I believe many people think the term "Maaseh Rav" means a story of a Rabbi: since we see from the story that a Rabbi acted a certain way, we can bring this as a proof to the halacha. However, I believe another understanding of the term is "Maaseh, Rav" meaning "A story is greater": that if one can bring a story of how a Rabbi acted in a particular case then that will be greater in determining what the halacha is (greater, that is, then other proofs that could potentially be brought perhaps in terms of savarah, earlier sources, etc.). While I think both understandings practically mean the same thing, I believe the second better reflects what the phrase really means (when being used in the gemorah). However, I don't have a proof for this. Can someone please cite a source or example, or give any more insights into this?
Maaseh Rav is translated differently by three dictionaries:
- A story of a sage (Even Shoshan Dictionary, quoted here)
- A story is greater [proof] (The Practical Talmud Dictionary - R. Yitzchok Frank, quoted here. This is also the translation used by Artscroll and Soncino)
- A story is a teacher (Dictionary of the Targumim - Marcus Jastrow pg 819)
The term appears in several places in the Talmud, including Shabbos 21a and 126b, Baba Kama 68a, Baba Basra 130b and Nidda 65b.
א"ר זריקא א"ר אמי א"ר חנינא אמר רבי הלכה כר' יוחנן בן ברוקה אמר ליה ר' אבא הורה איתמר במאי קמיפלגי מר סבר הלכה עדיפא ומר סבר מעשה רב
R. Zerika said in the name of R. Ammi in the name of R. Hanina in the name of R. Jannai in the name of Rabbi: The halachah is in agreement with [the views of] R. Johanan b. Beroka. R. Abba said to him: The statement was that he [only] gave [such] a decision! Wherein lies the difference? — [One] Master holds [that] an halachah is preferable and the [other] Master holds "Maaseh Rav"
Translating Maaseh Rav as "A story of a sage" does not make sense in this context.