The Talmud (Makkot 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 in respect for a Sefer Torah but fail to stand up in respect for an exceptionally great person, a 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, to say the least, is most remarkable!
The example that Rava gives is very telling:
While the Torah commands the Jewish Court to administer 40 lashes for certain offenses (Devarim 25:2-3), the sages reduced them to 39. (1) The courage to change the literal meaning of the text, says Rava, is what made them into extraordinary people. They recognized the power and authority vested in them 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 them 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 respected even more than the actual Sefer Torah, the biblical text. After all, the text is only the frozen aspect or outer garment of the living organism. 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 the Talmud’s custom to always bring proof for a specific teaching from the earliest biblical source possible, never a later one.
It is well known that on an earlier occasion the sages 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, not the 51st, should be Shavuot (Vayikra 23:16-17; Torat Cohanim ad loc). Remarkable is the fact that in this case not only does Rava not state that it is their willingness and courage to reduce the number of days that made them exceptionally great men (Gavra Rabba); he also refrains from bringing this example as a proof of the sages’ courage, even though this is taken from a verse mentioned earlier in the Torah! This is perplexing. Why did Rava use the later source in Devarim, instead of the earlier one in Vayikra?
It has been suggested (2) that changing the meaning of the biblical text, or reducing a number, is not enough to warrant the title of Gavra Rabba.
One is called a Gavra Rabba, however, when one 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 can we speak of a Gavra Rabba, an extraordinarily great man.
In the case of reducing 50 days to 49, so as to make Shavuot fall one day earlier, there is no reduction of human pain, so neither the Talmud nor Rava characterizes such a sage as a Gavra Rabba, however brilliant he may be.
However, in our 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.
The message, then, is clear: Only when one makes a sincere effort to reduce the pain of one’s fellow man can he be called a Gavra Rabba!
(1) In earlier days, Jewish Law would sometimes demand physical lashes under very specific circumstances, but only if 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 have created a health problem. Tormenting anyone, even a criminal, is completely prohibited. For many reasons, the later sages abolished this law entirely.
(2) The following 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 am unable to identify.