NEXT TO RABBI JOCHANAN there was none among the “Amoraim” concerning whom so many legends were related as were told of Rabbi Zeira. These referred less to his greatness in learning than they did to his unusual personality and to the great friendship which united him with the other scholars who lived in Palestine during the fourth century of the Christian era. Rabbi Zeira came to Palestine from Babylonia when he was already well versed in learning. At the time of his arrival his opinions were already quoted in the academies of Babylonia and various occurrences of his life were being told. Rabbi Zeira was orphaned when he was very young. He was grieved at this and said: “I wish that I had a father and a mother; I would then honor them as much as possible in order to earn a share in the world to come.”
Once he heard it told that when a shoe fell off the foot of Rabbi Tarphon’s mother as she was walking outside, Rabbi Tarphon could not pick up the shoe because this happened during the Sabbath and he therefore placed his hand under his mother’s foot to prevent her from trodding the bare ground, and she thus walked until she reached her bed. The scholars then added that had Rabbi Tarphon done a thousand fold for his mother, he still would not have done even half of what one is supposed to do in order to honor his parents. Later Rabbi Zeira heard it said that the mother of Rabbi Ishmael once came before the scholars to complain that her son was not according her due honor. Greatly shocked they asked the woman what Rabbi Ishmael had done that she had found it necessary to come before them to complain and the woman answered: “Every time that my son comes home from the academy I want to wash his feet and to drink the water, but he would not allow me to do so.” The scholars then said to Rabbi Ishmael: “If this is her desire, you must honor it.”
When Rabbi Zeira heard these stories he exclaimed: “Blessed be the Lord that I have no father and mother for I could not do that which Rabbi Tarphon did and I would not want to do that which Rabbi Ishmael was advised to do.”1)ירושלמי קדושין פרק א׳ הלכה ז׳.
In Babylonia Rabbi Zeira acquired most of his learning from Rabbi Jehudah bar Ezekiel, head of the academy in Pumbeditha.2)ברכות ל״ט א׳, יבמות ע״ח בי. He was also a pupil of Rav Huna3)בבא קמא ט׳ א׳, ירושלמי שבת פרק ז׳ הלכה ב׳. and it is possible that he also attended the academy of Rav and Shmuel, although it is likely that the opinions which he quoted in their names he heard from their pupils. It is also known that he studied for a time with Rav Hisda.4)ביצה ל״ג ב׳, כתובות צ״ה א׳, ירושלמי שביעית פרק י׳ הלכה ב׳, ערובין פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
It is told that when Rabbi Zeira served his master Rav Huna, he once brought two glasses, one filled with wine and the other with oil, and he carried both glasses in the same hand. Rav Huna’s son then remarked: “Is your other hand cut off that you carry both glasses on one hand?”, and Rav Huna rebuked his son and said: “Is it not enough that a man like Rabbi Zeira is serving you that you also insult him?”5)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ח׳ הלכה ה׳.
Rabbi Zeira’s yearning for Palestine led him to leave his native land where he enjoyed great honor as a scholar. Before he left Babylonia he fasted one hundred times in order to eradicate from his mind that which he had learned there that it might not confuse his learning in Palestine.6)בבא מציעא פּ״ה א׳. Before leaving, Rabbi Zeira also minutely examined his own conduct to determine whether he was worthy to trod the Holy land. He then had a dream in which he saw barley and this he considered to be an omen that his sins had been forgiven.7)ברכות נ״ז א׳. Until the day of his departure Rabbi Zeira avoided his teacher Rabbi Jehudah for fear that the latter might forbid his settling in Palestine. Rabbi Jehudah was of the opinion that one who leaves Babylonia of his own will transgresses against Biblical verse which declares that the Jews would be brought to Babylonia and would remain there.8)שבת מ״א א׳.
As he approached Palestine, Rabbi Zeira reached a river and in his impatience he did not wait until he would find a boat but he discarded his garments and swam across. A Gentile who heard of this then said to him: “The Jews were always hasty and they remained so to this day. In your haste you could easily have been drowned.” But Rabbi Zeira answered him: “As I was standing at the border of Palestine, I wondered whether I was worthy to enter the land which Moses and Aaron could not enter.”9)כתובות קי״ב א׳.
Rabbi Zeira’s arrival made a great impression in the country and he immediately went to greet Rabbi Jochanan.10)קדושין נ״ב א׳. But his short stature and ungainly appearance earned for him nicknames such as “the black pot”11)עבודה זרה ט״ז ב׳. and “the small dark hunchback”.12)בבא מציעא פּ״ה א׳. It was later related that once every month Rabbi Zeira would fire an oven and enter the fire, and that the flames were powerless to harm him. But once he was affected by an “evil eye” and he was scorched by the flames which disfigured him.13)סנהדרין ל״ז א׳.
Upon his arrival in Palestine, Rabbi Zeira became a close friend of Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath14)נדה מ״ח א׳. from whom he learned much concerning the regulations pertaining to tithes.15)ירושלמי תרומות פרק י״א הלכה ג׳. He thus achieved an old ambition for it was said that while still in Babylonia Rabbi Zeira fasted one hundred times that he might find Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath alive when he would come to Palestine.16)בבא מציעא פּ״ה א׳. His closest friends, however were Rabbi Ami, Rabbi Asi and Rabbi Chiya bar Aba.17)חולין מ״ט ב׳, ק״ז א׳. It appears that he knew these men from Babylonia and he merely renewed an old friendship when he met them in Palestine. He was especially anxious to derive as much information as possible from Rabbi Asi, who was by nature an angry man and resented too much questioning.18)בבא בתרא פּ״ד ב׳. Nevertheless it is recorded that Rabbi Zeira questioned him whenever he found his explanations unsatisfactory.19)שבת ק״ל ב׳.
Of Rabbi Chiya bar Aba Rabbi Zeira said: “You may consider it a rule that Rabbi Chiya always repeated the exact opinions of Rabbi Jochanan.”20)ברכות ל״ג ב׳. Rabbi Zeira himself also scrupulously quoted the names of the scholars whose opinions he repeated.21)ירושלמי שבת פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳, קדושין פרק א׳ הלכה ז׳.
Rabbi Zeira was also highly regarded by Rabbi Avahu who considered him as his disciple,22)נדרים ל״ו א׳, ירושלמי ברכות פרק ח׳ הלכה ב׳. and when he fell sick, Rabbi Avahu promised to give a feast upon his recovery.23)ברכות מ״ו א׳.
When Rabbi Zeira settled in Palestine he hoped to obtain ordination in that country. No ordinations were then being conferred in Babylonia. But in many of his statements he expressed his abhorrence of people who bought their ordination as frequently happened in Tiberias at that time. He would then purposely sit in places where scholars went by and whenever he saw one who, he thought, did not deserve the title of Rabbi, he would ostentatiously remain seated. To all other scholars he accorded due honor.24)ברכות כ״ח א׳, ערובין כ״ח ב׳.
Finally Rabbi Zeira obtained his ordination. In Babylonia it was said that he hid for a long time in order to avoid ordination.25)סנהדרין י״ד א׳. On the day that he was ordained, his colleagues sang his praise and the Nasi sent him gifts which he refused to accept. But when he was invited to the Nasi’s table, he accepted the invitation out of respect for the Nasi.26)מגלה כ״ח א׳.
By trade Rabbi Zeira was a weaver and he once asked Rabbi Avahu how much effort he might devote to beautifying his cloth without deceiving the buyers with its beauty at the expense of its quality.27)ירושלמי בבא מציעא פרק ד׳ הלכה ז׳.
In his time the Roman government prohibited the Jews from engaging in fasts. Rabbi Zeira was greatly worried when he heard of this regulation for he was devoted to fasting as may be seen from the previous description of his prolonged fasts.28)תענית ט״ז א׳.
Because of his conduct Rabbi Zeira was called the “Pious from Babylonia”.29)חולין קכ״ב א׳. He loved peace and he sought every opportunity to effect a reconciliation whenever someone offended him.30)יומא פּ״ז א׳.
The name Zeira was popular in Babylonia at that time. It appears to have been a diminutive endearing form used for children who were born late in the lives of their parents.
Rabbi Zeira’s parents died when he was still young. Of his father it is known that he was a tax collector for the Babylonian government for a period of thirteen years. It was told that he always protected the scholars from too heavy tax burdens.31)סנהדרין כ״ה ב׳. He is also mentioned in connection with scholarly matters when he questioned a regulation of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi.32)תענית כ״ו ב׳.
On the day that Rabbi Zeira arrived in Palestine, he met a butcher who allowed himself to ridicule him, partly because of his appearance and partly because all Babylonian Jews were exposed to ridicule. Rabbi Zeira seemed to be a subject for mirth in the eyes of the butcher into whose shop he came to buy meat. When he asked the price of the meat the butcher named a sum and said that in addition to this sum the customer must be struck a blow with the hammer. Rabbi Zeira offered a higher price for the meat if he would be spared the blow, but the butcher insisted on his original statement and Rabbi Zeira finally consented.
When Rabbi Zeira came to the academy that evening, he asked the meaning of this custom that every buyer of meat must receive a blow. All those present were surprised when they heard his question and they asked Rabbi Zeira where he had seen such a custom practiced. He then named the butcher and the scholars wished to send for him in order to have him punished for shaming a scholar, but they were informed that the butcher died on that same day. When they heard this, they believed that Rabbi Zeira must have cursed the butcher, but he assured them that he did not curse him and that he believed this to be the custom of the city. The scholars then concluded that Rabbi Zeira must be a very important man if God administered summary punishment to one who had insulted him.33)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ג׳ הלכה ה׳.
The modesty of Rabbi Zeira is further illustrated by the following statement: “If the generations which preceded us were like angels then we are like men; if they were like men then we are like asses.”34)שבת קי״ב ב׳, ירושלמי שקלים פרק ה׳ הלכה א׳. He further said that when the Torah spoke of the cure of leprosy it referred to the cure of the flesh. From this he concluded that when one is humble and lowly as the flesh, he would be cured; but one who is proud would never be healed.35)סוטה ד׳ א׳.
Despite Rabbi Zeira’s physical handicaps he always hastened to fulfill all commandments for he had heard it said that in order to fulfill a commandment one may run even during the Sabbath when running is ordinarily forbidden. He thus declared that “the reward for learning is the haste with which one goes to the place of learning.”36)ברכות ו׳ ב׳. Another characteristic attribute of Rabbi Zeira was his insistence that the name of the author should always be mentioned when he was quoted. On one occasion he even forced Rabbi Asi to admit that a statement which he had repeated in the name of a certain Amora, he had really heard from a pupil of that Amora.37)עבודה זרה ל״ו ב׳.
Rabbi Zeira considered the spoken word to be sacred and he insisted that everyone should fulfill his promise. He held it to be especially important to fulfill promises made to children in order that they might not learn to tell falsehoods.38)סוכה מ״ו ב׳.
But it is noteworthy that despite the modesty of Rabbi Zeira he demanded that due honor be accorded to scholars and he objected to their self debasement even when that was done during the fulfillment of a commandment. When he saw Rav Shmuel bar Yitzchak at a wedding, dancing before the bride with three torches in his hands which he threw into the air and caught again, Rabbi Zeira remarked: “The old man makes a fool of himself and he also shames us.”39)כתובות י״ז א׳.
Rabbi Zeira did not tolerate the Hagada. At that time there were already numerous books of Hagada extant and he referred to them as “books of witchcraft”. He also commanded one of his pupils to refrain from studying Hagada because he would learn nothing from it.40)ירושלמי מעשרות פרק ג׳ הלכה ד׳.
The observance of a commandment was of lesser importance in the eyes of Rabbi Zeira than the beautification of the act and he therefore said that one may spend one third of the cost of fulfilling a commandment in order to make its fulfillment more attractive.41)בבא קמא ט׳ ב׳.
Rabbi Zeira stayed in the academy day and night and engaged in study. When he felt weak from overwork he would go to the door of the academy. There he would see scholars coming and going and he would listen to their discourses and he would feel refreshed.42)ברכות כ״ח א׳, ערובין כ״ח ב׳.
A remarkable story is related of Rabbi Zeira and Raba who once became drunk during Purim festivities. While he was intoxicated, Raba killed Rabbi Zeira. On the following day he saw what he had done and he prayed to God and Rabbi Zeira was resurrected. The following year they made no feast for fear that the miracle might not occur a second time if needed.43)מגלה ז׳ ב׳.
Rabbi Zeira lived to a ripe old age and when his disciples asked him what he attributed his long life to, he said: “I was never angry at anyone in my house and I never ran ahead of one who was greater than myself; likewise I never went a distance of four ells without Torah and phylacteries. I never pondered divine matters in unclean places and I never slept in the academy, not even an accidental nap. I was never glad at the misfortune of others nor did I ever nickname other people.”44)מגלה כ״ח א׳, תענית כ׳ ב׳.
When Rabbi Zeira died he was eulogised in the following words: “Babylonia gave him birth; the Land of Israel reared him as its darling; woe to the city of Tiberias that it had lost its most attractive vessel.”45)מועד קטן כ״ה בי.
The following story is related of Rabbi Zeira’s influence even after his death: “In the neighborhood of Rabbi Zeira’s house there lived some wicked men whom he rebuked for their evil and he prayed to God that they might improve their ways. The other scholars disapproved of this because even as they believed that it was a good deed to rebuke a person who might change his ways so also they considered it a sin to rebuke people who were hardened in sin. After the death of Rabbi Zeira, his wicked neighbors said: ‘Until now the short dark man prayed for us and protected us. Now that he is dead who will pray for us?’ They thereupon repented their sins.”