THE LAST disciples of Rabbi Akiba began the work of compiling the Mishna as they received it from their master. One of these was Rabbi Nehemiah who participated in the first gathering of the scholars after the death of emperor Hadrian.1)בראשית רבה פּרשה ס״א פּיסקא ג׳. He was also present at the convocation at Usha although he did not actively participate in it.2)ברכות ס״ג ב׳.
Little is known of the life and activities of Rabbi Nehemiah except the fact that he was very poor and a potter by trade.3)כתובות כ״ו ב׳, ירושלמי בבא מציעא פרק ו׳ הלכה ו׳. The name of his father is also unknown although it is certain that he was a prominent scholar because Rabbi Nehemiah once quoted his opinion in a legal matter4)פּסחים נ״ד א׳. Rabbi Nehemiah opposed the methodology of Rabbi Jehudah bar Elai and contradictory reports concerning his personality were circulated in later generations. One opinion claimed that all anonymous statements in the Tosephta were those of Rabbi Nehemiah.5)סנהדרין פ״ו א׳. When the book of the genealogy of the noble families of Jerusalem was discovered it was found that Rabbi Nehemiah was a descendant of Nehemiah the Thirshata.6)ירושלמי תענית פרק ד׳ הלכה ב׳.
Another belief current in later generations maintained that Rabbi Nehemiah was identical with the Tana Rabbi Nehorai. In explanation it was said that he was called Nehorai because he shed light on doubtful legal questions.7)שבת קמ״ז ב׳. But Rabbi Nehorai had also been previously identified with Rabbi Elazar ben Arach.8)ערובין י״ג ב׳. These beliefs therefore lack all substantiation because we also find a text quoting a dispute between Rabbi Nehorai and Rabbi Nehemiah and on another occasion the opinions of both are listed side by side.9)סנהדרין צ״ב א׳, דברים רבה פּרשה ג׳ פּיסקא י׳.
The following statements are characteristic of Rabbi Nehemiah’s ethical precepts: “Suffering is good for people. Just as sacrifices placate God and still his anger even so does human suffering placate the Almighty. Moreover, human suffering is even more effective than the offering of sacrifices.”10)מכילתא פּרשה כ׳. “The sin of unfounded hatred is punished by domestic discord, frequent miscarriage and the early death of children.”11)שבת ל״ב ב׳. “He who undertakes to fulfill even one commandment honestly is deserving that the Holy Spirit should rest upon him. Thus we see that our forefathers left Egypt and believed in God and the Holy Spirit rested upon them and they merited the privilege of praising God.12)מכילתא י״ד ל״א.
Speaking of the time of the coming of the Messiah Rabbi Nehemiah declared that “brazenness will then increase and honored men will follow devious ways. The vineyards will bear fruit but wine will be scarce. Government will be transformed into the rule of cliques and there will be no man capable of pointing out the right path.13)סנהדרין צ״ז א׳.
In his exposition of the Scriptures Rabbi Nehemiah based his opinions on logic as well as on the grammatical structure of the Scriptural texts. He said: “The words of the Torah are sometimes insufficient in one place and superfluous in another.14)ירושלמי ראש השנה פרק ג׳ הלכה ה׳. When scholars expressed differing opinions regarding the duration of the time known as בין השמשות (twilight), Rabbi Nehemiah declared that it lasts as long as it would take a man to walk one thousand ells.15)שבת ל״ד ב׳.
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Another important Tana of that time was Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha. Talmudic commentators such as Rashi, Rabenu Gershom Meor Hagolah and Rashbam claim that he was the son of Rabbi Akiba, who was nicknamed “Kereach” (the bald) because of the statement of Ben Azai who said that all Jewish scholars are worth no more than the skin of garlic except the bald one (referring to Rabbi Akiba). As a result of this Rabbi Joshua came to be called Ben Korcha, the son of the bald one.16)בכורות נ״ח א׳. But Tosaphoth argues that this could not be the case and that Ben Azai’s reference to Rabbi Akiba as “the bald one” did not suffice to justify Rabbi Joshua’s appellation of Ben Korcha instead of ben Rabbi Akiba. The chronological order of the generations is also against such an assumption. When Rabbi Joshua was dying, the Nasi, Rabbi Jehudah, asked him for a blessing and Rabbi Joshua said: “I wish that you may live at least half as many years as I did”.17)מגלח כ״ח א׳. Had Rabbi Joshua been the son of Rabbi Akiba this blessing would have been meaningless.
Rabbi Joshua’s name is mentioned only four times in the Mishna, but the Talmud frequently quotes his legal opinions. Rabbi Joshua was in favor of allowing witnesses to appear one after the other18)כתובות כ״ו ב׳. and he declared that a messenger had the same legal powers as his sender.19)קדושין מ׳׳א ב׳. He believed in the strict enforcement of all Scriptural commandments but he was lenient concerning the fulfillment of the Rabbinical regulations.20)עבודה זרה ז׳ א׳.
The following of his moral maxims are noteworthy: “He who studies the Torah but does not review his studies may be compared to a man who sows a field but does not harvest the crop.”21)סנהדרין צ״ט א׳. “He who hides his eyes from charity is like one who worships idols.”22)כתובות ס״ח א׳.
Brigandage was very prevalent at that time and the government found itself powerless to suppress it. Whether these were ordinary robbers or rebels whom the government declared to be bandits is hard to determine today. It is interesting to note, however, that the government appointed Rabbi Elazar, the son of Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai, who hid with his father in a cave for many years, to exterminate the brigands. This office was similar to that of his grandfather Yochai which was commented on previously.
Rabbi Elazar had been a pupil of Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha for some time and when Rabbi Joshua heard of the new office of his pupil he sent the following message to him: “Who gave you the right to exterminate God’s people?” Rabbi Elazar replied: “I only pull out the weeds from the vineyard.” To this Rabbi Joshua retorted: “The owner of the vineyard can destroy the weeds himself.”23)בבא מציעא פ״ג ב׳.
Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha lived to a ripe old age. According to some he was 160 years old at the time of his death. The Nasi, Rabbi Jehudah, once asked him to explain the cause of his long life but Rabbi Joshua felt offended and said: “Are you tired of seeing me alive?” Rabbi Jehudah assured him to the contrary and explained that he was interested from a scientific point of view. Placated, Rabbi Joshua answered: “All my life I never looked at a wicked man.”24)מגלה כ״ח א׳.
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Among the scholars who met in Jabneh and later in Usha after the destruction of Betar there was also Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Rabbi Jose of Galilee.25)ברכות ס״ג ב׳. Of him it was said that whenever Rabbi Elizer spoke of the Hagada it was advisable to pay close attention.26)חולין פ״ט ב׳. He rarely participated in legal discussions and he gained his fame by compiling a list of 32 rules of logic according to which the Hagada was being interpreted. Aside from two or three laws which are ascribed to him we possess a statement of Rabbi Eliezer which says: “If one begins to fulfill a commandment but does not complete it and another man finishes the work, credit is given to the one who finished the work.27)בראשית רבה פּרשה ה׳ פּיסקא ג׳.