For a narrative explanation of this source sheet, see Where do Purim 'Spiels' Come From? by Ayalon Eliach in Ha'aretz, March 16, 2016, available at: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.709231.
As background for this source sheet, please review Mordechai the Villain: Rava's Shocking Reason for Drinking on Purim.
This story about Rava* killing Rabbi Zeira is bizarre. If understood literally, how was Rava able to revive Rabbi Zeira from the dead? And why would Rava kill Rabbi Zeira in the first place? If interpreted figuratively, why does the Talmud tell the story at all? Further, why would it want to portray Rava acting out of control while following his own prescription to drink alcohol on Purim?
The answer is that the story is a response to Rava's instruction to drink on Purim. As explained in another source sheet (Mordechai the Villain: Rava's Shocking Reason for Drinking on Purim), Rava's goal in this prescription was to help people realize that Mordechai was not a hero, and actually did the wrong thing by refusing to bow to Haman, thereby endangering all of Persia's Jews.
Many people were unhappy when Rava first made this argument, over 1,500 years ago. Instead of attacking Rava, one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, they wrote a satirical story – one that would likely have been called a shpiel if they spoke Yiddish – about him and his views.
*In the Hebrew/Aramaic text, you will notice that the story is about the third-generation Talmud sage Rabbah (רבה) rather than the fourth-generation sage named Rava (רבא). This is a typographical error in the printed Vilna edition of the Talmud, demonstrated by many earlier manuscripts that tell the story about Rava (רבא).
I. The Characters
AMORAIM (Aram. אָמוֹרָאִים), designation of the scholars in the Land of Israel and Babylonia who succeeded the tannaim and preceded (in Babylonia) the savoraim and geonim.
RAVA (d. 352 C.E.), Babylonian amora.
ZE'EIRA (in TB Zeira; c. 300 C.E.), amora. Ze'eira was a Babylonian amora but later immigrated to Ereẓ Israel.
Rabbi Zeira and Rava lived at different times and in different places. Rabbi Zeira lived primarily in the land of Israel (following his youth in Babylon) and was among the third-generation of sages recorded in the Talmud; Rava lived in Babylon his entire life and was among the fourth-generation. There are few places in the Talmud in which the two are presented as being in conversation with one another. Why then are they placed together in such an intimate setting in this story?
Rabbi Zeira, like Rava, held a minority position that it is permissible to worship idolatry under coercion. Accordingly, the two of them share the ideological framework for suggesting that Mordechai made the wrong choice in refusing to bow to Haman. The story about the two of them getting drunk on Purim thus mocks Rava for encouraging the use of alcohol to help others agree with their position about Mordechai, specifically, and idolatry, more generally.
II. The Plot
The plot of this satirical story about Rava mocks him by showing the tension between two of his statements about wine. On the one hand, he said that wine made people wise (the reason he recommended drinking on Purim so that people would have insight into recognizing Mordechai's true role as a villain). On the other hand, Rava also noted that wine could lead to murder. The authors of this story highlight this tension by suggesting that Rava's attempt to use wine to achieve deeper insight would - following Rava's own thinking - eventually leads to murder, in this case of Rabbi Zeira.
III. The Authors
One of the stranger elements in our story is Rabbi Zeira's response to Rava's request to have another Purim feast the following year: "Miracles do not happen each and every hour/ לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא." A miracle just happened when Rava revived him! Why then is he so incredulous about another one occurring?
This anonymously authored excerpt of Talmud directly links the suggestion that Mordechai did the right thing in refusing to bow to Haman with the proposition that miracles occur (precisely what Rabbi Zeira is afraid won't happen for him and Rava) because of actions like this. It uses the same exact language for miracles occurring (א/מתרחיש ניסא) as our original story. This is clearly not something Rava would say (he said it was a mistake that Mordechai incited Haman), so who would suggest something like this?
The answer is found here in Abaye's response to a question with almost identical language: "What is different about the earlier generations, for whom miracles occurred, and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur/ מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?"
Abaye's response is that Jews are not willing to die to sanctify God's name. This is precisely what those who view Mordechai as a hero think that Mordechai did. Our original story thus mocks Rava and Rabbi Zeira for not being able to rely on miracles because they do not recognize the importance of the martyrdom represented by Mordechai.
The fact that Abaye is the one who presents this alternate view is not surprising:
Abaye was the most direct opponent of Rava's position that Mordechai should have bowed to Haman. As seen above, he also believed that the unavailability of regular miracles to Rava and Rabbi Zeira was a result of their more moderate stance on martyrdom. Therefore, it appears as though this anonymously-written story was composed by sages of the Talmud who followed Abaye's school of thought about both Mordechai, specifically, and the importance of martyrdom, more generally. Read in light of all the allusions packed into it, the story is brought as a satirical shpiel of Rava's (and Rabbi Zeira's) position that one is permitted to worship idolatry under coercion, and the notion that wine could ease a person into concluding that Mordechai was a villain rather than a hero.