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Voice of Moderation

One of the most famous stories in the Talmud is the story of the oven of Achnai, told on daf 59b of Bava Metzia. Much ink has been spilled on this tale and its implications for Jewish law and for humanity鈥檚 part in not only upholding but creating Torah law. We will not look at the philosophical or halachic ramifications of this story but rather at one of its main characters. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya (a profile of the tragic hero, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, can be found here https://hadran.org.il/author-post/tradition-tradition/).

Rabbi Yehoshua, as he is almost always known, without mentioning his father鈥檚 name, was part of the pivotal Yavneh generation, the group of rabbis that had to figure out how to survive in a world without a Temple. His teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, described him as 讗砖专讬 讬讜诇讚转讜, happy is the woman who gave birth to him (Pirkei Avot 2:8) and indeed we have the following beautiful memory about baby Yehoshua and his mother, who placed great value on Torah learning:

鈥淗e [Rabbi Dosa ben Hyrcanos] saw Rabbi Joshua and said to him: 鈥淭o whom will one teach knowledge?鈥 I remember that his mother brought his crib to the synagogue that his ears should cling to the words of the Torah.鈥 (Yerushalmi Yevamot 1:6)

Photo by聽Alex Bodini聽on聽Unsplash

As a Levi, Rabbi Yehoshua served in the Temple and saw it in his glory. He was one of the singers (Arachin 11b) and not one of the gatekeepers, and on holidays his schedule was filled with activities connected to learning, serving and rejoicing:

鈥淩abbi Yehoshua ben 岣nanya said: When we would rejoice in the Celebration of the Place of the Drawing of the Water, we did not see sleep in our eyes. How so? In the first hour of the day, the daily morning offering was sacrificed. From there to prayer; from there, to the additional offerings; from there, to the synagogue to recite the additional prayer. From there to the study hall; from there to the eating and drinking in the sukka; from there to the afternoon prayer. From there to the daily afternoon offering. From this point forward, they proceeded to the Celebration of the Place of the Drawing of the Water.鈥 (Sukkah 53a)

But dark days came to Jerusalem and when the Romans besieged the city, Rabbi Yehoshua and his colleague Rabbi Eliezer were the ones who were called upon to smuggle their teacher Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai out of the city in a coffin so that he could go to the Roman general Vespasian and beg for a respite for the Sages (Gittin 56). 聽After the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin reconvened in Yavneh, Rabbi Yehoshua joined Rabban Yochanan in teaching the people how to survive without a Temple. He famously told those steeped in mourning that they have to continue living life, even while they mourn (Bava Batra 60b) but even he had doubts about how the Jews can continue to serve God and repent their sins without a Temple:

鈥淥nce, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, left Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua followed after him and he saw the Holy Temple destroyed. [Rabbi Yehoshua said: Woe to us, for this is destroyed 鈥揮 the place where all of Israel鈥檚 sins are forgiven! [Rabbi Yohanan] said to him: My son, do not be distressed, for we have a form of atonement just like it. And what is it? Acts of kindness, as it says (Psalms 89:3), 鈥楩or I desire kindness, not a well-being offering.鈥欌 (Avot deRabbi Natan 4)

Besides the need to adapt Judaism to a Temple-less world, the generation after the destruction also had to worry about unity; ridding Judaism of the sectarian divisions of the previous decades. This is the backdrop to our story of Achnai鈥檚 oven but it is also the root of the conflicts between Rabbi Yehoshua and the head of the Sanhedrin of his time, Rabban Gamliel (see here https://hadran.org.il/author-post/one-nation-under-god/ ). While Rabban Gamliel understood that scholars could disagree, when it came to fundamentals like the calendar he forced his colleagues to follow his opinion. In a seminal story in Mishnah Rosh HaShanah, Rabbi Yehoshua disagreed with Rabban Gamliel about when the new month had begun. Ultimately, he bowed to Rabban Gamliel鈥檚 authority and met with his approval:

鈥淸Rabbi Yehoshua] took his staff and his money in his hand, and went to Yavne to Rabban Gamliel on the day on which Yom Kippur occurred according to his own calculation. Rabban Gamliel stood up and kissed him on his head. He said to him: Come in peace, my teacher and my student. my teacher in wisdom and my student, as you accepted my ruling,鈥 (Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 2:9)

In his personal life, Rabbi Yehoshua was terribly poor and the Gemara has a not so veiled disapproval of how Rabban Gamliel was unaware of his fellow rabbi鈥檚 desperate circumstances:

鈥淲hen he reached Rabbi Yehoshua鈥檚 house, he saw that the walls of his house were black. Rabban Gamliel said to Rabbi Yehoshua: From the walls of your house it is apparent that you are a blacksmith,. Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Woe unto a generation that you are its leader as you are unaware of the difficulties of Torah scholars, how they make a living and how they feed themselves.鈥 (Berachot 28a)

He was also not particularly attractive and the emperor鈥檚 daughter mocked him but he had the last word in another well-known story (Nedarim 50b).

Rabbi Yehoshua, like other leaders of his generation, had to contend not only with disputes and schisms inside the Jewish nation, but with threats from the outside, particularly from Rome He helped his people navigate the difficulties of being subjugated by this powerful empire and indeed we see that he often traveled to Rome, had disputes with leaders and scholars there and even helped to free prisoners (see here 聽https://hadran.org.il/author-post/a-beautiful-bride/聽鈥). He knew multiple languages (Sanhedrin 17b) and would engage in polemics with Greek and Roman scholars (Niddah 69b, Hullin 59b).

In a story that is alluded to in various places in Rabbinic literature, Rabbi Yehoshua counsels the Jews not to provoke Rome and not to bring yet more destruction upon the land:

鈥淭he assembly of Israel were gathered together in the Beit Rimon valley. When those missives arrived [cancelling Rome鈥檚 offer to rebuild the Temple] they began weeping. They wanted to rebel against the empire. They said: 鈥楲et one Sage enter and calm the assembly.鈥 They said: 鈥楲et Rabbi Yehoshua ben 岣nanya, who is the greatest Torah scholar, enter.鈥 He entered and expounded: 鈥楢 lion mauled prey and a bone was stuck in its throat. He [the lion] said: Anyone who extracts it, I will give him a reward. An Egyptian heron with a long beak inserted its beak and extracted it. It said to it [the lion]: Give me my reward. It [the lion] said to it: Go, boast, and say that you entered the mouth of a lion in peace and emerged in peace. So, it is sufficient that we entered into dealings with this nation in peace, and emerged in peace.鈥欌 (Bereshit Rabba 64:10)

Gray heron in Israel

爪讬诇讜诐: 讘专拽 讘专注诐, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons

His sage advice reflects the moderation that he was known for, not only in politics but in halacha as well. He took a lenient approach in many areas of the law, among them the saying of the evening prayers, which he believed was optional.

The generation that lived through the destruction of the Temple faced some of the greatest challenges in Jewish history. Rabbi Yehoshua鈥檚 wisdom, patience and tolerance, alongside his strength of character, helped navigate the shoals of division from the inside and enmity from the outside. Here is the assessment of him by the scholar of the rabbis, Dr. Mordechai Margoliot:

鈥淚n the time of the Temple鈥檚 destruction, in the moments of his most extreme crises, Rabbi Yehoshua rose to guide his nation on its long journey into exile.聽 Of course, his Torah learning and the wisdom of this astounding scholar served as a weapon in his fight for survival in that long exile.鈥 (Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages and the Geonim, by Professor Mordechai Margoliot)

A suggested site for Rabbi Yehoshua’s grave, in Tzfat

转诪讜谞讛 讝讜 爪讜诇诪讛/讛讜讻谞讛 注诇 讬讚讬 讛诪砖转诪砖聽诪讬讻讗诇 讬注拽讜讘住讜谉.

 

 

 

 

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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