Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya
Updated: Mar 7, 2021
Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Chananya was a leading Torah true sage during the tumultuous
period before and after the destruction of the holy second temple.
He lived through the regimes 13 Roman emperors: Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero,
Galba, Otho, Viteelus, Vespasian, Titus, Domitan, Narva, Trajan and Hadrian.
He was a student of the great Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai together with his colleagues
Shimon be Netanel, Elazar ben Arach, Eliezer ben Hurkones and Rav Yossi the Cohen.
He studied and mastered not only the entire revealed Torah but also the hidden wisdom
of Torah including the Maaseh Merkava.
Rabbi Yehoshua was a Levi who served in the Beit HaMikdash as seen from Arachin
11B: It happened that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya went to assist R. Johanan b.
Gudgeda in the fastening of the Temple doors, whereupon he [the latter] said to him: My
son, turn back, for you are of the choristers, not of the door-keepers.
It is written in Pirkei Avot: Rabban Yochanan said about Rabbi Yehoshua: Happy is she
who bore him.
The Talmud Yerushami supports Rabban Yochanan’s statement and records that Rabbi
Yehoshua’s pious mother would bring him as an infant to the assembly of the sages so
that he would hear the sounds of Torah learning. From infancy Torah was part and parcel
of his being and he grew up immersed in all aspects of it.
Sanhedrin 17B attests to his worldly knowledge: Rabbi Yehuda said in Rav's name: A
Sanhedrin must not be established in a city which does not contain [at least] two who can
speak [the seventy languages] and one who understands them. In the city of Bethar there
were three and in Yavneh four [who knew how to speak them]: [viz.,] R. Eliezer, Rabbi
Yehoshua. R. Akiba, and Simeon the Temanite, who used to discuss before them sitting
on the ground.
Already during the rule of Titus, while serving as the Av Beit Din, head of the court,
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya participated in a delegation including Rabbi Eliezer ben
Horkenos and Raban Gamliel, to Rome. When they came to Rome, these magnificent men
created a profound impression, and they succeeded in gaining a loyal friends and
admirers among the highest of the nobility of the imperial city. Under the radiance of
their remarkable personalities, the emperor’s nephew Onkelos became inspired toward
Judaism: and despite the low state of the conquered and bleeding people, he became a
Jew and a humble disciple of the Sages.
He later composed a translation of the Torah into Aramaic under the supervision of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua.
A further incident that occurred in Rome testifying to Rabbi Yehoshua’s great
righteousness is brought in Gittin 59A: Our Rabbis have taught: R. Joshua b. Hananiah
once happened to go to the great city of Rome, and he was told there that there was in the
prison a child with beautiful eyes and face and curly locks. He went and stood at the
doorway of the prison and said, Who gave Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers?
The child answered, Is it not the Lord, He against whom we have sinned and in whose
ways they would not walk, neither were they obedient unto his law. He said: I feel sure
that this one will be a teacher in Israel. I swear that I will not budge from here before I
ransom him, whatever price may be demanded. It is reported that he did not leave the
spot before he had ransomed him at a high figure, nor did many days pass before he
became a teacher in Israel. Who was he? — He was R. Ishmael b. Elisha.
Rabi Yehoshua was especially known as a master debater and he recorded his own ability
and prowess, and lack thereof, somewhat tongue in cheek, in Eruvin 53B:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya remarked: No one has ever had the better of me except a
woman, a little boy and a little girl.
Woman - What was the incident with the woman? I was once staying at an inn where the
hostess served me with beans. On the first day I ate all of them leaving nothing. On the
second day too l left nothing. On the third day she over seasoned them with salt, and, as
soon as I tasted them, I withdrew my hand. ‘My Master’, she said to me, ‘why do you not
eat?’ — ‘I have already eaten’, I replied: ‘earlier in the day;. ‘You should then’, she said
to lie, ‘have withdrawn your hand from the bread’. ‘My Master’, she continued, ‘is it
possible that you left [the dish to-day] as compensation for the former meals, for have not
the Sages laid down: Nothing is to be left in the pot but something must be left in the
Little Girl - What was the incident with the little girl? I was once on a journey and,
observing a path across a field, I made my way through it, when a little girl called out to
me, ‘Master! Is not this part of the field?’ — ‘No’, I replied: ‘this is a trodden path’ —
‘Robbers like yourself’, she retorted: ‘have trodden it down’.
Little Boy - What was the incident with the little boy? I was once on a journey when I
noticed a little boy sitting at a cross-road. ‘By what road’, I asked him, ‘do we go to the
town?’ — ‘This one’, he replied: ‘is short but long and that one is long but short’. I
proceeded along the ‘short but long’ road. When I approached the town I discovered that
it was hedged in by gardens and orchards. Turning back, I said to him, ‘My son, did you
not tell me that this road was short?’ — ‘And’, he replied: ‘did I not also tell you: But
long?’ I kissed him upon his head and said to him, ‘Happy are you, O Israel, all of you
are wise, both young and old.
Bereshit Rabba records the following incident: During the life of Rabbi Yehoshua ben
Chananya the evil Roman empire decreed that the Temple be rebuilt. Papus and Lulinus
set up booths from Acco to Antioch and provided those coming from the Diaspora with
all their needs including gold and silver. The Cutheans attempted to block the endeavor
claiming that the Jews would now openly revolt. The emperor countered that his hands
were tied as he had already promised to rebuild the Temple. The Cutheans advised him to
make a slight change in the location of the Temple or to slightly add to the dimensions of
the Temple, knowing that these conditions would be unacceptable to the Jewish people.
The Jews gathered in Beit Rimon and clamored to revolt. The leaders looked for a wise
man to calm the people down and Rabbi Yehoshua was suggested to be the one.
Rabbi Yehoshua told the people a parable: A lion preyed on his victim and a bone got stuck in his throat. He said that whoever is able to remove the bone would be rewarded. One
stepped up, removed the bone and asked for his reword. The lion said: go and tell others
that you were in the mouth of the lion and survived. So too here, said Rabbi Yehoshua,
we entered this nation in peace and now go out in peace.
This episode highlights Rabbi Yehoshua’s stature as a leading sage with a keen
understanding of Roman politics and an innate awareness of the DNA of the Jewish
people at that time in history. He was clearly the go to person in handling immensely
difficult situations that required articulating compelling arguments to an anxious people.