Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

R. Judah, 'The Saint,' and His Times.

Sorrowfully the Jews now took up the burden of life once more. In spite of dreadful devastation and dreary outlook the faith and spirit of the majority remained unbroken. Hadrian had tried to eradicate Judaism, but he had failed. The defeated were still the victors. In the year 138 Hadrian was succeeded by the more humane Antoninus Pius. The religious persecution was stopped, Rome's normal toleration of Judaism was resumed. The Sanhedrin was reopened at Oosha, the Presidency being still retained in the family of Hillel. Rabbi Simon, the Nasi, was the author of the maxim, "The world rests on three pillars—Truth, Justice and Peace." Compare the "world's three pillars" of Simon the Just.

Mair and Beruriah.

Rabbi Mair was a unique figure of this time. He is said to have given one-third of his means to support poor students. Not at first recognized because of his youth, he gave expression to the maxim, "Look not at the vessel, but at that which it contains; for there are new flasks full of old wine and old flasks which contain not even new wine." Did not Rabbi Joshua express a similar sentiment?

Rabbi Mair was a broad man who gladly gathered knowledge from all, Jew and non-Jew alike. Mark this bit of wisdom: "Who studies the Law for its own sake is worth the whole world and is loved by God and man." Is not the study of the Law for its own sake the very essence of religion? He would illustrate his lessons by fables in the portrayal of which he was wonderfully gifted.

His wife, Beruria, is the most renowned—or perhaps the only renowned—woman in Talmudic annals. We might compare her to the Shunamite (II Kings, iv.), whom the Bible calls a "great" woman. Great was Beruria in strength of character, in dignity and withal in motherly affection. She was indeed a helpmeet to her husband and to many of her people in a time of storm and stress. Her own parents had been martyrs in the Hadrianic war. She was a scholar too. Her keen penetration and at the same time her womanly tenderness are revealed in her interpretation of the text, "Let sinners be consumed out of the earth." (Psalms civ. 35). Not sinners, but sin. Then indeed will be fulfilled the hope at the conclusion of the text—"The wicked will be no more."

Her strength of character is perhaps best revealed in the pathetic story told of the consoling way in which she broke to her husband the terrible news of the death of their two sons. Some "jewels" had been entrusted to her, which she so highly prized that it was hard to give them up; what should she do? They must be returned said R. Mair. In this way fortifying him with consolation for the sorrow awaiting him in this double bereavement, she gently led him to the chamber where the dead children lay.

Judah ha-Nasi.

As the epoch of the Tannaim opened, so now it closed, with a remarkable man—Rabbi Judah, called par excellence The Nasi, i.e., greatest of all. And no Nasi before him had been permitted to exercise so much power over the Sanhedrin,—now located in Sepphoris in Galilee.

Like so many of his predecessors, he devoted much of his wealth to the maintenance of students of the Law, and fed the poor during a famine. He came to be known as "the Saint." His most valuable service was the complete codification of all the Halachoth that had been gradually accumulating since post-Biblical time. While similar collections had been made before his time, commenced by Hillel, amplified by Rabbi Akiba and revised by Rabbi Mair, his final editing of the previous work became the officially accepted condensation of the Oral Law—the Mishna, superseding all earlier collections.

It is treated in the following chapter.

Rabbi Judah, not only compiled the teachings of others, but he left valuable maxims of his own:

"Be as careful of the observance of a light precept as of a weighty one."

"Balance the material loss involved in the performance of a precept against its spiritual compensation and the present desirable fruits of a sinful deed against the injury to thine immortal soul."

"Know what is above thee: A seeing eye, a hearing ear, and that all thy actions are written in a book."

No Nasi received so much reverential regard from the people at large. While he was dying, they gathered around his house, declaring in the exaggeration of grief that they would slay the person who would dare announce his death. At length there came forward Bar Kappara, a man of broad scientific attainments and withal a man of delicate imagination. In fact, he was a poet too, as may be judged by the way in which he announced Rabbi Judah's death: "Angels and mortals contended for the ark of the covenant; the angels have conquered, the ark of the covenant is gone."

Other Famous Teachers.

Just a passing word on other great men of this epoch. Rabbi Jochanan showed his breadth of view in encouraging the study of Greek and opening up its great literature to Jewish youth, and particularly in his recommendation of it for girls. This urging of the cultivation of the female mind formed a pleasing contrast to the prevailing practice—the comparative neglect of the education of women—which practice survives in some of our communities to-day!

To this period also belonged that keen logician, Resh Lakish, likewise renowned for his colossal strength and his scrupulous honesty. He discerned that the Book of Job was not a history, but a life problem put in the form of a story. He also taught that Hell has no real existence. Not that he or his age altogether denied a future retribution for the wicked. But Hell never appealed strongly to the conviction of the Jew. Certainly the Synagogue does not teach the doctrine of "everlasting punishment" to-day.

Another teacher, Rabbi Simlai, searched the Scriptures and enumerated 613 ordinances of Judaism—365 negative and 248 affirmative precepts. He found them further reduced to eleven principles in the 15th Psalm; in Isaiah xxxiii. to six; in Micah vi. 8 to three; in Isaiah lvi. to two; and in Amos v.-4 to one: "Seek ye Me and ye shall live"; to one also in Habbakuk ii.-4. "The just shall live by his Faith."

Nor must we forget that group of rabbis who, investigating the religious and educational condition of various towns and finding in one place no teachers, asked the magistrate to present the guardians of the city. He marched forth the armed men. "No," said the rabbis, "these are not the guardians, but the destroyers of a city. Its true guardians are the teachers."

Let us mention in this group, too, Rabbi Abbahu, the last of the great men of the Palestinian schools, renowned not so much as an expert on the Halacha as a keen Hagadist. This is another way of saying that he was not so much a subtle jurist as a great preacher. He was a student of human nature. His keen insight on one occasion chose as the worthiest to pray for rain, a man bad by repute, but who, he had discerned, was noble in character.


For complete enumeration of the 613 precepts, see article "Commandments," Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. iv.

Theme for discussion:—Can the number of our duties be specified?