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Confronting a Changed World A Reading of the Story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, Shabbat 33b-34a, Part I* Elli Fischer

Iyar, 5772

The Sugya Why is [R. Judah b. Ilai] called the first speaker on all occasions? For R. Judah, R. Yosi, and R. Shimon were sitting, and Judah b. Gerim was sitting with them. R. Judah began: How good are the works of this nation! They have installed markets, baths, and bridges! R. Yosi remained silent. R. Shimon b. Yohai (Rashbi) responded: Whatever they installed was for their own needs. They installed markets to situate whores in them, baths to pamper themselves, and bridges to collect tolls! Judah b. Gerim retold their words, and the Empire heard of it.

' ' "

An excerpt from Sage Stories: A Selection of Readings in the Babylonian Talmud (forthcoming, 2013). The excerpt is typical of what each chapter of the book will contain: a story from the Bavli followed by a close reading of the story using a variety of techniques and methods (outlined in an introductory chapter). An earlier version of this excerpt was serialized on my weblog in 2005-06. See Thought there are several treatments of this story, this reading draws most heavily on R. Avraham Yitzhak Kooks treatment in Eyn Ayah on Shabbat, I, 259-291, and to a lesser extent on Jeffrey Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture, 105-138. Their influence on my reading is often present even when not made explicit.

They pronounced: Judah, who praised, shall be upraised; Yosi, who remained silent, shall be exiled to Tzipori (Sepphoris); Shimon, who disparaged, shall be executed. He and his son went and hid in the bet midrash (rabbinic academy) Each day, his wife would bring him bread and a pitcher of water, and they ate When the decree intensified, he said to his son: Women are weak-minded. They may torment her and she will expose us.


The Setting For R. Judah, R. Yosi, and R. Shimon were sitting...

Our story is set in the middle of the 2nd century CE, in the generation after the death of Rabbi Akiva.1 The three rabbis who open the story are all disciples of the great R. Akiva, who trained them after the death of his first generation of students: R. Akiva had 12,000 pairs of students, from Gevat to Antipatris, and they all died at one time because they did not treat each other respectfully. The world remained desolate until R. Akiva came to our rabbis in the south and taught them R. Meir, R. Judah, R. Yosi, R.

With regard to setting, the relevant question is not What happened during the period in which the tale is set? but How did those who told this story understand or imagine the period in which it was set? The setting will be described entirely in terms that would have been known to the framers of the Bavli. As I hope to demonstrate, the period in which the story is set is a crucial component of understanding the story. The proof-texts marshaled in support of various claims establish how the framers of the Bavli perceive particular figures or events; the historicity of the claims is entirely irrelevant.

Shimon, and R. Elazar b. Shamua and they restored the Torah at that time. (Yevamot 62b) R. Akiva was himself martyred by the Romans in the presence of his students, for the crime of teaching Torah publicly (Berakhot 61b). By this time, Rome had been a factor in Judean politics for several centuries, and had already destroyed the Temple. However, it was only in that generation, after the fall of Betar and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt, that Jews living in the Land of Israel began to accept that the restoration of Jewish sovereignty and the rebuilding of the Temple were not close at hand. This realization is illustrated in the following sugya: R. Nahman said [with regard to the origins of Birkat Ha-mazon, the Grace after Meals]: Moses instituted the blessing of Ha-Zan (Who sustains) for Israel when the manna descended. Joshua instituted the blessing on the land when they entered the Land of Israel. David and Solomon instituted the blessing of Bonei Yerushalayim (Who rebuilds Jerusalem): David instituted on Israel Your nation and on Jerusalem Your city and Solomon instituted on the great and holy Temple. The blessing of Ha-Tov ve-Hameitiv (Who is good and bestows good) was instituted at Yavneh for the martyrs of Betar, as R. Matna said: The day that permission was granted to bury the Betar martyrs, they instituted the blessing of Who is good and bestows good: Who is good because the corpses did not rot; and bestows good because they were allowed to be buried. (Berakhot 48b) The first three blessings of Birkat Ha-mazon praise God for sustaining His people by feeding them directly, then by granting them a beautiful, good, and spacious land, and then by establishing a united monarchy with its capital at Jerusalem, crowned by the Temple. The fourth blessing signals an abrupt and astoundingly dissonant shift, in which Gods hand is no longer manifest through the establishment of a robust and independent Jewish civilization on its native soil.

The fall of Betar changed everything.2 The conception of divine providence underpinning the first three blessings of Birkat Ha-mazon no longer sufficed for the post-Betar generation, who could not conceive of Gods beneficence solely on those terms. A new blessing was warranted, one that would allow Jews to see Gods goodness even in minutiae, and even in tragedy and defeat. The rabbis addressed themselves to God Who did not allow the myriads of Jewish corpses in the stronghold of Betar to decompose in the summer heat, and Who subtly influenced the Roman authorities to allow those corpses to be buried, eventually. The task of coming to grips with the profound theological crisis precipitated by the fall of Betar fell to the rabbis of Yavneh. These rabbis of Yavneh were not anonymous. They are, in fact, named in the sugya that immediately precedes and even triggers (Why is R. Judah b. Ilai called the first speaker on all occasions?) our story. This sugya, commenting on a mishna in Shabbat (2:6), discusses sins that cause death by various diseases. A beraita cited in context of a discussion of the metaphysical cause of askera3 states: When our rabbis entered the vineyard at Yavneh, R. Judah, R. Elazar b. R. Yosi,4 and R. Shimon were there. This question was posed to them: why does this plague begin in the bowels and end in the mouth? R. Judah b. R. Ilai, the first speaker on all occasions, responded: Though the kidneys counsel, the heart understands, and the tongue articulates, the mouth expresses it. R. Elazar b. R. Yosi responded: Because it is used to eat impure things R. Shimon responded: Because of the sin of neglecting the Torah (Shabbat 33b)

For a view of the post-Bar Kokhba crisis from historical sources, see Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 BCE to 640 CE, 105-110.
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Croup or diphtheria.

Throughout the Talmud, R. Yosi, and not his son R. Elazar, is listed as a contemporary of Rabbis Judah and Simon. It is conceivable that the beraita reflects the fact that several statements about the metaphysical pathology of askera that appear earlier in the sugya are attributed to R. Elazar b. R. Yosi.

This Tannaitic dispute has a high degree of narrativity in that both its place (the vineyard at Yavneh) and its time (when our rabbis entered) are specified.5 In this specific setting, they are asked, of all things, about death by askera. Another Talmudic statement offers a clue about the significance of this query in general, and at that moment specifically: Nine hundred and three types of death were created in this world the worst of them is askera (Berakhot 8a). Asking about askera, the quintessentially horrible death, is the functional equivalent of questioning tzadik ve-ra lo, why bad things happen to good people. The time and place of the question indicate that it was no mere theoretical musing about theology, but the challenge of those trying to make sense of their immeasurable suffering; it is the tortured questioning of a Holocaust survivor. The specificity of this question is enhanced by the continuation of the sugya from Yevamot cited above: It was taught: [R. Akivas early students] all died from Passover until Shavuot. R. Hama b. Aba, and some say R. Hiya b. Avin, said: They all died a horrible death. What is it? R. Nahman said: askera. (Yevamot 62b)6 A coherent picture emerges from the passages from Berakhot, Shabbat, and Yevamot taken together. The rabbis of Yavneh were the later disciples of
See Moshe Simon-Shoshans taxonomy of Mishnaic narrativity in Stories of the Law: Narrative Discourse and the Construction of Authority in the Mishnah, 23-54. The following point about the significance of the rabbis dealing with the theodicy askera specifically was suggested by Simon-Shoshan in a personal communication. R. Nahmans statement here appears to be a gloss on the notion of a horrible death that originally had nothing to do with R. Akivas students. In fact, the statement in Berakhot 8a which considers askera the most horrible form of death is attributed to R. Nahman b. Yitzhak. In fact, in his famous epistle, R. Sherira Gaon cites this sugya from Yevamot but indicates that R. Akivas students died from persecution (shemada). The idea that R. Akivas early students died as soldiers in Bar Kokhbas army, which he encouraged them to join, has become part of the Zionist, and especially the religious-Zionist, narrative. The Bavli barely mentions Bar Kokhba and says nothing of R. Akivas support for the messianic leader. It is possible that the Bavli simply does not connect the death of R. Akivas students with the Bar Kokhba revolt, and it is possible that its framers were aware of the connection but chose to mask it. In any event, this mention of askera in context of the death of R. Akivas students reinforces the link between the sugyot in Shabbat and Yevamot, as will be discussed forthwith.
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Rabbi Akiva, who he trained after his earlier students died horrible deaths, and who in turn watched their master die at the hands of the Romans. These same rabbis undertook to formulate a theology that could account for terrible tragedy and adequately answer the pained challenges of the survivors. It is against this background that the conversation between Rabbis Judah, Yosi, and Shimon must be understood. They were the rabbis of Yavneh, charged with creating a modus vivendi for the Jews of the post-Betar generation. Their conversation is no mere discussion of current events or global politics, but a debate about how Jewish life will survive under alien and hostile rule, in the wake of an immeasurable national catastrophe, and with lingering questions about how God runs His world. The Debate and its Aftermath R. Judah began: How good are the works of this nation! They have installed markets, baths, and bridges! R. Yosi remained silent. R. Shimon b. Yohai (Rashbi) responded: Whatever they installed was for their own needs. They installed markets to situate whores in them, baths to pamper themselves, and bridges to collect tolls! ' ' "

The positions espoused by Rabbis Judah and Shimon parallel the sides of a conversation that appears elsewhere in the Bavli: R. Hanina b. Papa, and some say R. Simlai, expounded: In the future, God will bring a Torah scroll, place it in His lap, and say: Whoever engaged in this may come and claim his reward. Right away, all of the gentiles convened the Roman Empire entered first. The Almighty said to them: What did you engage in? They replied, Master of the universe, we installed many markets, we built many bathhouses, and we accumulated much gold and silver, and it was all for Israel, so that they may busy themselves with Torah. God replied, Fools! Whatever you made was only for your own needs. You

installed markets to situate whores in them and baths to pamper yourselves. Further, all gold and silver is Mine! ... they immediately left dejectedly. (Avoda Zara 2b-3a) The obvious similarity of these two sugyot bodes ill for R. Judah: he espouses the position of the Romans, whereas R. Shimons position matches Gods position.7 Thus, although the outcome of the sugya is R. Judahs promotion and R. Shimons death sentence, the parallel text indicates that R. Shimon actually intuited the mind of God on this issue, and is evidently correct. Yet, as we will see, R. Shimons attitude is in need of adjustment, and he will relate to Rome in an entirely different way by the end of the story. The counterintuitive (yet typically rabbinic) conclusion is that knowing the mind of God is an insufficient determinant of human attitudes. The sugya in Avodah Zarah portrays Gods final reckoning of all the nations of the world. The sole yardstick by which their fate will be determined is the purity of their motives in upholding and advancing Jewish Torah study. The three rabbis of our sugya face a completely different decision; now that Jewish life has been wholly absorbed into an alien civilization, they must choose whether, and to what degree, to embrace and accommodate or reject and resist the prevailing culture. By adopting Gods position, R. Shimon positions himself as an uncompromising idealist, insisting that life in exile be lived under protest, and that any culture other than the Torah must be rejected as worthless. R. Judah, on the other hand, makes his peace with the prevailing culture by accepting it at face value, without interrogating its motivations in order to pass judgment. Features of Roman society that further the Torahs cause may be embraced, regardless of their motives. He seeks accommodation with the objective of quickly finding a way for Jewish life to survive under alien rule. R. Judah does not side with Rome against God; he is merely willing to postpone judgment until the End of Days.
This problem for R. Judah was noted by Maharsha, Hidushei Agadot Shabbat 33b, s.v. Kama naim, and my solution is something of an expansion of Maharshas approach. Rubenstein (see introductory footnote), 127-28, notes the parallel but limits himself to a discussion of evidence that the Avoda Zara passage predates the Shabbat passage, without attempting to relate the passages to each other in either direction.

This debate between R. Judah and Rashbi corresponds to other, more famous disputes between the pair, which appear in many places throughout the Bavli. According to Rashbi, one may perform a permitted act even if a prohibited act may occur as an unintentional byproduct (davar she-eino mitkavein; the classic example is dragging furniture on Shabbat even though it may furrow the ground), but R. Judah forbids it. Similarly, according to Rashbi the rationale of Scriptural law plays a role in defining the laws scope and application (darshinan taama de-kra), but R. Judah maintains that Biblical law applies even to cases where the imputed rationale would fall short. In all of these disputes, Rashbi is concerned with interiority and underlying motives, whereas R. Judah looks at external manifestations and takes them at face value.8 R. Yosi registers a third opinion in this dispute, which he communicates through his silence. Though it is possible that he is undecided or takes a middle position between his contemporaries, his silence is strongly suggestive of the attitude of the quintessential exilic Jew, the golus Yid. The golus Yid lays low, keeps quiet, and avoids drawing attention to himself. He is not interested in evaluating the components of the general culture. Instead, he keeps to the margins of society as much as he can. Though the framers of the Bavli set this debate in a particular generation, each side represents a different way of adjusting to life in exile or in a new culture. Within every conquered or migratory group, Jewish and non-Jewish, there are some who resist the new situation, some who embrace it, others who carve out a small niche on the margins and keep a low profile, and still others who cope with the new reality in other ways (in fact, by the end of the story, I will argue, R. Shimon represents a fourth paradigm, that of participation while remaining apart). Though this pattern can be detected amongst numerous populations subject to foreign rule, let us consider, as an example, the post-Holocaust American Orthodox experience. Though each confronted a new world after the utter destruction of the old, and each

Moshe Simon-Shoshan (unpublished paper) suggests that the dispute about the metaphysical pathology of askera follows this pattern as well. For R. Judah, askera is visited upon one who speaks slander, specifying that thinking it is insufficient. Rashbi, on the other hand, sees the disease as a result of neglecting Torah study, a crime of the intellect.

upheld the cardinal values of Torah and halakha, the varied responses of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Moshe Feinstein, Aharon Kotler, and Yoel Teitelbaum roughly correspond to the paradigms set forth in the Bavli.9 Nevertheless, not every avenue of response is necessarily appropriate for every time and place. An accommodationist in America might have led the resistance in the Soviet Union. It is thus impossible to draw conclusions from this narrative, and thankfully so, for history does quite repeat itself exactly. We can, however, gauge that there is a range of possible response, each with a strong voice and a good pedigree. Markets, Baths, and Bridges R. Judah extols three elements of Roman culture: markets, baths, and bridges. Though he does not specify the benefits offered by each, he describes them as naim, a modifier generally associated with socioeconomic benefit (as opposed to yafim, which would connote aesthetic beauty). Rav Kook (259, 261) reads these elements and their excesses symbolically. Markets denote wealth-generating division of labor, economic efficiency, and free exchange of virtually anything which can easily degenerate into rampant consumerism and a competitive atmosphere in which the still, small voice cannot be heard above the din. Hygiene and cleanliness can prepare the body for more sacred concerns, but overindulgence in them results in decadence. Connecting diverse and distant groups is a ready metaphor for conciliation and multicultural understanding, but also for colonization and exploitation. Whereas R. Judah sees the upside of these cultural institutions, R. Shimon suspects that, in Romes hands, their excesses will emerge. Judah b. Gerim Judah b. Gerim retold their words, and the Empire heard of it.

Though I have not read it, Jeffrey Gurock, Resisters and Accommodators: Varieties of Orthodox Rabbis in America, 1886-1983, in American Jewish Archives (November, 1983), 100-187 seems promising in this regard.

The debate has an audience, a man with the suggestive name of Judah ben Gerim. Yehuda, Yehudi, Jew the son of proselytes. Here is a man who emerged from Roman culture and embraced Judaism, the analogue of Rabbi Judah, who, from his vantage point within Judaism, embraced Roman culture. And as one with a strong, contemporary Roman-Jewish identity but no Jewish roots to speak of, he is the diametric opposite of R. Shimon, who refuses to accept the present state of the Jews; a Jew with a present but no past meets a Jew with a past but no present. Yehuda b. Gerim represents the generation of Jews who came of age under Roman cultural hegemony. Yet it is to this generation that the rabbis of Yavneh must address their visions of how Judaism is to move on from Betar. Naturally, only R. Judahs accomodationist position resonates with the young Roman-Jewish set. R. Shimon would be the embittered and accented Old World rabbi who despises the shallowness of the young generation and its hybrid Jewish culture, and who in turn is viewed as the relic of a bygone age irrelevant at best, but downright dangerous if empowered. Judah b. Gerim and his Roman-cultured contemporaries serve, willy-nilly, as the eyes and ears of the authorities. Their Roman sensibilities shape the prevalent views about the leading rabbis. Even without mass media and Most Influential Rabbis lists, it is only a matter of time before their perceptions come to the attention of those in power, who reward and punish the rabbis accordingly. Quid Pro Quo They pronounced: Judah, who praised, shall be upraised; Yosi, who remained silent, shall be exiled to Tzipori (Sepphoris); Shimon, who disparaged, shall be executed.

The three verdicts are all tit-for-tat. R. Judah, willing to acknowledge the utility of Roman culture, is perceived as an ally of the state and rewarded accordingly. His rise to prominence reflects his ability to speak a language that the young generation can understand, and so the authorities provide him with a more prominent venue for him to speak.

R. Yosi, the golus Yid, indeed goes into exile, where he can continue to survive and even thrive on the margins, where he will not be bothered and will not bother anyone.10 There is no place for R. Shimon, though. One who refuses to acknowledge his nations defeat and subjugation threatens the regimes stability. Having fought two major wars to subdue the Jews, Rome was not going to tolerate agitators for Jewish cultural independence. Rashbi Begins to Withdraw from Civilization He and his son went and hid in the bet midrash (rabbinic academy) Each day, his wife would bring him bread and a pitcher of water, and they ate When the decree intensified, he said to his son: Women are weak-minded. They may torment her and she will expose us. "

The story now focuses exclusively on Rashbi. His colleagues, R. Judah and R. Yosi, have identified their respective roles within the new order, and can begin the task of restoring the Torah within it. But R. Shimon has no place in society, no audience to absorb his Torah, and a warrant for his execution as well. He responds by fleeing to the bet midrash, an institution frequented so seldom that it could serve as a hideout. R. Kook offers deeper look at the purpose of this flight:

It is worth noting that Sepphoris, which was one of the largest cities in the Galilee by that nd time and a center of rabbinic culture by the end of the 2 century, was perceived by the Bavli to be exile, indicating that the term referred to internal dispossession and migration, not only deportation. A full discussion of the Roman policies that gradually led to Jewish urbanization, migration, and dispossession, see Moshe Gil, The Decline of the Agrarian Economy in Palestine under Roman Rule, in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 49:3, 285-328 (and his more extensive treatment of the issue in And the Romans were then in the Land [Heb.]). The notion, recently popularized by Shlomo Sand in The Invention of the Jewish People, that there was no Jewish exile from their land, presumes exile to be synonymous with mass deportation, and therefore claims that there is no evidence of any exile.


The mundane atmosphere and contemporary environment were unequipped for accepting the superior guidance of these great saints, who protested every aspect of the present regime and reality. When great ideas cannot be understood and carried out, their very disclosure renders them defective; their value and gravity is diminished, as it is impossible for their incalculable worth to be recognized as long as the powers-that-be do not facilitate, and indeed, hinder them. Thus the best counsel was for them to hide in the bet midrash, where they could present their sublime innermost thoughts to the rare qualified individuals. Once their words are received by these worthy people, even if their worth is not commensurate with that of their mentors, these great ideas will at least gain some amount of dissemination. This will make the general environment more receptive of them, and their teachings will be a bit less unspeakable. Thus they will remain as lights for future generations, when there will be need for their light. (264) R. Kook clearly borrows from traditions that associate Rashbi with esoteric mystical teachings traditions that do not appear in the Bavli but this must not distract us from the brilliance of his insight into Rashbis plight. Rashbi understood that all of the wisdom that he had accumulated in his years of study at the feet of the great Rabbi Akiva had reached a dead end. His worldview belonged so completely to a bygone era, was so disconnected from the language of the young generation, that his Torah had little hope of achieving posterity. His only chance was to try to train a tiny number of disciples who would be able to translate his teachings into a contemporary language, even if that translation inevitably entailed some loss. In R. Kooks reading, the Rashbi story is not about a saints survival of persecution, but a teachers struggle to communicate his Torah across the deep chasm that separated those whose world belonged to the period before the catastrophe and those who belonged to the new world. By taking refuge in the bet midrash, he retained the hope that perhaps he could yet find a few young minds eager to overcome the constraints of the prevailing

culture and connect with Rashbis Torah of yesteryear. Perhaps they, in turn, would be able to bring his teachings to a broader audience.11 At the same time, Rashbis retreat signifies his growing disconnection from human society. He still inhabits a human structure the bet midrash but one associated exclusively with the intellectual pursuit of Torah study. His diet is exceedingly simple yet still human; bread is the result of an elevenstep manufacturing process,12 and earthenware jugs are the surest evidence of the presence of civilization. Similarly, his society is limited to his nuclear family, and even in that context, his relationship with his wife is stripped of all intimacy and reduced to her enabling his Torah study.13 Rashbis exile serves to reinforce his tendency toward inwardness. As he sheds the external manifestations of civilization, he increasingly becomes a purely intellectual being. This causes him to disparage and distrust anyone who allows external conditions to encroach upon the minds autonomy. He expresses concern that his wife will not be tough-minded enough to overcome torment at the hand of the Romans and will disclose his hideout.

Imagining Old World rabbis thrust into American classrooms and synagogues can help develop an appreciation for Rashbis plight. Also suggestive in this context is the founding myth of Beth Medrash Govoha of Lakewood: When R. Aharon Kotler founded the yeshiva in 1943, he understood that it would be impossible for him and his colleagues, European rabbis and Holocaust refugees all, to overcome the gap separating them from second- and thirdgeneration American Jews. His goal was therefore to find a small number of young American Orthodox Jewish men to train to become Torah scholars in the Lithuanian model, who would in turn have greater success communicating Torah-true Judaism to the American Jewish masses. It is also tempting to consider R. Kooks reading to be somewhat autobiographical, considering his frustrations in the early days of his Jaffa rabbinate. In this regard, see Yehudah Mirskys forthcoming biography of Rav Kook (Yale University Press).
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See Berakhot 40a and 58a.

Moshe Simon-Shoshan has suggested (unpublished paper) that the earlier debate about the metaphysical pathology of askera prefigures the longer Rashbi story in significant ways. Rashbi stated that askera is the result of neglecting Torah study, and women as well could be guilty of this crime though they are not duty-bound to study Torah by distracting their husbands from their studies. In this sense, Rashbis wife is fulfilling her most basic and important duty to her husband.

The usage here of a famously misogynistic Talmudic dictum Women are weak-minded (Nashim daatan kala aleihen) subtly and ironically undermines its own meaning. How is this womanly weakness manifested? In the inability to withstand torture. But how many people, men or women, would not crack under torture? Moreover, the conclusion that he reaches that he must find a hiding place that is concealed even from his wife will not help her when the Roman police come knocking. She will still be tortured, but since she will be ignorant of his whereabouts it will not compromise him. Apparently Rashbi has become so disconnected from real life and real people that he regards any vulnerability, any intrusion of feeling or emotion into the realm of Torah and intellect, as womanly weak-mindedness. His further withdrawal, to the cave where he will spend the next 13 years, is as much a flight from persecution as it is the mutual admission that he and his fellow human beings cannot tolerate each other. He is no mere misogynist; at this point in the story, he is a misanthrope.