Nedarim 55

No one mixes wine like Rava.

Rav Yosef was Rava’s teacher, and though he moved away from his teacher, they stayed in touch. On today’s daf, we learn that when Rava had a question about the meaning of the word altalta, he sent the query via message to Rav Yosef. Taking the question at face value, Rav Yosef explained that it is a term that refers to five specific types of grain. Here’s where things take a turn. Rava then sends a response to his teacher:

That was not a dilemma for me, that alalta means “all items.” My dilemma is this: What is the status of rent of houses and the rent of boats? Do we say: Since they depreciate, their legal status is not comparable to that of alalta? Or perhaps, since their depreciation is not conspicuous, their legal status is comparable to that of alalta?

This is a considerably more complicated question than we might have first thought. Rava either asked his initial question in an overly vague way, or Rav Yosef misunderstood it. Either way, a fundamental miscommunication has occurred. It can be hard to tell the emotional tone while reading, but I’d encourage you to try reading this line aloud with all the frustration and snark of your teenage years. Whether or not that’s how Rava meant it, that’s certainly how Rav Yosef heard it, responding: 

“And since he does not need us, why did he send us the question?” Rav Yosef became angry. 

A close relationship is thus ruptured. But on Erev Yom Kippur, Rava comes to visit his teacher and make amends. He doesn’t burst in on the offended teacher, but makes his presence known more slowly and gradually:

He found the attendant of Rav Yosef, who was diluting a cup of wine with water before him. Rava said to the attendant: “Give me the cup so that I will dilute the wine for him.” The attendant gave it to him and Rava diluted the cup of wine.

While Rav Yosef (who was blind) was drinking the wine, he said: “This dilution is similar to the dilution of Rava, son of Rav Yosef bar Hama.” Rava said to him: “Correct, it is he.”

Rava’s signature dilution of wine  is immediately recognizable to his blind teacher. And by the time the teacher realizes what his estranged student has done, Rava has already served him a cup of wine, thereby showing Rav Yosef a token of respect and subservience. Instead of chasing him from the room as he might have done had Rava more straightforwardly announced his presence, Rav Yosef is mollified enough to ask his student a question about the meaning of a verse that describes the wandering of Israel: 

What is the meaning of that which is written: And from the wilderness Mattana and from Mattana Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel Bamot (Numbers 21:18–19)? 

Rava said to him: Once a person renders himself like a wilderness, deserted before all, the Torah is given to him as a gift (mattana), as it is stated: And from the wilderness Mattana. And once it is given to him as a gift, God bequeaths (nahalo) it to him, as it is stated: And from Mattana Nahaliel. And once God bequeaths it to him, he rises to greatness, as it is stated: And from Nahaliel, bamot (elevated places). And if he elevates himself, the Holy One, Blessed be He, degrades him, as it is stated: And from Bamot the valley. (Numbers 21:20) And not only that, but one lowers him into the ground, as it is stated: And looking over the face of the wasteland. (Numbers 21:20) And if he reverses it, the Holy One, Blessed be He, elevates him, as it is stated: Every valley shall be lifted. (Isaiah 40:4)

Rava’s answer is more than a series of clever plays on words which interpret the verse from Numbers with which his teacher opened the conversation. It is also an erudite and subtle apology. Rava insists that those who “elevate themselves,” making themselves more important or knowledgeable than others, will be degraded and may even die! He ends his answer with a verse from Isaiah, explaining that if someone then reverses their self-importance, they will be elevated by God.

Rava’s arrival at his teacher’s home on Erev Yom Kippur and his gesture of serving him wine let Rav Yosef know from the start that he is there to communicate deference. But it is also worth noting that Rav Yosef is the one who creates the opportunity for an apology, by accepting Rava’s presence and asking his former student the meaning of this evocative verse. And in asking the question, he positions Rava as a source of knowledge and expertise! The reconciliation is only possible because each of them makes the necessary moves to build back to each other.

Read all of Nedarim 55 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 19th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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