The Talmud in Makkoth 22b discusses the identity of a “Gavra Rabba”, an exceptionally great man or Talmudic sage. It quotes a most remarkable observation made by the well-known sage, Rava, who states: “How foolish are some people who stand up out of respect for a Sefer Torah but do not stand up out of respect for a Gavra Rabba, an exceptionally great person, a great Torah sage.” When asked what is so exceptionally great about these men, Rava ignores their astonishingly vast knowledge of Torah, and even their outstanding ethical and religious qualities. Instead, he accentuates their power and courage to change the obvious and literal meaning of a commandment as mentioned in the Torah. This is, to say the least, most remarkable!
The example which Rava gives is most telling:
While the Torah commands the Jewish Court to administer 40 lashes for certain offenses (Devarim 25, 2-3), the Rabbis reduced them to 39.(1) This courage to change the literal meaning of the text, says Rava, is what made them into exceptional and great people. They recognized their own authority as having been invested with the power to interpret the biblical text in accordance with the spirit of the Oral Torah. This authority gave them the right, even the obligation, to change the literal meaning of certain biblical texts when it became clear that a deeper reading of the text and its spirit called for such a move. In our case, they concluded that the number 40 could not to be taken literally and should therefore be reduced to 39. For this reason, Rava maintains that these sages should be even more respected than the actual Sefer Torah, the biblical text. After all, the text is only the frozen aspect or outer garment of the living organism, the essential Torah. It is only in the Oral Torah as explained by the sages that the real meaning of the Torah becomes apparent.
Still, this cannot be the full meaning of Rava’s statement. If the power of the sages is revealed in their willingness to change the meaning of a text (such as in the case of the number 39 instead of 40), one should ask the following: Why did Rava not quote the first case ever mentioned in the Torah, concerning which the sages changed the specific biblical number to a lesser number, and use that to prove that they are great people?
After all, it is well known that on an earlier occasion they changed the number 50 to 49. This was in the case of the “Omer” counting when the Torah requires counting a full 50 days between the first day of Pesach and the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot would then fall on the 51st day.
After carefully studying the text, the sages reduced the number of these days to 49 and stated that the 50th day itself should be Shavuot. (Vayikra 23:16; Torath Cohanim ad loc) Remarkable is the fact that in this case Rava does not state that their willingness and courage to reduce the number of days made them exceptionally great men (Gavra Rabba). This is especially surprising since it is the Talmud’s custom to always bring proof for a specific teaching from the earliest biblical source possible, never a later one. In our case, however, it brings proof of the sages’ courage from a verse mentioned later in the Torah (in Devarim)! This is perplexing. Why did they not use the verse in Vayikra?
It has been suggested that changing the meaning of the biblical text, or a reduction of a number, is not enough to make a sage into a Gavra Rabba.
What makes one into a Gavra Rabba is when he reduces the pain of his fellow man! When a sage finds ways, through biblical interpretation, to mitigate the legal punishment of another human being, only then are we able to speak about a Gavra Rabba, an exceptional and great man.
In the above-mentioned case of 40 lashes prescribed by the Torah when certain offenses have been perpetrated, it is an act of mercy to find ways to reduce the offender’s sentence and administer only 39. Such initiative and courage shows absolute moral greatness.
But in the case of reducing 50 to 49, so as to make Shavuot fall one day earlier, there is no reduction of human pain and as such, neither the Talmud nor Rava characterizes such a sage as a Gavra Rabba, however brilliant he may be. (2)
So the message is clear: Only when one makes a sincere effort to reduce the pain of one’s fellow man, can one be called a great man!
(1) In earlier days, Jewish Law would sometimes demand physical lashes under very specific circumstances, but only when the offender would be able to endure them without risking his life or health. It therefore could have happened that the court would administer only a few lashes, since more would create a health problem. Torment is completely prohibited, even to a criminal.
(2). The above idea is based on an oral teaching which was transmitted to me in the name of one of the pre-Holocaust chassidic leaders whom I was unable to identify.