Tongus On Fire in Yavneh

Imagining A Jew

Gamaliél was R. Shimon’s son. R. Yochanon did not remain in Yavneh after R. Gamaliél asserted his authority there in 80 CE. His authority, unlike R. Yohanon’s, was widely recognised both in the Land and in Galut.

R. Gamaliél was well-travelled. The practice of sending shluchim of the Nasi to Galut was re-established under his patronage. He travelled to Rome in an embassy which included R. Eliezer, R. Yehoshu’a, R. Aqiva, and R. Elezar Ben-Azar’ya. R. Gamaliél was recognised by Rome and was invested as Patriarch in Antioch.

It was under his authority that the halakha was fully developed in Yavneh. His authority was tested constantly and at one point he was impeached. After his impeachment by the rabbis assembled in Yavneh he did not hesitate to attend the Assembly.
His personal integrity in the face of such severe reprimand led eventually to reconciliation with R. Yehoshu’a, whom he had insulted greivously, and reinstatement as Nasi.

Rebbe Aqiva was the leading sage of his generation. Aqiva came from very humble origins. He was 40 when he sat and began to learn the alef-bét. By his mid 50s he was a rebbe. In his elder years he was the leading sage in Yavneh. Tradition says he ordained 25,000 students. Most of these students died during the Jewish War against Rome between 132-135. Tradition calls this a plague. During this war the government was led partly by Yavnean sages and partly by Shimon Bar-Kosiba (called also Bar Kokhba). R. Aqiva recognised Bar-Kosiba as the Mashi’akh. Rebbe Aqiva is mentioned throughout the Mishna and Gemara. His example is still used of what an adult learner can accomplish in middle-age.

Aqiva’s time has many analogs to ours. There was a search for spirituality. History was occurring rapidly. Violence was common throughout the Land. Few were left who remembered the Temple. Aqiva was among them. He was a mystic. Tradition says he went to the garden with three companions. All had no difficulty entering but three departed a lesser person. One became insane. One died. One became an apostate. Only Aqiva left as he entered. Aqiva became central not only to the Talmud but also the most widely used liturgical text in modern Judaism: The Hagada.
Jewish history calls the Sages Tanna’im. Each is a Rebbe. They framed the halakha. Their brilliance made Judaism a portable tradition that could be acknowledged anywhere. There is one other Tanna that needs be mentioned, the Tanna who made it his mission to ensure that the brilliance of his teachers was accessible. He is called by tradition merely by his title: Rebbe. He is known also as Yehuda Hanasi.

Yehuda Hanasi was Rabban Gamaliél’s grandson. Generally called simply Rebbe, Yehuda Hanasi authorised the traditions of the Tanna’im to be sorted, indexed, and ordered. This work is called Mishna. The decisions of the early Rabbinic authorities is summarised and the rulings made since are set aganst them. In this way the generations speak to each other. This Torah Sheh’ball Peh includes internal contradictions,. and often we can trace the changes which evolve from one generation to another.

Rebbe encouraged an aristocracy to form about his nasi’ut. This was without precedent. Some extreme opposition formed – the Hasidim Rishonim were mystics, a strident opposition party, and agitated against this policy. R. Pinchas Ben-Ya’ér was invite to a banquet but when he saw Rebbe’s vast estate he said “All this the Jews must pay for” and refused to conduct himself in Rebbe’s presence (Ben Sasson, 339). Rebbe is mentioned frequently throughout the Mishna. He is often portrayed as méqel in his decisions, which are often refuted even in the Mishna itself.

Rebbe’s Mishna was useful for at most three generations after it was compiled. Rebbe himself taught several of the first generation Amora’im (Talmudic teachers), the compilers of the Gemara, whom we will next learn about – in Minds on Fire.

The Tannaim lived in a world dominated by the pax Romana – Rome’s military legions protecting Rome’s merchants in foreign lands. By Rebbe’s time, though, Rome’s time was nearing the end. The Mishna’s demise as a useful arbiter of halakha occurred in the 3rd century, immediately after its consolidation of Jewish tradition. Ashi left for Bavel in 3989 (219 CE) and we can date the Bavli Amora’im from that time.

It’s not as simple to date the Israeli Amora’im. If we use the same date, the Mishna was barely 30 years old. The Gemara, both in its western (Israel) and eastern (Babylonian) editions, was the decisive voice in Jewish law by the 4th century, when Rome was in steady decline. There is no western Gemara after the 5th century, when Rome’s empire was finished.

The Gemara of Babylon continued another 200 years, until the dawn of Islamic civilisation threatened and eventually triumphed over Byzantium’s (present day Turkey) supremacy after Rome’s depature from the Orient. Before that dawn, the reality of Babylon society reflected in its Gemara was idol worshipping pagans in the towns, and dual-god Zoroastrians elsewhere.

We can build this context into Jewish time because they are intimately connected. It becomes more difficult when Judaism is divided into a new east-west polarity – the east pole: Islamic civilisation from Spain south and eastward into the Arabian lands and Africa, from Morocco to Egypt; the west pole is Christian civilisation from Spain northeastward into central Europe and from Bulgaria northward as far as Latvia.

Put differently? In medieval times Jews lived north of the Equator to the Arctic Circle and between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. That distribution includes much of Africa, part of the Indian subcontinent, southwestern Asia, and all of Europe. Until the late 15th century that was, to Christian Europeans, the entire known world. What single context can encompass, literally, the entire known world? We’ll see in the next section.

Reb Arie

A chaplain, spiritual director, and educator, Arié Chark (“Reb Arie”) is Rector at The Metivta of Ottawa. A strong sense of personal mission has led Reb Arie to convene various civil society projects under the auspices of The Metivta of Ottawa, including the Ottawa Roundtable and the Abrahamic Chaplaincy Board.