THE LIFE OF THIS PROMINENT “AMORA” consisted of an unbroken chain of misfortunes. His parents he did not know, for he became an orphan at his birth. His father died before Jochanan was born and his mother died in childbirth.1)קדושין ל״א ב׳. When he came of age and married, Rabbi Jochanan became the father of ten sons all of whom died before him. Rabbi Jochanan then carried about the tooth of his tenth son who had died and he pointed out on all occasions that “this is a bone of my dead tenth son.”2)ברכות ה׳ ב׳.
The occupation of Rabbi Jochanan’s father was hinted at when Rabbi Jochanan was called “the son of the blacksmith.”3)כתובות כ״ה ב׳, בבא מציעא פּ״ה ב׳, סנהדרין צ״ו א׳, ירושלמי ראש השנה פרק ב׳ הלכה ה׳. Since his father died before his birth, Rabbi Jochanan lived with his grandfather who made him the pupil of Rabbi Simeon bar Elazar.4)ירושלמי מעשרות פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳.
Rabbi Jochanan was gifted by nature with the highest physical and spiritual qualities. He possessed deep understanding exceeding that of others and he was renowned for his beauty.5)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ג׳ הלכה א׳. His diligence was also uncommon and love of the Torah filled his whole being. Only once did he forsake study of the Torah when a friend of his named Ilfa, who was older and probably also better educated than Rabbi Jochanan, suggested that they engage in business in partnership. However, this venture did not last long and Rabbi Jochanan soon realized that it was undesirable to leave the permanent values of the Torah for the transitory gains of commerce. He then parted with his friend Ilfa and returned to the academy.6)תענית כ״א א׳.
The years of Rabbi Jochanan’s youth coincided with the period of the last Tanaim and he often told of how in his early youth he attended the academy of the Nasi Rabbi Jehudah where he sat 17 rows behind Rav (Aba Arecha) and he listened to the debates between the two whose words flew like coals of fire, but which he could not understand because of his unripe age.7)חולין קל״ז ב׳.
Later Rabbi Jochanan was a pupil of Rabbi Jannai Raba,8)בבא מציעא פּ״ח ב׳, בבא בתרא קנ״ד א׳. but he also attended the lectures of Rabbi Chanina bar Chama,9)נדה כ״ו ב׳, ירושלמי הוריות פרק ב׳ הלכה ח׳. and when he began to lecture in the academy of Rabbi Banaa, Rabbi Chanina pronounced a benediction and praised God that he had been allowed to see the fruit of his labor.10)ירושלמי בבא מציעא פרק ב׳ הלכה י״א. But even after he already ranked among the scholars, Rabbi Jochanan still heeded the words of older scholars and for a period of thirteen years he often attended the lectures of Rabbi Oshaiah in Caesarea.11)ירושלמי ערובין פרק ה׳ הלכה א׳, סנהדרין פרק י״א הלכה ו׳.
From the above we may conclude that Rabbi Jochanan was ready to learn from every one, but the foundation of his learning was the Mishna of the Nasi Rabbi Jehudah. The Mishna he considered as his highest authority and he often repeated that “I have nothing but the Mishna.”12)ירושלמי תרומות פרק ב׳ הלכה ג׳, קדושין פרק א׳ הלכה ב׳. He considered every word of the Mishna to be holy and he believed that nothing could be added nor detracted from it.13)ירושלמי נזיר פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
Rabbi Jochanan weighed and analyzed every word in the Mishna just as other scholars did to the text of the Torah. Statements of earlier scholars were sacred in his eyes and he said: “The hearts of earlier scholars were as wide as the gate of a palace”14)ערובין נ״ג א׳. and “The least finger nail of an earlier scholar was of greater worth than the whole body of the later ones.”15)יומא ט׳ ב׳.
His belief in the words of earlier scholars was unshakable and every one of their statements was sacred in his eyes. He delved in antiquities and no other Amora strived as hard as he did to retain for later generations all the old traditions and what they signified. He therefore said: “Whatever is written in the Mishna has been commanded to Moses from Mount Sinai.”16)ירושלמי פּאה פרק ב׳ הלכה ו׳.
Many customs of that time were considered by the other scholars to have been originated by the “Soferim” for various purposes and any man who broke one of these customs was merely said to have transgressed a Rabbinical commandment. But Rabbi Jochanan declared, that even such customs as those regulating the quantity of matter in questions pertaining to the prohibition of the use of certain articles17)יומא ה׳ א׳, ירושלמי פּאה פרק א׳ הלכה א׳. or the customs of beating willow branches and pouring water during the feast of Succoth were laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai.18)ירושלמי שביעית פרק א׳ הלכה ו׳. Likewise he declared that the Biblical prohibition against eating the fruit of trees which only began to bear, was mandatory also outside of Palestine as a Mosaic law.19)ירושלמי ערלה פרק ג׳ הלבה ח׳. It is also characteristic that he always spoke highly of the rabbinical commandments because of the fact that he considered all of these to partake of the same sacredness as the biblical commandments,20)פּסחים נ׳ ב׳. and in this connection he said: “The words of the scholars are very near to the words of the Torah and often they are even more loved by the people than the words of the Torah.”21)ירושלמי ברכות פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳.
Aside from his great learning Rabbi Jochanan was also renowned for his moral qualities which were equalled only by few others. Because of his love for learning he despised wordly advantage and he preferred a life of suffering if only he would not be disturbed in the sacred work. From his father, or from his grandfather, he inherited a small field between Sephoris and Tiberias, and even this he sold in order to be free from mundane cares.
The death of his sons he suffered patiently and he found consolation in his studies. He was kind to all, even to his slave whom he gave meat to eat and wine to drink. When he was asked for the cause of such treatment of his slave he replied: “The slave was born in the same manner that I was born.”22)ירושלמי בבא קמא פרק ח׳ הלכה ד׳.
But although he led a pious life he believed that for the welfare of the community, or even for that of an individual, it was permissible to depart from the strict letter of the law. It was thus related that weak from hunger he once ate food without ascertaining whether it was clean. Another time he ruled that it was permissible to desecrate the Sabbath to save the life of a sick man who would later live to observe many Sabbaths.23)ירושלמי יומא פרק ח׳ הלכה ח׳. He also appeared indifferent to the habit of the people of painting various images on the walls of their houses under the influence of their Greek neighbors, although this was against the injunction of the Bible not to make any graven images.24)ירושלמי עבודה זרה פרק ג׳ הלכה ג׳.
He was likewise tolerant in his interpretation of Biblical passages. Thus he explained that the injunction not to let “thy brother’s ox or his sheep go astray” (Deut. 22) applied even to the possessions of one who had renounced his Judaism.25)עבודה זרה כ״ו ב׳. He also sought to modify the rule which forbade Jews to eat the flesh of an animal that was slaughtered by a Samaritan, if the slaughter was carried out in the presence of a Jew, who could testify that it had been performed according to law. It was then said that Rabbi Jochanan once ate of such flesh.26)חולין ה׳ ב׳.
Due to the difficult political and economic circumstances of the country, many sought to emigrate and to settle in the neighboring lands. In an attempt to stem the tide of emigration, the Talmudic teachers declared that any scholar who left the country to settle in a foreign land was to be excluded from their society. Rabbi Jochanan, on the other hand, was opposed to this measure.27)ירושלמי דמאי פרק ב׳ הלכה ג׳.
In addition to his tolerance Rabbi Jochanan also preached patience toward sinners. This was especially true in the case of the relations with the Romans. The Romans showed contempt for the Jews and the latter repaid them with the same measure. Since the Romans ridiculed Jewish wisdom and learning, the Jews underestimated the value of the Gentile sciences. It was then that Rabbi Jochanan declared that God had granted a share of wisdom to the Gentile nations and it was therefore possible for them to say wise things.28)מגלה ט״ז א׳.
He shared the reverence of the other Amoraim for the scholars and he often said that they were the “master builders” of the world.29-30)29־30) שבת קי״ד א׳. He expressed a similar sentiment when he said that “the Torah was like a fortress about the Jewish people and the scholars were its bastions.31)פּסחים פּ״ז א׳. This was only true, he added, when a scholar served the Torah with all his might and renounced all worldly interests for the sake of spiritual interests,32)ירושלמי מועד קטן פרק ג׳ הלכה ז׳. when he ignored all earthly gain,33)חגיגה ט״ו ב׳. and when he did not desecrate the honor of the Torah by vain pride.34)ערובין נ״ה א׳. Only one who possessed the above mentioned qualities could, in Rabbi Jochanan’s opinion, be considered a “master builder” of the world and a worthy guardian of the Torah. Such a man could be compared to a myrtle which grows in the desert.35)ראש השנה כ״ג א׳.
And when Rabbi Jochanan thought that he had not sufficiently stressed the worth of the Torah, he added that even a bastard, who according to law could not be admitted into a Jewish family till the tenth generation, even he, if he is a scholar, is a more important one than an ignorant High Priest.36)הוריות י״ז א׳.
The contemporaries of Rabbi Jochanan also gave preference to the rich, and of this attitude he said: “Not wealth nor noble descent are the measure of a man’s worth, but only his knowledge of the Torah.”37)ירושלמי שבת פרק ב׳ הלכה ג׳.
Patiently he suffered misfortune and without complaint he bore his poverty, but he could not brook opposition to his opinions and he could easily become an enemy to one who opposed him in these. While he was still in Sephoris, he could not tolerate the Amora Rabbi Chanina bar Chama who disagreed with him. When he realized that he would never convince Rabbi Chanina of his own correctness, he left Sephoris and settled in Tiberias.38)ירושלמי שביעית פרק ט׳ הלכה י״א. Rabbi Jochanan also clashed with his pupil Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath who refrained from quoting his name when he repeated his opinions.39)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ב׳ הלכה א׳. Rabbi Jochanan then said: “Whatever Rabbi Elazar says he probably heard from me.”40)ירושלמי יבמות פרק ג׳ הלכה י׳.
Once Rabbi Elazar repeated a law which he had heard from Rabbi Chanina concerning the share of a first born son in the inheritance of his father. Rabbi Jochanan then remarked: “It is strange that during all the years that I have sat at the feet of Rabbi Oshaia, I have not heard this law.” In saying this he meant to hint that Rabbi Elazar quoted Rabbi Oshaia in order to lend weight to an opinion which was his own. To this Rabbi Elazar replied: “Why is it strange? It is a common matter that one should hear something from his master which another has not heard.”41)ירושלמי יבמות פרק ג׳ הלכה ז׳.
But most characteristic of Rabbi Jochanan were his relations with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish. Rabbi Simeon was a devoted friend of Rabbi Jochanan who often boasted that he introduced him into the mysteries of the Torah. Nevertheless he would tolerate no disagreement on his part and whenever Rabbi Simeon opposed him, Rabbi Jochanan complained that “even the members of my own family are against me.”42)כתובות נ״ד ב׳.
However, these shortcomings of Rabbi Jochanan were overlooked by the people who only saw his great achievements toward increasing the worth and the influence of the Torah and his own importance grew in their eyes as a result of his efforts. Rabbi Oshaia, who was probably the head of the academy of Tiberias, meanwhile died and Rabbi Jochanan succeeded to this office. Hosts of disciples then flocked to him and his name became known throughout the land, even to Babylonia.
Rabbi Jochanan showed great reverence for the scholars of Babylonia and he was angered when he heard them slighted. His words were also held in great respect in that country and it was sufficient for him to inform them what the law was and his opinion was accepted.43)שבת קט״ו א׳. Rabbi Chisda was the only one in Babylonia who dared to disagree with Rabbi Jochanan and he declared that even if he were to receive instructions from Rabbi Jochanan he would disobey them.44)ברכות כ״ד ב׳. On another occasion, while disputing with a disciple of Rabbi Jochanan, he similarly remarked: “Who heeds you or your master Rabbi Jochanan.”45)פּסחים ל״ג ב׳, נדרים נ״ט א׳.
Rav (Aba Arecha) and Shmuel (Yarchinai) were at that time the heads of the academies in Babylonia. When Rabbi Jochanan addressed messages to that country, he always wrote to Rav whom he called “our teacher in Babylonia,” but after the death of Rav he refused to recognize Shmuel as an authority in legal matters, and in his letters to him, he addressed him as “our friend in Babylonia.” Shmuel was offended by this attitude and as proof of his authority in Halacha he sent to Rabbi Jochanan a calculation of the seasons and a calendar of leap years for sixty years. But Rabbi Jochanan said that one may be an expert in reckoning the seasons and yet not be an authority in Halacha. Shmuel then sent him “thirteen camels” (?) laden with questions pertaining to the laws of cleanliness and only then did Rabbi Jochanan exclaim: “There is a teacher in Babylonia.”46)חולין צ״ה ב׳.
Rabbi Jochanan found a staunch adherent in Rabbi Jehudah N’sia I, the grandson of Rabbi Jehudah. He realized that the needs of his office as well as his personal benefit required such an attitude, and knowing of Rabbi Jochanan’s sensitive nature in everything that touched his personal honor, the Nasi refrained from offending him in any manner. The Nasi also supported Rabbi Jochanan with the authority of his office and he provided for all his needs.47)סוטה כ״א א׳. The power of the Nasi was then still great enough to enable him to enforce his regulations with the aid of the government. This power greatly aided Rabbi Jochanan to put his religious regulations into effect.
Rabbi Jochanan particularly strived to impress upon the people the significance of prayers which had been introduced some time before, but which apparently were neglected. Everybody realized that since the destruction of the temple prayers came to take the place of sacrifices. It therefore became necessary that a man of the authority of Rabbi Jochanan should establish the proper significance of prayers.
Rabbi Jochanan then declared that “he who wears phylacteries, pronounces the Shema and recites his prayers, is like one who has built an altar and has offered a sacrifice.”48)ברכות ט״ו א׳. He also ruled that every man should pray in a place specially appointed for this purpose,49)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ה׳ הלכה א׳. for “whoever establishes a special place where he recites his prayers, his enemies shall fall before his feet, and when a congregation prays together then it is a time when God is ready to fulfill the wishes of the supplicants.”50)ברכות ה׳ א׳. When a man is told to be the messenger of the congregation, he is not told: “Go and pray for us!”, but rather should he be told: “Go and offer a sacrifice for us, pray for our needs and fight our battles!”51)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ד׳ הלכה ד׳.
We have mentioned above that Rabbi Jochanan was a pupil of Rabbi Jehudah in his early youth. In his later years he paid tribute to his master by saying that he would never have reached his position as a scholar if he “had not seen Rabbi Jehudah’s finger portruding from under his mantle.”52)ירושלמי ביצה פרק ה׳ הלכה ב׳.
Regarding Rabbi Johanan’s birth there exists a legend that on a Day of Atonement a pregnant woman was seized with a great craving for food. Rabbi Jehudah was consulted and he suggested that the woman be reminded that it was the Day of Atonement. When this was done, her craving for food vanished and she completed her fast. This woman was said to be the mother of Rabbi Jochanan.53)יומא פּ״ב ב׳.*)In the Jerusalem Talmud (Yoma, 8:4) this story is related as concerning two women, one of whom completed her fast while the other remained unaffected by the reminder; it is there said to have occurred during the time of Rabbi Tarphon.
Rabbi Jochanan was raised in the house of his grandfather and partly in the home of the Nasi who prophesied that he would some day be a teacher among Jews.54)פּסחים ג׳ ב׳. He survived all his comrades and even the grandson of Rabbi Jehudah. Since he lived till the fourth generation of Amoraim, he witnessed the decline of the Nasi and the loss of his prestige.
It is told that whenever Rabbi Jochanan was immersed in his studies, he was not aware of what transpired about him. Thus he once sat before the synagogue in Sephoris engaged in his studies. A high Roman official happened to pass by, but Rabbi Jochanan did not notice him and did not accord him his due honors. The servants of the official were ready to attack Rabbi Jochanan, but the Roman prevented them from doing so, for he understood that it was not out of lack of respect that the honor was denied to him.55)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ה׳ הלכה א׳.
Rabbi Jochanan was a strong and stout man.56)ברכות י״ג ב׳. As he was once ascending some stairs, supported by Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi, the stairs caved in under his weight and his two disciples carried him up in their arms. The scholars then asked him: “If you are so strong, why do you lean on others?”, but Rabbi Jochanan replied: “I must spare my strength for my old age.”57)כתובות ס״ב א׳.
But above all Rabbi Jochanan was gifted with great beauty.58)ברכות כ׳ א׳. It was also remarkable that he was beardless and as he was once bathing in the river a passerby mistook him for a woman and waded after him into the water.59)בבא מציעא פּ״ד א׳. The Talmud further relates that Rabbi Jochanan himself declared: “I am the only one remaining of the beautiful men of Jerusalem,” and when people spoke of his beauty, they said: “If one would have some conception of the beauty of Rabbi Jochanan, he must take a silver beaker just out from the hands of the silversmith and fill it with red flowers, then he should surround it with a wreath of red roses and place it between the sun and the shade; the reflection of the beaker on the ground will then resemble the beauty of Rabbi Jochanan.”
His diligence in his studies so weakened Rabbi Jochanan that he could not wear the phylacteries all day. During the winter he wore the phylacteries on arm and head, but during the summer, when his head felt weak, he merely wore the phylacteries of the arm. But in order that others should not copy his example, he explained to his disciples that it was only due to his weakness that he took these liberties.59a)59א) ירושלמי ברכות פרק ב׳ הלכה ג׳.
Of all the books of the Bible R. Jochanan preferred the book of Job and after each reading he exclaimed: “Death is the end of man; slaughter is the end of animals; all that exists is doomed to die. Happy is he who was raised in the Torah and who devoted his efforts to it. Such a person brings joy to his Creator when his good name grows and when he leaves the world with a fair name.”60)ברכות י״ז א׳.
We have already noted Rabbi Jochanan’s attitude toward prayer and his insistence that people should pray in congregations. To this he added that when God comes into a synagogue and does not find there a quorum of Jews (a “minyan” of ten) He is angered thereby.61)ברכות ו׳ ב׳.
Every time that Rabbi Jochanan finished his prayers, he concluded with the following words: “May it be Thy will, oh Lord our God, that You should see our shame and observe our plight and that You should don Your great mercy and cover Yourself with Your strength and wrap Yourself with Your righteousness and gird Yourself with Your forgiveness and may the measure of Your goodness and Your modesty come before You.”62)ברכות ט״ז ב׳.
Rabbi Jochanan is also said to have shown respect to every person and whenever he saw an old man he rose before him even if the man was of another faith, he would then say: “So much suffering the man withstood and if in spite of all he lived to old age he deserves that honor be accorded to him.”63)קדושין ל״ג א׳.
But his attitude toward the scholars of Babylonia was contradictory. The political and economic situation of Palestine then resulted in the establishment of a Jewish center in Babylonia. The might of the Romans broke at the gates of Babylonia and the Jews enjoyed numerous liberties in that country. When young men came from Babylonia to study in the academy of Rabbi Jochanan, he befriended them, but nevertheless he sometimes allowed himself to make fun of them. When asked why he did so, Rabbi Jochanan replied: “The prophet Hosea allowed himself to mock the Jews of the foreign lands when he said that they are despised in the eyes of God who exiled them to foreign lands for their disobedience. Then why should I not allow myself the same?”64)שיר השירים רבה פּרשה ה׳ פּיסקא א׳.
But Rabbi Jochanan’s mockery was good natured in character. This, for instance, was the case when he was explaining some passages to one of his pupils, but he realized that the latter did not understand what he was told. He then asked him: “What is the cause of your lack of understanding of that which I tell you?” The pupil replied: “It is because I am exiled from my home.” “And where is your home?” Rabbi Jochanan further asked.
“In Bursif,” the pupil replied.
“Oh, in Bulsif!” Rabbi Jochanan mocked his pronounciation, for the Babylonians pronounced the letter r with difficulty.
Another time he remarked to his pupil Rabbi Chiya bar Aba: “How could you become interested in learning in Babylonia, where you were always busy eating dates?”65)בבא בתרא ק״ז ב׳.
On the same subject he also said: “Even if all the Jews had returned from Babylonia together with Ezra, the Shechinah would still not have rested on the second temple, for the Babylonian Jews suffered from the Biblical curse that God would give them a heart full of unrest which would not calm even with their coming to Palestine.”66)נדרים כ״ב א׳, שיר השירים רבה פּרשה ח׳ פּיסקא י׳.
But Rabbi Jochanan also had kind words to say of Babylonia. Thus he explained the name Babylonia to mean “varied” or “confused” and he pointed out that the Jews of Babylonia engaged in the study of all branches of the Torah such as Scriptures, Mishna and Gemara.67)שבת קמ״ה ב׳.
Ofttimes he would also say: “Why did God choose to exile the Jews to Babylonia? This may be compared to a man who is angered with his wife and sends her away from his house; he then sends her to her mother’s house. God did likewise with the Jews; He exiled them to the land whence their mothers came.”68)פּסחים פּ״ז ב׳.
The political situation of that time is mirrored in the sayings of Rabbi Jochanan. Whenever the scholars wanted to discuss this problem they generally did so by speaking of the times of the coming of Messiah. When we analyze their discources we can obtain a clear picture of the events of that time. These discourses also served to revive the courage of the people in the face of their misfortunes which were explained to be the “pains of Messiah” preceding the redemption. We thus possess hundreds of statements by Rabbi Jochanan from which we may learn of the conditions of his time and also his philosophy of life which is of worth for all times.
“In the generation that will mark the coming of Messiah,” Rabbi Jochanan said, “scholars will diminish and all men will sigh with sorrow. There will be many misfortunes and numerous evil decrees will be promulgated daily; before one decree will be enforced, another one will be enacted.”69)סנהדרין צ״ז א׳.
When Rabbi Jochanan was telling the story of Jacob who was waiting for Esau and who meanwhile prayed to God: “Spare me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau,” he remarked: “Such is the way of an evil kingdom when it desires to seize the property of men; it appoints one to be an overseer and another to be tax collector. All this is done in order to take away from the people that which they possess.”70)בראשית רבה פּרשה ע״ו פּיסקא ח׳.
It is also related that Rabbi Jochanan never smiled and that he was always sorrowing. He declared: “One must never laugh as long as the Jews are in exile and the promise that the Gentile nations will see the miracles that have been performed for the Jews has not yet been fulfilled.”71)ברכות ל״א א׳.
We have already written concerning his reverence for the Torah. In this category belong his statements that “the Torah clings to that person who in his modesty acts as if he did not exist at all,”72)סוטה כ״א ב׳. and “if one has learned much but does not observe the commandments, it would have been better had he not been born.”73)שמות רבה פּרשה מ׳ פּיסקא א׳.
“Out of reverence for the Torah,” he said, “it is a shame for a scholar to go about in patched shoes and it is a sin punishable by death for a scholar to go about in a spotted garment.”74)שבת קי״ד א׳.
The praise which he expressed for prayer in congregations, he somewhat modified in his old age when due to weakness he often wore only the phylacteries of the arm and he said: “Whoever prays at home is like one who has surrounded his prayer with an iron wall.”75)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ה׳ הלכה א׳.
Rabbi Jochanan had ten sons and all of them died during his lifetime. In order to console him one of the scholars said that he who buries his sons during his lifetime, God will forgive his sins. But Rabbi Jochanan denied this and said that “sickness and the death of children are not a punishment which God visits upon a person out of love,76)ברכות ה׳ ב׳. but rather is it true that “he who leaves no sons to inherit him, has incurred God’s anger.”77)בבא בתרא קט״ז א׳. He believed instead that exile, rightlessness, the hardships of wandering and restlessness are conditions that forgive man’s sins.78)סנהדרין ל״ז ב׳.
Various authorities of his time forbade the writing down of the Talmudic legends, but Rabbi Jochanan declared that one who studies the legends out of a book will not forget it so readily.79)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ה׳ הלכה א׳. Another time he came out against writing down the “Halacha” (the law) and said that “whoever writes down the laws is like one who has burned the Torah and he who studies law from a book will receive no reward.”80)תמורה י״ד ב׳.
During the numerous clashes between the Romans and the Parthians who ruled in Babylonia, Rabbi Jochanan always hoped for the victory of the Parthians and he often repeated the statement that was credited to Rabbi Jehudah that the Romans would in the end be vanquished by the Parthians.*)We have already remarked that the Talmud often confused the name of the Parthians who originated in the lands about the Euphrates with the Persians who ruled Babylonia at a later date.
This statement he further amplified by reasoning as follows: “If the first temple that was built by Jews and was destroyed by the Chaldeans, caused the Chaldeans to be conquered by the Persians; the second temple that was built by Persians and destroyed by Romans, would certainly cause the Romans to be conquered by the Persians.”
Rav (Aba Arecha), on the other hand, looked forward to a victory of the Romans. But the hopes of neither came to pass, for the Persian “Chabarim” (Zoroastrians) meanwhile took over the government of Babylonia. When Rabbi Jochanan heard of this he felt disappointed in all his hopes.81)יבמות ס״ג ב׳.
A period of turbulence and upheaval at that time affected all the countries wherein Jews lived. After the death of Alexander Severus, Rome underwent a period of unrest and emperors changed rapidly. In Babylonia a prince of the house of Sassan, named Ardeshir (or Artachshaster) revolted against Artaban, the last of the Parthian dynasty. The struggle in Babylonia was more of a religious nature. Artaban was favorably inclined to the Greek form of worship which penetrated the country and the population revolted against the innovation. The rebel Artachshaster therefore easily overcame the ruling king and established a new dynasty in place of the old one which had ruled the country for 466 years.
The new rulers of Babylonia, historically known as the Sassanides, are referred to in Jewish writings as “Chabarim.” These were worshippers of fire and they believed in a dual deity of light and darkness. Zealously they persecuted all those who refused their teachings and they were especially vengeful toward the Greeks and Christians. The Jews also met with suffering but they were not persecuted with such fury as were the Greeks and Christians. The latter were offered a choice between acceptance of the law of Zoroaster or emigration. Those who stubbornly clung to their beliefs were executed.
Jews were deprived of the right to judge in cases affecting life and as long as they remained neutral to the dominant religion they were tolerated in a measure. This attitude was not a result of kindness but was rather due to the fact that the Jews offered a great resistance to the “Chabarim.” Since they lived in Babylonia in compact masses it was difficult to subdue them.
The affliction of the Jews under the rule of the “Chabarim” could nevertheless easily compare with their plight under the Romans. They remained undisturbed in their religious life only so long as they did not use fire for any purpose. When they lit candles on the eve of Sabbath or on Chanukah these had to be hidden and any person that was caught keeping fire in his house was condemned to death.
The Jews of Palestine then felt that their plight was incomparable and the Jews of Babylonia were convinced that the conditions in Palestine were more favorable. When the news of these developments reached Palestine, the Jews of that country began to say that the Romans were honorable men even in their oppression while the “Chabarim” were no more than barbarians.
When Rabbi Jochanan became convinced that no help could come from Babylonia he began to look forward to aid from Tiberias which was the last home of the Sanhedrin.82)ראש השנה ל״א ב׳. In order to encourage the people and to persuade them to remain in the country he declared that God said: “I cannot enter the heavenly Jerusalem until I have come to Jerusalem on earth,”83)תענית ה׳ א׳. or “he who walks four ells in Palestine is certain of his share in life to come.”84)כתובות קי״א א׳.
Another time he said: “What good deeds had Omri, king of Israel, done that he merited the crown? It was because he added a city, Samaria, to the kingdom of Israel.”85)סנהדרין ק״ב ב׳.
Of the old age of Rabbi Jochanan it is told that for a period of three and a half years he did not come to the academy out of grief for his brother-in-law who had died.86)ירושלמי מגלה פרק א׳ הלכה י׳. When he realized that his death was approaching he instructed those that were to bury him that he be interred in a shroud which was neither black nor white. For if he be buried in a black shroud he may, at the resurrection, come to life among just men and he would be put to shame. Likewise if he be buried in a white shroud, he may come to life among wicked men and he would be shamed by his garment of a just man.87)ירושלמי כלאים פרק ט׳ הלכה ג׳, בראשית רבה פּרשה צ״ו פּיסקא ט׳.
According to tradition Rabbi Jochanan lived to a ripe old age. The “Chronicle” of Rav Sherira Gaon declares that he survived Rabbi Jehudah HaNasi by 68 years and that he died in the year 279. (C.E.)
Aside from the statements of Rabbi Jochanan that we have quoted so far in connection with various moments of his life there also exist many expressions of his that are concerned with the interpretation of passages of the Bible. Although most of these are of value only in exposition, some of them contain important philosophic observations concerning the conduct of men and the ways of the world.
At a certain period of Rabbi Jochanan’s life it was forbidden to the Jews to determine the month through lunar observation and the Romans were especially strict in preventing them from celebrating their holidays. At the same time the observance of the Sabbath was not interfered with. Under the influence of Rabbi Jochanan the court in Tiberias therefore decided to observe the Day of Atonement on a Sabbath, although it really occurred on a week day, in order to deceive the Romans. The exact date of this occurrence is unknown as is also the duration of this decree. We can only guess under what administration this took place, for we only find hints about this event.88)חולין קנ״ה ב׳. Historians are therefore confused as to the exact date and also as to the motive which prompted Rabbi Jochanan to instruct even the Jews of Babylonia to observe the Day of Atonement on a Sabbath, although the latter were not under the rule of the Romans and could have celebrated the Day of Atonement in its proper time. We find an explanation of this hinted in the statement of Rabbi Jochanan who said that the angels gather about God and ask him: “When is the New Year and when is the Day of Atonement?” and God answers them: “Why do you ask me? Let us go to the Court on earth and we will find out.”89)ירושלמי ראש השנה פרק א׳ הלכה ג׳. By this statement he meant to imply that the court in Tiberias had the complete right to determine holidays as it saw fit under the circumstances.
The following is a similar statement concerning the determination of holidays: If the court had said that today is New Year then God says to the angels: “Erect a platform and let the prosecutor and the defense appear before me, for my children have said that today is New Year and so it shall be.” If the Court decided to postpone the New Year till the following day, then God says to the angels: “Take this platform away and remove the prosecutor and the defense for my children have postponed the New Year till the following day and so it shall be.”
Rabbi Jochanan was always poor even when he headed the academy and when he received assistance from the Nasi. He then said: “When one depends on the charity of men, the color of his face changes to pale and blue.” In general we may assume that it was very difficult to earn a livelihood at that time from his statement that “It is difficult to earn a livelihood, twice as difficult as the pains of a woman in childbirth, more difficult than the arrival of the redemption.”90)פּסחים קי״ח א׳.
It appears that it was customary at that time for the people of a city to do the work of the scholars that resided there. When Rabbi Jochanan was asked how great a scholar one must be, to deserve such a service from his townsmen, he replied: “Only a scholar who renounces all worldly occupations and devotes himself solely to heavenly matters deserves this service; but the obligation rests on the people only to provide him with his daily bread but not with luxuries.”91)שבת קי״ד א׳.
Rabbi Jochanan therefore added: “One should eat an onion and sit in the shade and not eat geese and hens that his heart should not lust after such food.”92)פּסחים קי״ד א׳.
There are grounds to assume that he also believed in hypnotism and in the ability of a person to convince himself that he was in a healthy or a sickly state. Thus it is told that when Rabbi Chama bar Aba fell sick Rabbi Jochanan came to visit him and asked him: “Do you accept your suffering with love?”, by which he meant that suffering atones for the sins of man who enters the world to come purified of wrong doing. But the sick man replied: “I do not want the suffering nor its reward.” “Then give me your hand,” Rabbi Jochanan said. Rabbi Chama gave him his hand and he was healed.
Another version of this story relates that Rabbi Jochanan came to visit Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath who fell sick and he found him lying in a dark room. Rabbi Jochanan then bared his arm which illuminated the room and he saw that Rabbi Elazar was weeping. “What is the cause of your weeping?” he asked. “Is it because you have not studied as much as you had wanted to? We have a rule that it is all the same whether one studies much or little and that only the good intention counts. Do you weep because you cannot earn your livelihood? One cannot deserve two tables, the table of the Torah and the table of worldly goods. Do you weep that you leave no son? Then look at me that I carry a bone of my tenth son.”
To this Rabbi Elazar replied: “I weep because I am reminded that beauty such as yours will rot in the ground.” “For this one should weep,” Rabbi Jochanan responded, and they both wept.93)ברכות ה׳ ב׳.
Still another form of this story is told concerning Rabbi Jochanan and Rabbi Chanina.94)שיר השירים פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא ל״ה.
Rabbi Jochanan was punished by becoming afflicted with a disease for three and a half years. Rabbi Chanina came to visit him and said: “What do you ail from?”, to which the other replied: “It is more than I can bear.” “You must not say so,” Rabbi Chanina answered, “you should rather say that God is just.” It is further related that when Rabbi Jochanan’s pains increased, Rabbi Chanina pronounced an incantation and the pain ceased. We may conclude from this Midrash that Rabbi Jochanan believed in incantations.
It must be remarked, however, that this matter is not entirely clear, for Rabbi Akiba had already declared that “one who attempts to heal a wound with incantations loses his share in the life to come.”95)סנהדרין ק״א א׳, שבועות מ״ז ב׳.
When people wondered that a man like Rabbi Jochanan, who lived in poverty and who devoted all his energies to study, nevertheless retained good health, he said: “My father comes from a healthy family and I can do without meat, but under present conditions it is best that any man who has money should immediately spend it and buy meat.”96)חולין פּ״ד א׳.
We may add the following statements of Rabbi Jochanan to illustrate his great love for the Torah:
One who has many pupils but does not allow them to serve him is as if he had denied them his kindness,97)כתובות צ״ו א׳. for serving the Torah is often more important than study itself.98)ברכות ז׳ ב׳.
When Jews devote themselves to the Torah and to charity, their evil natures are under their control and not they under control of their evil natures.99)עבודה זרה ח׳ א׳. Study is of such importance that one who engages in it in this world is conducted into the academies of Shem and Eber, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, of Moses and of Aaron, in the world to come.100)100) שיר השירים רבה פּרשה ו׳ פּיסקא ח׳.
Three types of people are so rare that when they occur God speaks of them and He also wishes that people should note their qualities. The first is an unmarried man who lives in a great city and does not sin; the second is a poor man who returns what he finds to its owner; the third is a rich man who offers the tithes of his fruit so that no one should know of it.101)101) פּסחים קי״ג א׳.
There are three types of attractions: One is the attraction of a place in the eyes of its inhabitants; another is the attraction of a woman in the eyes of her husband; the third is the attraction of something bought in the eyes of its buyer.102)102) סוטה מ״ז א׳.
Rabbi Jochanan attached great importance to repentance and he said that “whoever believes that king Menasseh, the son of Hezekiah, has no share in the world to come, weakens the hands of penitents by making them believe that repentance is of no avail.”103)103) סנהדרין ק״ג א׳.
The following are among the other interesting statements of Rabbi Jochanan:
Great is the day when God will gather the exiled Jews—as great as the day on which He created heaven and earth.104)104) פּסחים פּ״ח א׳.
Deception with words is even worse than deception in money matters.105)105) בבא מציעא נ״ח א׳.
The prophets spoke only for those who give their daughter in marriage to a scholar, or who conduct the business of a scholar or who share their wealth with scholars.106)106) סנהדרין ק״ג א׳.
The observance of six types of commandments rewards men in this world while the principal of the good deed is rewarded in the world to come. These commandments are: hospitality to strangers, visiting the sick, careful prayer, rising early to go to the academy, raising children to the knowledge of the Torah and judging everyone according to his good deeds.107)107) שבת קכ״ז א׳.
When Rabbi Jochanan died, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elazar eulogized him in the following words: “This day is as difficult for the Jews as if the sun had suddenly set at midday.”108)108) מועד קטן כ״ה ב׳.
Rabbi Jochanan was called the “Editor of the Jerusalem Talmud.” This does not imply that he gathered and edited all the statements and opinions which we find in it, but rather that he conceived the idea that since Jewish life expanded to such a great extent, the Mishna was no longer sufficient and that it was necessary to gather everything which the scholars said in comment on the Mishna. This became the foundation for the Jerusalem Talmud.