“If a matter of judgment is hidden from you…matters of dispute in your cities – you shall rise up and go up to the place that Hashem shall choose” (Devarim 17:18).
The Chida in Sefer Nachal Kadumim writes that sometimes a person is uncertain how to act because a halacha can be interpreted in different ways. At such times, he shouldn’t decide on his own what to do. Rather, he should turn to the great leaders of his generation and ask them.
A fascinating incident is related in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86a): Rabba Bar Nachmani, who lived in Bavel, was one of the greatest leaders of his generation, and counted among his disciples Rava and Abaye, two pillars of the Talmud. One day, he was accused of being disloyal to the government for exempting 12,000 Jews from the king’s tax for two months a year, one in the summer and one in the winter.
(Rashi explains that the men would gather in Adar to learn the halachos and minhagim of Pesach and again in Elul to learn the halachos and minhagim of Tishrei. Hence, the men weren’t working during these two months.)
A messenger was sent to bring Rabba bar Nachmani to the palace, but he couldn’t be found. He fled from Pumbedisa to Akra to Agma to Shichin to Tzerifa to Eina Demayim, and was finally discovered back in Pumbedisa.
How was he discovered? The king’s messenger happened to come to an inn, where Rabba bar Nachmani was hiding, and the innkeeper gave him a tray with two drinks. After he removed the tray, the messenger’s face inexplicably turned backward. (Drinking in pairs can be dangerous, although Rashi comments that no harm was intended.)
Since the man was the king’s messenger, he could not be left in this condition. The innkeeper turned to Rabba bar Nachmani for advice. Rabba bar Nachmani said: Bring him the tray again with another cup to drink. Then remove the tray and he will be healed.
When the messenger was miraculously healed, he surmised that Rabba bar Nachmani was present. He searched and finally found him but promised Rabba bar Nachmani that he wouldn’t apprehend him and wouldn’t disclose his location even if he were about to be killed for not revealing his whereabouts. The Maharsha writes that the messenger was grateful to Rabba bar Nachmani for healing him.
Rabba bar Nachmani was ultimately caught and locked in a cell. He prayed to Hashem for mercy, and the wall crumbled. He escaped and hid in a swamp where he sat on a tree stump learning Torah.
The Talmud relates that at that time there was a dispute among the sages in heaven regarding a halacha of leprosy. In general, if a skin discoloration precedes the growth of a white hair on it, the person has tzora’as and he’s tamei. But if the white hair comes first, the person is tahor. If it’s not clear which came first, Hashem said he’s pure, but the heavenly academy said he’s impure.
Both sides agreed that Rabba bar Nachmani was the only one who could arbitrate the dispute. The Angel of Death, however, was unable to take Rabba bar Nachmani to heaven because he never stopped learning, and the Torah protected him. A strong wind, though, then began to rush through the trees, which sounded like the horses from the king’s army quickly approaching. Rabba bar Nachmani cried out that he preferred giving his soul back to Heaven rather than being captured by the government.
As Rabba bar Nachmani was dying, he declared in response to the heavenly dispute, “Pure, pure.” A divine voice then proclaimed, “Fortunate are you, Rabba bar Nachmani. Your body is pure and your neshamah departed with the word tahor.”
Amazing! Even heaven needed the psak of a Torah sage! Certainly, then, a layman cannot rely on his own judgment and understanding. During times of halachic uncertainty, one must seek the guidance of the leaders of one’s generation.
After Rabba bar Nachmani passed away, a note fell from heaven for the sages of Pumbedisa notifying them that Rabba bar Nachmani had been summoned to the heavenly academy. Divine Providence guided Abaye, Rava, and the other sages to his location, and he was eulogized for seven days.
The Talmud relates further that when Rabba bar Nachmani died, a strong hurricane stormed across the world, and an Arab merchant on a camel was carried from one side of the Papa River to the other. He made inquiries and was informed that Rabba bar Nachmani had passed on. The merchant called out to Hashem, “Master of the world, the entire universe is yours, and Rabba bar Nachmani is also yours. Why are you destroying the world?” The storm stopped.
The commentaries ask why the merit of Rabba bar Nachmani, and not that of any other tzaddik, could protect the world. The Tzemach Dovid explains that Rabba bar Nachmani was able to create peace in the world and in the heavens. He was capable of emulating Hashem, “who makes peace in His upper spheres…” and was also effective in creating peace among humanity to the extent that even the Arab merchant was aware of Rabba bar Nachmani’s prominence and worth. Rabba bar Nachmani exemplified the Talmud’s statement that “Torah scholars increase peace in the world” (Berachos 64a).