RABBI JANNAI RABA LIVED IN THE CITY OF ACHBARA (Achbaria) which was located in upper Galilee, one hour’s walk to the south of Safed, and there he was the head of an academy.1)ירושׁלמי ערובין פרק ח׳ הלכה ד׳. He was never called by his patronymic and he was often referred to as “Raba” (the Great), to distinguish him from other “Amoraim” of the same name.
Rabbi Jannai Raba was a descendant of the priest Eli.2)ירושלמי תענית פרק ד׳ הלכה ב׳. He was a wealthy man and he owned many fields and gardens.3)בבא בתרא י״ד א׳. Some talmudic teachers claimed, that he owned as many as 400 vineyards.4)מועד קטן י״ב א׳. His daughters were very proud and the man who would marry one of them had to pay him a pot of gold.5)קדושׁין י״א א׳.
The disciples of Rabbi Jannai cultivated his fields and vineyards and thus they earned their livelihood. It appears that this condition continued long after Rabbi Jannai died. The laws that were studied in his academy are known in the Talmud as “the Halachoth of the house of Rabbi Jannai.”
Some historians claim that Rabbi Jannai had been a pupil of Rabbi Jehudah HaNasi, but there is no proof of this fact. It is certain however that he was a disciple of Rabbi Chiya, who foretold that he would become a leader among Jews.6)יבמות צ״ג א׳, ירושׁלמי דמאי פרק ז׳ הלכה א׳. In later life he was a colleague of Rabbi Chiya, and R. Jehudah, the son of Rabbi Chiya, was his son-in-law.7)כתובות ס״ב ב׳, ירושׁלמי בכורים פרק ג׳ הלכה ג׳. When the Nasi died, Rabbi Jannai announced that all regulations pertaining to Priests were done away with for that day and that every Priest could participate in the burial.8)ירושׁלמי ברכות פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳, נזיר פרק ז׳ הלכה א׳.
Another time it was told that in his old age Rabbi Jannai once met Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II and, fingering the mantle of the Nasi, he remarked: “Your mantle looks like a sack upon you,” thereby hinting that the robe of office did not befit the man. Later he asked the Nasi a question concerning the laws of inheritance and, dissatisfied with the reply, he said to Rabbi Simlai, upon whom he was leaning: “Lead me hence. This man has studied nothing.”9)בבא בתרא קי״א א׳.
It appears that no decrees of unusual severity were issued at that time although the emperors of the period—Caracalla, Makrinus and Heliogabalus—were known for their cruelty. Graetz suggests that the statement of Rabbi Jannai that “we have neither the security of the wicked nor the chastisements of the righteous”10)אבות פרק ד׳ משׁנה ט״ו. refers to the political situation of that day, but according to the “Seder Hadoroth” this statement was uttered by a previous Rabbi Jannai.
Only once did Rabbi Jannai depart from the strict interpretation of the commandments when he advised the Jews to cultivate their fields on a Sabbatical year. The emperor Caracalla then led his armies through Palestine to wage war on the Parthians and he ordered the Jews to till their fields on the Sabbatical year in order to provide food for his armies. Rabbi Jannai’s advice did not imply an attempt to do away with the observance of the Sabbatical year, but was conditioned by the exigencies of the moment.11)סנהדרין כ״ו א׳, ירושׁלמי שׁביעית פרק ד׳ הלכה א׳.
With nostalgic longing Rabbi Jannai spoke of the days of his youth, when young men went out in groups to teach the people. In contradiction to the opinion of Rabbi Jehudah ha-Nasi who advised against teaching in the streets, Rabbi Jannai declared that when scholars teach in the streets they are like fields of balsam which waft their odors far and wide.12)שׁיר השׁירים רבה פּרשׁה ה׳ פּיסקא י״א.
Rabbi Jannai compared the Torah to a loaf of bread which is suspended on a rope in a house. The foolish man says: “Who can reach this bread?”, but the wise man says: “Has not someone hung up this bread? I will build me a ladder until I reach the bread.” The foolish man similarly says: “Who can learn all the Torah which my master has in his heart?”, but the wise man says: “Has not my master learned his Torah from others? Therefore I will learn two sentences today and two the next day, until I will learn all the Torah of my master.”13)שׁיר השׁירים רבה פּרשׁה ד׳ פּיסקא ח׳. Nevertheless Rabbi Jannai also said that one who studies all his Torah from one master will see no blessing in it,14)עבודה זרה י״ט א׳. and he who has studied but has not served scholars may be compared to a pagan.15)סוטה כ״ב א׳. A priest may eat his “Trumah” on the grave of another priest who was not a scholar, for he does not contaminate,16)תנחומא פּרשׁת תרומה. and when Rabbi Jannai met a man who was versed in learning but had no fear of God, he said: “Woe to the people who before they build a house, erect the door.”17)שׁבת ל״א ב׳.
Rabbi Jannai was once in his house engaged in study when he suddenly heard a voice in the street calling: “Who would buy a remedy to assure him of life?” Rabbi Jannai sent his daughter to call the merchant, but the merchant said: “Neither you nor those like you need this remedy,” When Rabbi Jannai insisted that he should sell him this remedy, the merchant opened a book of Psalms and showed him the verse: “Who is the man who wants life, who loves to see good days? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking falsehood.” Rabbi Jannai remarked that king Solomon said the same in Proverbs: “He who guards his mouth and tongue spares himself from trouble.” Finally he gave the merchant six denars for his trouble and he said to his pupils: “All my life I read this verse, but I never understood it in the same sense that I understand it now.”18)ויקרא רבה פּרשה ט״ז פּיסקא ב׳.
Rabbi Jannai was one of those in charge of the distribution of charity in his city, but his own charity he distributed secretly.19)ערכין ו׳ ב׳. When he saw a man giving charity to another in the presence of other people he said: “It were better that you had given nothing, for you shamed the poor man.”20)חגיגה ה׳ א׳. In this capacity he probably had many opportunities to see people break their promises to contribute to charity. He was always worried at sight of this and he said: “When one makes a vow it is written down in a book in heaven; when the vow is not fulfilled it is also noted down in that book.”21)ירושׁלמי נדרים פרק א׳ הלכה ו׳.
“One should never tempt providence,” Rabbi Jannai said, “by standing in a place of danger and expecting a miracle to occur, for no miracle may take place. If a miracle does occur, it will certainly be deducted from the reward of the man in the world to come.”22)שׁבת ל״ב א׳. He avoided depending on miracles to such an extent that he always tested every bridge before he crossed it,23)תענית כ׳ בי. and when he had to go on a journey, he wrote his will so that his family should know what to do in case he did not return.24)ירושׁלמי ברכות פרק ד׳ הלכה ד׳.
“One must always show respect for royalty,” he said. “Thus we see that when Moses came to announce to Pharaoh that all first born sons would die, he knew that Pharaoh himself would come to ask him to take the Jews out of Egypt. Nevertheless he did not say so to Pharaoh; instead he said that Pharaoh would send his messengers.”25)זבחים ק״ב א׳. The passage stating that all the days of a poor man are evil he explained as referring to a man who is merciful.26)בבא בתרא קמ״ה ב׳.
During the days of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II the Boraitha and the Tosephta were compiled and Rabbi Jannai considered the Boraithoth of Rabbi Chiya to be of the same importance as the Mishna.27)ירושׁלמי פּסחים פרק א׳ הלכה ה׳, יומא פרק ד׳ הלכה ב׳.
Rabbi Jannai urged each man upon his morning awakening to add a special prayer, thanking God for returning him to life. In addition he composed the following prayer: “Lord of the world, I have sinned before you! May it be Thy will to grant me a good heart, a good share, good desires, a good name, a good eye, a modest soul and a humble spirit. May Thy name not be profaned through us and preserve us from being the talk of the people. Doom us not to destruction, nor our hopes to frustration, and spare us from depending on the gifts of men whose gifts are small but whose shame is great. Grant that our share be in Your Torah and among those who do Your will and build Your house and Your palace and Your city and Your temple soon in our days.”28)ירושׁלמי ברכות פרק ד׳ הלכה ב׳.
Rabbi Jannai survived the rule of four N’siim from Rabbi Jehudah ha-Nasi until the rule of his great grandson Rabbi Jehudah N’siah II. As his death approached he instructed his children that they should not bury him in a white shroud lest he go to Gehenna where he will appear like a groom among mourners, nor in a black shroud lest he go to Paradise where he will appear like a mourner among grooms.29)שׁבת קי״ד א׳.