Abba Arika

The Jewish scholar Abba Arika (ca. 175-ca. 247), also known as Rav, founded a yeshiva, or academy, in Sura, Babylonia. The school remained an important center of Jewish learning until the 11th century.

Abba Arika was born to an aristocratic family in Kafri, Babylonia. As a young man, he went to Palestine to study at the academy of the eminent rabbi Judah I. Rabbi Judah had compiled the Mishna, a work containing the Oral Law, or body of unrecorded Jewish teachings or traditions. After acquiring considerable knowledge, Abba returned to Babylonia, where he became an inspector of markets and a lecturer at the academy at Nehardea. About 219 he moved to Sura on the Euphrates River and opened his own academy. His school gained an excellent reputation and attracted many students; in time its importance as a center of learning surpassed that of the academies in Palestine. Abba became known as Rav (master par excellence).

Rav was deeply concerned not only with the training of scholars but also with the education of all the members of the Jewish community. He therefore taught workers in the hours preceding and following the regular school day. Twice a year, in the spring and the fall, some 12,000 students came from all parts of the country to listen to lectures and discussions on Jewish law.

The Mishna was the basic text taught at Sura, where it was analyzed, discussed, and expounded. The debates on the Mishna in the Babylonian academies over the centuries were incorporated in the Gemara, an encyclopedic work which was completed about 500. The Mishna and the Gemara compose the Talmud. The Palestinian schools produced a Talmud in the 5th century, but it was not well preserved. The Babylonian Talmud thus became authoritative. Rav was a member of the last generation of Tannaim (teachers who are mentioned in the Mishna); he also belonged to the first generation of Amoraim (scholars whose commentaries are recorded in the Gemara).

In addition to his scholarly work, Rav wrote a number of prayers which were incorporated in the traditional liturgy. Among them is the inspiring Alenu, which entreats God to perfect the universe as a kingdom of the Almighty. He also composed the major poetic selections of the Musaf, or supplementary service, for the New Year.

Rav was devoted to the study of Judaism and valued this activity above worship and sacrifice in the temple. He extolled the importance of work and earning a livelihood, but he also displayed an affirmative attitude toward life and pleasure. "A person will be called to account," he warned, "for having deliberately rejected the permissible pleasures he can enjoy." Rav indulged in mystical speculation, but he abhorred superstition and discouraged indulgence in astrology. He always stressed that redemption can come only through repentance and good deeds.

Rav guided his school until his death about 247. The academy continued to exist until 1034.

Further Reading on Abba Arika

It will be helpful to examine at least one tractate of the Mishna in relation to the Gemara in The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Isidore Epstein (trans., 34 vols., 1935-1948). Hermann L. Strack, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (trans. 1931), discusses the Tannaim and Amoraim and their contributions. For a list of the Tannaim and Amoraim by generations consult George F. Moore, Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, vol. 2 (1927); this work provides an excellent basic orientation in the Talmud.

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