His father, Kaylil, was the brother of Rabbah bar Nachmani, a teacher at the Academy of Pumbedita. Abaye's real name was Nachmani, after his grandfather. Left an orphan at an early age, he was adopted by his uncle, Rabbah bar Nachmani, who nicknamed him Abaye ("Little Father"), to avoid confusion (perhaps respect for his father) with his grandfather of the same name; thenceforth he was known as Abaye, without any other title. It is a curious fact that he perpetuated the memory of his foster-mother by mentioning her name in many popular recipes and dietetic precepts, some of which seem to be based on superstitious notions. He introduced each recipe with the phrase, "My mother told me." Abaye's teachers were his uncle Rabbah and Rav Yosef b. Hiyya, both of whom successively became presidents of the Pumbedita Academy. When Rav Yosef died (324 CE), this dignity was conferred upon Abaye, who retained it until his death some five years later. Rabbah trained him in the application of the dialectic method to halakhic problems, and Rav Yosef, with his stores of traditional lore, taught him to appreciate the value of positive knowledge.
Abaye was never so happy as when one of his disciples had completed the study of a Mishnah treatise. On such occasions, he always gave a feast to his pupils (Shabbat 118b), though his circumstances were needy, and wine never appeared upon his table.
Superior as Abaye no doubt was in his dialectic analysis of halakhic sentences, he was, nevertheless, surpassed in this regard by Rava, with whom he had been closely associated from early youth. To the disputations between these amoraim we owe the development of the dialectic method in the treatment of halakhic traditions. Their debates are known as the "Havayot d'Abaye ve'Rava" (Debates of Abaye and Rava), the subjects of which were then considered such essential elements of Talmudic knowledge that by an anachronism they were thought to be known to Yohanan ben Zakkai, who lived some centuries before. Their halakhic controversies are scattered throughout the Babylonian Talmud. With the exception of six of his decisions, the opinions of Rava were always accepted as final.
In Biblical exegesis, he was one of the first to draw a distinct line between the evident meaning of the text (peshat) and the sense ascribed to it by midrashic interpretation. He formulated the following rule, of great importance in Talmudic legal exegesis: "One Bible verse can be referred to different subjects, but several different Bible verses can not refer to one and the same subject." He defended the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus against his teacher Rav Yosef. By quoting from it a number of edifying passages he showed that it did not belong to the heretical books which are forbidden, and even compelled his teacher to admit that quotations might with advantage be taken from it for homiletical purposes. Possessing an extensive knowledge of tradition, Abaye became a most eager disciple of Dimi, the Israeli amora, who had brought to Babylonia a perfect treasury of interpretations by Israel amoraim. Abaye considered Dimi, as a representative of the Israel school, a qualified Bible exegete, and used to ask him how this or that Bible verse was explained in "the West," or Israel. Of his own interpretations of Biblical passages only a few, of a haggadic nature, are preserved; but he often supplements, elucidates, or corrects the opinions of older authorities.
Abaye's peace-loving disposition and his sincere piety are well exhibited in his maxims, among which occur the following:
May a man always be cunning in [his] reverence [towards God]. A gentle answer quells anger, and increases peace with his brethren and his relations, as well as with every man - even with a gentile in the market-place, so that he may become beloved above and desired below, and accepted by his fellow man.
Abaye urged his disciples to conduct themselves in such a way as to lead others to the love of God.
- Isaac Lampronti, Pachad Yitzchak, s.v.
- Heilprin, Seder ha-Dorot, pp. 22–25
- Hamburger, R. B. T., 1883, part ii., s.v.
- Alexander Kohut, Aruch, s.v. (in which is found an enumeration of all the passages of the Talmud containing Abaye's name)
- Bacher, Ag. Bab. Amor. s.v.
- Isaac Hirsch Weiss, Dor
- M. S. Antokolski in Ha-Asif, 1885, ii. 503-506, with Straschun's notes.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article 'Abaye.|