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The Palestinian Academies

( Originally Published 1911 )



Jamnia was the first of many Palestinian schools; one was located at Sepphoris, another at Tiberias, both in Galilee; another at Lydda in the south not far from the Mediterranean. So the good work grew, and under sadder auspices the thread of life was taken up again. A new royalty, so to speak, was created in Israel. The first literal royalty of the House of Judah had been over-thrown by Babylon seven hundred years earlier. After the restoration, the priests became the monarchs of the state, exercising almost regal powers. Now in the dispersion the teacher was king. Rabbi Simeon taught: "There are three crowns: the crown of the Law, the crown of the priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excelleth them all."

The head of the Academy was called Nasi (prince), also Patriarch. His sway was voluntarily yet gladly accepted in matters both religious and civil (as far as the mangement of internal affairs was granted) by the congregations in Rome, Babylonia, Greece, Egypt and the Parthian lands.

Rabban Gamaliel II

The first Nasi at Jamnia was Rabban Gamaliel II. of the family of Hillel, for Jochanan ben Zakkai had held a unique position, sui generis, demanded by the exigencies of the time. But it was the wish of all that the official position should remain in the House of Hillel.

Gamaliel was noted both as scholar and man. He was so conscientious that in farming his estate he would take no interest. He was so expert as easily to master the astronomical and mathematical knowledge needed for the regulation of the Jewish calendar. He was a stern man, but these troublous times needed a firm hand, religiously as well as civilly, for it was a period of unrest; the air was full of schemes and fantastic notions. Even so, he was perhaps too severe, and for a brief period during his thirty years of Patriarchate, he was actually deposed ; the incident will be related presently. One indication of his severity was his frequent imposition of Niddui—excommunication. The person so condemned had to remain aloof from the community and live as one in mourning. He was thus ostracised until the ban was removed.

As in the days when the Temple stood, there were still two parties—Hillelites and Shammaites. Rabban Gamaliel, however, endeavored to place himself above party, as the leader should.

The following incidents will show the temper of these Jewish scholars One Akabiah ben Mahallel was asked to recede from a particular decision. It was even intimated by some that if he would yield, he would be made Ab Beth Din (Vice-President, next in order to the Nasi). To this suggestion he answered, "I would rather be a fool all my life than 'a rogue for one hour." Is not that magnificent? Living aloof and asked by his son for a letter of recommendation to his colleagues, the stern father refused. "Thine own works must recommend thee."

Another famous teacher was Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who opened the school at Lydda. His weakness lay in the fact that he would never trust his own judgment to deduce a rule. He accepted and taught only what he had learned on the authority of his teachers. That type of man has its value in the world and is like the priest, who treasures past traditions. But we need orginators too, who boldly open up new highways; for if we mistrusted our own powers altogether and walked only in the old path's, knowledge would not grow and the world would not advance. Rabbi Eliezer taught : "Thy fellowman's honor must be as dear to thee as thine own. Do not allow thyself to be easily, angered. Repent one day before thy death."

R. Joshua

In contrast, let us single out a more interesting figure, a man who left his impress on his age—Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah. Broad, versatile and gifted, he as a youth had been a chorister in the Temple, now laid waste. His mother, like Samuel's, destined him for a religious life from his birth. Like a true genius, he broke through many of the disadvantages that handicapped him and became one of the Tannaim and the founder of a new academy at Bekiim. He was miserably poor and eked out a scanty existence as a needle-maker. For these great teachers received no emolument for their labors in the religious Academy. It was a service of love. They followed the principle laid down by Rabbi Zadok, "Do not use the Law as a crown to shine therewith or a spade to dig therewith." Rabbi Joshua was, however, so severely plain that a Roman emperor's daughter, combining at once a compliment and an insult, asked why so much wisdom should be deposited in so homely a vessel. Tradition says he advised her to put her father's wine in golden jars with a lamentable result, to prove that good wisdom, like good wine, may be best preserved in plain receptacles.

Many of the scholarly leaders belonged to the Jewish aristocracy, that was still prized even in their fallen state. Joshua was a man of the "common people." Yet that became for him a source of power, as, being closer to the masses, he was the better able to influence them, and he helped to bring the upper and lower classes closer together. By his gentleness and moderation he prevented many a split in Judaism that often threatened when divergence of view reached the danger point.

Although, like Gamaliel, a great mathematician and astronomer, he was modest and obedient and submitted to a humiliating ordeal imposed by this stern Nasi because of a mistaken calculation as to the date of a holy day. He must travel with purse and staff on the very day, according to his error, Yom Kippur would have fallen. He came. Gamaliel embraced him and said, "Welcome, my master and my pupil ; my master in wisdom and my pupil in obedience." Such examples by great teachers were most beneficial to the people at large.

Very valuable to the cause, too, was his shrewd and common sense that exposed the folly of extreme and fantastic views. "The Law," said he, "was not revealed to angels but to human beings." Some misguided pietists would not partake of wine or meat because, now that the Temple had fallen they could not be offered at its al-tar. "Why not," said he, "abstain also from bread and water since they too were used in the sacrificial service?" Nothing like ridicule at times to explode fallacies.

Most important perhaps of all his service was his endeavor to close the breach between Israel and the Romans, which the unforgiving Shammaites would have widened. He advised a graceful submission to the inevitable. In consequence he enjoyed the confidence of the Roman rulers. Like Jochanan ben Zakkai, he turned out to be the man of the hour ; and when a little later Israel again sailed into stormy seas, he was called to the helm.

Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha deserves a brief mention as one of the great Tannâim of this age who, avoiding strained interpretation, explained the Law with logical common sense. He gladly devoted his wealth to the maintenance of girls orphaned by the war. He too founded a School and was destined, alas, to die a, martyr's death. Ordination of Rabbis.

These men and others like them assured the continuity of their holy work by training students in the exploration of the Law and transmitting to them the Halachoth that they thus far deduced. When proficient, they were ordained as teachers by the ceremony of Semicha (laying on of hands). This gave them right of membership in the Sanhedrin and certain judicial functions, and also the title of rabbi,' introduced after the Temple's fall by Jochanan ben Zakkai.

Outside of Judea, schools were also being established in Babylon, Parthia, Asia Minor and Egypt. In Alexandria a modest academy replaced the pretentious Temple of happier days. But all turned to Jamnia, where the Sanhedrin met as the centre of religious authority. It was for the time being their spiritual capital. To the presiding Nasi, Rome granted some civil jurisdiction in the administration of internal Jewish affairs. So the Sanhedrin was still quite a House of Legislature in its way.

The Prayer Book

Here were regulated the institutions of Judaism and here was now more completely formulated the ritual of prayer already inaugurated in the synagogues while the Temple stood. Here is its outline :

(a) The Shema the prayer beginning "Hear, O Israel," (Deut vi,4--9), was the centre of the first division of the service. It was preceded by two benedictions, the first expressing God's providence seen in Nature, in the morning for the glory of light, in the evening for the soft restfulness of night; the second God's love for Israel manifested in the bestowal of the Law. The Shema was followed by another benediction voicing gratitude for divine redemption. (b) The second division of the service was called Tefillah, the "eighteen benedictions" prayer, containing a set form of praises at the opening and close, with the central part variable to fit the different occasions of week-days, Sabbath and Holy Days. (c) The third section of the service was the reading from the Pentateuch and the Prophets.

The Reader was no special offiicial ; any Israelite could "stand before the Ark" where the scrolls were placed, and read the service. Here again prevailed the idea that religious service was not to be paid for. Prayer for the restoration of the Land and Temple was now a fixed feature of every service. Perpetually to commemorate the Temple's loss by outward signs, such as shattering a glass at a wedding, became a duty in which patriotism and religion were blended. Two of the fasts instituted in Babylon for the fall of the first Temple were given a second sad sanction now, to commemorate the downfall of the second.

As may be well understood, a long and disastrous war had demoralized the masses, especially the country folk. The educated classes rather held aloof from the Am Haaretz, "people of the soil," i.e., the ignorant masses. This is rather surprising on the part of the scholars, otherwise so conscientious and so benevolent. But the times were rude and ignorance usually went hand in hand with many evil practises.



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