Joshua ben Levi
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Joshua ben Levi or Yehoshua ben Levi was an amora (Rabbi of the Talmud) who lived in the land of Israel of the first half of the third century. He headed the school of Lydda in the southern Land of Israel. He was an elder contemporary of Johanan bar Nappaha and Resh Lakish, who presided over the school in Tiberias. (Genesis Rabbah 94.) With Johanan bar Nappaha, Joshua often engaged in homiletic exegetical discussions (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 116a; Megillah 27a; Shevuot 18b). It is uncertain whether the name "ben Levi" meant the son of Levi, whom some identify with Levi ben Sisi, or a descendant of the tribe of Levi. (Grätz, "Gesch." 4:263; Frankel, "Mebo," 91b; Weiss, "Dor," 3:60; Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." 1:124.)
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi studied under Bar Kappara, whom he often quoted. But Joshua considered his greatest indebtedness to Rabbi Judah ben Pedaiah, from whom he learned a great number of legal rulings. (Exodus Rabbah 6; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7; Genesis Rabbah 94.) Another of his teachers was Rabbi Phinehas ben Jair, whose piety and sincerity must have exerted a powerful influence upon the character of Joshua. Joshua himself had a gentle disposition. He was known for his modesty and piety, and whenever he instituted public fasting and prayer, it was said that his appeals were answered. (Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 66c.)
His love of peace prevented him from making any attacks against the Christian theology that was then gaining ground. He was tolerant of Jewish Christians, though they often annoyed him. And he forbore cursing one of them, pronouncing rather Psalm 145:9, "God's mercies extend over all His creatures." (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a; Avodah Zarah 4b.) His love of justice and his concern that the innocent might suffer on account of the guilty (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 19b) led him to speak against the custom then prevailing of removing from office a reader who, by omitting certain benedictions, had aroused the suspicion of heresy. (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9c.)
Joshua devoted much of his time to furthering the public welfare. (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7.) His wealth, and his alliance to the patriarchal family through the marriage of his son Joseph (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 33b), must have added to his authority. He was recognized as a representative of Palestinian Jewry, for he was found in company with his friend Rabbi Hanina interceding on behalf of his people before the proconsul in Caesarea, who accorded Joshua and his colleague much honor and respect. (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9a.) On another occasion, when the city of Lydda was besieged because a political fugitive had found refuge there, Joshua saved the city and its inhabitants by surrendering the refugee. (Jerusalem Talmud Terumot 46b; Genesis Rabbah 94.) He also made a journey to Rome, but his mission is not known. (Genesis Rabbah 33.) Although Rabbi Joshua was connected through family ties with the patriarchal house, and always manifested his high esteem for its members (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 33b), it is largely due to him that the friendship between the southern schools and the patriarchal house diminished. (For evidence that such friendship once existed, see Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 65b; Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 32a.) Joshua was the first to ordain fully his own pupils in all cases where ordination was requisite (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 42b), thus assuming a power that hitherto had lain in the hands of the head of the Sanhedrin alone.
In the field of legal interpretation, Joshua was of considerable importance, his decisions being generally declared valid even when disputed by his contemporaries Rabbi Johanan and Resh Lakish. He was lenient, especially in cases where cleanliness and the preservation of health were involved. (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 121b; Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 44d.) Joshua devoted himself to the elucidation of the Mishnah. And his own legal interpretations resemble in their form and brevity the writings of the Tannaim in the Mishnah.
In homiletic exegesis (aggadah), however, he was even more influential. He had a high opinion of that study, and he explained Psalm 28:5, "the works of God," as referring to homiletic exegesis. (Midrash Tanhuma 28:5.) Similarly in Proverbs 21:21, he identified "glory" (kavod) with homiletic exegesis. (Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 9b.) There is also a reference to a book ("pinkes") by Joshua ben Levi which is presumed by some to have presented haggadic themes (Weiss, "Dor," p. 60); but this can not be well reconciled with Joshua’s disparaging of the writing down of homiletic exegesis. (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 15c; Midrash Tehillim 22:4; Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." 1:129, against Weiss, "Dor," 3:60, who assumes that the "pinkes" was the work of another rabbi of the same name.)
Nonetheless, homiletic exegesis occupied an important place in the teaching of Rabbi Joshua. His disciples and contemporaries quoted many such propositions in his name.
As an exegete, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was of some importance, his interpretations often enabling him to deduce legal rulings. Some of his explanations have been accepted by later commentators. (See, e.g., Abraham ibn Ezra and others on Exodus 15:1; see Exodus Rabbah 23.)
Joshua ben Levi’s emphasis of study was seen when he spoke of God as saying to David (Psalm 84:11) that "better" in God’s sight is "one day" of study in the Law "than a thousand" sacrifices (Babylonian Talmud Makkot 10a; Midrash Tehillim 122:2.) Though learning was of paramount importance (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 27a), still he also insisted on piety. He said that those who attends the synagogue service morning and evening will have their days prolonged (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a), and those who move their lips in prayer will surely be heard. (Leviticus Rabbah 16; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9d). He instituted a number of rules regulating the reading of the Law in the synagogue on weekdays (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a) and other matters relating to the service, many of which are to this day observed in synagogues. (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 39b.)
Some of Joshua's philosophical and theological opinions are recorded. Speaking of the attributes of God, he represented God as "great, mighty, and awe-inspiring" (Deut. 10:17). (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 11c; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 74c.) He conceived the relation between Israel and God as most intimate, and he expresses it in the words, "Not even a wall of iron could separate Israel from his Father in heaven." (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 85b; Sotah 38b.) In his doctrine of future reward and punishment, paradise will receive those who have performed the will of God, while the nether world becomes the habitation of the wicked. (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 19a). In Psalm 84:5 he found Biblical authority for the resurrection of the dead (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 91b), and in Genesis Rabbah 26 he expressed the liberal view that immortality is the portion not only of Israel, but of all other nations as well. In a legend, Joshua inquired of the Messiah when he was coming, and Elijah answered that it will be when Israel heeds God's voice (Psalm 95:7.) (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a.) In another connection, he spoke of the futility of estimating the time of the coming of the Messiah (Midrash Tanhuma 9:1; Leviticus Rabbah 19.)
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was a favorite hero in legend. He was often made to be the companion of Elijah in the latter's wanderings on earth. (Pesikta 36a.) See, for example, The Messiah at the Gates of Rome. He also had legendary dealings with the Angel of Death. (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 51a.) While yet alive, he was permitted to visit paradise and the nether world, and he sent a description of what he saw there to Rabban Gamaliel through the submissive Angel of Death. (Derek Eretz Zuta 1.) Many of the legends relating to Joshua have been collected in separate small works entitled "Ma'aseh de-Rabbi Yehoshua' ben Lewi" and "Masseket Gan 'Eden we-Gehinnom."
The site of his grave is not known, but Mitch Pilcer, of Tzipori, Gaililee, Israel, claims to have found Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's gravesite while doing construction on his property owner in Tzipori. The matter is under dispute, with grave possibly that of another man by the same name.
- This article incorporates text from the 1901–1906 Jewish Encyclopedia, a publication now in the public domain.