ON THE HISTORIC DAY that the scholars of Jabneh revolted against Rabban Gamliel and elected Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah as Nasi, there was present among those gathered one, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who participated in the discussions and the decisions of that day.
While still a child he was arrested by the Romans. It is unknown for what transgression he was thus punished. Also unknown are the circumstances of his death. His name is therefore frequently confused with that of his grandfather who was known as Ishmael the High Priest and who was killed before the destruction of the Temple together with Rabban Gamliel the Elder.
The story of how Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania ransomed Rabbi Ishmael from captivity is told in the following manner. Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania was visiting a certain large Roman city in the cause of his people and he was told that within the prison there was a beautiful black eyed, curly headed Jewish boy who was held captive and was to be sold to some degenerate lascivious Roman. Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania approached the prison to speak with the boy and he began with a verse from Isaiah (42:24): Who gave Jacob to the looters and Israel to robbers? The boy responded with the second half of the verse, It is God, against whom we have sinned refusing to follow in his ways and to obey his teachings.
When Rabbi Joshua heard this he remarked: “I feel certain that this boy will grow to be a teacher in Israel. I therefore swear that I will not move from here until I have ransomed this boy for whatever money may be asked.”
Rabbi Joshua ransomed the boy from captivity and before long he became a teacher among the Jews. This was Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha.1)גטין נ״ח א׳, ירושלמי הוריות פרק ג׳ הלכה ד׳.
In later years Rabbi Ishmael was a pupil of Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Nehunia ben Hakana. All the scholars came to call him “brother” and when he debated the interpretation of some text with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the latter said to him: “Brother Ishmael, you can uproot mountains with your wisdom.”
Rabbi Ishmael showed the greatest reverence for his teachers. Only with Rabbi Akiba did he differ on occasions in the interpretation of Biblical texts. Rabbi Ishmael followed his own system in expounding the Scriptures and he often said: “The Torah used the language of ordinary people.” He therefore maintained that no particular significance need be ascribed to seemingly superfluous words which occur in the Scriptures. Rabbi Akiba, on the other hand, counted the letters of every word and sought hidden meaning in the slightest dot.
Rabbi Ishmael held to a definite system in his studies, and like Hillel the Old, he also established thirteen rules according to which the Torah is to be explained.
Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha was descended from a priestly family and the legends refer to him as “High Priest” although he lived after the destruction of the Temple when there could be no high priests. When Rabbi Ishmael said: “I swear by the vestments of my father and by the golden headpiece between his eyes”2)תוספתא חלה פרק א׳. he probably referred to his grandfather, for we find numerous occasions where grandfathers are called “father.”
The permanent residence of Rabbi Ishmael was in the village Aziz in southern Palestine. From there he frequently came to Jabneh to participate in the deliberations of the Sanhedrin. This custom he also followed after the Sanhedrin moved to Usha. When he was asked about his ancestral home he said that it was desolate, for the people of his town settled monetary disputes before one judge only and they also tended sheep in the Land of Israel which was then prohibited.3)תוספתא בבא קמא פרק ח׳ הלכה י״ד.
On the occasion of the death of his sons, the greatest scholars of the time (R. Tarphon, R. Jose of Galilee, R. Elazar ben Azaria and R. Akiba) came to console him. Before entering the house, Rabbi Tarphon warned them to be careful of every word they said, for Rabbi Ishmael was renowned for his scholarship and it was necessary to speak carefully to him. As they came in, Rabbi Ishmael greeted them with the following words: “When a man sins, he is overcome with sorrow and must disturb his superiors.”
Data regarding the death of Rabbi Ishmael is extremely confused. There is a legend that (Rabbi) Ishmael the High Priest was one of the Ten Martyrs. He is considered to be identical with Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha. But one must bear in mind that none of the High Priests were ever entitled Rabbi. It seems that the grandson’s title of Rabbi was ascribed to his grandfather and the martyrdom of the grandfather was ascribed to the grandson.
The Talmud relates that once, when R. Ishmael the High Priest was performing the service in the Temple on the Day of Atonement, he went into the Holy of Holies and there he beheld the face of God.4)ברכות ז׳ א׳. On another occasion he is said to have been revealed mysteries by Suriel, the Angel before the face of God.5)ברכות נ״א א׳. It therefore seems certain that these legends deal with the grandfather of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha. We have previously related that during the reign of Agrippa II there officiated a pious High Priest named Ishmael ben Phabi who later complained to the Roman authorities about the king. Some historians maintain that Ishmael ben Phabi was the grandfather of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha. This, however, is hardly plausible since Ishmael ben Phabi died a natural death and did not suffer martyrdom.*)“Phabi” was a Greek name and signified “light”, the same as Meir and Nehorai. Since many Jews of that time possessed two names, one Greek and one Hebrew, it is possible that the High Priest Ishmael ben Phabi was called in Hebrew Ishmael ben Elisha.
The High Priesthood, which some legends ascribe to Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, may be explained by the fact that he was considered worthy of occupying the office of his grandfather. Since everybody then looked forward to a speedy restoration of the temple, it was probably said that Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha was the outstanding claimant to the office and thus came to call him “High Priest.”
It is told that when Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Simeon (not designated more clearly) were led to execution, Rabbi Simeon said to Rabbi Ishmael: “Rabbi, my heart quivers with fear, for I do not know for what sins I am being executed.” Rabbi Ishmael answered him: “Did never a man come to you to ask a question or to settle a dispute and you made him wait until you finished drinking your water, or lacing your shoe or wrapping your shawl about yourself? By doing so you have transgressed against the commandment of the Torah not to cause suffering to a widow or an orphan which is punishable by death irrespective of whether the suffering caused was great or small.”6)מכילתא פּרשת משפּטים.
The same story is related in a similar form but with a clearer designation of the names of the participants:7)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק ל״ח משנה ג׳. When Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel was being led to execution he thought of his past deeds and exclaimed: “Woe to us, that we are led to execution as if we were the greatest criminals who deserve death.” Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha answered him, “Possibly it is so because poor men waited at your door and were not admitted while you ate?”, but Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel replied, “I swear by Heaven that I never acted so. On the contrary, whenever I ate I had guards posted outside to bring in all the poor people who should happen to pass that they too may eat with me and praise God.”
As they approached the place of execution, each one of them begged of the guard to be executed first. Rabbi Ishmael said: “I am a Priest, the son of High Priests and I must not see my comrade killed.” Rabban Simeon said, “I am a Nasi, the son of a Nasi. Do not let me see the death of my friend.”
If Rabbi Ishmael was executed together with Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel, then this could have happened only before the destruction and he could have been no other than the grandfather of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha. But in other places it is said that Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha also suffered martyrdom and it is told that when Rabbi Akiba heard of his death, he rent his garments and exclaimed to his disciples: “We must now prepare for calamity.”8)מכילתא פּרשת משפּטים. It is also said in the Talmud,9)ברכות נ״ז ב׳. that whoever sees Rabbi Ishmael in his dream must expect some calamity to befall him.
A maxim of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha was the following: “Be submissive to the ruler, patient under oppression and receive everyone with cheerfulness.10)אבות פרק ג׳ משנה י״ב. It is also known that in any dispute between man and wife Rabbi Ishmael took the part of the wife. He used to say: “Jewish daughters are beautiful but poverty destroys their beauty.” At his death it was therefore said that Jewish women should bewail his passing away even as king David exclaimed when mourning the death of Saul.
Rabbi Ishmael always heeded the simple meaning of the Biblical texts. When he debated this question with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus he exclaimed: “As I see it, you would have the simple meaning of each verse preceded by your exposition of it.”
Rabbi Ishmael also established the rule that there is no prior and no latter in the Torah. The chapters of the Torah were not written according to the chronological order of the events, and when some statement is repeated, this repetition must be considered a sign that a new meaning is intended. The legal regulations, he believed, must be in accord with the text and in case of contradiction between the accepted law and the text of the Torah, the law must be made to conform with the Torah. Only in three instances did he recognize the validity of laws which were at variance with the Bible.
In Deuteronomy (12:3) God says to Moses and Aaron to tell the Jews that each should take a lamb for the Paschal offering. Rabbi Ishmael asked: “Is it possible that both heard the words of God and that both spoke to the Jewish people?” But he explained it to mean that when Moses spoke, Aaron listened attentively to what he had to say, and it was considered as if both heard the words of God.
In case an ox gores a man and kills him, it is possible that the animal is known to be dangerous and that its owner has been warned and would therefore have to forfeit his life together with the beast. Nevertheless the Bible offers the owner of the animal an opportunity to redeem himself by the payment of a sum of money. (Exodus, 21:30.) Of such a case Rabbi Ishmael said: “Here we may see the great mercy of the Creator who permits a man to redeem himself with money from a well-earned punishment.”
If a man owned a Jewish slave and freed him at the end of six years, the Torah commanded that the slave should not be sent away empty handed but that he should be given gifts from the herd, the threshing floor and the wine cellar. (Deut. 15:14.) Rabbi Ishmael said, “Come and see how great is the mercy of the Creator who says to a man, ‘If a Jewish slave has worked for you and you send him away empty handed, he will have to beg from door to door or he will be forced to sell himself into slavery again. It is better that you give him some of that with which God has blessed you that he should not have to beg or to sell himself to another master.’”
Mourning for the destroyed Temple occupied a central place in the thoughts of Rabbi Ishmael even as it did with all his colleagues. He said: “Since the Temple is destroyed, it were better not to eat flesh nor to drink wine, but such a decree could not be complied with. It is the same with marriage. So long as Rome rules the Jews with severe decrees and does not allow us to observe all the commandments of the Torah, it were better that no Jew should marry and bring children into the world. But in doing so the seed of Abraham would be annihilated.”
As was mentioned above, there exists no certain information concerning the death of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha and there is also no substantiation for the legend which relates that a son and a daughter of Rabbi Ishmael the High Priest were sold into slavery to two Roman nobles who attempted to marry them to each other.11)גטין נ״ח א׳. Whether this event happened to Ishmael the High Priest and contemporary of Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel the Elder or it occurred to the children of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha who was the pupil of Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania and the friend of Rabbi Akiba remains unknown.
Worthy of mention is the Talmudic legend12)עבודה זרה י״א ב׳, חולין קכ״ג א׳. concerning the death of Rabbi Ishmael the High Priest. Because of his great beauty Rabbi Ishmael was loved by the emperor’s daughter and at his execution she begged that his head be given to her. She later removed the skin from the head and she had it preserved. It was also said that once every seventy years a man of Rome was chosen and the head of Rabbi Ishmael was placed on him, sometimes the king himself tried on the skin of Rabbi Ishmael’s face or placed his head upon himself.
From all these legends we can gather that the political situation during the lifetime of Rabbi Ishmael was a sad one and became worse as time went on. The Sanhedrin could no longer meet even in Usha and the academy of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha became the center of Jewish spiritual life. Whatever was discussed in that academy later became immortalized in many sayings and decisions of the pupils of Rabbi Ishmael who repeated his moral and legal teachings during his lifetime and after his death.
The location of the academy has not been determined but it apparently was situated in a region over which the Roman government had no control. The Roman rulers had, by that time, discovered the secret that in order to rule Palestine they must suppress the Jewish religion. It was then prohibited to observe the Jewish faith and the maintenance of an academy was punishable by death. A law was also promulgated that if any scholar ordains (Semicha) a pupil, both the teacher and the pupil were to be executed.
Of the legal and moral teachings of the school of Rabbi Ishmael, some possess permanent ethical value and may be used as examples for all times. Other decisions of the school mirror the political and social conditions of the land. The following are instances of the latter: “Whoever lives for forty years without suffering should take it as a sign that he has received his share of peace and should be satisfied,”13)ערכין ט״ז ב׳. or: “One may add a measure of ground salt to a basket of grain without being guilty of deception, if together they are sold for the price of grain because the grain is thereby saved from worms.”14)שבת ל״א א׳. The same may be said of the opinion which was rendered that in time of danger it is permissible to write a bill of divorce and to hand it to the woman even though the writer does not know the man.15)יבמות קכ״ב ב׳. Commenting in this sentence Rashi says that it refers to such cases as that of a man who fell into a well and he shouted that whoever hears his voice should write a bill of divorce. In such a case one may believe the man that he is the person that he claims to be, for if he disbelieved the opportunity may be lost and his wife may remain an “Agunah” for life.
It may well be imagined that the Jews suffered at that time from spies and false reports which were carried by people against each other. The school of Rabbi Ishmael therefore ruled that spreading slanderous reports is a sin of the same magnitude as worshipping idols, immorality or blood shed.16)ערכין ט״ו ב׳.
Other significant teachings of Rabbi Ishmael’s school were the following:
If you see a scholar committing a sin at night, you should not think of it the following day, for he has probably repented. Nor must you doubt it, for he has certainly repented. This rule, however, applied only to corporeal sins. Where money was involved it was necessary to ascertain that the money had been returned.17)ברכות י״ט א׳.
He who wishes to be unclean, is permitted to do so; he who wishes to become clean must be aided. One who sells kerosene and spices may be taken as an example. If a customer desires kerosene, he tells him, “Go, please, and fill the container yourself.” But when a customer comes to buy spices, he says to him, “Let us measure it together that we may both enjoy its fragrance.”18)יומא ל״ט א׳.
When God was angry at the sin of the spies, he relented after Moses’ prayer and said “I have forgiven according to your words”. (Numbers, 14:20.) The meaning of this is that when the Gentiles will hear of it they will say: “Happy is the pupil whose teacher agrees with his words.”19)ברכות ל״ב א׳.
God’s words are like fire and like a hammer which crushes rocks. (Jer. 23:19.) Just as a hammer crushes a rock into many pieces even so can God’s word be explained in seventy languages.20)שבת פּ״ח ב׳.
In order to use clean language the Scriptures employed six words instead of one as in the case of Sam. I, 20:26. Man must learn from it to form his language in the same manner.21)פּסחים ג׳ א׳.
Four times a year God sits in judgment over the world: On Passover He judges the fate of the harvest of grain; on Shavuoth He judges the fate of the fruit of the trees; on Succoth the amount of rain during the coming year is determined. Man is judged on Rosh Hashana and his sentence is signed on the Day of Atonement.22)ראש השנה ט״ז א׳.
In the conduct of the world, it is a law that the innocent may atone for the guilty, but the guilty may not atone for the guilty.23)יומא מ״ג ב׳.
If two people engage in a fight, the Bible says that he who beats his friend shall heal the victim (Ex. 21:20). This indicates that it is permissible to engage in healing the sick.24)ברכות ס׳ א׳.
If you are accosted by the ״יצר הרע״ (evil desire) drag him into the school. If he is hard as a rock, he will be ground; if he is strong as iron he will be crushed.25)סוכה נ״ב ב׳.
How do we know that the “Schechinah” is omnipresent? It is said, “When the angel that spoke to you went out another angel came to meet him.” (Zechar. 2:7) Since it does not say that the other angel left after the first one, but that he came to meet him, we may conclude from this that the “Schechinah” is present everywhere.26)בבא בתרא כ״ה א׳.
God commanded that during the offering of the burnt sacrifice the priest must wear one garment while burning it and another when carrying out the ashes. (Lev. 7:4) This verse means to teach us proper conduct. The garments which one wears while preparing food for his master must not be worn while filling his beaker.27)שבת קי״ד א׳.
When the Bible commands man to be generous to the poor in order to gain the blessing of God, it employs the word “Biglal”. (Deut. 15:10) The use of this word shows us that fortune is like a wheel which constantly turns. One day fortune smiles on one, the next on another.28)שבת קנ״א ב׳. (A play in words is here engaged in. ״בגלל״ means in order that; ״גלגל״ means a wheel.)
Why is the lobe of one’s ear soft while the rest of the ear is hard? So that he may stuff his ear with the lobe when he hears something unworthy.29)כתובות ה׳ ב׳.
Whoever gives from his possessions for charitable purposes is saved from Gehenna. It is like the case of two sheep that have to cross a stream, one of which is shorn while the other is not. The shorn sheep wades through the water while the unshorn one remains behind.30)גטין ז׳ א׳.
In the case of a day laborer the Bible says: “You shall give him his wage the same day before the sun sets for he is a poor man”. (Deut. 24:15) But there is no difference whether the wage of a man, an animal or the rent for borrowed vessels is concerned. All must be paid for on the same day and their wage must not be held overnight.31)בבא מציעא קי״א ב׳.
When the Bible says, “a man or a woman who commit a sin” (Numbers 5:7) it intends to show that in the eyes of the Torah a woman is punishable for her sins the same as a man.32)פּסחים מ״ג א׳.
Friday noon the Shofar was blown six times as a sign that the Sabbath was beginning. At the first blast of the Shofar, all men who were in the fields ceased working. Then all men came from near and far and gathered before the gates of the city so that they may enter it together. The stores were meanwhile still open but the bolts for the doors were held in readiness. After the second blast of the Shofar it was necessary to lock the stores but the pots still remained in the ovens. The Shofar was blown a third time after which all pots were removed from the ovens and candles were lit. After that the people waited a period of time which it takes to bake a small fish, or to place the bread in the oven and then three blasts of the Shofar were blown at once and the Sabbath began.33)שבת ל״ה ב׳.