THE TWO AMORAIM, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi, were always mentioned together due to the great bond of friendship which united them. But before we proceed to describe the lives of these two Amoraim we must mention an event which transpired in Palmyra (in the Bible “Tadmor,” in the Talmud “Tarmud”), a city located in an oasis in the Syrian desert between the Euphrates and Damascus.
In the city of Palmyra there lived a robber chieftain who became a legitimate ruler when he aided the Romans in their war against the Persians of Babylonia. The name of this chieftain was Barnezer Odenate. When the Romans were defeated by the Persians and their leaders were taken captive, Odenate librated them and preserved Roman rule in Syria. Emperor Galianus (264 C. E.) then recognized him as co-ruler in Syria. However, this situation did not last long for the wife of the chieftain, later queen Zenobia, hired assassins to murder her husband in order that she might rule in his stead. With her wisdom and her organizational talents she succeeded in transforming Palmyra into a metropolis. In this she was aided by the fact that the city was situated at the crossroads of important caravan routes. The city was then enlarged by the construction of beautiful palaces in the Roman style.
Some historians maintain that Zenobia embraced Judaism or that she was sympathetic to the Jewish faith. Jewish historians, however, deny this and make no mention of any kind acts toward the Jews on her part. But all Roman historians concurred in their praise of her beauty, education and good taste. She was a gifted diplomat and she succeeded in persuading all the rulers of western Asia to unite against emperor Aurelius. Aurelius advanced against Zenobia with a large army when he realized that she planned to liberate her country from Roman domination. In this venture he was also successful and he devastated her land.
It appears that the Jews of Palestine were not satisfied with the proximity of Zenobia’s kingdom and they aided the Romans. An expression current among the Jews of that time stated: “Happy is he who will live to see the destruction of Tadmor”. The problem also arose whether converts from Palmyra were to be accepted since the population of this city was of mixed origin.
According to the Scriptures (Kings I, 9:18) Palmyra was founded by king Solomon who colonized it with people from various nations. It is also known that Zenobia was herself an offspring of a mixed marriage. For this reason it was an accepted opinion that “Jews would celebrate the day of the destruction of Tadmor.”1)יבמות ט״ז ב׳, ירושלמי תענית פרק ד׳ הלכה ה׳.
That the Jews participated in this war on the side of Rome is evident from numerous statements in the Talmud. Thus it is told that Rabbi Ami interceded for a man named Zeira bar Chanina who was captured in the city of Saphsipha as a warrior against Palmyra. Rabbi Ami then implored Zenobia to spare the man’s life, but she said to him: “Do you permit yourself to do anything you choose because God always performs miracles for you?” At about the same time Rabbi Asi was also captured by the soldiers of Palmyra and was condemned to death. Resh Lakish then hastened to save him saying that he would sacrifice his own life if necessary to achieve his aim.2)ירושלמי תרומות פרק ה׳ הלכה י׳.
The Palestinian Patriarch of that time was R. Jehudah N’siah the Third. He was nearly always ignored by the scholars, and when the latter consulted him in some matter out of deference for his office, he always sought the advice of Rabbi Ami. The Nasi once sent Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi to the various cities of Palestine, to appoint teachers of the Bible and the Mishna. They then arrived in a certain city where there were no teachers and they asked the leaders of the community whether they had engaged watchmen. The city watchmen were pointed out to them, but they remarked: “These are not watchmen! The real watchmen of a city are the teachers who instruct the children.”3)ירושלמי חגיגה פרק א׳ הלכה ז׳.
The animosity between Jews and Samaritans grew acute at that time due to the friendship of the latter toward the Romans and the Christians. Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi then instructed the Jews to avoid the Samaritans and to consider them as pagans in all matters and particularly in the matter of the use of their wine.4)חולין ז׳ א׳.
Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi came from Babylonia where they previously studied together.5)מועד קטן כ״ה א׳. Both immediately became pupils of Rabbi Jochanan,6)שבת קמ״ה ב׳. and later they were ordained at the same time. The day of their ordination was a feast day for the other pupils who sang their praise in the following words: “Only pupils like you should be ordained.”7)כתובות י״ז א׳.
Travel between Palestine and Babylonia was free and undisturbed at that time and scholars constantly went from one country to the other. In Babylonia the academies of Sura and Pumbeditha were renowned. Whether Rabbi Ami quoted a law which he heard in Babylonia he would say: “Our teachers in Babylonia said.”8)שבועות מ״ז א׳. Rabbi Asi’s coming to Palestine was said to have been caused by his desire to escape his capricious, aged mother.9)קדושין ל״א ב׳.
We have mentioned above that Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi lived in great friendship. They attended the same academy and after their ordination they enjoyed the same measure of honor. They were referred to as “the Judges of Palestine”10)סנהדרין י״ז ב׳. or “the honorable Priests of Palestine”.11)גטין נ״ט ב׳. Rabbi Ami was also called “a great man,”12)יבמות כ״א ב׳. and Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath referred to Rabbi Asi as “the example of the generation.”13)חולין ק״ג ב׳.
After the death of Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath both headed the academy in Tiberias. It was related that when prayer time came each one of them would pray alone between the columns of the academy.14)ברכות ה׳ א׳, ל׳ ב׳. Often they interrupted their studies and called out: “He who wants to know the law or seeks judgment, let him enter.”15)שבת י׳ א׳.
Together with Rabbi Chiya bar Aba they once judged a licentious woman named Tamar and they sentenced her to be beaten with rods. The woman complained to the Roman authorities that they had exceeded their rights in passing judgment affecting the life of a person. Rabbi Avahu successfully interceded for them since he was influential with the Romans, but the woman could not be persuaded to withdraw her complaint. Rabbi Avahu then sent an allegoric message to the defendants. Because of the original form of the message we offer here a literal translation of it: “We have conciliated the three accusers, the Good Child, the Educated one and the Man of the Sea, but the Date (Tamar) persists in its bitterness and we sought to sweeten it, but vain were the efforts of the Goldsmith.” The explanation of this message is as follows: Rabbi Avahu conciliated the three judges, one of whom was named Eudokos (good child), the other Eumathes (educated), and the third Thelaseus (sea man). But the woman Tamar persists in her bitterness and would not be placated with money.16)ירושלמי מגלה פרק ג׳ הלכה ד׳.
Upon their arrival in Palestine, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi were pupils of Rabbi Jochanan to whom they were so attached that after his death they mourned him as one mourns a relative. They were also close friends of Rabbi Yitzchak the Blacksmith, although there exist Halachoth in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Ami alone.17)ירושלמי כלאים פרק ו׳ הלכה א׳. As they once visited Rabbi Yitzchak in his home one of them asked him that he should expound some matter in Halacha while the other asked that he should discuss some Hagadic subject. Rabbi Yitzchak replied: “What you demand of me, may be compared to a man who has two wives, one young and the other old. The young wife plucks the grey hair out of his head and the old wife plucks the black hair until he remains bald. You likewise may cause me to say nothing by your requests; but I will tell you something that will please both of you and that will contain Halacha and Hagada.”18)בבא קמא ס׳ ב׳.
During a feast in the house of Rabbi Ami one of the guests wished to drink boiled wine that had remained uncovered overnight. Rabbi Ami said to him: “One who wishes to die should go to his own house to die.”19)ירושלמי תרומות פרק ח׳ הלכה ג׳.
When Rabbi Ami became head of the academy in Tiberias he came into close contact with the Nasi. The latter once asked him the meaning of the verse, “Have faith in the Lord forever, for the Lord is the rock of the ages.” Rabbi Ami replied that one who had faith in God would be protected by Him in both worlds.20)מנחות כ״ט ב׳.. It was said that the Nasi bestowed honors and ordination upon people for a price and without consideration for their merit. Rabbi Ami then said that the Nasi broke the commandment not to make gold and silver gods. During a calamity which afflicted the whole people the Nasi decreed thirteen fast days. When these were of no avail he wanted to decree another fast day, but Rabbi Ami objected on the ground that the people should not be taxed beyond their endurance and the Nasi had to comply with his decision.21)תענית י״ד ב׳.
On the day of the coronation of Diocletian, Rabbi Ami dreamed that it was announced in heaven that “Magdiel was crowned today.” This dream he interpreted as an omen that the emperor following Diocletian would be the last ruler of Rome. (“Magdiel” in the Bible preceded the last of the rulers of Edom.) This prophecy partly came true for the successor of Diocletian was followed by Constantine the Great under whose rule Rome became a Christian kingdom.
It is told that when Rabbi Ami headed the academy a bag of gold was once brought to him and he distributed it among the students.22)חולין ק״ז ב׳. Another version relates that he found a jar full of gold and the Romans informed him that he could use it as he saw fit, for according to the Roman law a man could claim lawful ownership to any article that he found.23)בבא מציעא כ״ח ב׳.
Statements of Rabbi Ami occur in nearly every part of both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud. Although he was probably the first one in his generation who ascribed sanctity to the opinions of previous Amoraim, he nevertheless was not modest in-so-far as his own achievements were concerned and he once said: “From Ami, the son of Nathan, learning will issue for all Israel.”24)גטין מ״ד א׳.
On numerous occasions he sought to lighten the burden of the laws. Thus he opposed the strictures of the scholars of Tiberias who would prohibit the spreading of fishing nets during the intermediate days of the holidays (חול המועד) for fear that it would interfere with the festive mood of the occasion.25)ירושלמי פּסחים פרק ד׳ הלכה א׳. When he was asked whether Jews were permitted to participate in festivities of pagans, he wished to permit it for the sake of maintaining peace with the neighboring people, but Rabbi Aba reminded him that Rabbi Chiya had forbidden it and Rabbi Ami remarked: “Let us praise God that Rabbi Aba called our attention to the opinion of Rabbi Chiya, else we would have fallen into idolatry.”26)ירושלמי דמאי פרק ד׳ הלכה ג׳.
Another time a slave brought a bill of divorce for a Jewish woman and Rabbi Ami wished to declare the divorce to be valid although it was an accepted rule that a slave may not testify. Again Rabbi Aba called his attention to a decision of Rabbi Chiya which prohibited such a procedure and Rabbi Ami said: “Let us praise God that Rabbi Aba reminded us of the opinion of Rabbi Chiya, else we would have allowed a married woman to remarry.”27)ירושלמי גטין פרק ב׳ הלכה ו׳.
Both, Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi, were equally respected. Rabbi Ami is always mentioned first in the Babylonian Talmud, but in the Jerusalem Talmud Rabbi Asi is sometimes mentioned first. On one occasion we also find Rabbi Asi address Ami as Rabbi. This, however, is explained by the fact that Rabbi Ami was the older of the two.28)גטין נ״ד ב׳. Both of them were known as saintly men and even when they went in dangerous places where others suffered harm, they emerged unharmed.29)ברכות ס״ב א׳. Rabbi Asi died first, as is evident from the fact that he died in Tiberias, while Rabbi Ami spent the last days of his life in Caesarea.30)ירושלמי פּסחים פרק ד׳ הלכה ט׳. After his death the political situation of the Jews deteriorated to such an extent that no one could be elected to head the academy.
Rabbi Ami was also the author of the well known statement which inspired the phantasy of many poets to the elaboration of a dramatic story. When the power of faith was being discussed, Rabbi Ami said: “We can see the greatness of people who possess faith from the story of the weasel and the well.” He concluded with the following words: “Even a person who believes this story is certain to be rewarded, how much greater will be the reward of one who believes in God.”31)תענית ה׳ א׳. It appears that the story of the weasel and the well was then very popular. It is also possible that it was written down in some Midrash and that Rashi, Tosephoth and the author of “Aruch” obtained it from that Midrash.
“A maiden,” thus the story runs, “once lost her way and being very thirsty she bent over a well to draw some water and fell into it. A young man who chanced to pass by heard her cries. At first he was fearful lest it was some evil spirit which wished to draw him into the well and he asked the maiden to swear by the name of God that she was human and not an evil spirit. When he drew her out of the well, his passions were aroused by her beauty, but she implored him not to sin, promising to marry him according to the laws of Israel. They then swore fidelity to each other and, as a weasel ran by, they called upon it and upon the well to witness their troth.
“The two young people then parted and the young man forgot his oath. He did not come to the maiden’s father to claim her and he married another woman. His wife bore him two children one of which was killed by a weasel and the other was drowned in a well. His wife complained that the children must have lost their lives as a result of the sins of their father and he then remembered the oath which he swore to the maiden at the well. He thereupon divorced his wife and he found the maiden, to whom he swore fidelity, nearly out of her mind with expectation. He then fulfilled his vow and married her.”*)This story was poetically rewritten in Hebrew by Moshe Laski under the name ״נאמני ארץ״ (1840), by Eliyahu Mordechai Werbel under the name of ״חולדה ובור״ (1852), and by Alexander Langbank under the name of ״העדים האלמים״. In Yiddish it was dramatized by Abraham Goldfaden in the well known operetta “Sulamith.”
Regarding everyday conduct Rabbi Ami commanded that one should not take money into his mouth, nor place food beneath one’s bed, nor hold bread under one’s arm, nor allow a knife to stick in radishes or lemons.32)ירושלמי תרומות פרק ח׳ הלכה ג׳. He also named omens by which one was to know on the new year whether he would survive the coming year and whether a trip, or some occupation that is undertaken, would be accomplished successfully.33)הוריות י״ב א׳, כריתות ה׳ ב׳.
One of the scholars once declared that there were three types of arrogant creatures in the world: the dog among the animals, the cock among the fowl and the Jews among the nations. Rabbi Ami then declared that the arrogance of these creatures was a virtue rather than a fault. This he held to be particularly true of the Jews who readily offer their lives for their faith.34)שמות רבה פּרשה מ״ב פּיסקא ט׳.
Other expressions of Rabbi Ami indicate that he did not maintain friendly relations with pagans—thus he said that one should not teach Torah to a pagan.35)חגיגה י״ג א׳.
The Biblical verse “Let us make man” which other scholars found difficult to explain because of the implication that God was assisted in the creation of man, Rabbi Ami ingeniously explained by saying that God had consulted his own heart.36)בראשית רבה פּרשה ח׳ פּיסקא ג׳.
Rabbi Asi was once sent by the Nasi to appoint tax collectors in various cities. Many people at that time refused to accept this office because of the heavy responsibility which it involved. Rabbi Asi persuaded some of them to accept the office of tax collector by the promise of fame. He also established the rule that “two brothers may not represent the same community.”37)ירושלמי פּאה פרק ח׳ הלכה ו׳, שקלים פרק ה׳ הלכה ב׳.
The opinions of Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi are often introduced in the Talmud by the words “both said.” On other occasions, however, their opinions are quoted separately and at times they even differed.38)יומא ע״ד ב׳, ע״ה א׳.
“Why are children taught the chapters on priesthood before Genesis,” Rabbi Asi asked and he gave the following answer: “God says that sacrifices are pure and children are pure; it is therefore fitting that children should begin their studies with a sacred subject.”39)ויקרא רבה פּרשה ז׳ פּיסקא ג׳.
It is also related that a weaver once came before Rabbi Jochanan and told that in his dream he had seen the sky fall and a disciple of Rabbi Jochanan supported it with his hand. Rabbi Jochanan asked the man whether he would recognize him and the weaver asked him to pass his students before him. This was done and the weaver pointed to Rabbi Asi as the man who had supported the sky.40)קהלת רבה פּרשה ט׳ פּיסקא ה׳.
When Rabbi Asi died, it was said that the gate of Tiberias collapsed.41)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳. Another version told of cedar trees being uprooted on the day of his death.42)מועד קטן כ״ה ב׳.