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A Beautiful Bride

In the midst of a discussion about beauty and whether one鈥檚 vow to not marry an ugly person can be annulled, we hear an extraordinary story about Rabbi Yishmael:

鈥淎nd an incident occurred with regard to one who vowed against deriving benefit from the daughter of his sister, And they brought her into the house of Rabbi Yishmael and he beautified her. . . . At that time Rabbi Yishmael wept and said: The daughters of Israel are beautiful, but poverty makes them ugly. And when Rabbi Yishmael died, the daughters of Israel raised a lamentation, saying: Daughters of Israel, weep for Rabbi Yishmael.鈥欌 (Nedarim 66a)

According to the Ben Yehoyada, Rabbi Yishmael was known for helping poor brides become beautiful and that is why the 鈥渦gly鈥 bride was brought to his home. What prompted this great man, one of the most important scholars of his age, to spend his time making brides beautiful? It does not seem like a standard activity to say the least. Let鈥檚 find out about Rabbi Yishmael and his time period.

Rabbi Yishmael was from the third generation of Tannaim, a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. The troubles of that time, including the aftermath of the Roman conquest and destruction of Jerusalem, were part of the very beginnings of Rabbi Yishmael鈥檚 life. He was discovered as a captive in Rome by the great Rabbi Yehoshua who ransomed him and saved his life and his soul:

鈥淩abbi Yehoshua ben 岣nanya once went to the great city of Rome, where they said to him: There is a child in prison with beautiful eyes and an attractive appearance, and his curly hair is arranged in locks. Rabbi Yehoshua went and stood by the entrance to the prison. He said, as if speaking to himself: 鈥淲ho gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers?鈥 (Isaiah 42:24). That child answered by reciting the continuation of the verse: 鈥淒id not the Lord, He against Whom we have sinned, and in Whose ways they would not walk, neither were they obedient to His law?鈥濃 (Gittin 58a)

The Gemara in Gittin goes on to explain that Rabbi Yehoshua was so struck by the child鈥檚 knowledge (and probably his composure) that he vowed to free him because one day he would become a great teacher in Israel. This child was Yishmael ben Elisha, later to become Rabbi Yishmael.

Yishmael, like his contemporary Akiva, studied with Rabbi Yehoshua and his colleague Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Despite the trials of the time, both students became giants of Torah and each founded a school of interpretation of the law. Rabbi Yishmael鈥檚 methodology was based on hermeneutics, thirteen logical principles that draw out the law from the Torah text. One famous example is kal vachomer: if something is true for the kal, the lesser case, it must be also true for the chamur, the more extreme case. Rabbi Yishmael鈥檚 thirteen principles are recited daily in the morning service and they are a core part of the Gemara鈥檚 way of teaching.

Rabbi Yishmael鈥檚 mantra was 讚讘专讛 转讜专讛 讘诇砖讜谉 讘谞讬 讗讚诐, the Torah speaks in everyday language. Therefore, unlike Rabbi Akiva, he did not feel it was necessary to explicate every extra letter or word, but rather understood these extras as a natural way of speech. Sometimes he was exasperated with what he saw as Rabbi Akiva鈥檚 more fanciful interpretations. When Akiva explained the verse 鈥渁nd all the people saw the thunder and the lightning鈥 (Shemot 20:15) as seeing the sound and hearing the sights, Rabbi Yishmael鈥檚 response was stop making these drashot and go teach some down to earth halacha!

Rabbi Yishmael emphasized the peshat, the plain sense of the text. In a similar vein, he felt that people should live a regular life and not try to live miraculously. While Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai stated that one must learn Torah all day and God will provide food for you, Rabbi Yishmael believed that one could study Torah and earn a living as well. Regarding these two approaches, the Gemara concludes:

Abaye said: many have acted in accordance with Rabbi Yishmael, and were successful. Many have acted in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Shimon ben Yo岣i and were not successful鈥 (Berachot 35b)

(Wikipedia)

Unlike most of his contemporaries who lived near Lod and Bnei Brak, Rabbi Yishmael lived in the south, daroma, in the village of Kfar Aziz in the southern Hebron Hills. This area received less rainfall and so the people grew and ate barley, something that was usually considered animal food. Interestingly, Rabbi Yishmael allows a husband to provide barley for his wife as well as or instead of wheat, something the other Sages do not allow (Mishnah Ketubot 5:8). He had a nephew who seems to have been drawn to the new sect of Jews who believed in Jesus. When this nephew, Eliezer ben Dama, was bitten by a snake, Rabbi Yishmael forbade him from seeing a Jewish Christian healer and Ben Dama died as a result. Rabbi Yishmael stated that it is better that he died than that he followed the heretics (Avoda Zara 27b)

Rabbi Yishmael鈥檚 acts and words, like those of his colleagues, were greatly influenced by his time period. He had to contend with the challenge of the new sect of Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. He took Greek ideas of logic and hermeneutics and utilized them for Torah study. And in a time of great misfortune, persecution and poverty for the Jewish people, he understood that even if all Jewish women were beautiful, their circumstances made them less lovely. Rather than merely lamenting that fact, he took positive steps, took them into his house, and provided them with the opportunity to become beautiful. No wonder that upon his death Jewish women everywhere mourned for him.

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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