From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: Rabbi Judah, King Hezekiah… and a Cancelled Fast

by Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – One of the most revered figures in Jewish memory was the Patriarch Rabbi Judah I ben Simeon. Talmudic tradition singled him out for his unique integration of Torah and greatness—whether political or financial—in a single personality. Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (aka: “Rebbi,” or “our holy teacher’) is best known as the scholar who brought order to the confusion of oral traditions by composing the Mishnah, which organized the material into a logical, topical compendium.

In his capacity as the Nasi (prince, patriarch), Rabbi Judah occupied the highest political office, serving as the representative of the Jewish community before the Roman occupation government. His administrative term coincided with the aftermath of the ferocious Bar-Kochba uprising and its brutal suppression. Yet in his days, relations with Rome became perceptively calmer; to the point that Jewish legend created a special literary genre consisting of respectful conversations on diverse philosophical and theological questions between Rabbi Judah and a high-ranking Roman official referred to as “Antoninus.” That name ostensibly belonged to one of the emperors from the Antonine dynasty, though Rebbi’s reign actually coincided with their more tolerant successors, the Severans, so “Antoninus” might well have been Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla (188–217).

The Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds both record some unconventional rulings in Rabbi Judah’s name. These include a report that “Rebbi bathed in the spring of Sepphoris on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and he wanted to uproot the Ninth of Av; however they did not allow him to do so.”

It is most surprising to read that rabbinic Judaism’s most prominent leader would consider abolishing fast days that commemorate the destructions of the Jerusalem Temples as well as several other national tragedies.

And indeed, a different tradition claimed that Rabbi Judah’s position had been considerably less radical. A specific question arose on an occasion when the Ninth of Av coincided with the sabbath, when fasting is not permitted. Though the normal practice would be to postpone the fast to Sunday, Rebbi took the position that it might as well be cancelled altogether. Either way, his colleagues rejected the Patriarch’s ruling.

Although the Talmuds clearly accept the “corrected” version limiting the controversy to sabbaths, modern historians were more comfortable with the first version according to which Rabbi Judah wanted to completely remove the Ninth of Av from the ritual calendar. No doubt this would produce a more dramatic story, especially for scholars who are themselves sympathetic to flexibility in Jewish religious law. There is also some plausibility to the argument that later editors were likely to try to blunt the edge of an original story that was disturbing to their religious sensibilities. In any case, the sabbath-postponement version of the story receives very little attention in academic historical studies.

Thus, one eminent historian declared that Rabbi Judah’s opposition to the observance of Tishah be-Av was “doubtless because it lent itself admirably to the delivery of subversive sermons.” He feared that such preaching might provoke listeners to take up arms against the Temple’s destroyers; whereas the Jews should have learned their lesson about the terrible consequences of revolts against Rome.

A midrashic passage had Rebbi (though the reading is uncertain) expounding the words of the biblical Isaac as a prophecy: “the voice of Jacob cries out on account of what the hands of Esau (=Rome) did to him at Bethar,” referring to the last stronghold of the Bar Kokhba revolt.

By Rabbi Judah’s time, Rome was weakened by its campaigns against Persia and a deteriorating economy, making its leaders more amenable to moderation and compromise. Peaceful détente with the imperial authorities was achieving better results for the empire’s Jews. Under the Severan emperors, Jews were permitted to observe their religion and were granted legal recognition that had been denied them under the previous regime. There were even synagogues dedicated to the emperors.

It has accordingly been argued that Rabbi Judah’s determination to do away with the historical fast days was fuelled by his determination to bring the Jews and Romans closer together by diminishing grounds for mutual resentment and distrust.

Some texts suggest that Rabbi Judah and his supporters even regarded the peace and prosperity of their times as the fulfilment of biblical prophecies of redemption. This was a model that differed immensely from the apocalyptic visions that had inspired the bloody insurrections of previous generations. Sages from Rabbi Judah’s circle compared the redemption process to the dawning of a new day—beginning gradually but becoming increasingly bright as the day progresses.

Some sages expounded biblical texts in ways that equated Rabbi Judah with a king of Israel, or the messiah. Rabbi Hiyya once applied to him the scriptural epithet “the breath of our nostrils, the anointed of the Lord.” It was in Rebbi’s days that we first encounter traditions tracing his family’s ancestry back to King David, thereby satisfying a ​​necessary qualification for a legitimate Jewish monarch.

In particular, several discourses from around Rabbi Judah’s time associated him with the biblical king Hezekiah, one of the few Hebrew kings who generally comes across as a pious and righteous leader. (One rabbinic discourse observed that, though Hezekiah deserved to be appointed messiah, he was ultimately disqualified by his pride.)

Rabbi Judah’s grandson Hillel went so far as to declare that Israel has no reason to expect a future messianic age, since they already reaped its benefits during the reign of Hezekiah. If Hezekiah’s name is being used here to allude to Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, then perhaps Hillel meant to imply that it couldn’t get much better than the prevailing conditions of peace, stability and religious freedom; and so the Jewish people should set their sights on pragmatic objectives, rather than squander their energies on unrealistic and ruinous dreams of vengeful triumph over their enemies.

The Jewish nation continues to confront these contrasting visions of redemption even as we continue to observe the fasts in commemoration of the loss of our holy Temple.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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