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The Gemara says:

והאמר רב גידל אמר רב כל תלמיד חכם שיושב לפני רבו ואין שפתותיו נוטפות מר תכוינה שנאמר שפתותיו שושנים נוטפות מור עובר אל תקרי מור עובר אלא מר עובר אל תקרי שושנים אלא ששונים לא קשיא הא ברבה והא בתלמיד ואיבעית אימא הא והא ברבה ולא קשיא הא מקמי דלפתח הא לבתר דפתח כי הא דרבה מקמי דפתח להו לרבנן אמר מילתא דבדיחותא ובדחי רבנן לסוף יתיב באימתא ופתח בשמעתא

In short, there seems to be a contradiction if one should learn Torah from joy or from fear. The Gemara gives answers:

  1. The teacher must be joyful but the student must be in fear
  2. Both are in the teacher. Before starting to teach he must be joyful but them when he begins teaching he must be serious.

The Gemara says that Rabbah would say a joke, all the students would laugh and then they would sit in fear and Rabba would teach. The Gemara says that this is according to the second answer.

Now the second answer doesn't mention students. Both joy and fear are for the teacher (and not the students).

Why are the students laughing and then sitting in fear? Either be in fear the whole time or be happy the whole time.

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The Maharal in Nesiv HaTorah ch. 6 explains the concept of the second answer with a parable, that someone who is going to see the King is happy on his way there because he is going to get to see the king, but once he gets there, the appropriate awe of the king's presence sets in. So, too, before you learn you have the happiness of what you are about to engage in, but once you begin the awe should set in.

Accordingly, the second answer does not mean to be exclusive to the teacher, as the students are in the same position. It merely means to say that even the teacher, who is already "used to the Torah" (as the Maharal explains in the Gemara's first answer), should still have awe once he begins his involvement in it.

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I haven't looked at the g'mara except as you've quoted it, but in that quotation it says "לסוף יתיב באימתא", "at the end he would sit in reverence" (emphasis supplied), which seems to fit right in to the g'mara's second answer: he would first say something funny and then sit in reverence.

  • but badchu rabanan – Shmuel Brin Oct 14 '14 at 18:15
  • @ShmuelBrin, sure. But he's the one who said the funny. So he was joking first and then reverent. – msh210 Oct 14 '14 at 19:47
  • My question is why the students were laughing – Shmuel Brin Oct 14 '14 at 19:55
  • Sorry, @ShmuelBrin. I misunderstood your question. I thought you were asking how the story of Raba matches the second answer if it's about the students not the teacher. But you weren't. You were actually asking why the students laughed and then were reverent. All right. I've already demonstrated that it doesn't say they were reverent; so the only question now is why they laughed. That's because Raba had said a joke. Should I edit my answer to "Because Raba had said a joke"? – msh210 Oct 14 '14 at 20:04

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