Contact Us

Small Town Jewry

Small Town Jewry

Ethics 6:9

 Email

The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers (6:9) relates:

Said Rabbi Yosi Ben Kisma: I was once walking on the road, when a certain man met me. He greeted me, "Shalom," and I responded: "Shalom." He said, "Rabbi, from which place are you?" and I said to him: "I am from a great city of scholars and sages." He said: "Rabbi, if you will live with us in our place, I will give you a million dinars, gold, silver, precious stones and pearls." I replied: "Even if you give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I will dwell only in a place of Torah..."

A Rabbi Against Outreach?

The obvious moral of this story is that Torah is a priceless treasure, and we shouldn't give it up for anything in the world. Yet Rabbi Yosi's rejection and refusal to reach out to fellow Jews who are seeking Torah leadership is very disturbing. Is he abdicating the responsibility of sharing Torah with others? With all due respect to Rabbi Yosi's concern for his own growth, he seems to ignore the basic mitzvah of Ahavat Yisroel--to love one's fellow Jew!

Indeed, this negative attitude contradicts everything that we have learned earlier in The Ethics about our obligation to help others: "Bring [others] closer to Torah" (1:12); "Do not keep the Torah to yourself" (2:5); "Learn Torah in order to teach" (4:5). Is it fair to shrug off one's sacred duty and obligation to teach others by retreating into the smug comfort of a Torah ivory tower?

A Rabbi for the Wrong Reason

Some commentaries justify Rabbi Yosi's refusal by emphasizing and interpreting the word bimkomaynu--"[come live with us] in our place"--as also carrying the meaning, "instead of us." The members of this town had sought someone to relieve them from their own Jewish obligations, expecting the rabbi to pray and do mitzvot in their stead, so they could live free and do as they please.

But this explanation leaves something to be desired. Rabbi Yosi should not be excused by those people's ignorance; shouldn't he have tried to correct their mistake and change their mistaken perspective? Had he accepted the position, he could have certainly taught them that Judaism involves each Jew personally, not just the clergy.

Focus On Money

Other commentaries defend Rabbi Yosi, explaining that he became frustrated and discouraged by the man's apparent emphasis and obsession with wealth. Yet the question remains. Why did Rabbi Yosi turn down such a golden opportunity to build a place of Torah? Had he moved there, he would surely have had enough to cover a dream budget: money to build a school, a yeshiva, a kollel and an entire Torah community to his liking. Had Rabbi Yosi indicated the address of that city's Search Committee, surely many an interested candidate would have accepted this lucrative position!

Pioneering a Torah City

The difficulties in a mere superficial understanding of this Mishnah force us to consider a novel interpretation--that Rabbi Yosi moved to the unnamed city. It may very well be that Rabbi Yossi did indeed accept the man's invitation, and actually followed him to become their rabbi!

Indeed, nowhere does the Mishah say that Rabbi Yosi responded, "No! I'm not going!" Rather, we hear him proclaim, "Even if you give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I will dwell only in a place of Torah," followed by citations from Psalms and Proverbs that declare, "The Torah of Your mouth is more desirable to me than thousands in gold and silver."

Rabbi Yosi's insistence on "living in a place of Torah" was not limited to his old domicile. On the contrary, it expresses his determination to pioneer the building of a place of Torah in his new residence.

This scenario may seem strange at first. But a careful examination of Talmudic and historic references will help us track down Rabbi Yosi Ben Kisma to a specific location that was not known to be a Torah fortress.

Rabbi Yosi In Rome

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 98a) details a discussion between Rabbi Yosi Ben Kisma and his students regarding the Future Redemption, in which Rabbi Yossi points to a specific gateway as a landmark. Rashi comments that this dialogue took place "in Rome."

The Maharsha raises the obvious question: How could the reclusive Rabbi Yosi, who refused to live anywhere but in a "place of Torah," find himself in a city like Rome, the source of the Temple's destruction and the very antithesis of Torah?

It is also rather surprising that we find that the highest Roman officials attended Rabbi Yosi's funeral and eulogized him (Talmud, Avodah Zarah 17a). It seems highly unlikely that Roman officials would travel to Rabbi Yosi's exclusive Torah place to pay respect to a rabbi who rejected anything outside his sheltered Torah enclave.

Contrary to our initial impression, it is apparent that Rabbi Yosi was not restricted to a secluded Torah enclave, but also functioned as rabbi and teacher in "Rome."

Where is "Rome"?

Further research shows that Rabbi Yosi's residence was not in Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire, but rather a Roman city in the Land of Israel.

The Talmud describes a tunnel that connected the homes of Rabbi Judah the Prince (editor of the Mishnah) and the Roman Antoninus (Marcus Aurealius?), who studied Torah together.

Surely, there is no 1,000 mile Rome-to-Jerusalem tunnel under the Mediterranean! This convinced the Seder Hadorot that the "Rome" mentioned here is not the Rome of Italy, but rather a Roman city in Israel. This is also supported by the fact that, while Rabbi Yosi's funeral was attended by high Roman officials, his tomb is located in Meron, only several hundred yards from the Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's resting place in northern Israel.

Caesarea

This Roman city may have been Caesarea--the seat of Roman government in Israel, which also had a Jewish community.

This may also be related to "Rabbi Yosi of Caesarea" (Sanhedrin 98a), a preacher who discussed ways of bringing people closer to Judaism. Perhaps he is the Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma who moved to Caesarea to establish a "place of Torah," where we find him surrounded by students concerned about Jewish future and Redemption.

We can now see Rabbi Yossi in a new light. Rabbi Yossi does not spurn the invitation. On the contrary, he responds, quoting relevant scriptural passages to his sponsor. This was actually Rabbi Yossi's charge to the community even before he set foot there. The topic of his first sermon is: "Even if you give me all the silver and gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I will dwell only in a place of Torah..." Torah is the best investment. Money isn't everything!

The congregation wanted to spend big money on a prestigious rabbi, listed in the Who's Who, who would impress the mayor, the media and their gentile neighbors. They wanted to buy themselves an amenable rabbi who would accept them as they were, without making religious demands. They offered a nice salary, "But please, Rabbi, a yeshivah here will interfere with our lifestyle..." They tried to explain to their prospective rabbi that, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Rabbi Yosi refused--not their offer, but the terms of that offer. And the evidence indicates that, in the end, they accepted him on his terms.

"I Was Once Walking on the Way"

Now that we have located the "Rome" which Rabbi Yosi moved to, let us explore a little more Talmudic geography to better understand where Rabbi Yosi was coming from.

The Talmud (Yevamoth 96b) describes a highly intense Halachic discussion that occurred between the rabbis in Tiberius, which unfortunately resulted in a Torah scroll was torn apart.

Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma was there. He became very upset and commented: "I wonder if this House of Study will not be transformed into a House of Idolatry." The Talmud concludes, "And so it happened."

This may be why Rabbi Yosi Ben Kisma finds it necessary to preface his narrative by saying: "I was once walking on the way..." Why is it important to mention that he was walking on the way? Why couldn't he simply say, "Once a man approached me?"

Furthermore, if Rabbi Yossi was so insistent on never leaving his place of Torah, why was he walking around elsewhere, venturing so far from the city that the man asked him: "From which place are you?"

We now know that Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma was actually in the city of Tiberius (referred to as a "city of rabbis and scholars"--Talmud, Megillah 7 and Bava Batra 9). We also know that he became very upset by the scholars' divisiveness and rivalry and its ruinous results. It stands to reason that Rabbi Yosi left Tiberius heartbroken and dejected. He was thus walking on his way, when this man approached him. The man realized that Rabbi Yossi was searching for a new place, and therefore invited him to come to his town.

When Rabbi Yossi responds "I am from a big city of scholars" he was not saying so with arrogance, but rather with a painful tone of heartbreak, sorrow and disillusionment. He was trying to get away from the "big city" politics and divisiveness, that resulted in the torn and tattered Torah scrolls he had left behind.

Rising to the Challenge

Rabbi Yosi was thus ready to go out and work to rebuild Torah in a new locale. Rather than relax in the comfort of a pre-existing Torah center, Rabbi Yosi ventured forth to work hard and break ground to establish a new "place of Torah."

Rabbi Yosi rose to the challenge. He was not at all impressed by his new hosts' material wealth; he was concerned about their spiritual poverty. Well meaning as they were, Jewish continuity was not on their agenda. Rabbi Yosi was not afraid to state his goal to raise their Jewish conscience and awareness, and expressed his terms clearly at the outset, saying to his congregants-to-be: "As much as you treasure your physical wealth, the Torah is the precious inheritance of each Jewish man, woman and child, and is far more meaningful than anything in the world!"

Rabbi Israel Rubin serves as director of Chabad of the Capital District in Albany, New York.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with Chabad.org's copyright policy.
 Email
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
4 Comments
1000 characters remaining
Anonymous Caesarea. Israel. February 7, 2016

truth I rather feel that Rabbi Yossi was referring to the ultimate "truth" of the Kabbalah. In Kabbalah we learn that every definition that man gives to creation (the creator) is in fact just another form of idol worship. The creator cannot be defined! In latter years a famous Rabbi stated that"the problem with religious people is that they believe in G_d." Here we learn that in order to believe in G_d we create him in ourselves. This is flawed and opposes all the teachings which were all written as Kabbalah. By that I mean as forces within a singular system. Those that have attained this truth can never compromise. They can only search for the surrounding in which they can advance deeper into this knowledge. To settle for less would be to profess oneself as false and as a liar to oneself and to all those around one. To agree to take on any other role would be to regress and to work against the plan of creation. This would be a grave sin and it would mean being tricked by the worldly forces. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn, NY June 15, 2005

Thank You for this extraordinary insight.Perhaps the challenge of building new communities keeps our old ones from decaying. This is highly reminiscent of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's "Shlichus" approach which seems intended to serve the spiritual benefactors as much as the recipients. In fact, I am wondering if this analysis based on any of the Rebbe's particular teachings... Reply

Anonymous Coral Springs, FL June 12, 2005

A Wonderful and novel explanation of the mishna. Is there a commentary who actually says that Reb Yosi took the job? May we all receive the Torah with joy and internalize it. Reply

Esther Piekarski June 6, 2005

Thank You for the beautiful essay, with all the sources. Will Y'H use it this Shabbos... Puts the whole Mishna in a different light and what it means to us. Reply

Ethics of the Fathers is a tractate of the Mishna that details the Torah's views on ethics and interpersonal relationships. Enjoy insights, audio classes and stories on these fascinating topics.