LIKE RABBI SHMUEL BAR NACHMANI, Rabbi Simlai was also a master of Hagadic interpretation. Hundreds of these are quoted in the Babylonian Talmud in his name, but the Jerusalem Talmud contains only one Hagadic quotation from Rabbi Simlai.1)פּאה פרק ה׳ הלכה ה׳.
Rabbi Simlai was born in Babylonia in the city of Nehardea. The exact location of this city is unknown aside from the fact that it was situated on the river Malka, somewhere between the Tigris and the Euphrates. It is also known that Jews began to settle in that city several decades after the destruction of the Temple. Various horrifying stories were at first told about Nehardea, but later it became known as the seat of prominent academies which rivalled those in Jabneh and Tiberias.
Rabbi Simlai’s father was always referred to as “Aba, the father of Rabbi Simlai.” However, he was a significant man in his own right and it was related that he once asked Shmuel Yarchinai, the mathematician of the Talmud, a question pertaining to the determination of “leap years” which the latter could not answer despite the fact that he had boasted that he could calculate the beginning of each month without recourse to the testimony of witnesses who had seen the new moon. On this occasion the father of Rabbi Simlai is said to have remarked: “If you cannot answer this question, then it is entirely possible that there are other matters which you do not know.”2)ראש השנה כ׳ ב׳.
When Rabbi Simlai arrived in Palestine he settled in Lud, but later he moved to Galilee where he spent most of the time in the city of the residence of the Nasi. Rabbi Jehudah N’siah the First was Nasi at the time of his arrival. The following conversation is said to have taken place between the two, as the Nasi once leaned on the shoulder of Rabbi Simlai during a stroll: “Yesterday you were absent from the academy when we permitted the use of oil bought from Gentiles,” the Nasi said and Rabbi Simlai replied: “I will yet live to see the day when you will permit the use of Gentile bread.”3)עבודה זרה ל״ז א׳.
This new regulation was announced in Babylonia by a pupil of Rabbi Simlai, although it is also possible that Rabbi Simlai himself was delegated by the Nasi to announce the new regulation.4)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ב׳ הלכה ט׳.
In later life Rabbi Simlai served Rabbi Jannai the Old5)בבא בתרא קי״א א׳. and he was also a close friend of Rabbi Jehudah N’siah the Second.6)בכורות ל״ו ב׳.
His debates with the “Minim” (Christian Jews), who annoyed him with various questions, are interesting. Since the Hebrew word “Elohim” (God) is in the plural form, the Minim asked him, how many gods shared in the creation of the world. Rabbi Simlai replied that the further text amply answered their question; thus the Bible says: “Let us make man in our image” (in the plural) and this is followed by “God created man in his own image” (in the singular). When his pupils said that it was easy to give such an answer to the “Minim,” but that they were not satisfied with it, he replied that the plural was used, because Adam was created out of earth and Eve out of Adam’s rib, but in the future no increase could be had by man without woman or by woman without man, and both need the assistance of God.
Another time the “Minim” asked him why the phrase “Elohim Kedoshim” (holy gods, in the plural) was employed in the Bible, and Rabbi Simlai replied that the subsequent phrase “Elohim Hu” (He is God) was a sufficient answer. To his pupils he explained that the plural was used to indicate that God was holy with all kinds of holiness.
The number of commandments in the Torah is 613 and whoever transgresses even against one commandment is considered to have broken all of them. The Prophets sought to diminish the number of commandments and Hillel tried to express the essence of the Torah in one phrase: “Do not unto others what you would not have done unto you.”
Rabbi Simlai said: “The 613 commandments consist of 365 negative ones, equal to the number of days in the year, and of 248 positive commandments, equal to the number of limbs in the human body.”7)מכות כ״ג ב׳. One of Rabbi Simlai’s pupils amplified this statement and said: “The number of positive commandments is equal to the number of limbs in a human body, because every limb implores man to commit a good deed. The number of negative commandments is equal to the number of days in the year, according to the reckoning of the sun, because each day implores man not to commit a sin during its time.
Another general statement of Rabbi Simlai declared: “The Torah begins with an act of kindness and ends with an act of kindness. When Adam and Eve realized their nakedness and were ashamed, God made them coats of skins. When Moses died on Mount Nebo and no one was with him to bury him, God buried Moses.”8)סוטה י״ד א׳. Later Rabbi Simlai somewhat changed his interpretation and said: “One who would realize the kindness of God should consult the Torah and he will see that the first act of God was to adorn Eve as one adorns a bride when he led her before Adam. God adorns all brides as he adorned Eve; He visits the sick as He visited Abraham; He buries the dead as He buried Moses.”9)מדרש תנחומא פּ׳ וירא.
“The Bible says: “Remember the day of Sabbath to consecrate it” and also “Observe the day of Sabbath.” Rabbi Simlai explained that one should remember the Sabbath before it comes and he should observe it after it had come. How can this be done? Every time one sees a good object or a new vessel, he should reserve it for the Sabbath.10)פּסיקתא רבתי פּרשה כ״ג.
Economic conditions in Palestine were very poor at that time and the population was so impoverished that no one possessed good garments. As Rabbi Simlai once explained the commandment to prepare special garments for Sabbath, the people wept, for they could not afford such a luxury. Rabbi Simlai then said: “If one does not have a good garment to wear on Saturday, he should at least wear a different garment; even though it be torn it should be different from the one worn on week days.”11)ירושלמי פּאה פרק ה׳ הלכה ה׳.
“When Messiah will come,” Rabbi Simlai said, “God will take a book of the Torah in his arms and He will say: ‘Whoever devoted himself to the study of the Torah, let him come and receive his reward.’ All the nations will then come together, but God will say to them, ‘Let each nation come separately.’”
“The first to come before God will be Edom (Rome) and He will ask them: ‘What have you done in the world?’ and they will reply: ‘We paved highways; we built many bath houses; we gathered much silver and gold. All this we did for the sake of Your Jews that they might devote themselves to the Torah.’ God will then answer them: ‘Fools that you are. All that you did, you did for yourself. You paved streets that you might settle your harlots there; you built bath houses that you might anoint your bodies; you gathered gold and silver which belongs to me. But you did not study the Torah and you will receive no reward.’ The sons of Edom will then leave with bowed heads.”
“After them will come the Persians and God will ask them: ‘What have you done?’ and they will reply: “We have built many bridges; we have conquered many cities; we have waged many wars. All this we did for the sake of the Jews, that they might have time to devote themselves to the Torah.’ To them God will say: ‘All that you did, you did for yourself. You built bridges to collect tolls; you conquered cities to collect taxes; your wars I waged for you, but you did not study the Torah, then why do you seek reward?’”
“But the Persians will refuse to leave empty handed and they will say: ‘Have you offered the Torah to us and we have rejected it?’ and God will reply: ‘Seven commandments I gave to the sons of Noah and you have not observed them.’ The Persians will ask further: ‘Have the Jews observed the seven commandments?’”
“ ‘I will call your own witnesses,’ God will answer, ‘and you shall see that they have observed my commandments. Let Nimrod testify concerning Abraham that he did not worship idols; let Laban testify that he did not suspect Jacob of robbery; let Potiphar’s wife testify that Joseph was not persuaded to sin; let Nebuchadnezzar testify concerning Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, that they refused to bow before an idol; let Darius testify concerning Daniel that he refused to interrupt his prayer.’”12)עבודה זרה ב׳ וג׳.