One of the Tannaim (the great Sages of the Mishnah), was Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, who lived some fifty years after the Destruction of the Second Beth Hamikdosh. He lived at the time of Rabbi Akiva, and like him, he was one of the Ten Martyrs who were cruelly put to death by the Roman governor.
Rabbi Ishmael came from a very distinguished family of High Priests, and he, too, had the title "Kohen Godol." As a boy, he was unusually good looking and wise, and he was taken to Rome as a captive. The great Sage Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania came to Rome, probably as a messenger of the Jews in the Holy Land, to try to appeal before the Roman Emperor for a more lenient policy towards the persecuted Jews in the Holy Land. He learned that a Jewish boy was held captive in that city. He passed by the place where the boy was kept prisoner, and called out "Who delivered Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers?" quoting a passage from the Prophet Isaiah (42:24). And the boy's voice came back in reply, "Did not G‑d, He against Whom we have sinned?" quoting the words of the prophet from the second part of the same verse. Rabbi Joshua decided to spare no effort to ransom that boy, saying, "I am sure that boy will grow up to be one of our great Sages." Indeed, for a large sum of money Rabbi Joshua succeeded in ransoming the young boy, whom he took home with him, fed him and clothed him, and taught him the Torah every day. Before long, Rabbi Ishmael became well-known as a distinguished scholar of the Torah. Rabbi Joshua himself now considered him as his colleague, and called him "My brother Ishmael."
Rabbi Ishmael became a disciple of the famous Tanna, Rabbi Nechunia ben Hakaneh, and he also studied in the Yeshiva of Yavne. He was greatly respected by the Sages of his time. He and Rabbi Akiva were often engaged in Talmudic discussions, and both of them were called "the fathers of the world."
Rabbi Ishmael is famous for the thirteen rules of interpretation (middoth) of the Torah. The Beraitba (Tannaic text) which enumerates them is well known, since it is included as a part of our Morning prayers. Well known also is his saying, "Be respectful of the old and kind to the young, and receive every man with gladness" (Aboth 3:12).
His knowledge and sharpness of mind earned him the title "Uprooter of mountains," for his discussion of a point of the Torah was likened to "tearing up mountains and grinding them against each other." His colleagues also likened him to a " department-store" where you can get any merchandise you desire, so full was Rabbi Ishmael of knowledge of the Torah and all wisdoms.
In addition to his many discussions on points of Jewish law and his interpretations of the Torah (the Halachah), he was also well versed in the Aggadah and Midrash. He is the author of the Halachic Midrash, the Mechilta on the Book of Shemoth, and many of his teachings, as well as those of his school, are to be found in the other Halachic Midrashim, the Sifra on Vayyikra, the Sifre on Bamidbar, and on Devarim, and throughout the Talmud. These teachings and sayings gave expression to his great love of his people, and show also the nobility of his character. He was one of several Sages that declared ."All Israelites are the sons of kings," impressing upon his brethren that although they are subjugated to the Roman idolworshippers, and are persecuted and down-trodden by them, the Jews are nevertheless "royal princes" and infinitely superior to their oppressors. Thus, he instilled faith and courage in his brethren and was a source of great comfort to them at a very critical time, when the cruel emperor Hadrian tried his utmost to stamp out the Jewish religion and faith.
Rabbi Ishmael was a great friend of the poor, and of poor marriageable girls who could not get married because they were poor. He was especially sorry for those who were sensitive or ashamed to beg, and he helped them greatly by the following teaching: It is written in the Torah, "You shall surely open your hand to your borther, to your poor, your needy, in your land." (Deut. 15 :11) . This, Rabbi Ishmael explained, means that if a man of good family is ashamed to ask for charity, it is our duty to "open" to him with words, saying, "My son, perhaps you need a loan?" This man would more readily accept, a "loan" which the giver should really treat as a gift.
Rabbi Ishmael also taught: Every "if" (in Heb. im) in the Torah refers to a voluntary act with the exception of three "ifs." One of these three is, "If you lend money to any of My people with you who is poor" (Exod. 12:2 5) . Here the "if" is an obligation, for it is written, "You shall surely lend him" (Deut. 15:8) .
Once it came to Rabbi Ishmael's knowledge that a man made a vow that he would not marry his niece because she was not good looking. He had the girl brought to his house, where she was groomed and beautified and dressed nicely. Then he sent for her uncle and asked him, "Is this the girl about whom you made a vow?" The uncle, who hardly recognized the niece after this change, replied, "No, indeed; I had quite another girl in mind when I made the vow." Then Rabbi Ishmael told him that he was no longer bound by his vow and he could marry his niece. Rabbi Ishmael wept and said, "The daughters of Israel are really beautiful, but it is poverty that makes them look ugly." When Rabbi Ishmael died, the daughters of Israel bewailed his death as the death of King Saul was lamented.
Rabbi Ishmael's mother was a very pious woman, and she worshipped her son. But one day she astonished the Sages when she appeared before them to complain about her son. Said she, "Rebuke my son, Ishmael, for he does not show me honor." The faces of the Sages turned pale, and they asked her, "Is it possible that Rabbi Ishmael should not show honor to his mother? What has he done to you?" She replied, "Before he goes to the Beth Hamidrash, I want to wash his feet, and to drink the water with which I have washed them, but he will not permit it!" Then the Sages said to Rabbi Ishmael, "Since this is her wish, honor her by permitting it.
People often wondered how G‑d does justice to the body and soul in the Day of judgment after life. Rabbi Ishmael explained it as follows:
A king had an orchard with fine fig trees. When the first fruits were about to ripen, he put two keepers in the orchard to keep out birds and thieves. One of the keepers was blind, the other was lame. After a time, the lame man said to the blind man, "I see some juicy figs just ripe for eating." Said the blind man, "Lead me to them, and we will eat." The lame man said, "I cannot walk." The blind man said, "I cannot see." Then the lame man got on the shoulders of the blind man, and they went and ate the figs, and returned to their places. Later the king came to the orchard, and asked, "Where are my figs?" The blind man said, "Can I see?" and the lame man said, "Can I walk?" But the king was clever. He placed the lame man on the shoulders of the blind man and made them walk. "This is how you did it," the king said.
So, in the World to Come, G‑d says to the soul, "Why have you sinned?" The soul replies, "How could I have sinned? The body sinned. Since I left the body, I have flown about like an innocent bird in the air. What is my sin?" Then G‑d says to the body, "Why have you sinned?" and the body replies, "I have not sinned; it is the soul which has sinned. Since the soul left me, I lie still, like a stone on the ground. How could I have sinned?" So what does G‑d do? He puts the soul back into the body and judges the two together!"
Rabbi Ishmael knew well how powerful the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) was. And so it was taught in the School of Rabbi Ishamel: "If this abomination (Yetzer) meets you, drag him to the Beth Hamidrash: if it is hard as stone, it will be crushed; if it is as hard as iron, it will be broken in pieces." In other words, the Torah and Mitzvoth are the only way to break down the evil inclination.
As already mentioned, Rabbi Ishmael was one of the Ten Martyrs who were put to death by the Romans. He faced death without fear. Both in his life and in death, and ever since, Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha has been an everlasting source of inspiration to our people; truly one of our greatest.