The Bavli Amora’im
Abbayè & Rava
Abayé was a Bavli Amora. His proper name was Nahmani. Abayé (literally "father of", but used as a diminutive, i.e. "little father") was a nickname bestowed by his uncle to distinguish Abayé from his grandfather, also named Nahmani. Abayé became his trademark, and was used without any other title. He took his family ties seriously and perpetuated his foster-mother's memory, by mentioning many popular recipes in her name. He prefaced recipes with the phrase "My mother told me." Abayé's teachers were his uncle Rabbah and Yosef bar Hama, both of whom were principals of Pumbedita. When Yosef died, Abayé became principal. His halakhic disputant was Raba, with whom he had a lifelong friendship. Their debates frame an essential element of Talmudic dispute. With few exceptions, Raba determines the final halakha. Abayé defended the wisdom literature called Ben Sira to his teacher Yosef, distinguished between p'shat and drash, and formulated exegetical rules. He became a student of Dimi, an Amora in Israel who brought a collection of midrashic interpretations to Bavel. Abayé deferred to Dimi and asked him how Tenakh was explained in the West.
Rava was a Bavli Amora. Raba went to Sura, where he attended the lectures of R. Hisda, R. Yosef, Rabbah, and R. Nahman Ben-Yaaqov. He developed a havruta with Abayé, which became the method called Hava'yot de-Abayé v'Raba. Raba's dialectic is superior to Abayé's. Raba established his own school in Mahoza, his home town and many pupils, preferring his lectures to those of Abayé, followed him there. After Abayé died Raba became principal and moved his school from Mahoza to Pumbedita. During this time Pumbedita was was the only yeshiva in Bavel. Raba was a popular lecturer and master of midrash halakha, which he often used to demonstrate the mitzva behind the halakha. Raba was a mystic. He once wanted to lecture publically on the Shem Hameforash; an elder in the yeshiva objected that this was secret knowledge (Pesahim 50a).
Ezra Hasofér came from Bavel and introduced a new educational paradigm to Israel – the Anshé Khneset Hagdola, the precursor to the Sanhedrin. Ezra returned to Bavel but in the times between Ezra and Hillel there are few reliable details.
From Hillel to Rebbe we have very sketchy ideas about the state of learning among Bavli Jews. Rav's return to Bavel in the 3rd century dates the beginning of an epoch in Bavli Judaism – the dominant role which the Bavli metivtot played in Judaism in hutz le'aretz for more than 700 years.
The principal seat of Bavli Judaism was Nehardea. An ancient synagogue there was reputedly built by Yeho'iahin (melekh Yehuda, deported to Bavel in 597 BCE). Near Nehardea was another synagogue overlooking the reputed ruins of Ezra's metivta. Rebbe Aqiva discussed matrimonial law with a Bavli scholar on his arrival at Nehardea on a mission from the Sanhedrin. Yehuda Ben Batyra was principal of a metivta at Nisibis, in northern Bavel. Many scholars from Israel found refuge there during times of persecution in Eretz Haqodesh. We’ll continue to learn of this in the next section.