Unpublished article. One page of the manuscript, containing footnotes 9-16, is missing. The rest appears here as in the original.
A statement in the Babylonian Talmud, seeming to imply that Talmudic discussions and debates are of secondary importance, was naturally something of an embarrassment to Talmdists for whom these discussions and debates are of the essence so far as the study of the Torah is concerned. I want to look at both the history of the text itself and the fate of the text in post-Talmudic thought. For the history of the text itself we must first examine the two Talmudic passages – Sukkah 28a and Bava Batra 134a – in which the statement occurs. (In reality the two passages are virtually the same but inserted, by the final editors in each tractate where appropriate. Incidentally, the appearance by association of the same text in two different tractates throws light on the way in which the final editors went about their task).
The passage in tractate Sukkah is first given in English translation.
‘Our Rabbis taught: Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples. Thirty of them were worthy for the Shekhinah to rest upon them like Moses our teacher. Thirty of them were worthy for the sun to stand still for them like Joshua ben Nun. Twenty of them were average [benonim, i.e. in relation to the other sixty]. The greatest of them all was Jonathan ben Uziel. The least of them all was Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. They said of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai that he left nothing aside of Scripture, Mishnah and Gemara, Halakhot and Aggadot; the careful considerations of the Torah [dikdukey torah] and the careful considerations of the Scribes [dikdukey soferim]; arguments from the minor to the major [kalim ve-hamurim] and arguments by analogy [gezerot shavvot]; cycles [tekufot]; gematriot; the speech of the ministering angels, the speech of the demons and the speech of palm trees; parables of laundrymen and fox fables; a great thing and a small thing – “a great thing” refers to Maaseh Merkavah and “a small thing” refers to the discussions of Abbaye and Rava [havvavot de-Abbaye ve-Rava]. In order to fulfil what is stated: That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance, and that I may fill their treasures [Proverbs 8: 21]. And if the least of them [of the disciples of Hillel] was so, how much more the greatest of them? They said of Jonathan ben Uziel that when he sat down to study the Torah any bird that flew over him was at once burnt’.
There are what appears to be two earlier versions of this passage: in the Jerusalem Talmud (JT Nedarim 5: 7 [39b] and in Avot de-Rabbi Natan (ARN I, chapter 14, ed. Schechter, New York, 1967, p. 29 ).
The JT version
‘Hillel the Elder had eighty pairs of disciples. The greatest of them was Jonathan ben Uziel. The least of them was Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. On one occasion he [Hillel] fell sick and they came to visit him but Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai remained standing outside in the courtyard. He said to them: “Where is the least one of you? For he is a father of wisdom and the father of the [future] generations, and it goes without saying, the greatest of you”. They replied: “He stands outside in the courtyard”. He said: “Let him enter”. When he came in he [Hillel] said to them: That I may cause them that love me to inherit substance, and that I may fill their treasures.’
The ARN version
‘Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples. Thirty of them were worthy for the Shekhinah to rest upon them like Moses our teacher but their generation was unworthy of it. Thirty of them were worthy to intercalate the year. And thirty were average. The greatest of them all was Jonathan ben Uziel. The least of them all was Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. They said of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai that he left aside nothing of Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara, Halakhot and Aggadot and Toseftot; dikdukey torah, dikdukey soferim and all the hermeneutics of the Sages. And he did not fail to study everything [kol davar ve-davar], in order to fulfil the verse: That I may cause those that love me to inherit substance and that I may fill their treasures’.
Given these two versions, the problem of the history of our version becomes a little less complicated than it might otherwise have been. The JT version, as the simplest of the three, would appear to be the original version. Here we have the main elements of the narrative: Hillel had eighty disciples; the greatest was Jonathan ben Uziel and the least Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai; the verse: That I may cause is quoted (here by Hillel). The ARN version adds, in what appears to be an elaboration of the earlier version, the following features: the division of Hillel’s disciples into three groups (the members of the second group being worthy to intercalate the year); the attainments of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai. Our version contains further elaborations (and the members of the second group are here worthy for the sun to stand still for them). First, there is the addition of: ‘And if the least of them’ and the reply about Jonathan and the bird. The question, at least, is clearly Amoraic and is a comment partly in Aramaic on the original Baraita. Then there is the statement we are examining about the discussions of Abbaye and Rava. This addition is obviously subsequent not only to Abbaye and Rava themselves but must date from the time when the discussions of Abbaye and Rava had become famous. Moreover, this very late Amoraic (editorial?) addition seems to be a comment on the kol davar ve-davar of the ARN version i.e. this is made to refer to the davar gadol and the davar katan. Thus the statement can be dated in any event as being not earlier than the end of the fourth century and may be, in fact, much later.
The actual term havvayot de-Abbave ve-Rava can mean either the problems set by Abbaye and Rava, as the Geonim explain it or the debates between Abbaye and Rava, of which there are so many in the Babylonian Talmud. The same expression is used in the Talmud of Rav and Samuel – havvayot de-Rav u-Shmuel and this, too, can mean either the problems raised by these two teachers or the debates between the two, of which there are also numerous instances recorded in the Talmud. Whatever the original meaning, in the course of time the term havvayot de-Abbaye ve-Rava came to be used as a synonym for the Talmudic dialectics as a whole, that is, for Talmudic/Halakhic studies in general.
We can now turn to the famous statement of Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah (Yesodey ha-Torah 4: 3). In the first four chapters of this treatise, Maimonides has identified the Rabbinic Ma’aseh Bereshit (‘The Work of Creation’) and Ma’aseh Merkavah (‘The Work of the Chariot’) with, respectively, Aristotelean physics and Aristotelean metaphysics. Moreover, he understands the famous Talmudic account (Hagigah 14b) of the four who entered the Orchard (Pardes, often understood in the sense of entering Paradise) as meaning that they engaged in metaphysical studies. Maimionides then continues: ‘I say that it is not right to stroll through the Orchard unless one has first filled his stomach with bread and meat. Bread and meat is a metaphor for the knowledge of that which is forbidden and that which is permitted and similarly with regard to all the other precepts. Even though these matters are referred to by the Sages as a “small thing”, for the Sages say: “a great thing is Ma’aseh Merkavah and a small thing is havvayot de- Abbaye ve-Rava”, for all that, it is fitting that precedence be given to them for at first they promote a man’s mental composure. Furthermore, they constitute the great favour that the Holy One, blessed be He, has bestowed in this world for the purpose of inheriting the life of the World to Come. And it is possible for everyone to know them, whether it be one who is great or one who is small; whether it be man or woman; whether it be one whose heart is broad or one whose heart is narrow’.
This passage in Maimonides was one of many which aroused the ire of the traditionalists and it became one of the main bones of contention in the Maimonist and anti-Maimonist controversy that erupted after Maimonides’s death and continued for centuries afterwards. To the particular scandal of his opponents, not only does Maimonides identify Aristotelean philosophy with Ma’aseh Merkavah, and hence makes it a part of the Torah, but he elevates this to the highest aspect of Torah study, in relation to which Talmudic studies are of far lesser importance. Instead of understanding the Talmudic statement, as other earlier commentators do, as meaning only that the discussions of Abbaye and Rava were a ‘small thing’ for the powerful mind of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai, Maimonides understands it literally that Talmudic studies, though essential, are of lesser importance.
Even admirers of Maimonides’ Talmudic expertise, like R. Yom Tov Ishbili (d. 1330), the Ritba, finds it hard to accept Maimonides’s formulation with equanimity, striking, as the formulation seems to do, at the very basis of Talmudic studies, to which Ritba and his contemporaries, and, for that matter, Maimonides himself, had devoted their lives, spending laborious days and night in the study and mastery of the extremely difficult Talmudic texts, in the belief that in their studies they were doing the ‘greatest thing’ of all, the contemplation of the very word of God. Ritba writes:
‘A small thing, havvayot de-Abbaye ve-Rava, namely, a small thing in relation to the Ma’aseh Merkavah of which they spoke. And even in relation to this it was not the Talmud that was referred to as a “small thing”. For at first it says that he did not leave aside from studying Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhot and Aggadot, and they are the peg upon which everything hangs, but only the discussions of Abbaye and Rava, namely the difficulties raised by them and their solutions and their problems. These were unclear to them since they were less capable than the earlier sages of penetrating to the profundities of the Talmud. Since it was the result of their lack of understanding, their discussions were termed only a small thing of the wisdom of the Mishnah. But it is far greater than all the sciences of the gentiles. Every believer will see that this is the true and correct interpretation. Not as others explain it. May God forgive them’. There can be doubt that it is to Maimonides that Ritba refers when he speaks of ‘others’, avoiding any direct mention of Maimonides out of respect for the great master. Ritba refuses to extend the ‘small thing’ to the whole of Talmudic studies and, naturally, refuses to identify the ‘great thing’ with Aristotelean metaphysics. Maimonides does both. In the subsequent debates between the Talmudists and the philosophers, the term havvayot de-abbaye ve-Rava was employed to denote the whole of Talmudic studies, with the statement the subject of debate on the question of to which priority is to be given. Ritba is especially scathing of Maimonides’s contention that the study of Gentile science is superior to Talmudic studies. ‘Small thing’ though even the discussions of Abbaye are in relation to the ‘wisdom of the Mishnah’ i.e. the whole range of Talmudic studies, yet even these are far greater than anything the science of the Gentiles has to teach us.
Similarly, the Kabbalist Shem Tov Ibn Shem Tov (d. 1441) scornfully remarks of Maimonides’ identification of Ma’aseh Bereshit and Ma’aseh Merkavah with Gentile science and philosophy: ‘Heaven forbid that we should understand it in this way. If that were so [that the mystery of the Chariot means Aristotelean science and philosophy] these mysteries are available to everyone, to the pure and the impure, to the believer and the heretic, to the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Ammonite and the Moabite. Even after the fierceness of the Maimonist controversy had abated and Maimonides himself had won acceptance as the supreme Talmudic authority, Talmudists continued to be puzzled by the original Talmudic statement no less than by Maimonides’ understanding of it. In the 16th century, R. Joseph Karo’s Commentary to Maimonides’ Code, Kesef Mishnah, feels obliged to quote earlier authorities, like the Ritba, who found Maimonides’ formulation so extremely perplexing and who tried their hand at an interpretation of the Talmudic passage more in accord with the primacy to be given to Talmudic studies. Karo quotes a lengthy analysis of the Talmudic statement by R. Elijah Mizrahi (d.l526). Mizrahi understands ‘great’ and ‘small’ in the Talmudic passage (incidentally, Mizrahi also equates the discussions of Abbaye and Rava with general Talmudic studies) as referring to the object of the studies. The Work of the Chariot concerns the Creator Himself, the supreme Object of the studies. In this sense it is undoubtedly the ‘great thing’, whereas the discussions of Abbaye and Rava have as their object the infinitely smaller, but no less important, aim of man’s practical duties on earth. Indeed, the Talmudic studies are higher and bring in their wake far greater reward than the esoteric Work of the Chariot. In this sense nothing is ‘greater’ than Talmudic studies. The 19th century Talmudist, R. Menahem Karakowsky, goes even further in understanding (though this is very forced) Maimonides himself to be saying that while the Work of the Chariot is intrinsically greater than Talmudic studies yet without the latter the former cannot be grasped at all just as bread and meat are essential even though they are surpassed by other worldly delights. The Work of the Chariot is a spiritual luxury, so to speak, but man cannot live on luxuries and can only survive by making bread and meat his staple diet.
With the rise of the Kabbalah, the Talmudic passage received a new turn. The Orchard and the Work of the Chariot now came to mean Kabbalistic studies and the discussions of Abbaye and Rava the Talmudic studies in general. There was now a new rivalry, not between philosophy and Talmudic studies but between the latter and the study of the Kabbalah. None of the Kabbalists neglected Talmudic studies but for them the ‘great thing’ was the study of the Kabbalah.
Of a somewhat different form of contention for supremacy emerged in the debates between the followers of the 18th century Hasidic movement and their opponents, the Mitnaggedim. For the latter, Talmudic studies remained of supreme importance while for many of the Hasidic masters the ideal was that of devekut, ‘attachment’ to God in the mind at all times. To some extent the Hasidic ideal was bound to be frustrated by severe concentration on Talmudic studies. As the Mitnaggedim said, for their part to have God in the mind while studying the Torah was to have the mind diverted from the topics studied so that Talmud study in a spirit of devekut was no study worthy of the name. Very revealing in this connection is the attempt by the early Hasidic author, R. Meshullan Feivush Heller of Zbarazh (d. c. 1795) to have the best of both worlds. For Heller the Work of the Chariot and the discussions of Abbaye and Rava refer not to two different subjects of study but to different attitudes to study. The discussions of Abbaye and Rava refer to studies of the Talmud with the aim of attaining intellectual pleasure from these. When Talmudic studies are engaged in as a purely intellectual exercise, there is little thought of God in the process and then they are, indeed, only a ‘small thing’. But when these very studies are engaged in as a means to devekut and God is in the mind at all times, then the student becomes a ‘chariot’ to the divine. This is the meaning, according to Heller, of the saying that the Work of the Chariot is the ‘great thing’. Even the Kabbalah, when studied with a ‘discussions of Abbaye and Rava’ attitude, becomes a ‘small thing’. Conversely, when Talmudic studies are engaged in with the proper motivation they themselves become the Work of the Chariot. Eventually, even among the ranks of the Mitnaggedim the problem arose of whether Talmudic studies were sufficient in themselves for the good life when the followers of the 19th century Musar movement sought successfully to demand the study of the moralistic literature as a necessary adjunct to the conventional Talmudic studies. The opponents of the Musarists declared that Talmudic studies, as the supreme form of Torah study, provided in themselves a miraculous balm for the soul, while the Musarists retorted that, at least, regular doses of the medicine provided by Musar studies could alone protect the student from the allure of worldly things. But I have been unable to discover neither in the writings of the Musarists nor in the literature of the anti-Musarists any reference to our passage. This might seem rather odd in the circumstances. It might also be remarked that our passage does not seem to feature at all in the Western debate regarding Torah and Derekh Eretz, when the new rival to traditional studies was neither philosophy in the mediaeval sense nor the Kabbalah nor Hasidism but the values of Western thought and civilization. It is probable that neither the followers of Musar nor the exponents of Torah and Derekh Eretz ever thought of elevating their particular emphasis to place it above conventional Talmudic studies. Musar and Derekh Eretz, for the followers of these tendencies, were intended to add their particular relish to the standard bread and meat. It was never imagined that the bread and meat of Talmudic studies could ever be seen as anything but the supreme topic of Torah studies.
 See Rabbinowicz Dikdukey Soferim, Sukkah, that the Munich Codex omits ‘like Moses our teacher’ and see the marginal note in the Vilna, Romm edition, on the basis of Sanhedrin 11a. But Rabbinowicz, note 2, prefers the current reading.
 Joshua 10: 12f.
 In the Munich Codex, Talmud. Gemara in the current texts is due to the fear of the censor as is well-known. Rashi’s comment in the current texts that Gemara is the equivalent of Sevara is also due to the substitution of Gemara for Talmud since the term gemara has a quite different meaning from sevara, see e.g. Avodah Zarah 19a and freq.
 Rashi and Rashbam (to the Bava Batra passage ) understand Halakhot as referring to ‘laws given to Moses at Sinai’ but since this term is in juxtaposition to Aggadot the meaning may be Halakhot in general i.e. he was thoroughly familar with both the legal and non-legal aspects of Judaism.
 Rashi, calculations of the movements of the sun and the moon but there might be an echo here of the intercalation of the year as in the version to be quoted later from ARN.
 See Meiri’s rationalistic interpretation that the meaning is not that he knew the speech of the angels but that he knew how to speak about angels, Meiri: Bet ha- Behirah, Sukkah, ed. A. Liss, Jerusalem, 1966, p. 91.
 See Otzar ha-Geonim, Sukkah, ed. B. M. Lewin, Jerusalem, 1934, p. 31 for Rav Hai Gaon’s interpretation that the reference is to divination by means of the palm branches which ‘speak’ to one another on a windless day when a sage can discern what they are telling about future events. Cf. Angelo S. Rappoport: The Folklore of the Jews, London, 1937, p. 37.
 See Hiddushey ha-Ritba to Sukkah, ed. E. Lichtenstein, Jerusalem, 1968, p. 258, who quotes the Jerusalem Talmud (but not found in our texts of the Yerushalmi) where the question is raised if the disciple was so great how much greater the master?. The reply is that with the disciple the bird was only burnt if it came . . .
 See Meiri, quoted above, p. 91 for a similar explanation of the passage.
 See Joseph Kimhi and Judah Alfakkar who use the term to denote Talmudic studies in general, Kovetz Teshuvot ha-Rambam, ed. A. Lichtenberg, Leipsig, 1859, III, 2c, quoted by Frank E. Talmage: David Kimhi The Man and the Commentator, Harvard University Press,1975, p. 34. Cf. Isaiah Horowitz: Shelah, ed. Jerusalem,1963, section torah she-be-‘al peh, Vol. IV, p. 20a who devotes a special paragraph to Abbaye and Rava because it is right to pay homage to these two teachers in particular since ‘the whole of the Talmud is called “the discussions of Abbaye and Rava”’.
 Sefer ha-Emunot, Ferara, 1556, Introduction, p. 4a.
 Kesef Mishneh to Maimonides’ Yesodey ha-Torah 4: 13. See Hasdai Crescas: Or ha- Shem, 4: 10, Jer. ed., 1990, pp. 407-410, that the Rabbis would not have called Aristotelean metaphysics a ‘great thing’ in relation to havvayot de-Abbaye ve- Rava and see the elaboration on this passage in Crescas by R. Joseph Solomon Delmedigo in Matzref le-Hokhmah, ed. D. Torsh, Odessa, 1965, pp. 21b-22a (47-48 in Arabic numerals).
 See the Hasidic author, R. Eliezer Horowitz of Tarnograd in his No’am Megadim, ed. Brooklyn, New York, 1984 (with notes entitled Tidrosh No’am by S. Weiss) pp. 14-15 and 402 who quotes this explanation in the name of ‘a great sage of old’, obviously R. Elijah Mizrahi as in Kesef Mishneh.
 Avodat ha-Melekh, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 10. Isserles in Yoreh Deah 246: 6 has adapted Maimonides’ formulation, see the note of the Vilna Gaon in the standard editions.
 See especially J. Katz’s chapter on Kabbalah and Halakhic Studies as Rival Contenders in his: Halakhah ve-Kabbalah, Jerusalem, 1984, pp. 70-101.
 On the conflict between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim with regard to the study of the Torah see N. Lamm: Torah Lishmah, Jerusalem, 1972.
 Yosher Divrey Emet in Likkutim Yekarim, ed. Jerusalem, 1974, pp. 103-104.
 See Dov Katz: Pulmos ha-Musar, Jerusalem, 1972.