RABBI YITZCHAK NAPCHA (THE BLACKSMITH) was one of the most prominent disciples of Rabbi Jochanan and a master of Hagada who lived during the second, third and fourth generations of “Amoraim.” His surname “Napcha” is variously interpreted. Some claim that it referred to his occupation as a blacksmith, although the Talmud never mentioned it explicitly, while others maintained that he was a native of a city of that name. Such a city is mentioned in the travels of Benjamin of Tudela. Rabbi Yitzchak Napcha, of whom this chapter treats, should not be confused with another man of the same name who lived during the days of Rabbi Jehudah bar Elai.1)תוספתא ערובין פרק ז׳.
Rabbi Yitzchak Napcha is never mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud by this name. Some Talmud critics therefore believe that Rabbi Yitzchak bar Tavlai, who is mentioned there, is identical with Rabbi Yitzchak Napcha. References in the Jerusalem Talmud to Rabbi Yitzchak, without any further designation, are also believed to refer to Rabbi Yitzchak Napcha.
The poverty which characterized the time of Rabbi Yitzchak is best illustrated by his remark that “the curse of God that people shall be forced to eat the grass of the fields applies only to the present generations. People suffer such hunger these days that they cannot wait for the grain to ripen in the field and they pluck it and eat it while it is still green.”2)בראשית רבה פּרשה כ׳ פּיסקא כ״ד. “In such times,” Rabbi Yitzchak added, “people are not interested in learning and they merely wish to hear words of consolation.”3)שיר השירים רבה פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא י״ד.
Rabbi Yitzchak Napcha lived in Tiberias together with his master Rabbi Jochanan and his friends R. Elazar ben Pedath and R. Ami. He also maintained close bonds of friendship with other scholars who frequently visited him at his house to discuss various laws and he also visited their homes for the same purpose.4)יבמות מ״ח ב׳, עבודה זרה כ״ד א׳, מועד קטן כ׳ א׳. Differences of opinion at times marked his relations with Rabbi Ami. Thus one declared that if a needle was found in the lung of an animal its flesh was kosher, while the other held it to be unfit to eat.5)חולין מ״ח ב׳. Similarly Rabbi Yitzchak passed sentence whether it was permissible to eat onions harvested during the Sabbatical year while Rabbi Ami didn’t know how to decide this law.6)נדרים נ״ז ב׳.
That the opinions of Rabbi Yitzchak were held above those of other scholars is also evident from the fact that when the Nasi, Rabbi Jehudah the Second, entertained priests at his table and he did not know whether it was permissible to serve them with the flesh of a first born animal, he first inquired the opinion of Rabbi Ami and later he asked the same question of Rabbi Yitzchak for a final decision.7)ביצה כ״ז א׳. It may be assumed that Rabbi Yitzchak was at that time a judge in Tiberias and since his teachings were popular, his decisions were accepted in all matters of Halacha.8)בבא קמא קי״ז ב׳, בבא בתרא ק״ע א׳.
At a later date Rabbi Yitzchak Napcha went to Babylonia. This journey apparently took place after the destruction of Tiberias during the Roman wars, when Rabbi Ami transferred his academy to Caesarea, where he could continue his teaching under the protection of Rabbi Avahu. Rabbi Yitzchak’s stay in Babylonia coincided with the period of the influence of R. Shesheth.9)מועד קטן כ״ד ב׳.
When Rabbi Yitzchak returned to Palestine, he settled in Caesarea where he appears to have been a member of Rabbi Avahu’s court. There he was once confronted with the problem whether it was permissible to read the weekly portion of the Bible in the Synagogue from a Torah which contained only one of the books of the Pentateuch. Rabbi Yitzchak could not answer this question, but Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani reminded him of the rule that a scroll of the Torah from which even one parchment was missing, could not be used for reading in the Synagogue; it thus became apparent that a scroll which contained only one of the books of the Pentateuch could not be used.10)גטין ס׳ א׳.
Rabbi Yitzchak yearned for the restoration of Jerusalem. His heart was filled with anguish when he saw Caesarea in all its glamor while Jerusalem lay desolate. He then came to the conclusion that these two cities—Cesarea and Jerusalem—could not both thrive at the same time and that the prosperity of one of them was inevitably bound up with the destruction of the other.11)מגלה ו׳ א׳. While speaking of these cities Rabbi Yitzchak mentioned a people, “Germamia of Edom”—which could destroy the whole world, if God would only allow it. This people, he said, restrains the Romans. Rabbi Yitzchak was no doubt referring to the Germans, who then conducted a struggle against Rome and of whom vague rumors reached the Jews of Palestine.
On another occasion Rabbi Yitzchak interpreted the verse “A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth endures for ever,” as referring to the various kingdoms of the world which rise and fall while the Jewish people remains eternal.12)קהלת רבה פּרשה א׳ פּיסקא ד׳.
Most of the expositions of Rabbi Yitzchak remained in the form of introductions to the books of the Scriptures. The following are some of the most interesting excerpts from his lectures:
“It is impossible to measure the strength of one’s evil desires which become renewed daily.13)סוכה נ״ב א׳, קדושין ל׳ ב׳. Even when one mourns for the dead, his evil desires are with him.14)קדושין פּ׳ ב׳. Man is so controlled by his desires that even though these enter as visitors, they immediately possess his entire being.15)בראשית רבה פּרשה כ״ב פּיסקא י״א.
“He who angers his neighbor, even though he does so with words only, must conciliate him. If he possesses money, he must seek conciliation through money; he should also ask his friends to intercede for him and to gain forgiveness for him.16)יומא פּ״ז א׳.
Rabbi Yitzchak highly valued charity, but he considered kind words spoken to the poor to be of even greater merit than money. He therefore said: “One who gives a penny to a poor man, will be blessed with six blessings, but one who speaks kind words to the poor, will be blessed with all seven blessings.”17)בבא בתרא ט׳ ב׳.
Like his contemporaries he also valued prayer and he said: “Prayer is more important than sacrifices. Thus we see that when Samuel’s father came to Shiloh, he first bowed and then he offered sacrifices.”18)מדרש שמואל פּרשה א׳.
“Why were Abraham and Isaac childless?” Rabbi Yitzchak asked. He provided the answer himself by saying that “God yearns for the prayers of saints and He caused Abraham and Isaac to be childless in order that they might pray to him.”19)יבמות ס״ד א׳.
Of those who indulged in many vows in the hope of finding favor in the eyes of God, Rabbi Yitzchak said: “He who makes a vow is like a person who pierces his heart with a sword. Are not the prohibitions of the Torah sufficient that people assume additional limitations?”20)ירושלמי נדרים פרק ט׳ הלכה א׳.
Rabbi Yitzchak highly valued the study of the Torah and he said: “The fact that people forget what they have learned, is for their own benefit, for if they would not forget that which they had learned then a person would devote himself to the Torah for two or three years and he would then turn to other occupations. But since it is in the nature of man to forget, he must always continue to study.”21)קהלת רבה פּרשה א׳ פּיסקא י״ג.
The two olives which the prophet Zechariah saw in one of his visions Rabbi Yitzchak explained as referring to the scholars of Palestine, who are as gentle and as dear to each other as oil, while the scholars of Babylonia embitter each other’s lives like an olive tree.22)סנהדרין כ״ד א׳.
Remarkably interesting are Rabbi Yitzchak’s descriptions of the emotions of Moses as his death approached. The soul of Moses refused to leave him and Moses said to it: “It seems that the Angel of death desires to take you,” but the soul replied: “God will save me from death.” Moses then said: “When you see the Jews weep for me, will you weep with them?” and his soul replied: “My eye will avoid tears.” “Possibly you will be forced into Gehenna,” Moses said, but his soul answered, “God will save my foot from misstep.” “And where do you expect to go?” Moses further asked, and his soul answered, “I will go before God in the land of the living.”
When Moses heard this, Rabbi Yitzchak concluded, he liberated his soul and said to it: “Go, my soul, to your rest.”23)דברים רבה פּרשה י״א פּיסקא ב׳, מדרש תנחומא ברכה פּיסקא ב׳.
Even more interesting is Rabbi Yitzchak’s explanation of Haman’s accusations against the Jews:
“After Ahasweros decided to give a feast in celebration of the completion of the third year of his reign, Haman appeared before him and said: ‘The Jewish God abhors adultery. You must therefore hire harlots and command all Jews to come to the feast and to gratify their desires.’ When Mordechai heard this, he warned the Jews not to come to the feast since they were invited with the aim of causing them to sin.
“But the Jews disobeyed Mordechai and came to the feast and Satan immediately appeared before God saying: ‘It is time that You destroy this people which always sins against you, but never repents.’
“ ‘I would do so,’ God replied, ‘but what will become of the Torah?’ and Satan said, ‘You can give it to the Creatures of Heaven.’
“God was almost persuaded by this argument and He commanded that a parchment be brought that the decree of annihilation might be recorded. The Torah then appeared dressed in black and weeping bitterly. When the angels saw the Torah mourning, they also wept and said: ‘If the Jews will be destroyed, of what use will we be in the world?’ The sun and the moon, the sky and the earth likewise wrapped themselves in black and mourned. Thereupon Elijah ran and aroused the saints from their graves and said: ‘The sun and the moon are darkened; the sky and the earth are wrapped in mourning; the Torah and the Angels weep and you lie peacefully.’
“ ‘What happened?’ the saints asked and Elijah said: ‘It is decreed to annihilate the Jews.’
“ ‘Is not there even one pious man in this generation?’ Moses asked and Elijah replied: ‘There is one saintly Jew named Mordechai.’
“ ‘Then go to him,’ Moses said, ‘and tell him to pray to God. We will also pray until God will have mercy and He will annul His decree.’”24)מדרש אסתר רבה פּרשה ז׳.