Abbaye belonged to the third generation of the Babylonian Amoraim. He was one of the most outstanding in his generation. He was born approximately in the year 4040 (280 of the Common Era), and he lived sixty years. The last thirteen years he headed the Yeshivah of Pumpeditha, in succession to Rav Joseph. Abbaye was one of four candidates for the high position. The other three were Rava, Rav Zeira and Raba bar Matana. All four were great scholars and men of outstanding qualities. They resolved to have a contest in the form of a Torah discussion. Abbaye came out on top, and all agreed that he was to be the head of the great Torah academy.
According to the famous Rav Sherira Gaon, Abbaye was not his personal name, but Nachmani, after his grandfather. His father had died before Abbaye was born, and his mother died in child-birth. So the little orphan was brought up by his uncle Rabbah bar Nachmani. Rabbah did not want to call his nephew Nachmani, which was the name of his father; he therefore called him "Abbaye," meaning, "my father." According to another opinion (such as Rashi's), Abbaye was his personal name, and his uncle Rabbah called him Nachmani.
Rabbah recognized in the orphaned child great ability and a keen mind, and he did his best to develop his nephew's qualities. Thanks to the care and devotion of his uncle, Abbaye grew up to be a great and famous scholar. Abbaye learnt a great deal also from Rav Joseph, who was the head of the academy of Pumpeditha. Abbaye loved and revered him, and he would respectfully rise when he saw him approaching form the distance. Later on, he became more like a colleague than a disciple, and debated with him points of law.
Abbaye also greatly respected his foster mother, who cared for him in his childhood with true motherly love. She must have been a wise woman, for Abbaye often related her remarks and sayings.
Of Abbaye's personal life we know but little. He seems to have been quite poor, for when his widow asked the Beth-Din (court) to grant her a pension for bread and wine, they answered that as far as they knew there was never any wine at Abbaye's table. Yet Abbaye never wished to receive gifts, and only on Erev Yom Kippur he accepted gifts, being a Kohen, a descendant of Eli the high priest.
Abbaye was respected not only for his great learning and sharpness of mind, but also for his fine character. He was a peace-loving man, very friendly and very modest in his dealings with all men. His noble character can be seen from his teachings and sayings which we find in the Talmud. Thus he used to say, "A man should always be alert in his fear of G-d; a soft answer does away with anger; deal in a friendly manner with relatives and friends, and with all men, even with a pagan in the street. In this way one will be beloved by G-d and admired by men, and welcome by all creatures" (Berachoth, 17a). The commandment "And thou shalt love G-d, the G-d," was explained by Abbaye in the following way: "The Name of G-d should be made beloved by your actions: a person should learn Torah and study the Talmud and wait on scholars. What do people say about him? Happy is the father who taught him the Torah... see how goodly are his ways, how noble are his actions..." (Yoma 86a).
Needless to say, Abbaye practiced what he preached, and small wonder that he was beloved and respected by all. When ever Abbaye would see an old man in the street, he would offer his arm to the old man for support. Even the Samaritans, who were not usually friendly to the Jews, respected and admired Abbaye. Once, when an ass of Abbaye went astray and was found by the Samaritans, Abbaye sent a message to them, "Return the ass to me; it is mine." They replied, "Give us some identification marks." Abbaye replied, "It has a white belly." The Samaritans sent the ass to him saying, "If you were not Nachmani we would not have returned the ass to you. What kind of identification is this? Haven't all asses white bellies?!" (Gittin 45a).
Abbaye had a childhood friend, with whom he grew and studied. His name was Rava. Later Rava went to Mechoza and Nehardea to study, but they were almost inseparable in their discussions of various points of law. The Talmud is full of their teachings which are quoted either jointly in their names, such as "Abbaye and Rava both say," or in discussion, such as "Abbaye questions Rava," or "Abbaye explained to Rava" or "Abbaye and Rava differed in their opinion on..." Thus "the discussions of Abbaye and Rava" became very famous. Yet, despite Abbaye's great position, the sages who decided whose opinion to follow ruled that Rava's opinions were valid against Abbaye's in all but six cases, which are well known to Yeshivah students by the abbreviation YaAl KaGaM.
Here are some more of Abbaye's famous sayings:
"A child's talks in the streets are repetition of his father's or mother's talk."
"Woe to the wicked man, and woe to his neighbor."
"Desecration of Sabbath was the very cause of the destruction of Jerusalem."
The Sages declared that Abbaye should have lived no more than his uncle Rabbah, both of whom were descendants of the House of Eli, over which there was a curse to die in their prime of life. Yet because Abbaye spent all his time not only in studying the Torah but also in acts of charity and benevolence, he was made an exception, and instead of living no more than forty years, he lived for sixty years. But, of course, his teachings and good deeds live on forever.