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  • Excerpt From: The Emperors and the Jews. Mosaica Press (2019)

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

plate?’

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.


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