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The Jewish Study Bible Contextualizes the Hebrew Bible with accompanying scholarly text on Jewish traditions and history.

Rava and the Omnisignificant Revolution

Over time these inconsistencies in the application of methods became a matter of concern to later scholars, especially the great fourth‐generation Babylonian 'amora' of the second quarter of the 4th century, Rava, and some of his predecessors in the land of Israel as well, particularly the third‐generation tanna' R. Ilai. Both were concerned with inconsistent uses of analogy, but Rava was concerned with the inconsistent use of the omnisignificant principle itself. Rava's concern manifested itself in a systematic research program into the limits of the application of omnisignificance, motivated, it would seem, both by his own powers of systematization, his apparently strong interest in the subject of halakhic interpretation, and by challenges to rabbinic interpretation and authority in his own time and place. Unlike most other rabbinic authorities, he seems to have had wide communal responsibilities in the city of Mahoza, which was located on the west bank of the River Tigris directly across from the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. The political head of Babylonian Jewry, the Head of the Exile, who also had standing as a Persian nobleman, was headquartered there, and adjacent to Mahoza was the catholicos, the head of the Nestorian Church, in Seleucia, then known as Veh‐Ardaxshir. The cosmopolitan population that Rava ministered to was skeptical of rabbinic authority and exegesis, and this undoubtedly helped lead him to searching examinations of its aims and methods.

Rava was concerned with why the Rabbis interpreted some words and phrases in certain texts but not in others. Beyond that, he was concerned with why Scripture itself expends greater effort in expositing certain matters while leaving others relatively unexamined. In all these ways, and others, Rava explores the limits of omnisignificant interpretation as it existed in his day. In ten passages in the Babylonian Talmud (nine attributed to Rava [b. Kid. 9a, B. K. 77 b, Mak. 8a, Tem. 6b, Yoma 63 b, 'Arak. 30b, Ned. 80b; the tenth, Tem. 28b, is anonymous and may be redactional]), and in four similar cases in the Talmud of the land of Israel (all attributed to R. Ilai [y. Yoma 3.6 (40 c), Meg. 1:12 (72 a) = Hor. 3.3 (47c–d), Yebam. 6.4 (7 c)]), the incon‐ sistency of the application of rabbinic exegetical principles to specific texts is examined. For example, in b. Kid. 9 a we have the fol‐ lowing:

Our Rabbis taught: [A woman is acquired in marriage] by a document: How so? If A writes for B on a paper or a shard, even if not intrinsically worth a perutah: “Your daughter be consecrated to me,” “your daughter be betrothed to me,” [or] “your daughter be my wife,” she is betrothed.

R. Zera ben Memmel objected: But this document is unlike a deed of purchase: there the seller writes: “My field is sold to you,” while here the husband [i.e., the “acquirer”] writes: “Your daughter be consecrated to me.”

Rava replied: There [the form is determined] by scriptural context, and here[likewise it is determined] by scriptural context. There it is written, “and he sell some of his possessions” (Lev. 25.25 ), thus Scripture made it dependent on the seller; while here it is written “when a man [takes a woman]” (Deut. 24.1 ), thus making it dependent on the husband.”

Thus, legal rules based on scriptural texts are expected to be consistent, and their inconsistencies must be accounted for.

This insistence on consistency extends to a demand for a minimally uniform density of scriptural interpretation even within one passage. For example, in Deut. 22.1, 3 , Scripture states: “If you see your fellow's ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.…You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.”

Said Rava: Why does the All Merciful mention “an ox, a donkey, a sheep and a garment” [in Deut. 22.1, 3 ]?For had the All Merciful mentioned “garment” [alone], I would have thought [that] that applies only if the object [can be identified] by witnesses or the object itself has a mark [of distinction by which it may be identified], but not in the case of a donkey [for which these means of identification do not apply]. [That is,] if its saddle [can be identified] by witnesses or its saddle has a mark [of distinction by which it may be identified], I might think that it need not be returned to him. Therefore the All Merciful mentioned “a donkey” to show that even the donkey [too is returned] by virtue of the mark of the saddle.

Why did the All Merciful mention “ox” and “sheep”? “Ox”—that even the shearing of its tail, and “sheep”—that even its shearings [must be returned]. Then the All Merciful should have mentioned [only] “ox” for the shearings of its tail, and the shearings of a sheep would follow a fortiori!

But, says Rava, “donkey” mentioned in connection with a pit [in Exod. 21.33 : “And if a man should open a pit…and an ox or a donkey should fall therein.….”] on R. Judah's view [which rejects the rabbinic use of the term to exclude vessels damaged in such a case] and “sheep” in connection with a lost article [in Deut. 22.1, 3 ] on all views, are difficult [in that they do not seem to serve any exegetical purpose] (b. B. M. 27 a).

Clearly, Rava's concern with the interface of rabbinic interpretation and the formulation of biblical laws borders onto questions involving the construction of the biblical text itself.

According to geonic tradition, Rava was the head of the combined Babylonian academy, so that most of the authorities of the fifth generation were his disciples and continued to carry on this program. The Babylonian Talmud contains long passages working out the details of Rava's concerns, passages that have almost no parallels in the Talmud of the land of Israel.

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