what aspect of the former phrase the latter phrase modifies. In Hallel, perhaps we bless, with God’s Name, a person who comes. Alternatively, a person comes in God’s name and we bless them. A pause after הבא indicates the former. In Kaddish, the word רבה could function as an adjective of God’s name, which is subsequently blessed; or as a verb, that God’s Name should be made great (and blessed). A pause after רבה suggests the adjectival interpretation. Rav Safra, meanwhile, doesn’t regard pauses as meaningful, since the person ultimately says the full sentence. (Local meforshim interpret quite differently; partly, this depends on manuscript variants and whether he refers to אַסּוֹקֵי מִילְּתָא, finishing the matter, or אַפְסוֹקֵי מִלְּתָא, pauses in speech. It then impacts how to interpret הָתָם וְהָכָא and whether we should eliminate one of Rav Safra’s responses. Due to space considerations, this allusion suffices.)

This idea of pauses changing the syntactical analysis and thus meaning of a sentence is familiar to those who study biblical cantillation. Cantillation marks are grouped into conjunctive accents that join words and disjunctive accents that divide, and so the cantillation forms an ancient syntactic/semantic biblical commentary. (Explore this at my website, www.mivami.org/trup.) Rava interprets Kohelet 12:9, that “Kohelet was wise and taught the people knowledge,” that he taught the Torah with cantillation (Eruvin 21b). Thus, we know Rava considers the divisions formed by cantillation important. (However, see Tehillim 118:26, which has a disjunctive tipcha, on HaBa, against my understanding of Rava.)

The segmentation/associated meaning of “Yehei Shmei Rabba Mevorach” also plays out on Brachot 3a where Eliyahu HaNavi mentions how Israel call out, in their synagogues and study halls, יְהֵא שְׁמֵיהּ הַגָּדוֹל מְבֹורָךְ. The Aramaic רבה is recorded as Hebrew הגדול, which would then unambiguously be adjectival. Tosafot point to הגדול as the adjective, that God’s Name is great, as against Machzor Vitry that we are praying that God’s Name and Throne become complete. However, the shift between Aramaic and Hebrew is awkward and isn’t consistent across manuscripts; it might merely represent the setama or an errant scribe’s understanding of the phrase.

In Yevamot 106, it is Rava’s contemporary Abaye (278-337 CE) who campaigns against improper pauses in the recitation of the biblical formula for chalitza. The woman mustn’t say “Lo | ava yabmi” (pausing at the vertical bar) since that might imply “No! He wishes to perform yibbum upon me!” And the man mustn’t say “Lo | chafatzti lekachtah” as this might imply “No! I desire to take her!” It is then Rava who dismisses, saying we aren’t concerned with אַפְסוֹקֵי מִלְּתָא (see variants with אַסּוֹקֵי). Rav Ashi found Rav Kahana painstakingly prompting a yevama to read the full phrase, like Abaye. He objected, “Doesn’t Master hold like Rava?” Rav Kahana replied that Rava agrees regarding “Lo ava yabmi.” That is, for contextual reasons, Rava agrees with Abaye that “Lo | Ava Yabmi” is problematic.

We should expect consistency in Rava! Tosafot suggest Rava accepted Rav Safra’s objection; or that in Sukkah, Rava had reason to differentiate. Indeed, even in Yevamot we see Rava accepts Abaye’s basic premise. Another Tosafot notes that precise Talmudic texts have Rava agree by “lo ava” (without “yabmi”). They relate this to a masoretic note that the three biblical instances of “lo ava” are semichei, indicating a makef or else just conjunctive accents, as we have. Thus, Rava is a Masorete.


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.

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