THE REMNANT of Rabbi Akiba’s disciples together with those scholars who were ordained by Rabbi Jehudah ben Baba were the main pillars of the Sanhedrin at Usha. Rabbi Meir was one of the most important of these.
Nothing is known of Rabbi Meir’s family; even his name is not known for certain. Some authorities maintain that his real name was not Meir but Nehorai and that he was called Meir because “he illuminated the vision of the scholars with his learning.” Others say that his name was Miasha or that he was identical with Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.1)ערובין י״ג ב׳. It is interesting to note that the names Meir and Nehorai have the same meaning. Meir is the Hebrew for “one who gives light” and Nehorai is its Aramaeic equivalent. It is also noteworthy that the Talmud cites a dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nehorai.2)סנהדרין צ״ט א׳.
A legend relates that Rabbi Meir was descended from a Roman general who was sent to subdue Palestine and who was converted to Judaism. It is therefore remarkable that despite his uncertain origin Rabbi Meir became the son-in-law of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion who gave him his brilliant daughter, Beruriah, in marriage.
The first years of Rabbi Meir’s activity must have occurred after the destruction of Betar and before emperor Antoninus Pius alleviated the condition of the Jews. Since Rabbi Meir was a pupil of Elisha ben Avuyah during the time of Hadrian’s decrees against the study of the Torah, it may be assumed that together with other scholars he fled to Babylonia for a time and returned with the accession of Antoninus Pius to the throne of Rome.
At first Rabbi Meir was a pupil of Rabbi Ishmael and later he studied with Rabbi Akiba. He was also a pupil of Elisha ben Avuyah and he maintained a close friendship with a Gentile philosopher Abnimos Hagardi, who was a great friend of the Jewish people and who revered the Torah.3)בראשית רבה ס״ה ט״ז, ילקוט תולדות קט״ו.
Rabbi Meir’s devotion to Elisha ben Avuyah has been described before. His friendship for Abnimos Hagardi was equally great and when the parents of his friend died he visited him and condoled with him.4)מדרש רות פּרשה א׳.
It thus becomes evident that Rabbi Meir was interested in the Gentile sciences as well as Jewish learning and he was probably acquainted with the Greek writings of his time. The three daily benedictions which Rabbi Meir instituted (for not being born a Gentile, for not being born a woman and for not being created a boor) he did not receive by tradition from previous scholars but he probably imitated the Greek philosopher Socrates who recited three similar benedictions to his idols. This supposition is further substantiated by his devotion and friendship for Elisha ben Avuyah and Abnimos Hagardi. It is impossible to think that these two did not acquaint him with Greek literature or that Greek letters should have made no impression upon him even where they did not conflict with the tenets of Jewish religion. This influence is also evident from his statement that “just as a judge covers his face with a veil even so did the generation of the deluge believe that God covered his face with clouds.”5)בראשית רבה פּרשה ל״ו פּיסקא א׳. Saying this Rabbi Meir must have had in mind the Greek goddess of justice (Themida) who is pictured with eyes covered.
All of Rabbi Meir’s statements were concise and short and were interwoven with fables from which he deduced legal opinions as well as he used them to illustrate legends.6)סנהדרין ל״ח ב׳. When Rabbi Meir died it was said that the mastery of fable has departed.7)סוטה מ״ט א׳.
Rabbi Meir’s first public appearance resulted in a conflict of opinions. A meeting was held at that time in the valley of Rimon to determine the question of the leap year because the calculations of the calendar were confused. Rabbi Jochanan the Sandal-maker opposed the calculations of Rabbi Meir and when the latter insisted on his opinion and quoted Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Jochanan said to him, “I have always served Rabbi Akiba as a disciple while you were only one of the audience.” Rabbi Jochanan implied that he was better informed of the opinions of Rabbi Akiba but Rabbi Meir replied to him, “You are only an Alexandrian”. (The term Alexandrian suggested a person who was limited in his understanding of the words of his master.)
This clash, however, did not engender any hatred between the scholars for they all realized that peace was essential at that time for the observance of the commandments of the Torah. Therefore none of those gathered departed until peace was restored between the disputants.8)ירושלמי חגיגה פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳. Only much later did a sharp conflict take place between Rabbi Meir and the Nasi, Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel, which ended with Rabbi Meir’s departure from Palestine to settle in a city of Asia Minor.
Some of Rabbi Meir’s statements definitely show the influence of his contact with Elisha ben Avuyah and Abnimos Hagardi. Thus when he said that “even a Gentile who devotes himself to the Torah is like a High Priest”9)בבא קמא ל״ח א׳. he probably had in mind his friend Abnimos; and when he said that “all Jews are God’s children when they behave like children as well as when they misbehave”10)קדושין ל״ו א׳. he no doubt thought of Elisha ben Avuyah.
Rabbi Meir considered learning to be the most important thing in life. A man must always devote more time to learning than to worldly affairs, he said, and whoever devotes himself to learning for its own sake attains various stages of perfection and he is justified in believing that the world was created for his sake. Such a person is beloved of God and men, people are pleased with him as well as God; he is modest and pious, just and devoted, he refrains from sin and his advice is sought, for the Torah confers on one the understanding of its mysteries.11)אָבות פרק ו׳ משנה א׳.
When the inhabitants of the city of Sephoris disapproved of his custom of greeting mourners on the Sabbath, because he believed that the Sabbath was not a day of mourning, Rabbi Jose ben Chalafta, Rabbi Meir’s friend, defended him and said that he was “a great man, a holy and a modest man”.12)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ב׳ הלכה ז׳. Still greater praise of Rabbi Meir was expressed by Rabina who said that whoever saw Rabbi Meir in the academy could imagine seeing him pull up the largest mountains and crushing them one against the other for then a person could gain knowledge even from Rabbi Meir’s cane.13)סנהדרין כ״ד א׳, ירושלמי נדרים פרק ט׳ הלכה א׳.
Rabbi Meir was attached to Palestine by the bonds of deep love and he spoke with great enthusiasm of the Hebrew language. He greatly treasured these two national assets and declared that whoever settles in the Land of Israel and speaks the Hebrew language is certain to deserve a share in the world to come.14)ירושלמי שבת פרק א׳ הלכה ה׳. He was also a master of legal argumentation and later generations admitted that in his day there was none to equal him. But his legal opinions were frequently rejected because his intent could not be fathomed. Applying pilpulistic reasoning he could prove that which everybody held to be clean as unclean and vice versa.15)ערובין י״ג ב׳.
An anecdote was therefore current at that time that Rabah bar Shilo once met the prophet Elijah and asked him what God was doing. Elijah replied that God was pondering the words of all the scholars except those of Rabbi Meir, because he was a pupil of “Acher”.16)חגיגה ט״ו ב׳.
It is necessary to remark, however, that Rabbi Meir never tried to lighten the burden of the law in order that people may not say that he allows liberties to be taken with the law because of his knowledge of secular sciences. He was therefore strict in his interpretation as, for instance, when he ruled that a Kethuba (marriage certificate) which promises less than two hundred dinars for a virgin or less than one hundred dinars for a widow is not valid,17)כתובות מ״ח ב׳. or that a bill of divorce which differs even by one word from the form prescribed is invalid and any children which the woman may have by a subsequent marriage are illegitimate.18)גטין ה׳ ב׳.
He frequently brought up for discussion legal situations which may occur only very rarely or never at all. In doing so Rabbi Meir tried to provide complicated exercises for his pupils as, for example, in the problem which he posed before them about the possible case of a man who had two groups of daughters from two wives and one of the daughters was married but he did not know whether it was the oldest of the first group or the oldest of the second, or possibly the youngest of the older group who was older than the oldest of the younger group.19)קדושין ס״ד ב׳. Another time he suggested the problem of an ox belonging to a deaf person, a foolish man or a minor which gored the ox belonging to an intelligent man.20)בבא קמא ל״ט א׳. The following was another example of this type of questions: the law forbids to slaughter an animal and its offspring on the same day; but a man who slaughtered an animal and its third generation offspring has broken no law. If however this person proceeds to slaughter the daughter of the old animal (and the mother of the young) he breaks the law twice but he is to be punished only once.21)חולין פּ״ב א׳.
When Rabbi Meir died, his colleague, Rabbi Jehudah bar Elai, asked that his disciples should no longer be admitted to the academy because of their attitude of spite; they came not to learn but to ask perplexing questions which could not be answered.22)קדושין נ״ב ב׳.
It would be difficult to list here all of Rabbi Meir’s legal opinions since the Mishna alone contains over 300 laws which bear his name. In addition it is traditionally accepted that all laws whose authorship is not mentioned are generally those of Rabbi Meir. We are more concerned here with his ethical maxims which reflect a great love for the Jewish people, the Torah and the Land of Israel. Of special interest are his ideas about death.
Death was not considered as an uncommon and cruel phenomenon during the time of Rabbi Meir. The constant wars and the bloody persecution of the Jews hardened the people to consider death with indifference. If a man lost his life for his observance of Judaism, his relatives were comforted by the belief that he had sacrificed himself for the sake of God, Rabbi Meir probably witnessed the death of Rabbi Akiba as well as the execution of many others. Later he witnessed the death of his father-in-law, Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion. Rabbi Meir therefore evolved a philosophic outlook on death and he frequently turned to the book of Job. Rabbi Jochanan relates that every time that Rabbi Meir finished reading of that book he would say: “The end of a man is death; the end of animals is slaughter; everything in the world is doomed to die. Happy is he who is raised in the knowledge of the Torah and who strives for it thus causing satisfaction for his Creator. Such a man prospers in his good name and he leaves the world in good repute as king Solomon said: a good name is better than fragrant oil and the day of death is better than the day of birth.”23)ברכות י״ז א׳.
The same idea lies at the root of his statement that the Biblical description of the creation of the world which ends in saying that God saw all that He created and that it was “very good” implies that death is “very good”. After the creation of the world God was satisfied with its growth and development as well as with the death of its inhabitants.*)It may be assumed that Rabbi Meir possessed a Bible which substituted the words טוב מאות instead of טוב מאד as well as כתנות אור instead of כתנות עור Some commentators cannot imagine that Rabbi Meir should have used a faulty text and they maintain that the text was correct and these differing versions must have been inscribed on the margin. Others say that Rabbi Meir’s Bible contained these changes in the text but that for purposes of exposition he used a standard text.
Rabbi Meir’s attitude toward an “Am Haaretz” was unusual. It is told that he always rose at the sight of an old man even if the man was an “Am Haaretz”. When he was asked why he accords such honor to an old “Am Haaretz”, he replied, that if God chose such a man to grant him many years of life, he must have deserved it and he therefore also deserved that people should accord him honor.24)ירושלמי בכורים פרק ג׳ הלכה ג׳.
But despite the honor which he accorded them, Rabbi Meir felt an instinctive hatred of the “Am Haaretz” and he said, “When a man marries his daughter to an ‘Am Haaretz’ it is as if he bound her and placed her in front of a lion who steps on his victim with his paws before devouring him. An ‘Am Haretz’ may also beat his wife and love her at the same time without shame”.25)פּסחים מ״ט ב׳. Another time he expressed his hatred of an “Am Haaretz” in even sharper terms when he said that “one who allows an ‘Am Haaretz’ to sleep in his house and finds him awake when he enters the house, must consider the house to be unclean”.26)טהרות פרק ז׳ משנה ב׳.
Rabbi Meir’s social orientation may be gleaned from his statement that a bill of debt which includes a clause about interest is invalid and even the principal may not be collected.27)בבא קמא ז׳ ב׳, בבא בתרא ע״ב א׳. The charging of interest he considered to be on a par with robbery and the repentance of a man who had committed robbery would never be accepted.28)בכורות ל״א א׳.
Rabbi Meir studied with three masters (Rabbi Ishmael, Rabbi Akiba and Elisha-Acher) and of this he said: “A man who learns the Torah from one master may be compared to a person who owns one field, part of which is sown to wheat, part to barley, another part is planted with olives and the remainder with other trees. Such a man will see no blessing in his field. But one who learned from two or more masters may be compared to a person who owns several fields, one of which is sown to wheat and another to barley, one is planted with olive trees and another field is planted with other kinds of trees. Such a man will find blessing in his fields.29)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק ח׳ .
Rabbi Meir’s wife was the daughter of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion. He had two sons, both of whom suddenly died on a Saturday afternoon, and one daughter who was married to a scholar named Zivtai. He derived no income from his scholastic work and he obtained his sustenance as a copyist. By doing this work he earned three ducats a week, one of which he spent for food for his household; one he spent for clothes and the third one he distributed to the needy scholars. When he was asked what he was doing to assure the future of his children, Rabbi Meir replied: “If my children will be just men, God will provide them with their needs according to the verse that there was never a just man seen whose children should be forced to beg for bread. But if they will not be just men, why should I leave money for the enemies of God?”30)קהלת רבה פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא כ״ב.
In the matter of the observance of Judaism Rabbi Meir would tolerate no compromises; if he suspected a man of breaking even the slightest commandment, that man was already suspected in his eyes of breaking all the commandments of the Torah.31)ערובין מ״ט א׳, בכורות ל׳ א׳. This attitude was parallel to the accepted rule that a false witness who gave untrue testimony was capable of committing every sin mentioned in the Torah.32)סנהדרין כ״ז א׳.
Every man should teach his son a clean and easy trade but at the same time he must pray to God for a livelihood for there is no trade but that some who are engaged in it are rich while others are poor. Poverty and wealth are not the result of following a certain trade but every man obtains that which he merits.33)קדושין פּ״ב א׳. A man may gain his livelihood by doing any kind of work but happy is the man who sees his parents doing noble work and woe to him who sees his parents engaged in low work.34)ירושלמי קדושין פרק ד׳ הלכה י״א.
Concerning prayer Rabbi Meir said that one must not speak too much when praying to God35)ברכות ס״א ב׳. and that it is necessary to praise God for the evil as well as for the good.36)ברכות מ״ח ב׳. Above all is the significance of repentance which may cause God to forgive the sins of the whole world because of the repentance of an individual.37)יומא פ״ו ב׳.
In interpreting the text of the Bible Rabbi Meir often used fables. He thus pointed out that the prophet Obadia was an Idumean proselyte and that his prophecy foretold the downfall of Idumea. This he compared to an ax which tries to chop down a forest but cannot do so until it first obtains a handle from the trees of the forest.38)סנהדרין ל״ט ב׳.
The tree of knowledge of which Adam ate, Rabbi Meir declared to be a wheat plant (!) and a foolish man may be said never to have eaten bread made of wheat.39)בראשית רבה פּרשה ט״ו פּיסקא ה׳. When one comes to a strange city he should follow the customs of that city. When Moses ascended to Heaven he neither ate nor drank but when the angels descended to earth they consumed food.40)בראשית רבה פּרשה מ״ח פּיסקא ט״ז.
Rabbi Meir’s opinions regarding relations between man and wife illustrate that it was very difficult at that time to preserve the women from the Roman soldiers, who evidently considered them as their possession. Rabbi Meir said: “Just as there are different tastes regarding food even so there exist different attitudes to women. One man will throw out the fly which falls into his beaker but will drink no more of it while another man will cast out the fly from his beaker and will continue to drink from it.41)גטין צ׳ א׳, תוספתא סוטה פרק ה׳.
Whenever Rabbi Meir saw a man leaving on a journey he would say: “Go in peace, you who are doomed to death”. Due to the insecurity of the highways at that time it could be assumed that any man going on a trip was sure not to return alive; and when he saw two people going on a journey he would say: “Go in peace, men of discord”, for he was certain that when two people travel together they are bound to quarrel. But when Rabbi Meir saw three people going on a journey he would say, “Go in peace, oh children of peace,” because he felt certain that if two of them were to quarrel, the third one would reconcile them.42)קהלת רבה פּרשה ד׳ פּיסקא י״ד.
With the death of Rabbi Meir, his contemporaries claimed that a definite type of person had died out. Rabbi Tarphon was said to have been the tallest man of his generation and Rabbi Meir only reached up to his shoulder. After Rabbi Tarphon died, Rabbi Meir remained the tallest man of his generation and the Nasi, Rabbi Jehudah, only reached to his shoulder.43)נדה כ׳׳ד ב׳.
All of Rabbi Meir’s days were one long series of uncommon afflictions and suffering. Together with the other Jews of his time he had to bear the burden of persecutions which he probably felt more keenly than the others. This may be gathered from his story that when he was attending the academy of Rabbi Akiba, everybody recited the Shema in such low tones that they could not hear their own murmuring for fear that the military guard who was stationed at the door to watch all their movements may hear them pray. It would seem that the study of the Torah was not entirely forbidden at that time but that the reciting of the Shema was prohibited.44)תוספתא ברכות פרק ב׳.
But incomparison with the suffering that followed, the early difficulties seemed no more than child’s play. Rabbi Meir had to witness the terrible death of Rabbi Akiba when his flesh was torn with iron combs; later he saw his father-in-law, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, burned at the stake, his mother-in-law executed and his sister-in-law sent away to a house of ill repute for the gratification of the Roman officials.
Rabbi Meir was known for his modesty toward women and he frequently scorned those who succumbed to their passions. He said that human intelligence should be able to control all passions; nevertheless he once had an experience of which he was later very much ashamed. Walking along the bank of a river, the Evil one appeared before him in the guise of a beautiful woman on the other shore of the stream who tempted him so luringly that he lost all control of himself and decided to cross to the other side of the river. But no boat was available and there was only a board floating in the middle of the stream. Picking up a rope which he found on the shore, he tried to reach the board and when his attempt was unsuccessful he waded in the water trying to reach the board. But the woman on the other side of the stream meanwhile vanished and he returned to the shore shamefaced at having succumbed to the vision.45)קדושין פּ״א א׳.
Beruriah, the wife of Rabbi Meir and the daughter of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, was the only woman ever mentioned in the Talmud for her scholarship and learned men respectfully listened to her opinions on legal as well as secular matters.46)פּסחים ס״ב ב׳. When Rabbi Jose of Galilee once asked her opinion in some matter she made fun of him for speaking lengthily and thus breaking the commandment of the scholars not to speak too much with a woman. She is also said to have complained against a pupil of her father who studied very quietly and she said that only when one studies aloud can he understand his learning.47)ערובין נ״ג ב׳. She was the spiritual support of Rabbi Meir and comforted him in time of need. It is thus related that Rabbi Meir once lived in the neighborhood of a group of rude people who plagued him greatly and he cursed them. His wife chided him for cursing them and said that one should never condemn sinful people but rather condemn their sins. Rabbi Meir began to pray to God to reform these people and his prayer was granted.48)ברכות י׳ א׳.
Like her husband Beruriah also felt confident of her will power and scorned those who said that women were light minded. Rabbi Meir warned her against this attitude saying that some day she may prove this rule but she insisted that no woman who held fast to her opinions need be led astray. Rabbi Meir then persuaded one of his pupils to attempt to seduce her; he was certain that his pupil would not go further than the attempt and he could then prove to his wife the truth of the opinion of the scholars regarding women when they said that even an educated woman could be led astray. But Rabbi Meir’s disciple betrayed him and when Beruriah found out that the affair had been planned beforehand she hanged herself out of chagrin.
We have previously mentioned that Beruriah’s sister was condemned to be sent to a house of ill repute that was located in Antioch where lived the officials of the Roman administration of Palestine. Beruriah begged Rabbi Meir to try to save her sister and he went to Antioch, dressed as a Roman noble in order to deceive the guard of the house as well as his sister-in-law as to his identity. Legend recounts many wonders which occurred during this attempt. When he was convinced that Beruriah’s sister preserved her purity he took a measure of gold and offered it to the guard to release her. He told the guard to keep half of the gold and to use the other half to bribe the officials if he was to be caught. The guard feared that money would be of no avail if he was caught and Rabbi Meir advised him to pronounce the words: “God of Meir, save me!” and he would certainly be saved.
The guard still refused to believe that these words would help him when in danger and Rabbi Meir proved this to him. About that house there were savage, man eating, dogs and Rabbi Meir began to tease them. The dogs pounced upon him ready to devour him and he exclaimed, “God of Meir, answer me!” and the dogs immediately left him in peace. Seeing this the guard was convinced that he could safely accept the bribe.
When the guard was finally caught and sentenced to be crucified he pronounced these words and was saved. The executioners marvelled at this and asked him what incantation he knew that could save him from the cross and he told them everything that he knew. They then began to search for Rabbi Meir and they engraved his image on the gates of Rome (more probably Antioch) and issued a commandment that whoever will recognize the man who resembled the likeness of the image should seize him and bring him before the imperial authorities. One day Rabbi Meir was recognized and an attempt was made to seize him.
There exist numerous versions concerning the manner in which he escaped his pursuers. One version states that he fled into a house of ill repute and his pursuers were convinced that they were mistaken and that it could not have been Rabbi Meir for he would not enter such a house. Another version relates that in his flight he came upon a pot of unclean food; he then placed his finger in it and ate some of it. Obviously he did not put into his mouth the finger which he inserted into the unclean food, but from a distance, his pursuers could not distinguish what he did and they felt certain that it was not Rabbi Meir that they were following. Another version relates that the prophet Elijah appeared in the guise of a harlot and embraced Rabbi Meir and thus deceived his pursuers as to his identity.49)עבודה זרה י״ח א׳—ב׳.
On one of his journeys Rabbi Meir spent a night in a hostelry and he saw that the proprietor woke the guests at night and told them to proceed on their way. The proprietor then escorted each of the guests part of the way. Rabbi Meir understood that the proprietor was in league with a band of robbers and when his turn came he said that he could not go because he was waiting for his brother to accompany him. The proprietor of the hostelry asked Rabbi Meir what the name of his brother was and where he lodged and Rabbi Meir answered him that his name was כי טוב״„ and that he lodged in the synagogue. The man then stood all night in front of the synagogue calling: “It is good, come out; your brother is waiting for you,” but no one came out and he received no answer.
In the morning Rabbi Meir was ready to leave and the inn keeper said to him: “Where is your brother? Why don’t you wait for him?” Rabbi Meir replied: “The light of day is my brother for so the Bible says that the light of day is good, and this verse was in a book of the Bible in the synagogue all night.”50)בראשית רבה פּרשה צ״ב פּיסקא ו׳.
Beruriah, Rabbi Meir’s wife, exerted a great influence over him and it is therefore interesting to relate how she informed him of the sudden death of their two sons. It happened on a Sabbath before sunset when Rabbi Meir was in the academy engaged in his studies that his sons suddenly died. Legend does not mention the cause of their death. Beruriah placed the bodies of her sons on the bed and covered them with a sheet without saying a word to anyone. When Rabbi Meir returned to his house he immediately asked where his sons were and she replied that they were probably in the academy. He was surprised and said: “I have looked everywhere in the academy but I did not see them.”
Somewhat later he asked for his sons again and she replied that they probably tarried in conversation on the way home and would soon return. Then Beruriah turned to Rabbi Meir with the following question: “I was once given a valuable treasure to guard until it would be called for. Today the man came to claim his treasure; should I return it?” Rabbi Meir at once replied: “Of course you must return that which was given to you to guard. I do not understand why you have to ask me such a question.” Beruriah then took Rabbi Meir by the hand and led him to the bed where their dead sons lay and she said: “This is the treasure which God gave me to guard and today he claimed it.” Rabbi Meir began to weep bitterly but she said to him, “Did you not say that it was necessary to return a treasure which was given to one to guard?”51)מדרש משלי פּרשה ל״א.
Wonderful stories are told of Rabbi Meir’s modesty. One of these is very similar to the one told about Baba ben Zuta of how a woman threw a candlestick at him at the command of her husband.
The story concerning Rabbi Meir relates that there was a woman who loved to hear his lectures and on a certain Sabbath she tarried long in the academy listening to him. When she returned home late, her husband expelled her from the house and threatened to divorce her if she would not spit in Rabbi Meir’s face. When Rabbi Meir heard of this he summoned the woman and said to her: “I have an ailing eye and the doctor said that if a woman were to spit in it seven times it would be healed.” At first the woman refused to do as Rabbi Meir asked her but when he insisted, she was persuaded and did as she was asked. Rabbi Meir then said to her: “Go and tell your husband that not once but seven times you spit in Rabbi Meir’s eye.52)ירושלמי סוטה פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳.