AFTER RABBI AKIBA’S 12,000 (or 24,000) pupils died and he was imprisoned for treason to the Romans there remained with him only a few disciples who stayed at his side until the time of his execution. Two of these, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and Rabbi Jochanan the Sandalmaker, exemplified the spirit of Rabbi Akiba’s last disciples. After the death of Rabbi Akiba they decided to go to Netsivin where Rabbi Jehudah ben Bathyra conducted an academy, but when they reached Sidon and looked back upon the Land of Israel which they were leaving behind they both wept in grief and returned.
These two were the last of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was the more prominent of the two.1)בראשית רבה פּרשה ס״א פּיסקא ג׳. All statements in the Mishna and Boraitha which are quoted in the name of Rabbi Elazar (without further identification) are the opinions of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua.2)רש״י שבת י״ט ב׳. It was said of Rabbi Elazar that he was a pupil of Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, Rabbi Jose of Galilee and Rabbi Tarphon before he became a disciple of Rabbi Akiba.
Despite his love for Palestine Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua was later forced to seek refuge in a strange country where the persecutions of the Romans were not so severe. When the political situation improved and the Jews were allowed to engage in the Torah again, Rabbi Elazar did not return to Usha with the other scholars. Rabbi Jochanan the Sandalmaker also remained in a foreign land. Rabbi Elazar then founded an academy in one of the cities of Galilee and this institution gained such fame that the Nasi, Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel, sent his son Jehudah to study at this academy. It was said that Jehudah remained there for many years and did not even return to his home for the holidays.
Years later the Nasi Rabbi Jehudah related that when he came to the academy the other pupils surrounded him angrily and would not allow him to engage in study.3)יבמות פ״ד א׳. The academy was very crowded and six people were forced to sit in the space of one ell.4)ערובין נ״ג א׳. In his later life Rabbi Jehudah visited Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua to inquire concerning the essense of some of his teachings.5)מנחות י״ח א׳. From this we may conclude that even after he was Nasi, Rabbi Jehudah still consulted Rabbi Elazar in all difficult questions.
The name of Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua is also listed among the ten martyrs and he was said to have been 105 years old at the time of his death. It was remarked that he never prayed aloud nor quarrelled with other people and that he fasted for 85 (!) years. When he was asked what he had done to merit such a long life he declared that he never used the synagogue as a place for idle wasting of time, he never humiliated others and he did not pronounce the priestly blessing without reciting the benediction first.
The following maxim characterizes Rabbi Elazar’s conception of the proper type of human behavior; he said: “Let the honor of your disciple be dear to you as your own honor, and the honor of your friend should be like your reverence for your master, and your reverence for your master should be like your fear of God.6)אבות ד׳ י״ב. Like other scholars he also spoke frequently of the value of peace and he said: “All the teachings which the prophets sought to implant in the hearts of the people had but one aim—peace.”7)ספרי פּ׳ ראה.
Rabbi Elazar frequently repeated the following parable: “There exist three types of scholars and they may be compared to three kinds of stones. One type of scholar is like a stone pointed at one end; another type may be compared to a two pointed stone, the third type is like a stone which is hewn on all sides. Who may be likened to a stone pointed at one end? One who studied Midrash and if he is questioned of the Midrash he is able to reply. Who may be likened to a two pointed stone? One who studied Midrash and Halacha and when he is questioned he is able to answer from both. Who may be compared to a hewn stone? One who studied Midrash, Halacha, Hagada and Tosephta. Whatever such a scholar is asked he is able to answer.”8)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק כ״ח.
There exists one legend connected with the life of Rabbi Elazar for which it is impossible to find any historical substantiation. This legend9)קהלת רבה פּרשה י״א פּיסקא ב׳. relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua once strolled on the seashore and he saw a ship tossed on the waves. Before it could be clearly discerned the ship sank with all on board and only one man clung to a board and reached dry land without any clothes. Just then a group of Jews passed by on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. (Although the temple was destroyed Jews continued to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem as often as the Romans allowed them.) The survivor appealed to them and said: “I am one of your brother Esau’s children and I beg that you should give me a garment to cover my nakedness. The sea destroyed my ship and I could save none of my possessions.” To this the Jews replied, “If you are one of Eau’s children then it were better that your whole people had been destroyed.”
The survivor looked around and seeing Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua he said to him, “It is discernible that you are a prominent man among your people and you will no doubt understand that it is not proper to allow a man to go about naked. I therefore beg you to perform a good deed and to give me a garment because the sea had taken all of my possessions.” Rabbi Elazar was wearing seven garments and he immediately removed one of them and he gave it to the man. He then took him to his house and gave him food and drink and a gift of two hundred ducats he also gave him and he mounted him on one of his asses and escorted him a distance of 14 miles to his house.
Some time later the king (?) died and another king was chosen in his place. The new ruler issued a decree against that country (?) to have all the males killed and to do with the women as they chose. The inhabitants of that country asked Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua to intercede with the king on their behalf and they gave him 4000 ducats to offer as a gift to the king. Rabbi Elazar proceeded to the palace of the king and when he entered the throne room the king descended from his throne and bowed before him and asked, “What is your request?”
Rabbi Elazar said: “I want you to have mercy on the kingdom and to rescind your decree.” The king then replied: “It is written in your Torah that an Edomite or a Moabite may not be included in the congregation of God because they did not meet the Jews with bread and water when they came out of the land of Egypt. The Torah also states that you may not humiliate an Edomite because he is your brother. But your people dealt otherwise with me and because they did not observe this commandment of the Torah they have forfeited their lives.”
“Nevertheless you must forgive them,” Rabbi Elazar said. “You must have mercy on them for if they did not act according to the commandment of the Torah they did so out of foolishness and God will forgive them.” Saying this Rabbi Elazar handed the king the 4000 ducats which the people gave him. Then the king said, “The 4000 ducats you may keep instead of the 200 ducats which you gave me. Because you gave me food and drink I will also forgive the sins of that country. You may also enter my treasury and choose the most beautiful garments for the one garment that you gave me to wear.”
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The name of Rabbi Jochanan the Sandalmaker is mentioned only three times in connection with legal matters. When the question arose concerning the case of a woman who received “Halitza” in the presence of witnesses one of whom was later proved to be a relative of the woman, or disqualified as a witness for some other reason and it was decided that such “Halitza” was invalid, Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai and Rabbi Jochanan the Sandalmaker declared that such “Halitza” was valid. During this debate Rabbi Jochanan related his ruse in visiting Rabbi Akiba in prison to ask his opinion in this question.10)יבמות ק״ד ב׳.
A maxim of Rabbi Jochanan stated: “Every assembly which is conducted for the sake of God will remain permanent, but assemblies which are not for the sake of God will not last.11)אבות פרק ד׳ משנה י״א.
Opinions differ concerning his appelation of “Sandlar” (sandalmaker). The book of genealogies (Yuchasin) declares that Rabbi Jochanan was a sandalmaker or that he drilled pearls to be strung, but some modern philologists dispute this point of view and interpret the name “Sandlar” to indicate that he was a native of Alexandria.