LEVI BEN SISI was the most prominent of Rabbi Jehudah’s last disciples. He is usually referred to without his patronymic and although he was often called a “Great Man,”1)שבת נ״ט ב׳, סוכה נ״ג א׳. it appears that he was not ordained, for we find no instance in the Babylonian Talmud where he is referred to as Rabbi. This title was attached to his name in the Jerusalem Talmud and in the Midrashim.2)ירושלמי ברכות פרק א׳ הלכה ה׳, ראש השנה פרק א׳ הלכה ה׳, סוכה פרק ב׳ הלכה ד׳. It is difficult to understand why Levi had not been ordained because he conducted his own academy and his legal opinions were quoted by many scholars of that time such as Rav (Aba Arecha), Shmuel Yarchinai, Rabbi Jochanan and Resh Lakish. This question becomes even more perplexing when one considers that his father was ordained and that no cause is mentioned for his lack of ordination.
Levi ben Sisi was born in Palestine about 160 years after the destruction of the temple. Some historians name the city of Lud as his birthplace. He was one of Rabbi Jehudah’s brilliant pupils and he tutored Rabbi Jehudah’s son Simeon. The relations between Levi and his pupil were not friendly and Simeon insisted on choosing his own subjects of study.3)עבודה זרה י״ט א׳. These unfriendly relations probably continued until the death of Rabbi Jehudah. There are some indications that Levi was a candidate for the post of Chacham in the academy, but this office was bequeathed to Simeon in his father’s will.4)כתובות ק״ג ב׳. For this reason, or because of his considerable wealth, to the administration of which he had to devote much time, Levi did not frequently attend the academy.
The attitude of Rabbi Jehudah toward Levi ben Sisi was not definite. When Rabbi Simeon ridiculed some question of Levi, Rabbi Jehudah declared that it was a wise question,5)זבחים ל׳ ב׳. and at one time he appointed Levi to an office in the academy.6)סנהדרין י״ז ב׳. Another time Rabbi Jehudah was annoyed with Levi’s questions and he exclaimed: “It seems to me that this man has no brains in his head.”7)יבמות ט׳ א׳, מנחות פ׳ ב׳.
At Rabbi Simeon’s wedding Levi was honored with reciting the benediction,8)כתובות ח׳ ב׳. and when representatives of Simunia, which was located in lower Galilee, came to Rabbi Jehudah and asked him to recommend someone who could fill the post of lecturer, judge, teacher and scribe, Rabbi Jehudah recommended Levi ben Sisi. The men of Simunia then seated Levi on a great platform and questioned him concerning the laws of “Halitza” and Levi could not answer their questions. Thinking that he was unacquainted with legal matters, they asked him the meaning of a verse of Daniel and he could not give that either. They then came to Rabbi Jehudah and said: “Was it for such a man that we asked you?” but Rabbi replied: “I swear by my life that he is my equal in learning.”
Later Rabbi sent for Levi and asked him the same questions which he answered correctly. “Why did you not answer them before?” Rabbi queried, and Levi replied: “When they placed me on the platform I became confused and did not know what to say.”9)יבמות ק״ה א׳, ירושלמי יבמות פרק י״ב הלכה ו׳, בראשית רבה פּרשה פּ״א.
Levi ben Sisi also devoted himself to athletics and he could perform acrobatic tricks such as throwing eight knives simultaneously and catching them in his hand. He also performed other athletic feats despite the fact that he was lame.10)סוכה נ״ג א׳, תענית כ״ה א׳, מגלה כ״ב ב׳. There is also evidence that he paid close attention to his appearance and that he painted his eyelids although he believed that the practice was dangerous and may cause death.11)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ב׳ הלכה ב׳.
Like Rabbi Jehudah, Levi ben Sisi also compiled six “orders” of Mishnayoth which are mentioned in the Talmud under various names such as “the books of Levi,”12)שבת קנ״ו א׳. “the holiness of the house of Levi,”13)קדושין ע״ו ב׳, בבא בתרא נ״ב א׳. and “the writings of Rabbi Levi.14)ירושלמי בבא בתרא פרק ו׳ הלכה ה׳. On other occasions opinions are introduced by the words “Levi taught” or “Levi taught in the Mishna.” Rashi likewise states that “Levi compiled the ‘Boraitha’ in six orders like Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Oshaiah.”15)כתובות נ״ג ב׳.
As long as Rabbi Jehudah lived, Levi returned to Palestine after each trip abroad.16)ראש השנה כ״א א׳, קדושין ע״ב א׳. Although he was not on friendly terms with the son of the Nasi, he frequently sent gifts to the house of the Nasi and once he sent wine made out of dates which was purified thirteen times.17)פּסחים ק״ז א׳. Only after the death of Rabbi Jehudah, when Levi remained without friends in Palestine, did he remember his comrades in Babylonia and he thought of finding a new field of work in that country. When Levi arrived in Nehardea he was received with open arms and he was assisted in founding an academy.18)ירושלמי סוכה פרק ד׳ הלכה ג׳.
The rumor rapidly spread that a “great man” had arrived and many people came from far and near to hear his lectures and to ask his opinion. Wonderful stories began to circulate about him. One of these related that when strange soldiers wanted to rob his city Levi took a book of the Torah and ascending the roof of the house he addressed God in the following words: “Creator of the world! If I have ever transgressed against one of your commandments let the enemy enter the city, but if I have not, then cause them to depart.” The foreign soldiers immediately vanished from the city.19)ירושלמי תענית פרק ג׳ הלכה ח׳.
Levi’s lameness was explained to be the result of an acrobatic trick which he attempted to perform before Rabbi Jehudah. A more interesting explanation tells that it was a punishment for his arrogance against God. Once a severe drouth affected the land. A fast day was declared but still no rain fell. Levi is said to have made the following remark to God at that time: “You sit on high and You have no mercy on Your children!” As soon as he finished this statement he became lame.20)תענית כ״ח א׳.
In his will Rabbi Jehudah commanded that his son Gamliel should succeed him to the office of Nasi, Simeon should be Chacham in the academy and Rabbi Chanina bar Chama should be head of the court in Sephoris. Rabbi Chanina refused to accept this post since Rabbi Ephes, the secretary of Rabbi Jehudah, was his senior by two years. Rabbi Ephes then became head of the court and Rabbi Chanina together with Levi were in the habit of sitting outside the academy. After the death of Rabbi Ephes, Rabbi Chanina assumed the post of head of the court and Levi remained alone. Levi also refused to recognize the authority of Rabbi Chanina because they were both of the same age and because he considered himself the equal of Rabbi Chanina in learning. It was at that time that Levi left Palestine and went to Nehardea.
In Nehardea he gained the friendship of Aba bar Aba, the father of Shmuel Yarchinai. Together they prayed and studied and, at the request of Aba, Levi examined his son Shmuel.21)מנחות ל״ח א׳. After that, whenever Shmuel had any doubts he turned to Levi.22)בראשית רבה פּרשה פּ׳.
In Nehardea Levi introduced new regulations. Thus he ruled that women may appear on the street on the Sabbath adorned in their jewelry. This regulation was accepted and the Talmud relates that twenty-four women appeared in their jewelry.23)שבת נ״ט ב׳.
Levi ben Sisi had ten scholarly sons whose names are listed in the Talmud. According to some authorities Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was also his son. When Levi died he was mourned by Aba bar Aba who pointed out the greatness of the generation of Rabbi Jehudah’s contemporaries of whom Levi was the last one. In his eulogy Aba bar Aba said: “The life of Levi ben Sisi may be compared to the story of a king who had a vineyard in which there were one hundred vines each of which yielded one hundred barrels of wine yearly. In time the vines dried up and with every passing year fewer remained until in the end there was no more than one vine left. The king loved this last vine as he once loved his whole vineyard. Even so was Levi ben Sisi beloved of God like an only remaining vine.”24)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ב׳ הלכה ח׳.
With the death of Levi ben Sisi the epoch of the “Tanaim” came to a close and the period of the “Amoraim” began.