Levi was a Jewish-Palestinian scholar of the 3rd century (third amoraic generation), contemporary of Ze'era I and Abba b. Kahana (Yer. Ma'as. iii. 51a). In a few instances he is quoted as Levi b. Laḥma (Ḥama; comp. Yer. R. H. iv. 59a with R. H. 29b; Yer. Ta'an. ii. 65a with Ta'an. 16a; see Rabbinovicz, Diḳduḳe Soferim, to Ber. 5a, Ta'an. l.c., Zeb. 53b). In later midrashim the title "Berabbi" is sometimes added to his name (Pesiḳ. R. xxxii. 147b; Num. R. xv. 10; Tan., Beha'aloteka, 6; comp. Pesiḳ. xviii. 135a; Tan., l.c. ed. S. Buber, p. 11; see Levi bar Sisi). He quotes halakic and homiletic utterances by many of his predecessors and contemporaries; but as he quotes most frequently those of Ḥama b. Ḥanina, it may be conjectured that he was the latter's pupil, though probably he received instruction at R. Johanan's academy also. In this academy he and Judah b. Naḥman were alternately engaged to keep the congregation together until Johanan's arrival, and each was paid for his services two "selas" a week.
Views About Jonah
On one occasion Levi advanced the theory that the prophet Jonah was a descendant of the tribe of Zebulun, deducing proof from Scripture. Soon after R. Johanan lectured on the same subject, but argued that Jonah was of the tribe of Asher. The next week being Judah's turn to lecture, Levi took his place and reverted to the question of Jonah's descent, proving that both Johanan and himself were right: on his father's side Jonah was descended from Zebulun; on his mother's, from Asher. This skillful balancing of their opposing opinions so pleased Johanan that he declared Levi capable of filling an independent lectureship, and for twenty-two years thereafter Levi successfully filled such an office (Gen. R. xcviii. 11; Yer. Suk. v. 55a). This incident seems to indicate that Levi's earlier years were spent in poverty; later, however, he seems to have been better circumstanced, for he became involved in litigations about some houses and consulted Johanan on the case (Yer. Sanh. iii. 21d).
Fame as Haggadist
Levi's name but rarely appears in halakic literature, and then mostly in connection with some Scriptural phrase supporting the dicta of others (see Yer. Ber. i. 2c, 3d et seq.; Yer. Ter. iv. 42d [where his patronymic is erroneously given as "Ḥina"]). In the aggadah, on the contrary, he is one of the most frequently cited. In this province he became so famous that halakists like Ze'era I, who had no special admiration for the haggadist (Yer. Ma'as. iii. 51a), urged their disciples to frequent Levi's lectures and to listen to them attentively, for "it was impossible that he would ever close a lecture without saying something instructive" (Yer. R. H. iv. 59b; Yer. Sanh. ii. 20b). In these lectures he would frequently advance different interpretations of one and the same text, addressing one to scholars and the other to the masses (Gen. R. xliv. 4; Eccl. R. ii. 2).
Sometimes he would discuss one subject for months in succession. It is reported that for six months he lectured on I Kings xxi. 25—"There was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord." Then he dreamed that Ahab appeared to him and remonstrated with him: "Wherein have I sinned against thee and how have I offended thee that thou shouldst continually dwell on that part of the verse which refers to my wickedness and disregard the last part, which sets forth the mitigating circumstance—'whom Jezebel his wife stirred up'?" (הסתה="instigated," "incited"). During the six months following, therefore, Levi spoke as Ahab's defender, lecturing from the same verse, but omitting the middle clause (Yer. Sanh. x. 28b).
String of Pearls
Levi divided all haggadists into two classes: those who can string pearls (i.e., cite apposite texts) but can not perforate them (i.e., penetrate the depths of Scripture), and those who can perforate but can not string them. Of himself, he said that he was skilled in both arts (Cant. R. i. 10). Once, however, he so provoked Abba b. Kahana by what was a palpable misinterpretation that the latter called him "liar" and "fabricator." But it is authoritatively added that this happened once only (Gen. R. xlvii. 9). He and Abba were lifelong friends, and the latter manifested his admiration for his colleague's exegesis by publicly kissing him (Yer. Hor. iii. 48c).
To render Scriptural terms more intelligible Levi frequently used parallels from cognate dialects, especially from Arabic language (Gen. R. lxxxvii. 1; Ex. R. xlii. 4; Cant. R. iv. 1); and to elucidate his subject he would cite popular proverbs and compose fables and parables. Thus, commenting on Ps. vii. 15 (A. V. 14), "He . . . hath conceived mischief, and brought forth falsehood," he says: "The Holy One having ordered Noah to admit into the ark pairs of every species of living beings, Falsehood applied, but Noah refused to admit him unless he brought with him his mate. Falsehood then retired to search for a mate. Meeting Avarice, he inquired, 'Whence comest thou?' and on being told that he too had been refused admission into the ark because he had no mate, Falsehood proposed that they present themselves as mates. But Avarice would not agree to this without assurance of material gain; whereupon Falsehood promised him all his earnings, and Avarice repeated the condition agreed upon. After leaving the ark Avarice appropriated all of Falsehood's acquisitions, and when the latter demanded some share of his own, Avarice replied, 'Have we not agreed that all thy earnings shall be mine?' This is the lesson: Falsehood begets falsehood" (Midr. Teh. to Ps. vii. 15; Hamburger [R. B. T. s.v. "Fabel"] erroneously ascribes this fable and several others to Levi bar Sisi). Levi became known among his contemporaries as (מרא דשמעתא= "master of traditional exegesis"; Gen. R. lxii. 5).
Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography
- W. Bacher, Ag. Pal. Amor. ii. 296-436;
- Z. Frankel, Mebo, p. 111a;
- Heilprin, Seder ha-Dorot, ii., s.v. Levi b. Sisi, with whom he erroneously identifies Levi II.;
- Weiss, Dor, iii. 135.