THE DISTRICT OF GALILEE in northern Palestine was inhabited by non-Jews throughout the period of the existence of the first temple. Only in later years, during the times of the second temple, did Jewish settlements begin to extend into Galilee as the density of the population in the rest of the land increased. The emigrants who left the cities of Judea to settle in Galilee were mostly people poor in economic and spiritual resources, and there developed in Galilee a native type of “Ame Aratzim.” When these men of Galilee visited Jerusalem and later Jabneh, or some other city where the Sanhedrin resided, they were ridiculed for their childish naivete and were frequently called “Galilean fools.” The inhabitants of Galilee were also easily recognized by their manner of speech and by their uncouth behavior and the opinion was commonly held that Galileans are fools incapable of learning and that it was a waste of effort to attempt to change them.
Then there suddenly arose a “Galilean” scholar who came to be ranked with the highest from his very first appearance and who later became known by his name, Rabbi Jose of Galilee. It occurred during a discussion regarding the rules governing the eating of the flesh of a first born animal that Rabbi Jose arose from among the disciples and proved that the two leaders of the academy—Rabbi Tarphon and Rabbi Akiba—were mistaken. One can readily imagine the surprise of all those gathered when they heard the Galilean present many proofs on behalf of his contention and they saw his firmness of conviction.1)זבחים נ״ז א׳. When Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha heard the arguments of the Galilean he asked that Rabbi Akiba be told that he was in error and that the law was as the Galilean said.
Since that day Rabbi Jose remained among the scholars of Jabneh and he was accorded greater honors from day to day. Everybody respected him. His opinions generally conflicted with those of Rabbi Akiba and although he considered Rabbi Akiba to be his teacher he once remarked to him, “Were you to argue all day I would not accept your opinion.”2)זבחים פּ״ב א׳. Another time he interrupted Rabbi Akiba during a lecture and said to him: “How much longer will you speak of the Shechinah as one speaks of an everyday subject?”3)חגיגה י״ד א׳.
Later it was said that Rabbi Jose of Galilee “gathers every crumb of Torah wherever he can, even from the least of the disciples, even as God chose Mount Sinai, which is the smallest of the mountains, from which to hand down the Torah to the Jews.”4)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק י״ח.
Regarding the scholarship of Rabbi Jose it may be said that he succeeded in discerning that which others failed to see. Gentle as he was in his conduct he nevertheless was severe to all those who tried to turn the Jews away from God and he said: “If someone tries to prove to you that his god is the right one, you must not believe him even if he was to stop the sun in the middle of the sky.”5)סנהדרין צ׳ א׳.
Some historians maintain that Rabbi Jose was well advanced in age when he came to Jabneh from Galilee and that he was already renowned at that time for his scholarship. They believe that, since Galilee was affected less than other sections of Palestine at the beginning of the revolt preceding the destruction, it probably became a place of refuge for the peace loving elements among the Jews who fled there to escape the vengeance of the rebels. Among the refugees was the wealthy Azariah, the father of Rabbi Elazar, who sent his son to study with Rabbi Jose.
Rabbi Jose was widely known for his piety and the belief was widespread that were a drought to occur and Rabbi Jose was to pray for rain, he would undoubtedly obtain from God whatever he requested. It was also characteristic of the man that he was unhappy in his domestic life. The wife of Rabbi Jose, who was also his niece, was a wicked woman. She frequently shamed him in the presence of his pupils and when they asked their master why he does not divorce her, he answered that he could not do so because he did not possess enough money to pay her enormous “Kethubah” (dower-rights).
Rabbi Jose once returned home from the academy accompanied by his pupil, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. His wife paid no attention to him nor to his guest, and when he asked her whether she had any food prepared she replied angrily: “There is some boiled grass in the pot.” Rabbi Jose uncovered the pot and found in it the flesh of fatted hens. Together with his pupil he partook of the repast. Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah then said to him: “She said that there was only boiled grass in the pot when it contained the flesh of hens. Why should she deceive you so?” Rabbi Jose replied, “Very probably a miracle occurred. She put grass into the pot, just as she told me, but the grass turned into the flesh of fattened hens.”
After the meal was finished Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said, “Rabbi, send this woman away from your house. She does not know how to appreciate your worth.” But Rabbi Jose said, “She has a large ‘Kethubah’ and I have no money with which to pay it.” Rabbi Elazar answered, “We, your pupils, will provide the money to pay her ‘Kethubah’ and send her away.” Rabbi Jose then did as his pupils advised him.
The woman then married the night watchman of the city who, soon after, lost all his possessions and also became blind. He therefore had to give up his position as watchman and his wife had to lead him from house to house to beg for alms for their sustenance. But whenever she came to the street where Rabbi Jose lived, she passed it by. Her husband then asked her why she did not lead him through the street of Rabbi Jose the Galilean, for he had heard that Rabbi Jose was very charitable, and she replied: “I was divorced by him and I could not bear to go into his house to beg for alms.”
But one day the watchman and his wife made the rounds of the whole city and received no money. She then entered the street where Rabbi Jose lived but she skipped his house. When the blind man noticed this he began to beat her with his cane. Rabbi Jose heard her cries and when he found out their condition he lodged both of them in one of his houses and provided them with sustenance all the days of their life.6)ירושלמי כתובות פרק י״א הלכה ג׳, בראשית רבה פּרשה י״ז פּיסקא ג׳.
Especially interesting are the commentaries of Rabbi Jose to the commandments of the Torah. Sometimes he sought to lighten the burden of the commandments while at other times he tried to make them even more severe. The law concerning a “disobedient son” (בן סורר ומורה) the other scholars interpreted in manner that would have made it impossible to condemn one such to death. Since a “disobedient son” could not be condemned unless he was also a “glutton” they declared that he could not be considered as such until he consumed a pound of meat, half boiled and half raw, at one gulp and at the same time drank half a quart of the best Italian wine at one sip. His gluttonous feast had to be made in the company of immoral youths and was to be bought with money stolen by the “disobedient son” from his father. In addition, they ruled that the “disobedient son” had to be at least thirteen years and one day of age but not much older than that, for then he could no longer be considered a “son” dependent on his father. The culprit must have had both a father and a mother who were required to be of the same opinion and appearance, for both had to lead him to court and had to present the same complaints against him.
But Rabbi Jose believed that the essence of the sin of a “disobedient son” was gluttony and he believed that such a culprit deserved the death punishment because of his possible future. Engaging in such gluttony, a “disobedient son” was sure to waste his father’s wealth and to turn to stealing in order to satisfy his habits. He therefore believed that the Torah preferred the death of such a person while still innocent rather than his execution after committing crimes.7)סנהדרין ע״ב א׳.
Rabbi Jose followed in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiba in the matter of expounding every saying of the Torah which might have seemed to be superfluous. Thus he explained the verse “but my Sabbaths you shall observe” (Ex. 31:13) to indicate that certain labors may be performed on the Sabbath such as work in the Temple or in order to save a human life. This interpretation he based on the word ״אך״ in the Hebrew text.8)תוספתא שבת פרק ט״ז.
In the case of many other commandments Rabbi Jose sought to lighten the burden of their observance. He ruled that no “Bikurim” (offering of first fruits) need be brought from the lands east of the Jordan because it was not characterized as a land of milk and honey.9)בכורים פרק א׳ משנה י׳. He established the rule that so long as a person is engaged in the observance of one commandment he is absolved from observing any other commandments at the same time.10)סוכה כ״ו א׳. The verse, “Before an old man you shall rise,” (Lev. 19:32) he explained to mean that only a scholarly person is to be accorded that honor.11)קדושין ל״ב ב׳.
He also expressed opinions which did not become accepted. He declared, for instance, that the prohibition against deriving any benefit from leavened bread during the Passover is not effective on all the seven days of the holiday. Leavened bread, which was held over the Passover, he suggested, could certainly be used.12)פּסחים כ״ג א׳, ל״ב א׳. In Rabbi Jose’s native city people were in the habit of eating the meat of fowl with milk and Rabbi Jose attempted to justify this on the ground that birds do not yield milk and the prohibition, “you should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” therefore did not apply to fowl.13)שבת ק״ל א׳, חולין קי״ג א׳.
Some Biblical descriptions of historical events, such as the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah, Rabbi Jose raised to great poetic heights. Expounding the verse, “why do you skip on wrinkled hills,” (Psalms, 68:17) he said: “When God was ready to give the Torah from Mount Sinai, the other mountains skipped about in confusion. They argued among themselves and each one claimed the honor of having God give the Torah to the Jews from its top.”
In describing the rending of the sea before the Jews, Rabbi Jose said that when the Jews jumped into the sea even before the waters parted before them, Mount Moriah was torn out from its place and the altar upon which Isaac was to have been sacrificed hastened to the sea. Only when the image of Isaac lying bound on the altar and Abraham standing over him with his slaughtering knife could be seen did the sea part its waters, for only because of the merit of Abraham’s offering of Isaac was the sea rent for the Jews.
And when the Jews emerged on the other side of the sea and they began to chant songs of praise, even the children in their mothers’ arms turned their faces heavenward and sang and the babies left their mothers’ breast and also sang.14)סוטה ל׳ ב׳, מכילתא פּרשת בשלח.
No mention is made of the death of Rabbi Jose of Galilee. It is possible that when the revolt of Bar Kochba was being prepared, he returned to Galilee and there he died.