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Rabbi Nathan from Babylonia

Rabbi Nathan from Babylonia

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Last month we talked about life in Eretz Yisroel in the days of Rabbi Akiba. We described how eager the people were to learn the Torah despite the many hardships and sacrifices they made. We also mentioned, in passing, that the scholars of the Torah suffered persecution by the Romans. Today we will speak about the great Sage Rabbi Nathan haBavli (the "Babylonian"), who lived a generation later.

During the period in between, things had gone from bad to worse for the Jews in the Holy Land. The oppression and persecution by the Romans had become so unbearable, that the Jews revolted against Emperor Hadrian, the cruelest of Roman emperors. The leader of the revolt was Bar Kochba, who at first,also had the moral support of Rabbi Akiba. But the revolt, after an initial success, failed, for the might of the Roman legions could not be easily challenged. The fortress of Bethar, long and heroically defended by Bar Kochba, fell (9th of Av), and with it the revolt collapsed. The Romans avenged their earlier defeats with the utmost cruelty. The great Yeshivoth were forced to close their doors. But the Sages and their students never gave up. They went "underground," and continued to study and spread the knowledge of the Torah in secret hiding places. The Torah was for them truly a Torath Chayim, the Law of Life; their very life, and more precious than life itself without Torah.

During these critical days for the Jews in the Holy Land, and before their sun had set, the sun rose upon the Jews of Babylonia. The Jewish community flourished there, and a new center of Torah was beginning to rise in the land that was once the birth-place of our father Abraham. The Jews enjoyed goodly measure of freedom and self-rule under the leadership of their Resh-Galuta the Exilarch, or Head of the Exile, who was the official Jewish representative to the Royal Court and Government. The Resh-Galuta was a descendant of the House of David, and was related to the Nassi, or Patriarch, who was the head of the Jewish community in the Holy Land.

The Jews in Babylonia knew how difficult it was for their brethren in the Holy Land, especially for the Sages and teachers of the Torah. Many, however, disregarded the perils, and made their way to the Holy Land to study Torah under the great Sages. They left their comforts and security at home, and wandered to the Holy Land. One eager young student who became famous in both countries was Rabbi Nathan.

Rabbi Nathan was no ordinary person. He was the son of the Resh-Galuta. Leaving his princely home in Nehardae he made his way to the Holy Land. The first thing that impressed him was the wonderful devotion of his fellow-Jews to the Torah and Mitzvoth, and the courage with which they faced Roman oppression.

It was a daily sight to see Jews beaten led to execution for the sole "crime' of studying the Torah and fulfilling a Mitzvah which the Romans had banned with penalty of death. Scholars and Sages were not the only ones who risked their life, but also the common people. Thus, Rabbi Nathan related (Mechilta, Shemoth 2 0)

You walk in the street and- you see Roman soldiers leading a Jew to the execution. You ask the Jew, "What have you done to forfeit your life?" And he answers you simply, "I have circumcised my baby-son." And there is another Jew being led to the slaughter. You ask him, "What is your crime to be sentenced to death by the Romans?" His answer could be, "I have studied the Torah." Or it could be, "I have eaten Matzah on Pesach," or the like. A Jew was sentenced to be flogged publicly for having observed the Mitzvah of Lulav on Succoth.

Rabbi Nathan learnt a lasting lesson in self-sacrifice and devotion to the Torah and Mitzvoth, but as for actually increasing his knowledge of the Torah, it was very difficult to achieve under those circumstances. It seems that Rabbi Nathan did not stay long in Eretz Yisroel during this visit. He wandered around in the neighboring countries and then returned to the Holy Land, when a new emperor, Anthony Pius, was crowned in Rome, and conditions in Eretz Yisroel improved.

The Nassi in the Holy Land at that time was Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel.

Rabbi Nathan was recognized as one of the leading Sages (Tannaim) of his time. He was elected as Av Beth Din ("Head of the Court," something like the Chief justice), next in rank only to the Nassi himself. His learning, as well as his noble birth, stood him in good stead. The great Sage Rabbi Meir was Rosh Yeshivah. The people showed Rabbi Nathan and Rabbi Meir the same tokens of respect as they showed to the Nassi. The Nassi thought that there should be a distinction in the three highest positions of leadership, in the order of their rank. So instructions as follows were given: When the Nassi enters the Beth Hamidrash, all must rise and remain standing until he takes his seat; when the Av Beth Din enters, one row on either side should stand up and remain standing until he took his seat; and when the Rosh Yeshivah enters, it is not necessary for all who rise to remain on their feet until he takes his seat.

Now, on the day this instruction was issued, both Rabbi Nathan and Rabbi Meir were not in the Beth Hamidrash. The following day, when they entered the Beth Hamidrash, they noticed that the students and the others present did not give them the usual token of respect. When they enquired about the reason for this, they learned of the new instruction.

Needless to say, the two great Torah scholars were modest enough not to feel personally offended. However, they feared that by downgrading them, the Nassi really downgraded the Torah in the eyes of the students and the people. They had a good mind to make an issue of this action, but they did not want to create disharmony, and they did not carry it out. The Nassi, who was stung by Rabbi Nathan's attempt to oppose him, said to him, "The silver sash of your father (referring to the sash of office of the Resh-Galuta) helped you to become Av Beth Din in Eretz Yisroel. Be satisfied then, and do not aspire to become Nassi as well."

When Rabbi Judah became Nassi, succeeding his father Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rabbi Gamliel, Rabbi Nathan was an old man. In those days Rabbi Judah began to gather and arrange all the teachings of the Oral Law into the six tractates of the Mishnah, in which all the teachings and laws which the Tannaim had taught were arranged according to their subjects. In this great task, Rabbi Nathan helped Rabbi Judah ha-Nassi, as did many other Tannaim. Many were the laws which Rabbi Nathan and Rabbi Meir contributed to the Mishnah, but not all of them were quoted in their names. Some of these laws appeared as simply "other opinions." In the case of Rabbi Meir, the Mishnah would sometimes say, "others say, and in the case of Rabbi Nathan, the Mishnah would sometimes say, "and some say." This was their "penalty."

Nevertheless, Rabbi Nathan remained loyal to the Nassi and the authority of the Beth-Din in Eretz Yisroel. When an attempt was made by the Beth-Din in Nehardea to declare itself independent of the Beth-Din in Eretz Yisroel, in the belief that the center of Jewish life had shifted from the Holy Land to Babylonia, Rabbi Nathan "the Babylonian" was chosen by the Nassi to be among the delegates to Nehardea to hold them back from this move. Rabbi Chanina (or Rabbi Chananya), a nephew of Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya, was the initiator of this attempt, for he thought that the sun of the Beth-Din and of the Nassi in the Holy Land was setting (because of the persecutions by the Romans), and it was time for the sun of the Babylonian Jewish community to begin to rise. He wanted to make the Beth-Din haGadol of Nehardea the supreme authority for the Jews all over the world, with the right of determining the New Moon and Jewish calendar of festivals, which was one of the main functions of the Sanhedrin. Rabbi Nathan and Rabbi Yitzchak brought a personal letter from the Nassi to Rabbi Chananya, and with well chosen and wise words they succeeded in convincing the Babylonian Sage that the time for a change had not come yet; it was still the time of, "Out of Zion shall come forth the Torah," and not "Out of Babylonia shall come forth the Torah." They further told him that if he went ahead with his plan and tried to fix the Jewish calendar, he would have to change the words of the Torah from "These are the festivals of G‑d" to "These are the festivals of Chananya." Rabbi Chananya yielded and gave up the plan.

As we mentioned earlier, Rabbi Nathan had traveled around a great deal and he was quite familiar with all aspects of the daily life in different countries. Many are his wise sayings and teachings in the Talmud, in addition to the many laws quoted in his name. He was highly respected and honored by all, for his great wisdom and many virtues, not least by Rabbi Judah the Prince. When there was a difference of opinion between them on a point of law, the decision was always in favor of Rabbi Nathan.

There is a whole mesichta (tractate) bearing the name of Rabbi Nathan. It is called Avoth d'Rabbi Nathan, similar to and elaborating on, that of Pirke Avoth containing words of wisdom and practical instruction for the good life.

Rabbi Nathan is the author of many maxims (lessons in good conduct) which he based on verses of the Torah. Thus in connection with the verse, "You should not deceive, nor oppress, a stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt" (Exodus 22:20), Rabbi Nathan observes, "Do not accuse others of your own faults" (Baba Metria S9b).

On the verse, "Do not cause bloodshed in your house," Rabbi Nathan based his teaching that it is forbidden to keep a vicious dog in a Jewish home, or to keep a broken ladder (or chair, and the like), by which a person might be hurt (Kethuboth 41a).

Rabbi Nathan also taught that even the "smallest" Mitzvah has its reward in this world; as for the world to come the reward is simply unimaginable (Menachoth 44a) .

Rabbi Nathan's early teachers were the great Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos. Rabbi Nathan's disciples compiled the Mechilta d'Rabbi Yishmael (on the laws contained in the Book of Shemoth) as their teacher heard it from his teacher Rabbi Yishmael himself and had transmitted the tradition to them.

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