By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
In my yeshiva, one of the chashuvei ha’kollel has the name Abba. I remember asking his children if they called their father “Abba.” The term “Abba” can either refer to their father’s given name or the endearing Hebrew term for “father.”
In Chullin (38a), Shmuel referred to the well-known Amora commonly called Rav as “Abba.” Rashi says that Shmuel intended to use Abba as an endearing term for a contemporary scholar who was greater than him. Tosefos on the other hand proves that Rav’s real name was Abba. Shmuel used Rav’s given name because he was his contemporary and permitted to do so. Tosefos notes that even Rebbe Yochanan referred to Rav as Abba. However, Tosefos couldn’t explain why we find that even Rav Hamnuna, who was Rav’s student, referred to his rebbi as Abba. After all, the Gemara in Sanhedrin says that Geichazi was punished because he referred to his rebbi by his given name. Tosefos concludes that according to Rashi’s explanation, we can understand Rav Hamnuna’s behavior.
It is interesting to note that Shmuel’s father’s name was in fact “Abba.” The Chasam Sofer uses that fact to explain why Rashi disagreed with Tosefos. He says that a great Amora like Shmuel would have refrained from using his colleague’s given name, since it was the same as his father’s — especially since there was an alternative, to just call him “Rav” like everyone else. Rashi explained that when Shmuel called Rav “Abba,” he was not using a proper name. Rather, the intent was an endearing term for “father” since he was one of the greatest sages of the generation.
The Chida explains that even Rashi would agree that Rav’s given name was Abba. Rashi still feels that the intent of “Abba” was an endearing term. The Chida suggests that perhaps we may conclude that a child may call his father “Abba” even if that is his given name, just as others called Rav “Abba” as an endearing term even though that was his name. However, the Chida states that one shouldn’t run to follow this leniency. After all, perhaps we can differentiate between the two scenarios. Rav was one of the greatest sages of the generation; hardly anyone referred to him by his real name. With that background, the term Abba can be an honorary title.
However, where a person is known as Abba and that is his commonly used name, it would be a breach of kavod for a son to use Abba to refer to his father, even if his intent was for an endearing name. The Shem HaGedolim concurs with this latter approach and says that Rav’s true name was in total disuse and therefore it was permitted for his students to call him Abba. If, however, a scholar’s given name of Abba was still in use, then his student should not refer to him as Abba.
For practical guidance, ask your Abba.
This article is based on sources mentioned in Aliba d’Hilchesa.
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.