Yehoshua ben Levi, Aggadata, and the Angel of Death

R. Yehoshua b. Levi (Amoraim - First Generation, c.220 - c.250 CE) was known for his piety as well as his scholarship, and is frequently quoted in the Talmud. He was a contemporary of R. Chiyya and was the head of an academy in Lud. Among other things, he was known for his access to Elijah and his ability to negotiate with the angel of death.

Tractate Soferim (“Scribes”) is one of the minor tractates, or works written in the style of the Mishnah on topics for which there is no specific tractate in the Mishnah or Talmud. It was likely compiled in the eighth century in Israel, though certain segments are of earlier origin. It discusses the process of writing Torah scrolls, the spelling of biblical words, and the public reading of biblical texts. It ends with two chapters on the rabbinic holidays of Chanukah and Purim. Many medieval legal authorities considered the tractate to be a reliable source of law.

Composed: Talmudic Israel/Babylon (750 CE)

א"ר יהושע ב"ל הדא אגדתא כתוב בה הכותבה אין לו חלק לעולם הבא והדורשה מתברך והשומעה אינו מקבל שכר והתני ר׳ חיננא בר פפא (דברים ה׳:ד׳) פנים בפנים דבר ה' פנים תרי בפנים תרי הא ארבעה אפין פנים של אימה למקרא פנים בינוניות למשנה פנים שוחקות להש"ס פנים מסבירות לאגדה:

R. Joshua b. Levi said: With regard to the aggadta1, he who writes it down has no share in the world to come2, he who expounds it3 is cursed4, while he who listens to it receives no reward.
But did not R. Ḥinnena b. Papa teach: The Lord spoke with you face to faceface implies two, to face also implies two, thus providing four expressions of ‘face’ [alluding to] Scripture, Mishnah, halakoth and aggadoth5; an awestruck face for Scripture, a neutral face for Mishnah, a friendly face6 for Shas [i.e. halacha] and a smiling face7 for ’aggadta.

1. "aggadta written in it"

2. Aggadta must only be taught and learned orally

3. From a written text; similarly with ‘he who listens to it’

4. Literally, "blessed", a euphemism

5. This refers to aggadoth which have not been committed to writing.

6. alternate reads: "a making clear face", "a smiling face"

7. alternate reads: "a friendly face"

Yehoshua ben Levi and the Angel of Death
כִּי הֲוָה שָׁכֵיב, אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ לְמַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת: זִיל, עֲבֵיד לֵיהּ רְעוּתֵיהּ. אֲזַל אִיתְחֲזִי לֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אַחְוִי לִי דּוּכְתַּאי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לְחַיֵּי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַב לִי סַכִּינָךְ, דִּלְמָא מְבַעֲתַתְּ לִי בְּאוֹרְחָא. יַהֲבַהּ נִיהֲלֵיהּ. כִּי מְטָא לְהָתָם דַּלְיַיהּ, קָא מַחְוֵי לֵיהּ. שְׁוַור נְפַל לְהָהוּא גִּיסָא.

When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was on the verge of dying, they said to the Angel of Death: Go and perform his bidding, as he is a righteous man and deserves to die in the manner he sees fit. The Angel of Death went and appeared to him. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: Show me my place in paradise. He said to him: Very well. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: Give me your knife that you use to kill mortals, lest you frighten me on the way. He gave it to him. When he arrived there, in paradise, he lifted Rabbi Yehoshua so he could see his place, and he showed it to him. Rabbi Yehoshua jumped and fell into that other side, thereby escaping into paradise.

נַקְטֵיהּ בְּקַרְנָא דִגְלִימֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: בִּשְׁבוּעֲתָא דְּלָא אָתֵינָא. אֲמַר קוּדְשָׁא בְּרִיךְ הוּא: אִי אִיתְּשִׁיל אַשְּׁבוּעֲתָא — נֶיהְדַּר. אִי לָא — לָא נֶיהְדַּר. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַב לִי סַכִּינַאי. לָא הֲוָה קָא יָהֵיב לֵיהּ. נְפַקָא בַּת קָלָא וַאֲמַרָה לֵיהּ: הַב נִיהֲלֵיהּ, דְּמִיתַּבְעָא לְבִרְיָיתָא. מַכְרִיז אֵלִיָּהוּ קַמֵּיהּ: פַּנּוּ מָקוֹם לְבַר לֵיוַאי! פַּנּוּ מָקוֹם לְבַר לֵיוַאי!
The Angel of Death grabbed him by the corner of his cloak. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: I swear that I will not come with you. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: If he ever in his life requested dissolution concerning an oath he had taken, he must return to this world with the Angel of Death, as he can have his oath dissolved this time also. If he did not ever request dissolution of an oath, he need not return. Since Rabbi Yehoshua had in fact never requested dissolution of an oath, he was allowed to stay in paradise. The Angel of Death said to him: At least give me my knife back. However, he did not give it to him, as he did not want any more people to die. A Divine Voice emerged and said to him: Give it to him, as it is necessary to kill the created beings; death is the way of the world. Elijah the Prophet announced before him: Make way for the son of Levi, make way for the son of Levi.
אֲזַל, אַשְׁכְּחֵיהּ לְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַאי דַּהֲוָה יָתֵיב עַל תְּלָת עֲשַׂר תַּכְטָקֵי פִּיזָּא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אַתְּ הוּא בַּר לֵיוַאי? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הֵן. נִרְאֲתָה קֶשֶׁת בְּיָמֶיךָ? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הֵן. אִם כֵּן, אִי אַתָּה בַּר לֵיוַאי. וְלָא הִיא, דְּלָא הֲוַאי מִידֵּי. אֶלָּא סָבַר: לָא אַחְזֵיק טֵיבוּתָא לְנַפְשַׁאי.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went and found in paradise Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai sitting on thirteen golden stools [takhtekei]. Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai said to him: Are you the son of Levi? He said to him: Yes. Rabbi Shimon said to him: Was a rainbow ever seen in your days? He said: Yes. Rabbi Shimon retorted: If so, you are not the son of Levi, as he is a completely righteous man. During the lifetimes of completely righteous people no rainbows are visible, as they are a sign that the world deserves to be destroyed by a flood; whereas the merit of the righteous protects the world from such things. The Gemara comments: And that is not so, for there was no rainbow seen at all during the lifetime of Rabbi Yehoshua, but he thought: I do not want to take credit for myself by presenting myself as such a righteous person.
רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר פָּפָּא שׁוֹשְׁבִינֵיהּ הֲוָה. כִּי הֲוָה קָא נָיְחָא נַפְשֵׁיהּ, אֲמַרוּ לֵיהּ לְמַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת: זִיל עָבֵיד לֵיהּ רְעוּתֵיהּ. אֲזַל לְגַבֵּיהּ וְאִיתְחֲזִי לֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: שִׁבְקַי תְּלָתִין יוֹם עַד דְּנַהְדַּר תַּלְמוּדַאי. דְּאָמְרִי: אַשְׁרֵי מִי שֶׁבָּא לְכָאן וְתַלְמוּדוֹ בְּיָדוֹ. שַׁבְקֵיהּ, לְבָתַר תְּלָתִין יוֹמִין אֲזַל אִיתְחֲזִי לֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אַחְוִי לִי דּוּכְתַּאי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לְחַיֵּי. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הַב לִי סַכִּינָךְ דִּלְמָא מְבַעֲתַתְּ לִי בְּאוֹרְחָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: כְּחַבְרָךְ בָּעֵית לְמִיעְבַּד לִי?
The Gemara relates a similar incident: Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappa was a friend of the Angel of Death and would see him frequently. When Rabbi Ḥanina was on the verge of dying, they said to the Angel of Death: Go and perform his bidding. He went before him and appeared to him. He said to the angel: Leave me for thirty days until I have reviewed my studies, for they say: Happy is he who comes here, to paradise, with his learning in his hand. He left him, and after thirty days he again went and appeared to him. He said to the Angel of Death: Show me my place in paradise. He said to him: Very well. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your knife, lest you frighten me on the way. The Angel of Death said to him: Do you wish to do to me as your friend Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi did, and escape?
אֲמַר לֵיהּ: אַיְיתִי סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה וַחֲזִי מִי אִיכָּא מִידֵּי דִּכְתִיב בֵּיהּ דְּלָא קַיֵּימְתֵּיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מִי אִיכָּרַכְתְּ בְּבַעֲלֵי רָאתָן וְאִיעֲסֵקְתְּ בַּתּוֹרָה? וַאֲפִילּוּ הָכִי, כִּי נָח נַפְשֵׁיהּ אַפְסֵיק לֵיהּ עַמּוּדָא דְנוּרָא בֵּין דִּידֵיהּ לְעָלְמָא. וּגְמִירִי דְּלָא מַפְסֵיק עַמּוּדָא דְנוּרָא אֶלָּא לְחַד בְּדָרָא אוֹ לִתְרֵין בְּדָרָא.
He said to him: Bring a Torah scroll and see: Is there anything written in it that I have not fulfilled? I am therefore worthy of entering Paradise alive, as did Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. He said to him: But did you attach yourself to those afflicted with ra’atan and study Torah, as he did? The Gemara comments: And even so, despite the fact that he was not equal to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, when he passed away a pillar of fire separated him from everyone. And it is learned as a tradition that a pillar of fire separates in this manner only for one in a generation or for two in a generation.
קְרַב לְגַבֵּיהּ רַבִּי אֲלֶכְּסַנְדְּרִי, אָמַר: ״עֲשֵׂה בִּשְׁבִיל כְּבוֹד חֲכָמִים״. לָא אַשְׁגַּח. ״עֲשֵׂה בִּשְׁבִיל כְּבוֹד אָבִיךָ״. לָא אַשְׁגַּח. ״עֲשֵׂה בִּשְׁבִיל כְּבוֹד עַצְמְךָ״, אִיסְתַּלַּק. אָמַר אַבָּיֵי: לְאַפּוֹקֵי מִמַּאן דְּלָא קַיֵּים (אֲפִילּוּ אוֹת אַחַת). אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב אַדָּא בַּר מַתְנָא: לְאַפּוֹקֵי מִמָּר דְּלָא אִית לֵיהּ מַעֲקֶה לְאִיגָּרֵיהּ. וְלָא הִיא: מִיהְוָה הֲוָה, וְהָהִיא שַׁעְתָּא הוּא דְּשַׁדְיֵיהּ זִיקָא.
Due to the pillar of fire they could not go near Rabbi Ḥanina bar Pappa to attend to his burial. Rabbi Alexandri approached him and said: Make the pillar of fire disappear in honor of the Sages. He did not pay attention to him. He said: Make it go away in honor of your father. Again he did not pay attention to him. Finally he said: Make it go away in your own honor, at which point the pillar disappeared. Abaye said: The purpose of the pillar of fire is to exclude him from the company of those who have not fulfilled even one letter of the Torah. Rav Adda bar Mattana said to him: It comes to exclude him from the Master himself, who does not have a guardrail for his roof. Rav Adda bar Mattana took this opportunity to rebuke Abaye. The Gemara comments: And that is not so as he in fact did have a guardrail, but the wind had just blown it off at that time.
Yehoshua ben Levi and the Angel of Death, pt. 2
אָמַר רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אֱלִישָׁע: שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים סָח לִי סוּרִיאֵל שַׂר הַפָּנִים: אַל תִּטּוֹל חֲלוּקְךָ בְּשַׁחֲרִית מִיַּד הַשַּׁמָּשׁ וְתִלְבַּשׁ. וְאַל תִּטּוֹל יָדֶיךָ מִמִּי שֶׁלֹּא נָטַל יָדָיו. וְאַל תַּחֲזִיר כּוֹס אִסְפָּרָגוֹס אֶלָּא לְמִי שֶׁנְּתָנוֹ לְךָ — מִפְּנֵי שֶׁתַּכְסְפִית, וְאָמְרִי לַהּ, אִסְתַּלְגָּנִית שֶׁל מַלְאֲכֵי חַבָּלָה מְצַפִּין לוֹ לָאָדָם, וְאוֹמְרִים: אֵימָתַי יָבֹא אָדָם לִידֵי אֶחָד מִדְּבָרִים הַלָּלוּ וְיִלָּכֵד.

Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha said: Suriel, the heavenly ministering angel of the Divine Presence, told me three things from on high: Do not take your cloak in the morning from the hand of your servant and wear it; do not ritually wash your hands from one who has not ritually washed his own hands; and only return a cup of asparagus to the one who gave it to you. Why is this? Because a band of demons and some say a band of angels of destruction lie in wait for a person and say: When will a person encounter one of these circumstances and be captured?

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים סָח לִי מַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת: אַל תִּטּוֹל חֲלוּקְךָ שַׁחֲרִית מִיַּד הַשַּׁמָּשׁ וְתִלְבַּשׁ. וְאַל תִּטּוֹל יָדֶיךָ מִמִּי שֶׁלֹּא נָטַל יָדָיו. וְאַל תַּעֲמוֹד לִפְנֵי הַנָּשִׁים בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁחוֹזְרוֹת מִן הַמֵּת, מִפְּנֵי שֶׁאֲנִי מְרַקֵּד וּבָא לִפְנֵיהֶן וְחַרְבִּי בְּיָדַי וְיֵשׁ לִי רְשׁוּת לְחַבֵּל.
Similarly, the Gemara relates that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: The Angel of Death told me three things: Do not take your cloak in the morning from the hand of your servant and wear it; do not ritually wash your hands from one who has not ritually washed his own hands; and do not stand before the women when they return from the burial of the deceased, because I dance and come before them and my sword is in hand, and I have license to destroy.
The Trolley Problem
תַּנֵּי סִיעוֹת בְּנֵי אָדָם שֶׁהָיוּ מְהַלְּכִין בַּדֶּרֶךְ וּפָֽגְעוּ לָהֶן גּוֹיִם. וְאָֽמְרוּ תְּנוּ לָנוּ אֶחָד מִכֶּם וְנַהֲרוֹג אוֹתוֹ וְאִם לָאו הֲרֵי אָנוּ הוֹרְגִין אֶת כּוּלְּכֶם. אֲפִילוּ כּוּלָּן נֶהֱרָגִים אַל יִמְסְרוּ נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל. יִיחֲדוּ לָהֶן אֶחָד כְּגוֹן שֶׁבַע בֶּן בִּכְרִי יִמְסְרוּ אוֹתוֹ וְאַל ייֵהָרֵגוּ. אָמַר רִבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן לָקִישׁ וְהוּא שֶׁיְּהֵא חַייָב מִיתָה כְשֶׁבַע בֶּן בִּכְרִי. וְרִבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁאֵינוֹ חַייָב מִיתָה כְשֶׁבַע בֶּן בִּכְרִי. עוּלָּא בַּר קוֹשַׁב תְּבַעְתֵּיהּ מַלְכוּתָא. עָרַק וְאָזַל לֵיהּ לְלוֹד גַּבֵּי רִבִּי יוֹשׁוּעַ בֶּן לֵוִי. אָתוּן וְאַקְפּוּן מְדִינְתָא. אָֽמְרוּ לָהֶן אִין לֵית אַתּוּן יְהָבוֹן לֵיהּ לָן אֲנָן מַחֲרִבִין מְדִינְתָא. סְלַק גַּבֵּיהּ רִבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי וּפַייְסֵיהּ וִיהָבֵיהּ לוֹן. וַהֲוָה אֵלִיָּהוּ זָכוּר לַטּוֹב יְלִיף מִיתְגְּלֵי עֲלוֹי וְלָא אִיתְגְּלֵי. וְצָם כַּמָּה צוֹמִין וְאִיתְגְּלֵי עֲלוֹי. אָמַר לֵיהּ וְלִמְסוֹרוֹת אֲנִי נִגְלָה. אָמַר לֵיהּ וְלֹא מִשְׁנָה עָשִׂיתִי. אָמַר לֵיהּ וְזוֹ מִשְׁנַת הַחֲסִידִים.

It was stated [Tosephta 7:20; Gen.rabba 94(9)]: “A group of people on the road were met by Gentiles who said to them, give us one of you that we may kill him, otherwise we shall kill all of you; even if all of them are killed they should not hand over a Jewish person. If they designated one, like Sheba ben Bikhri, they should hand him over so as not to be killed.” [Even though Sheba ben Bikhri revolted against David and the entire affair was intra-Jewish (2S. 20), the action of the people of Abel Bet Maakhah is taken as legal precedent in all cases.]

Rebbi Shimon ben Lakish said, "On condition that he be guilty of a capital crime, like Sheba ben Bikhri"; but Rebbi Yochanan said, "Even if he is not guilty of a capital crime like Sheba ben Bikhri."

Ulla bar Koshav was proscribed [i.e. singled out for capital punishment] by the government. He fled and went to Lydda to Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi. They came and surrounded the city. They said to them, "If you do not hand him over to us, we shall destroy the city." Rebbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to him and talked him into being handed over to them.

Elijah, may be be remembered for good things, used to appear to him [R. Joshua ben Levi]; he [Elijah] stopped appearing. He [R. Joshua ben Levi] fasted may fasts; he [Elijah] appeared to him and said, "Do I appear to informers?!" He [R. Joshua ben Levi] said to him, "Did I not act according to a baraita?" He [Elijah] said to him, "Is that a statement for the pious [hasidim]?"

Questions for Discussion:

1) What do you make of this law that an individual designated to be killed should be handed over so as to save everyone else? Does the dispute between R. Shimon ben Lakish and R. Yochanan affect your position?

2) What was at the crux of Elijah's criticism of R. Yehoshua ben Levi? Was this criticism warranted? And was Elijah's return warranted? Who, if anyone, is in the wrong here?

אֲמַר לֵיהּ הָהוּא סָבָא: מִפִּירְקֵיהּ דְּרָבָא שְׁמִיעַ לִי, שֶׁהָיָה לָהֶן לְבַקֵּשׁ רַחֲמִים עַל דּוֹרָן וְלֹא בִּקְּשׁוּ. כִּי הָא דְּהָהוּא גַּבְרָא דְּאַכְלֵיהּ אַרְיָא בְּרָחוֹק תְּלָתָא פַּרְסֵי מִינֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, וְלָא אִישְׁתַּעִי אֵלִיָּהוּ בַּהֲדֵיהּ תְּלָתָא יוֹמֵי.

The Gemara illustrates the concept of the responsibility held by the spiritual leadership: This is like in this incident where a certain man was eaten by a lion at a distance of three parasangs (Persian mile, approx. 10 modern miles) from the place of residence of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and Elijah the prophet did not speak with him for three days because of his failure to pray that an incident of this kind would not transpire in his place of residence.

Fathers and Sons

דְּאָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי לִבְנֵיהּ: קַדִּימוּ וְחַשִּׁיכוּ וְעַיִּילוּ לְבֵי כְנִישְׁתָּא, כִּי הֵיכִי דְּתוֹרְכוּ חַיֵּי.

As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to his sons: Go early and go late and enter the synagogue, so that your lives will be extended.

כְּדַאֲמַר לְהוּ רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי לִבְנֵיהּ: אַשְׁלִימוּ פָּרָשְׁיוֹתַיְיכוּ עִם הַצִּבּוּר שְׁנַיִם מִקְרָא וְאֶחָד תַּרְגּוּם.
As Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi told his sons: Complete your portions with the congregation, the Bible text twice and the translation once.
וְהִזָּהֲרוּ בְּזָקֵן שֶׁשָּׁכַח תַּלְמוּדוֹ מֵחֲמַת אוֹנְסוֹ. דְּאָמְרִינַן: לוּחוֹת וְשִׁבְרֵי לוּחוֹת מוּנָּחוֹת בָּאָרוֹן.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi further advised: And be careful to continue to respect an elder who has forgotten his Torah knowledge due to circumstances beyond his control. Even though he is no longer a Torah scholar, he must still be respected for the Torah that he once possessed. As we say: Both the tablets of the Covenant and the broken tablets are placed in the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. Even though the first tablets were broken, their sanctity obligates one not to treat them with contempt. An elder who forgot the Torah knowledge he once possessed is likened to these broken tablets.
אִיבַּעְיָא לְהוּ: בְּנוֹ וְהוּא רַבּוֹ, מַהוּ שֶׁיַּעֲמוֹד אָבִיו מִפָּנָיו? תָּא שְׁמַע דְּאָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: אֲנִי אֵינִי כְּדַי לַעֲמוֹד מִפְּנֵי בְנִי, אֶלָּא מִשּׁוּם כְּבוֹד בֵּית נָשִׂיא. טַעְמָא דַּאֲנָא רַבֵּיהּ, הָא אִיהוּ רַבַּאי – קָאֵימְנָא מִקַּמֵּיהּ! הָכִי קָאָמַר: אֲנִי אֵינִי כְּדַי לַעֲמוֹד מִפְּנֵי בְנִי וַאֲפִילּוּ הוּא רַבַּאי, דְּהָא אֲנָא אֲבוּהּ, אֶלָּא מִשּׁוּם כְּבוֹד בֵּית נָשִׂיא.

[The Gemara is discussing the importance of Torah scholars standing when their teachers enter before them, out of deference and respect. However, what happens when that teacher is a father's own son, who would normally stand for his father rather than the other way around?]

Another dilemma was raised before them, with regard to one who is both a man’s son and his teacher, what is the halakha as to whether the father must stand before his son? The Gemara answers: Come and hear, as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: It is not appropriate for me to stand before my son solely due to his greatness in Torah, as I am greater than him. But due to the honor of the household of the Nasi I do stand before him, as his son was a son-in-law of the Nasi.

It may be inferred from here that if his son were not in the household of the Nasi he would not stand for him, and the reason was that he could claim: I am his teacher and therefore I am not obligated to stand before him. Accordingly, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is indicating that if he were my teacher I would stand before him. The Gemara rejects this proof: This is what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is saying: It is not appropriate for me to stand before my son, even if he were my teacher, as I am his father. But due to the honor of the household of the Nasi I do stand before him.

אָמְרִי: אִין בְּמִשְׁנֵה תוֹרָה דָּרֵישׁ, וְהָנֵי סְמוּכִין מִבְּעֵי לֵיהּ לְאִידָךְ דְּרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי. דְּאָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: כׇּל הַמְלַמֵּד לִבְנוֹ תּוֹרָה מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִבְּלָהּ מֵהַר חוֹרֵב. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ״, וּכְתִיב בָּתְרֵיהּ ״יוֹם אֲשֶׁר עָמַדְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּחוֹרֵב״.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who teaches his son Torah, the verse ascribes to him credit as if he received the Torah from Mount Horeb. As it is stated: “And you shall impart them to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9) after which it is written: “The day that you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb.”

וַאֲבִי אָבִיו מִי מִיחַיַּיב? וְהָתַנְיָא: ״וְלִמַּדְתֶּם אֹתָם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶם״ – וְלֹא בְּנֵי בְנֵיכֶם. וּמָה אֲנִי מְקַיֵּים: ״וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ״, לוֹמַר לָךְ: שֶׁכׇּל הַמְלַמֵּד אֶת בְּנוֹ תּוֹרָה – מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִילּוּ לִמְּדוֹ לוֹ וְלִבְנוֹ וּלְבֶן בְּנוֹ, עַד סוֹף כׇּל הַדּוֹרוֹת!
The Gemara asks: But is one’s father’s father obligated to teach him Torah? But isn’t it taught in a baraita, that the verse: “And you shall teach them to your sons” (Deuteronomy 11:19), indicates: But not your sons’ sons? And how do I realize, i.e., understand, the meaning of the verse: “But make them known to your sons and to your sons’ sons” (Deuteronomy 4:9)? This serves to say to you that whoever teaches his son Torah, the verse ascribes him credit as though he taught him, and his son, and his son’s son, until the end of all generations.

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: כׇּל הַמְלַמֵּד אֶת בֶּן בְּנוֹ תּוֹרָה מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִילּוּ קִבְּלָהּ מֵהַר סִינַי, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֵי בָנֶיךָ״, וּסְמִיךְ לֵיהּ: ״יוֹם אֲשֶׁר עָמַדְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב״. רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא אַשְׁכְּחֵיהּ לְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי דְּשָׁדֵי דִּיסְנָא אַרֵישֵׁיהּ וְקָא מַמְטֵי לֵיהּ לְיָנוֹקָא לְבֵי כְנִישְׁתָּא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מַאי כּוּלֵּי הַאי? אֲמַר לֵיהּ: מִי זוּטַר מַאי דִּכְתִיב: ״וְהוֹדַעְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ״ וּסְמִיךְ לֵיהּ: ״יוֹם אֲשֶׁר עָמַדְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה׳ אֱלֹקֶיךָ בְּחֹרֵב״? מִכָּאן וְאֵילָךְ, רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא לָא טָעֵים אוּמְצָא עַד דְּמַקְרֵי לְיָנוֹקָא וּמוֹסְפֵיהּ. רַבָּה בַּר רַב הוּנָא לָא טָעֵים אוּמְצָא עַד דְּמַיְיתֵי לְיָנוֹקָא לְבֵית מִדְרְשָׁא.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says: Anyone who teaches his son’s son Torah, the verse ascribes him credit as though he received it from Mount Sinai, as it is stated: “But make them known to your sons and to your sons’ sons,” and juxtaposed to it is the phrase in the verse: “The day when you stood before the Lord your God in Horeb” (Deuteronomy 4:10), as Horeb is Mount Sinai.

The Gemara relates: Once Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba encountered Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, and saw that he had placed an inexpensive covering on his head and brought his child to the synagogue to study. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said to him: What is the reason for all this fuss, as you are in such a hurry that you do not have time to dress yourself properly? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him: Is it insignificant, that which is written: “But make them known to your sons,” and juxtaposed to it is the phrase in the verse that states: “The day when you stood before the Lord your God in Horeb”? The Gemara comments: From this moment onward, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba would not taste meat [umtza], meaning he would not eat breakfast, before he had read to his child and added to the child’s studies from the day before. Similarly, Rabba bar Rav Huna would not taste meat before he had brought his child to the study hall.

Questions for Discussion:

1) What can you infer about R. Yehoshua ben Levis' relationship with his family, particularly his children and grandchildren?

2) Why or how does teaching Torah to one's children or one's grandchildren equate receiving the Torah at Mt. Horeb / Mt. Sinai?

Rabbi Joshua, who was on such “intimate” terms with the prophet Elijah and with the angel of death, once decided to visit Paradise and Gehenna. He spoke of this to the angel of death who was not at all pleased with this request. The angel of death complained to the then Nasi, Rabban Gamliel the Third, but Rabban Gamliel declared that Rabbi Joshua was right in his request and he commanded the angel of death to escort Rabbi Joshua. Rabban Gamliel also instructed the angel of death to request Rabbi Joshua to send a complete description of what he saw to the Nasi. The Nasi was particularly curious to know whether there were any Jews in Gehenna or any pagans in Paradise.

In his description what he saw, called “Massecheth Gan Eden,” Rabbi Joshua relates that he went throughout the length and breadth of Paradise which was divided into seven different parts. In one part of Paradise he found Elijah and the Messiah of the House of David, who asked him what the Jews were doing. Rabbi Joshua replied: “They are waiting for your coming,” whereupon Messiah wept bitterly and all the saints wept with him.

Rabbi Joshua further relates that he was not admitted into Gehenna, but was merely allowed to stand at the gate and to observe that which went on within.

“I have measured the area of Gehenna,” Rabbi Joshua wrote, “and I found it to be one hundred miles long and fifty miles wide. Fiery lions are stationed everywhere and whoever falls into Gehenna is devoured by these lions and is afterward recreated in his previous form. Later I measured a second part of Gehenna and I found it to be of the same dimensions as the first. I then asked: ‘For whom is the first part set aside?’ and I was informed that it was set apart for ten nations, and that among them was also Absalom, the son of king David, who rebelled against his father. One nation says to another: ‘We have sinned in not accepting the Torah; what have you done?’ and the other nation replies: ‘We have committed the same sin that you have committed.’ Then they all turn to Absalom and ask: ‘What was your sin?’ and Absalom replies: ‘I have sinned against my father.’”

“An angel then beats them all with fiery rods and the name of the angel is Kushiel. He throws them into fire until they are burned and then they come out in their previous form. Finally the angel is ready to chastise Absalom, but a Bath Kol announces: ‘Do not beat him, for he is descended from a people which promised at Mount Sinai to obey God’s commandments before they even knew what these commandments would be.’”

“After all the sinners are chastised and burned, they emerge from the fire as if nothing had happened. This occurs seven times during each day and three times during each night. Only Absalom is neither chastised nor burned and his punishment consists in observing the others’ chastisement.”

Of the second chamber of Gehenna Rabbi Joshua related the same as of the first. It also contained ten nations which were punished in the same manner as those in the first. Together with them was Doeg the Edomite who had been a guard of king Saul. The avenging angel was named Lahatiel and he did not chastise Doeg because of his Jewish descent. In the third chamber there were another ten nations and the name of the angel was Shaftiel. Korach and his congregation was found among these, but he also escaped chastisement and merely had to observe the punishment of the others.

The fourth chamber contained ten nations and Jerobeam ben Nebat. The punishing angel was Machtiel. Jerobeam escaped punishment because of his knowledge of the Torah and because of his descent. The fifth chamber was similar to the preceding ones and it contained Ahab, king of Israel. The name of the angel was Chutriel. The sixth chamber contained Micah who built the famous idol of Micah. He was punished together with the others by an angel named Pusiel. The seventh chamber also contained ten nations and Elisha ben Avuyah. The name of the angel was Dalkiel.

Of his visit in Paradise Rabbi Joshua also related the following:

“There are two gates of clear crystal and on top of each there stand six hundred thousand angels each of whose faces shines like the sky. When a saint enters they remove the garments in which he was buried and they dress him with eight new garments made out of clouds. Two crowns are then placed upon his head, one made out of precious stones and the other of pure gold; in addition they place eight strands of myrtle in his hands and they say to him: ‘Go eat your bread in gladness.’”

“He is then led to a place of rivers surrounded with flowers. A canopy of gold is erected and from the canopy there flow four rivers: one of oil, one of milk, one of wine and one of honey. Every canopy has a golden vine on top of it from which hang thirty pearls which shine like the morning star. To every canopy is attached a table laden with precious stones and pearls and sixty angels stand ready to serve every saint and they say to him: ‘Eat your honey and drink your wine, for it has been prepared for you since the six days of the creation.’ Even the least of the saints equals Rabbi Jochanan in beauty and is endowed with grace like that of Joseph.”

“There is no night in Paradise, and each day is divided into four parts. During the first part God comes to the children and plays with them as one would with children; during the second part God comes to the young men and plays with them as one would with young men; during the third part God comes to the middle aged men and plays with them as one would with middle aged people; during the fourth part of the day God comes to the aged and converses with them as one would with aged people.”

“There are eighty thousand trees in every corner of Paradise and the least of them is more beautiful than incense trees. There are also six hundred thousand angels in every corner and they all sing the praise of the Creator.”

“In the very center of Paradise there stands the Tree of Life whose branches cover all of Paradise. Its fruits have five hundred thousand tastes and each taste differs from all the others and each odor differs from all the others. Above the Tree of Life there float seven sacred clouds; breezes blow from all four sides through the leaves of the Tree of Life and its odors are wafted from one end of the world to the other.”

“The saints in Paradise are subdivided into seven groups. One group consists of martyrs such as Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues and disciples; the second group consists of those who were drowned for the sanctification of the name of God such as the four hundred young men and the four hundred maidens who jumped into the sea when the enemy wished to sell them to a life of shame; the third group consists of people like Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai and his colleagues; the fourth group consists of people whom the enemy wanted to defame after their death and a cloud descended and covered them; the fifth group is made up of penitents; the sixth group consists of young men who never sinned, and the seventh group includes modest people who suffered humiliation without replying in kind.”

אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ. זֶה שֶׁאָמַר הַכָּתוּב: יִמְאָסֵם אֱלֹהַי כִּי לֹא שָׁמְעוּ לוֹ וְגוֹ' (הושע ט, יז). אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֲנִי אָמַרְתִּי, שֶׁתִּהְיוּ נְטוּעִים בְּשַׁלְוָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וּנְטַעְתִּים עַל אַדְמָתָם וְגוֹ' (עמוס ט, טו). אֵימָתַי, אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ, וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לַשּׂבַע. אַתֶּם לֹא עֲשִׂיתֶם כֵּן, אֶלָּא וַיְחַפְּאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל דְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא כֵן עַל ה' (מ״ב יז, ט). אַתֶּם נְתַתֶּם עָלַי אֲשֶׁר לֹא כֵן, וְאַף אֲנִי נָתַתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא כָּתוּב בְּתוֹרָתִי, גַּם כָּל חֹלִי וְכָל מַכָּה אֲשֶׁר לֹא כָתוּב (דברים כח, סא). וּמַה הֵם דְּבָרִים שֶׁלֹּא כֵן נְתַתֶּם עָלַי. שֶׁכֵּן יְשַׁעְיָה אָמַר, עָזְבוּ אֶת ה' נִאֲצוּ אֶת קְדוֹשׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל (ישעיה א, ד). אַל תֹּאמַר עָזְבוּ, אֶלָּא עֻזְּבוּ אִתִּי, כִּבְיָכוֹל. לָמָּה, אֶלָּא אֲנִי נִקְרֵאתִי, ה', ה' אֵל רַחוּם וְחָנוּן (שמות לד, ו). וּמִפְּנֵי עֲוֹנוֹתֵיכֶם, עֲשִׂיתֶם אוֹתִי לָאַכְזָרִי, וַהֲפַכְתֶּם מִדַּת רַחְמָנוּתִי לְאַכְזְרִיּוּת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: הָיָה ה' כְּאוֹיֵב בִּלַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל (איכה ב, ה). וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר, וְהֵמָּה מָרוּ וְעִצְּבוּ אֶת רוּחַ קָדְשׁוֹ, וַיֵּהָפֵךְ לָהֶם לְאוֹיֵב, הוּא נִלְחַם בָּם (ישעיה סג, י). לְפִיכָךְ אָמַר הוֹשֵׁעַ, מִי גָּרַם לָכֶם כָּל כָּךְ. עַל אֲשֶׁר לֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם, יִמְאָסֵם אֱלֹהַי כִּי לֹא שָׁמְעוּ לוֹ (הושע ט, יז). וּכְתִיב: וּבַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם לֹא תַרְגִּיעַ (דברים כח, סה). דָּבָר אַחֵר, אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ, וְנָתַתִּי גִּשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם. וְאִם לֹא תִּשְׁמְעוּ, וְנָתַתִּי אֶת שְׁמֵיכֶם כַּבַּרְזֶל. וְכֵן הוּא אוֹמֵר, עַל כֵּן עֲלֵיכֶם כָּלְאוּ שָׁמַיִם מִטָּל, וְהָאָרֶץ כָּלְאָה יְבוּלָהּ (חגי א, י), שֶׁבִּשְׁבִיל עֲוֹנוֹתֵיכֶם אַף הָאֻמּוֹת לוֹקִין. אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, אִלּוּ הָיוּ יוֹדְעִין הָאֻמּוֹת שֶׁבִּשְׁבִיל עֲוֹנוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵם לוֹקִין, הָיוּ מַעֲמִידִין לָהֶם שְׁנֵי אִיסְטְרַטְיוֹטִין לְכָל אֶחָד וְאֶחָד מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשְׁמְרוּ אֶת הַתּוֹרָה וְשֶׁלֹּא יֶחְטְאוּ. וְלֹא דַּיָּן שֶׁאֵין הָאֻמּוֹת מְשַׁמְּרִין אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶלָּא עוֹד הֵן מְבַטְּלִין אוֹתָן מִן הַמִּצְוֹת. שֶׁאִם יֶחְטְאוּ, כָּל הָעוֹלָם לוֹקֶה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: עַל כֵּן עֲלֵיכֶם כָּלְאוּ שָׁמַיִם מִטָּל. וְאִם אֵינָם חוֹטְאִין, כָּל הָעוֹלָם מִתְבָּרֵךְ בִּשְׁבִילָם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִתְבָּרְכוּ בְּזַרְעֲךָ כָּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ (בראשית כו, ד). וְאָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמֹשֶׁה, אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם כִּי מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם דִּבַּרְתִּי עִמָּכֶם, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף וֵאלֹהֵי זָהָב (שמות כ, יט-כ). שֶׁאִם תֶּחְטְאוּ, אֵינִי עוֹנֶה אֶתְכֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיְהִי כַאֲשֶׁר קָרָא וְלֹא שָׁמֵעוּ, כֵּן יִקְרְאוּ וְלֹא אֶשְׁמָע (זכריה ז, יג). לְכָךְ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּן אִתִּי אֱלֹהֵי כֶסֶף (שמות כ, כ).

R. Joshua ben Levi said, “If the nations had known that they are afflicted because of the sins of Israel, they would have raised two armies to guard each and every person of Israel in order that they keep the Torah and not sin. However, it was not enough for the nations that they were not watching over Israel, but in addition they stopped them from [fulfilling] the commandments.” As when Israel sins, all the whole world is afflicted, as stated (in Hag. 1:10), “For that reason the heavens over you have withheld dew.” But if [the Israelites] do not sin, all the world is blessed on their account, as stated (in Gen. 26:4), “and through your seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed."