THE CITY of Usha was chosen as the seat of the Sanhedrin after that body was reorganized with the permission of the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius who ascended the throne some time after the destruction of Betar. At the time that Rome was almost successful in eradicating Judaism from Palestine there developed a new center of Jewish spiritual life in Babylonia, which was not subject to Roman rule. The city of Nehardea occupied a particularly prominent place in the life of the Jews because it was the seat of the Exilarch who represented the Babylonian Jews and who was granted special privileges by the Parthian government. Before Nehardea attained its importance, there was a large Jewish settlement in the city of Netsivin which was closer to Palestine but Hadrian’s legions reached this city and laid it waste and slaughtered its inhabitants. Among those that saved their lives there was also Rabbi Jehudah ben Bathyra II who later organized an academy. But he did not succeed in concentrating a large number of people about his academy because everyone sought to settle farther in the interior of Babylonia in order to be safe from Roman attacks. It was then that another scholar Hananiah (or Hanna) the nephew of Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, selected Nehardea as his residence and established there a large academy.
When it became known in Babylonia that all religious activity in Palestine was being suppressed, Hananiah undertook to establish a Supreme Court. Feeling convinced that since the destruction of the temple the main duties of the court consisted in determining the leap years and establishing the dates for the festivals, he believed that these functions could just as well be fulfilled in Babylonia. But this situation was considered by the Palestinian scholars as an attempt to undermine their authority. The Nasi, Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel, especially objected to self established authorities outside of Palestine and he sent two special messengers to BabyIonia to attempt to change matters.
This mission to Babylonia is described in two differing versions.*The story of this mission is described in Berachoth, 66 as well as in Jerushalmi Nedarim, 6:5 and in Sanhedrin, 1:5. The names of the messengers that are given in the Babylonian Talmud are different from those listed in the Jerusalem Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud also omits the name of Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel and only mentions “Rabbi” which might indicate that this event occurred during the days of the Nasi Rabbi Jehudah. But such an assumption is hardly probable since the office of the Nasi in Palestine during the time of Rabbi Jehudah was secure and it was unlikely that anyone in Babylonia would have tried to compete with the Palestinian leadership at that time.)
It is told that the Nasi entrusted three letters to the messengers which he sent to Hananiah in Babylonia and he commanded them to show these letters one at a time. The first letter contained “greetings to the worthy holiness of Hananiah”. When the messengers were asked what their mission was in coming to Babylonia, they said that they came to study. Hananiah then presented them to his colleagues and said, “These are renowned men whose forefathers conducted the service in the temple.”
Later the messengers paid close attention to the expositions of Hananiah and attempted to prove to him that he was in error regarding various laws. Greatly angered Hananiah wanted to denounce them but they showed him the second letter of the Nasi which informed him that “the kids which he had left in Palestine had meanwhile grown up and developed sharp horns.”
Hananiah wanted to denounce the messengers from Palestine as swindlers but they said to him, “Since you believed our words before, you cannot now denounce us.” At the same time they also gave him the third letter of the Nasi in which Hananiah was commanded not to assume the right of establishing New Years and determining the Holidays. Hananiah objected that he had a right to do whatever he thought was best for the people and he also cited that Rabbi Akiba once determined a leap year when he was outside the boundaries of Palestine.
“Do not compare yourself to Rabbi Akiba,” the messengers answered, “for none could compare with him even in Palestine.”
“Neither did I leave in Palestine anyone that could compare with me,” Hananiah retorted.
The messengers then called his attention to the contents of the second letter which reminded him that the small people which he left in Palestine had grown in stature and that they commanded him, “if you will obey and depart from your ways all will be well, otherwise you will be driven out from the community of Israel and you can choose a place for an altar and sacrifices and music even as the Jews of Alexandria once did.”
When the messengers realized that Hananiah was still unwilling to submit, one of them ascended to read the Torah on the day that Hananiah declared to be a feast day, but he changed the text to read, “These are the holidays of Hananiah”. The audience immediately corrected him that he should read “These are the holidays of God”. The messenger replied, “It is true that in our books it is written ‘These are the holidays of God,’ but here one should substitute the name of Hananiah because he determines the holidays as he chooses and not as God commanded”.
Then the second messenger arose and recited a verse “Out of Babylon shall come the Torah”; the audience corrected him that he should say “Out of Zion”. The messenger replied: “In our books it is written ‘Out of Zion,’ but judging by your conduct you may write “Out of Babylon” in your books.”
All the people gathered began to weep and were ready to obey the words of the messengers from Palstine but Hananiah still refused to submit. He went to Rabbi Jehudah ben Bathyra of Netsivin to ask his advice. Rabbi Jehudah suggested that he submit because the Great Court of Palestine was the only body with authority to regulate the religious life of the people both within as well as outside of Palestine.
It is also related of Hananiah that he frequently travelled from Palestine to Babylonia but he was always grieved to leave the country. Once he was accompanied by Rabbi Jehudah ben Bathyra, Rabbi Mathia ben Harash and Rabbi Jonathan. When they reached the boundary of Palestine and bethought themselves of the land which they were leaving, they rent their garments and wept. Grieved at the thought of leaving the Land of Israel, they abandoned all thoughts of personal safety which awaited them in Babylonia and returned.1)ספרי פּרשת ראה.
Hananiah was a pupil of his uncle at Jabneh and later he mingled among the greatest men of his generation. When he fell sick, he was visited by the most outstanding persons but because of his frequent departures from Palestine and his attempt to rebel against the scholars of Palestine he was not ordained. Two or three times he is referred to in the Talmud as Rabbi but this appears to be an error of the copyists. His legal opinions are not quoted in the Mishna but they frequently appear in the “Boraitha”.*)A “Boraitha” is an opinion on law which was not included in the Mishna, when it was compiled by Rabbi Jehudah, the Nasi. The “Boraithas” are scattered throughout the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds as well as in Mechilta, Safra and Sifri and usually are prefaced by the words “our teachers have taught us.’ (תנו רבנן, תנן, תנינא, תניא).
Hananiah visited Babylonia several times and each time he returned to Palestine but after his clash with the messengers of the Nasi he remained in Babylonia permanently.
The reason that Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah sent his nephew, Hananiah, to Babylonia is said to have been due, not so much to the danger which threatened all scholars of Palestine as to the fact that the “Minim” (the Jewish Christians) cast a spell on him and he forgot which day it was and came riding to the academy on the Sabbath. Wishing to save him from this spell, his uncle sent him away to Babylonia.
The Jews of Babylonia lived in security and peace while the Jews of Palestine were being sorely oppressed. Even after the emperor Antoninus Pius alleviated their prosecutions and granted them freedom to observe all the customs of the Jewish faith, the situation of Palestine Jewry still could not compare to that of the Jews of Babylon who enjoyed autonomy in their religious life under the leadership of an Exilarch. But these differences in favor of Babylonia did not deter many Jews from returning to Palestine as soon as they heard of the improved situation in that country for everyone believed that in Babylonia he was removed from God and that God’s grace rested only in Palestine.
During the time that Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel was Nasi in Palestine Rabbi Nathan of Babylonia came to settle in that country and the Sanhedrin at Usha elected him head of the Court soon after his arrival. Rabbi Nathan was the son of the Exilarch as is evident from the remark of Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel who said to him: “Now that you are head of the court because of the silver girdle of your father (the official symbol of the rank of the Exilarch) you should not strive to become Nasi.”2)הוריות י״ג ב׳.
There exists an opinion that Rabbi Nathan had visited Palestine before he was elected head of the court and that he was a pupil of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and of other scholars whom he later mentioned. But when the persecutions increased, he left the country and travelled through many lands until the political situation improved when Antoninus Pius ascended the throne.
He told that on one of his journeys there was brought before him a weak child of a woman whose two previous children died as a result of circumcision. He looked at the child and he saw that its skin was red and he commanded that circumcision be postponed until the blood would become diffused throughout its body.
During these journeys he kept informed on what transpired in Palestine and he was filled with great reverence for the Palestinian Jews who sacrificed their lives for the observance of the Torah. He related that walking in the street one could see Roman soldiers leading a Jew to execution and when the man was asked what he had done to deserve the punishment he said that he had circumcised his son; another man would be executed for studying the Torah. Further one could see a man being led to crucifixion and when asked what he had done he said I have eaten Matzoth on Passover” or one could see a man being scourged for taking up the Lulab.3)מכילתא, שמות פּ׳ כ׳.
The editing of the Mishna into books and tractates was begun during the lifetime of Rabbi Nathan. His role in this labor is indefinite and there are only two references in the Talmud to the existence of a Mishna of Rabbi Nathan.4)כתובות צ״ב ב׳, תמורה ט״ז א׳. According to another source the Mishna was completed by the Nasi Rabbi Jehudah and by Rabbi Nathan.5)בבא מציעא פ״ו א׳. Rabbi Nathan did leave a book of social, ethical and religious maxims very similar to the book of Aboth and this book is called “Aboth d’Rabbi Nathan”. In the opinion of some, the book Mechilta was collated by the pupils of Rabbi Nathan from the sayings of their teacher who quoted the lectures of his master Rabbi Ishmael
Rabbi Nathan’s system of exposition was to trace every law to the original text and to remove all contradictions. His legal opinions are quoted in the Talmud and are always very penetrating.6)בבא קמא נ״ג א׳.
After the death of Rabban Simeon ben Gamliel, Rabbi Nathan continued as head of the court of the Sanhedrin during the administration of Rabbi Jehudah despite the fact that he frequently conflicted with him. The Nasi Rabbi Jehudah personally declared that: “I was once childish and brazenly opposed Rabbi Nathan of Babylonia.”7)בבא בתרא קל״א א׳.
Characteristic of Rabbi Nathan’s trend of thoughts are the following social, ethical and religious maxims which he based on the text of the Torah. The verse: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:20) Rabbi Nathan interpreted that “a man should never accuse others of the fault from which he is suffering”.8)בבא מציעא נ״ט ב׳, מסכת גרים פרק ד׳.
The Menorah was constructed so that the three lights on either side were inclined toward the central light. This indicates that the one in the center is always the most important one.9)מנחות צ״ח ב׳.
Rabbi Nathan opposed vows and he said: “For the sin of making a vow and not fulfilling it, a man is punished by the death of his wife.10)שבת ל״ב ב׳. Another time he said, “He who makes a vow is like one who builds a Bamah (an altar outside of the temple) and the sin of one who fulfills his vow is like the sin of a man who offers sacrifices on a Bamah.11)נדרים כ״ב א׳.
A man who accepts bribes to pass an unjust sentence will not die before one of the following three calamities will befall him: he will lose his reason, he will become dependent on human charity or the vision of his eyes will be diminished.12)מכילתא שמות כ״ו.
Another saying of Rabbi Nathan gives a clear picture of the conditions of that time: “It is a good omen for a man to receive his punishment immediately after his death by not being buried, by not being mourned, by having his body devoured by animals or by having his body exposed to the rain. All these indicate that the man received his due punishment immediately after his death.13)סנהדרין מ״ז א׳.
We have remarked before that Rabbi Nathan travelled through many countries and it was then that he observed the nature of the various nations which he characterized in the following manner:
Nine-tenths of the harlotry in the world is concentrated in Alexandria and the remaining tenth is spread over the rest of the world.
Nine-tenths of the wealth of the world is in Rome and the remaining tenth is scattered throughout the rest of the world.
Nine-tenths of the poverty in the world is concentrated in Lud and the remaining tenth is distributed in the rest of the world.
Nine-tenths of the witchcraft in the world is in Egypt and the remaining tenth in all the other countries.
Nine-tenths of the foolishness in the world is possessed by the Ishmaelites and one-tenth by all other peoples.
Nine-tenths of the filth in the world is possessed by the Persians and the remaining tenth by all other peoples.
The land of Media possesses nine-tenths of the beauty in the world and all the other countries possess but one-tenth.
Nine-tenths of the ugliness in the world is in the East (?) and one-tenth in all other countries.
The Chaldeans possess nine-tenths of the strength in the world and all the other countries possess but one-tenth.
The tribe of Judah possesses nine-tenths of the valor in the world and all the other countries possess the remaining tenth.
The Land of Israel possesses nine-tenths of the wisdom in the world and all other countries possess but one-tenth.
The Jews possess nine-tenths of the Torah (learning) in the world and all the other peoples possess but one-tenth.14)קדושין מ״ט ב׳, אסתר רבה פּרשה א׳.
Speaking in the same vein on another occasion he said: “There is no greater love than the love of the Torah; there is no greater wisdom than the wisdom of the Land of Israel; there is no greater beauty than the beauty of Jerusalem; there is no greater wealth than the wealth of Rome; there is no greater valor than the valor of the Persians; there is no greater immorality than the immorality of the Arabs; there is no greater rudeness than the rudeness of the land of Elam; there is no greater flattery than the flattery of Babylonia; there is no greater witchcraft than the witchcraft of Egypt.”15)אבות דר׳ נתן פרק כ״ה.
The following statements of Rabbi Nathan concerning the creation of the world are also very interesting:
“The whole world is beneath one star. One can see this by looking at a star. If a man walk to the East, the star is above him; if he walk in another direction the star is still over him. During the summer the sun is high in the sky and the whole world is hot but the water from the springs is cold; but during the winter the sun is low in the sky and the whole world is cold but the water from the springs is warm.16)פּסחים צ״ד ב׳.