AFTER THE PERIOD OF THE BLOSSOMING OF LEARNING in Palestine during the lifetime of Rabbi Jochanan and Resh Lakish a decline set in. This decline had been apparent for some time and was becoming more noticeable daily. A descendant of Hillel still occupied the office of Nasi and was thus the legal representative of the people. But the later N’siim were not noted for scholarly achievements and the veneration of the people toward them diminished. In time they lost all spiritual authority.
*The name Bar-Nachmani is used throughout the Babylonian Talmud (with one exception). The Jerusalem Talmud uses the name Bar-Nachman throughout, except on four occasions, where Bar-Nachmani is employed.Rabbi Shmuel Bar-Nachmani was one of the spiritual leaders of the people during this period. He left few legal decisions, but he was one of the most prominent exponents of the Hagada. He repeated hundreds of Hagadic statements of previous “Amoraim” and his disciples quoted hundreds of his own interpretations. All questions pertaining to Hagada during his lifetime were always referred to him for clarification.1)ויקרא רבה פּרשה ל״א פּיסקא א׳, איכה רבתי פּרשה א׳ פּיסקא מ״ג.
Rabbi Shmuel Bar-Nachmani was born in Palestine and while still a child his grandfather often carried him on his shoulders through Beth Shean on his way to Kefar Chanan that he should see the scholars at study and that he should absorb the sound of their voices. This took place during the last days of Rabbi Jehudah haNasi and it was then an accepted belief that a child which looked at Rabbi Jehudah or was in his presence for a few minutes was certain to become a scholar.
Another legend related that Rabbi Shmuel was born in Babylonia and only came to Palestine to ask of Rabbi Jonathan the meaning of three verses in the Bible concerning which he was in doubt. But this apparent contradiction may be explained by the fact that Rabbi Shmuel spent his youth in Babylonia, where favorable circumstances prevailed, and that he later returned to Palestine. Rabbi Shmuel visited Babylonia a number of times at the request of the High Court of Palestine in order to determine “leap years” when that could not be done in Palestine. On one of these trips he spent a night in the house of Rabbi Jacob the Miller. That night Rabbi Zeira hid among the barrels in the house in order to hear Rabbi Shmuel recite the “Shema” and he later told that Rabbi Shmuel repeated the Shema many times until he was overcome by sleep.2)ירושלמי ברכות פרק א׳ הלכה א׳. Rabbi Shmuel is also known to have been sent, together with his mother, to intercede with queen Zenobia for the life of a political offender.
Rabbi Shmuel Bar-Nachmani lived for more than one hundred years and the time of his influence extended from the days of Rabbi Jonathan, whose pupil he had been, until the rule of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah the Second. It appears that the Nasi did not approve of Rabbi Shmuel and when he once asked him the interpretation of the expression “by his name Jah” (Psalms, 68:4), he was dissatisfied with the reply and remarked: “It is regrettable that those scholars who could interpret this passage better are already dead.”3)בראשית רבה פּרשה י״ב פּיסקא ט׳.
At that time there broke out a famine and an epidemic and the people were at a loss for the deliverance of which of the calamities they were to pray. Rabbi Shmuel advised them to pray for the cessation of the famine, for “when God will give us food, He will also grant us life during which to enjoy the food.”4)תענית ח׳ ב׳.. He also instructed that teachers should dismiss their pupil from eleven o’clock in the morning until three in the afternoon during the time between the seventeenth day of Tamuz and the ninth day of Ab, for this was a difficult period for the pupils who might lose their health from too great effort.5)איכה רבתי פּרשה א׳ פּיסקא ל׳.
When Rabbi Shmuel grew old and realized that the Nasi did not regard him favorably he but rarely attended the academy. During one of his infrequent visits he found the scholars debating the request of a man to annul an excommunication which was imposed upon him by Rabbi Jehudah ben Ezekiel. Since R. Jehudah was dead at that time the scholars were inclined to consider favorably the petition of the man. But Rabbi Shmuel said: “The maidservant of Rabbi Jehudah haNasi once banned a man who had beaten his grown up son and the scholars honored her decision; would you revoke the excommunication of our comrade Rabbi Jehudah?” His opinion was then accepted and the ban was not lifted.6)מועד קטן י״ז א׳.
The following are characteristic expressions of Rabbi Shmuel:
“Everything in the world was created by God, except falsehood which is an outgrowth of human imagination.”7)פּסיקתא רבתי פּ׳ כ״ד.
After completing the creation of the world God saw everything that He had made and “it was very good.” Rabbi Shmuel declared that “very good” referred to man’s evil desires, for if it were not for these no man would build a house, nor marry a wife, nor beget children, nor engage in commerce.8)בראשית רבה פּרשה ה׳ פּיסקא ט׳, קהלת רבה פּרשה ג׳ פּיסקא ט״ז.
Rabbi Shmuel devoted himself to classifying the prayers. One must pray thrice daily, he said, to conform with the three changes which occur every day. In the morning one should say: “I thank Thee my God and God of my fathers for bringing me out of darkness into light.” In the afternoon one should say: “May it be Thy will to permit me to see the sun in the West even as You allowed me to see it in the East.” At night one should pray: “May it be Thy will to lead me out of darkness into the light even as You had led me out of darkness into light before.”9)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ד׳ הלכה א׳, בראשית רבה ס״ה י״א.
Rabbi Shmuel lived during the last years of the third century C.E., when the Christians began the attempt to postpone the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Rabbi Shmuel opposed this effort with all his might and he warned the Jews against assuming that the Sabbath could be postponed to another day. “Why did God bless the Sabbath?” he said, “because it may never be postponed to another day. Holidays and even the Day of Atonement may be postponed, when a leap year is declared, but not the Sabbath.”10בראשית רבה פּרשה י״א פּיסקא ט׳.*)As long as the Jewish calendar was not definitely determined, it was the duty of the High Court to determine the holidays as they saw fit and even the Day of Atonement could be postponed, it has proved as when Rabbi Simeon b. Gamliel the First commanded Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah to appear before him bearing his cane and his wallet on the day that he considered to be the Day of Atonement.
Some of the Amoraim believed that Sabbaths and holidays were to be devoted to the study of the Torah solely, while others allowed half of these days to be utilized for personal enjoyment.11)פּסחים ס״ח ב׳. But Rabbi Shmuel declared that the Sabbath should be devoted to food and drink and that only in order to avoid idle talk was it allowed also to engage in study on that day.12)ירושלמי שבת פרק ט״ו הלכה ג׳.
The verse “Many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Songs, 8:7) Rabbi Shmuel interpreted in the following manner: Two kinds of love are referred to, the love of God for Israel which is so great that were all the nations of the world to try to thwart it, they could not do so, and the love of Israel for the Torah. Were all the nations to say: “We will sell all our possessions in order to observe the Torah and its commandments,” God would reply to them: “Even if you were to sell all your possessions to obtain the Torah, you would only be ridiculed.”13)במדבר רבה פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא ט״ז.
The destruction of the Temple played an important role in the mode of thought of Rabbi Shmuel. Nearly two centuries had already elapsed since the destruction and none thought about sacrifices any longer. Many of the scholars of the time disapproved of sacrifices or had ignored the matter. The express commandments of the Torah to offer sacrifices, they easily refuted with passages from the Prophets such as the statement of Jeremiah that “I spoke not unto your fathers nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices” (7:22). But the Temple remained a symbol of the liberation of the people and it was always mentioned with the hope of its speedy restoration and the renewal of the service as in days of old. It is also interesting to note that the people feared to speak of the second temple and they therefore always referred to the first temple. They spoke of Babylonians, but meant the Romans, they referred to Nebusaradon or Nebuchadnezzar, but really meant Titus or the reigning emperor.
Like other scholars Rabbi Shmuel also spoke of the destruction of the Temple in his lectures. Many such lectures are included in the introduction to “Midrash Eicha Rabathi” and these describe how Jeremiah went to the graves of the Patriarchs and begged them to intercede with God. It was characteristic of the times that the belief was commonly held that Rachel rose from her grave and wept at the fate of her children. Her weeping aroused pity in heaven and she was assured that they would soon be redeemed from the land of the enemy. (Jeremiah, 31:14.) Such descriptions delivered by good orators profoundly impressed the people.
“After the Temple was destroyed,” Rabbi Shmuel said, “Abraham came to the throne of glory; he was weeping and tearing his hair; his garments were torn and he was covered with ashes. Thus he went about and called upon God: ‘Am I worse than other fathers that I should suffer such shame?’”
“When the Angels saw Abraham they also wept and when God asked them why they wept, they said: ‘The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth, he hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the cities, he regardeth no man.’” (Isaiah, 33:8.)
“God thereupon answered and said: ‘Since my friend Abraham has left the world, he has not come to see the welfare of my house, Why then does he come now?’ and Abraham replied: ‘Why have you exiled my children and handed them over to barbaric peoples who slay them with numerous kinds of deaths? Why have you allowed the Temple, the place where I offered my son for the sake of Thy great name, to be destroyed?’”
“ ‘Your children have sinned,’ God replied to Abraham, ‘they have not observed the commandments of my Torah and they transgressed against the 22 sacred letters of the Torah.’”
“ ‘Who will bear witness against my children that they have not observed the commandments, or that they transgressed against its 22 sacred letters?’ Abraham asked.”
“ ‘The Torah is the best witness,’ God replied.”
“The Torah then came out and was ready to testify against the Jews, but Abraham said: ‘Daughter, you wish to testify against the Jews that they did not observe your commandments? Are you not ashamed of such testimony? Do you not remember the day, when God carried you among all the nations and they refused to accept you until my children came to Mount Sinai and they accepted you with honor? Will you now testify against them in the hour of their affliction?’”
“When the Torah heard this, it stepped aside and God called upon the 22 letters to come and testify. The first of these was ‘Aleph’ and Abraham said to it: “You, who are the first letter of the Alphabet, come to testify against my children? When God appeared on Mount Sinai and offered the ten commandments which begin with an Aleph, no people would accept you until my children did; would you now testify against them?’”
“In shame the Aleph stepped aside and the Beth came up to testify. To it Abraham said: ‘You would testify against my children, who accepted the Pentateuch which begins with a Beth?’ In shame the Beth stepped aside and the Gimel came forward, and Abraham addressed it: ‘God’s commandment ״גדילים״ (Deutr. 22, 12), which begins with a Gimel, was rejected by all nations until my children accepted it; would you testify against them?’ After the Gimel appeared the Daled and again Abraham said: ‘Will you testify against my children? When God told Moses, Speak to the children of Israel, which begins with a Daled—did they not heed him?’”
“In shame the Daled also stepped aside and when the other letters saw that Abraham shamed them, they refused to testify against the Jews. Then Abraham said: ‘Lord of the world! When I was 100 years old, you gave me a son and when he reached the age of 37 you commanded me to offer him to you as a sacrifice. I then hardened my heart and I showed no mercy to him in order to fulfill your wish. Now you have forgotten all that and you showed no mercy toward my children.’”
“After these words Moses came and he said to God: ‘Lord of the world! Have I not been like a good shepherd to your people? Like a horse I ran before them in the desert, but when the time came to enter the Land of Israel you decreed that I should die in the desert. Now I am called to mourn over their affliction.’ Then Moses said to Jeremiah: ‘Proceed, and I will go with you, for I wish to see who will dare do harm to the Jews.’ But Jeremiah replied: ‘I cannot go, for the road is covered with corpses and I am a Priest.’ Moses then said to him: ‘Come, for I have commanded you.’”
“Moses and Jeremiah came to the rivers of Babylon and when the Jews saw Moses, they exclaimed: ‘The son of Amram has risen from his grave to redeem us from our enemies.’ But a Bath-Kol was heard to declare: ‘It is a decree which cannot be changed.’”
“Then Moses said to the people: ‘My dear children, I cannot redeem you; I can only pray to God that he should soon return you to your land.’”
“When the Jews heard these words, they wept bitterly and the sound of their weeping shook the seven heavens The angels, the sun, the moon and the stars wept with them.”
“Moses returned to the Patriarchs to tell them of what the enemy had done to their children and he said: ‘Some of them are killed and some had their arms broken and bound behind their backs, some were burdened with heavy chains and were driven naked over mountains and valleys, while others died on the way and their bodies were left to be devoured by birds and beasts of prey. Still others were left on the sands of the desert with their eyes gouged out to await their death.’”
“When they heard this, the Patriarchs wept and mourned: ‘Woe, what has befallen our orphans that hungry and naked they must wander in the lands of their enemies, woe that they must climb high mountains and must wound their feet on rocks and boulders, woe that they must carry heavy sacks of sand on their delicate backs, woe that their arms have been broken and their eyes gouged, woe that their throats are parched with thirst, woe that God could witness the slaughter of children before the eyes of their mothers and the death of mothers before the eyes of their children.’”
“Moses then turned to the Sun and said: ‘Be cursed, Sun, that you were not darkened when the enemies entered the Temple!’ and the Sun replied: ‘I swear to you, Moses, by the name of the Eternal One, that I wanted to hide among the clouds in order not to light the way of the enemy, but I was beaten with fiery rods and I was commanded to do my duty.’”
“Then Rachel came weeping bitterly and when the sound of her weeping was heard a voice from heaven announced: ‘Cease weeping, for your children will soon return from the land of their enemies to their own home.’”