Rabbi Meir

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Historical photo of Rabbi Meir's tomb in Tiberias.
Recent photo of the tomb.

Rabbi Meir (Hebrew: רַבִּי מֵאִיר) or Rabbi Meir Baal HaNes (Rabbi Meir the miracle maker) was a Jewish sage who lived in the time of the Mishna. He was considered one of the greatest of the Tannaim of the fourth generation (139-163). He is the third most frequently mentioned sage in the Mishnah.[1] His wife Bruriah is one of the few women cited in the Gemara.

Biography[edit]

He was born in Asia Minor. According to the Talmud, his father was a descendant of the Roman Emperor Nero who, it is said, escaped death at the time of his deposition and became subsequently a convert to Judaism.[2]

Twenty four thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague. He went and found five new students and Rabbi Meir was one of them. The four others were: Rabbis Judah ben Ilai, Eleazar ben Shammua, Jose ben Halafta, and Shimon bar Yochai.[3]

Meir began to study very early in life. At first he entered the school of Rabbi Akiva, but, finding himself not sufficiently prepared to grasp the lectures of that great master, he went to the school of Rabbi Ishmael, where he acquired an extensive knowledge of the Law. He then returned to Akiva, who, recognizing his dialectical powers, ordained him over the heads of his other disciples.[4] This ordination, which was considered invalid on account of Meir's youth, was confirmed by Judah ben Baba.[5]

Unlike his master Akiva, Meir seems to have kept aloof from the revolutionary movement of Bar Kokhba.[6] Nevertheless he suffered greatly from its consequences. His father-in-law, Hananiah ben Teradion, fell a martyr to the Hadrianic persecutions, and his sister-in-law was taken to Rome and sold to a brothel. A story is told of how Meir rescued her with the help of a miracle (see "The miracle story" below).

During the Hadrianic persecutions Meir lived abroad, but he returned to Judea after the repeal of the oppressive edicts, and took a prominent part in the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin in the city of Usha. Shortly afterward Simeon ben Gamaliel II was elected patriarch, and Meir was raised to the dignity of hakham, in which office he was charged with the duty of preparing the subjects to be discussed in the Sanhedrin. To his activity and influence was due the adoption of the laws known as the "Institutions of Usha." To his duties in connection with the Sanhedrin Meir added the establishment of academies of his own in Bethsan, Ammaus near Tiberias, etc., where he successively lived and lectured.

Once, on the eve of Purim, Meir found himself in a small Jewish community where no copy of the Book of Esther could be found; he thereupon wrote out the book from memory without a mistake.[7]

The later part of Meir's life was saddened by many misfortunes. In one day he lost two promising sons, who died suddenly on a Sabbath while he was at the house of study. A story is related of the fortitude shown on that occasion by Meir's learned wife, Beruriah. Controlling her feelings, she withheld the knowledge of their death from her husband during the Sabbath in order that the day should not be profaned by weeping and lamentation, and on the conclusion of the Sabbath sought to console her husband with a parable.[8] Shortly after the death of his sons Meir lost his wife. According to a legend, she committed suicide after having been dishonored by one of her husband's pupils.[9]

The last years of Meir's life were passed in Asia Minor. He was induced to leave Judea because of the conflict that arose between him and the patriarch. The origin of this conflict was the change introduced by Simeon in the ceremonial of the Sanhedrin. Custom required its members to rise when the president, the judge, or the reader entered the academy. Simeon issued an order that the assembly should rise as a body only on his own entrance, while on the entrance of the judge only the first row, and on that of the reader only the second row, should rise. Meir and Nathan (the judge) felt justly offended at this new arrangement and determined to show Simeon's unfitness for his office by puzzling him with difficult halakic questions which he would be unable to answer. Informed of this conspiracy, Simeon expelled them from the Sanhedrin, but he could not prevent them from writing difficult questions and distributing them among its members. Compelled to readmit both Nathan and Meir, he contrived that their names should not be recorded in the ordinances enacted by him. Nathan submitted, but Meir continued to embarrass the patriarch by addressing to him difficult questions. When, at last, the patriarch threatened excommunication, he answered, "I do not care for your sentence unless you can prove to me on whom, on what grounds, and under what conditions excommunication may be imposed," and left the Sanhedrin.[10]

Character traits[edit]

An instance of Meir's humility and love of peace is related in the Midrash. Among his hearers was a woman who never missed a lecture of his. Once, the discourse being more prolonged than usual, the woman returned home late in the evening. This infuriated her husband, who turned her out-of-doors and swore that he would not take her in until she had spat in Meir's face. Refusing to do this, she lived separated from her husband. When Meir was informed of the incident he went to the woman and, pretending to have a sore eye, requested her to spit in it to heal it.[11]

Meir's generosity and confidence in God are illustrated by the following details of his private life given in the Midrash. As a public scribe, he earned three shekels a week. Of these, two were spent on his household and one was given to poor fellow students. When asked why he did not save something for his children he answered, "If my children are good the Lord will provide for them, for it is said, 'I was young and I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed demanding bread'.[12] If my children are not good they deserve nothing, and it would be aiding the enemies of the Lord if I left them wealth."[13]

The miracle story[edit]

Meir's sobriquet "Master of the Miracle" is based on the following story. Rabbi Meir was married to Bruriah, the daughter of Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon, one of the ten martyrs. The government ordered the execution of the couple for teaching Torah publicly. Bruriah's sister was sent to a brothel. Rabbi Meir took a bag of gold coins and went to the brothel disguised as a Roman horseman. He offered the money as a bribe to the guard. The guard replied, “When my supervisor comes, he will notice one missing and kill me.” Rabbi Meir answered, “Take half the money for yourself, and use the other half to bribe the officials.” The guard continued, “And when there is no more money, and the supervisors come - then what will I do?” Rabbi Meir answered:

“Say, ‘The God of Meir - answer me!’ and you will be saved.”
(Eloha d'Meir aneini, אלהא דמאיר ענני)

The guard asked, “And how can I be guaranteed that this will save me?” Rabbi Meir replied, “Look - there are man-eating dogs over there. I will go to them and you will see for yourself.” Rabbi Meir walked over the dogs and they ran over to him to tear him apart. He cried, “God of Meir - answer me!” and the dogs retreated. The guard was convinced and gave him the girl. When the group of supervisors came, the guard bribed them with the money. When the money was used up, they arrested the guard and sentenced him to death by hanging. When they tied the rope around his neck, he said, “God of Meir - answer me!” and the rope tore.[14]

From then on, a tradition developed that a Jew in crisis gives charity in memory of Rabbi Meir and then says, “God of Meir - answer me!" Various charitable foundations have been named for Rabbi Meir, including the 'Colel Chabad Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNes' charity founded by Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in 1788, and the Rabbi Meir Baal HaNeis Salant charity founded in 1860 by Rabbi Shmuel Salant. Some say the above and give a small amount of charity, as a way to recover a lost item.[15]

Name[edit]

"Meir" may have been a sobriquet. The Babylonian Talmud asserts that his actual name was not Meir but Nehorai, and that the real name of Rabbi Nehorai was not Nehorai but rather Nehemiah or Eleazar ben Arach.[16] This passage is ambiguous regarding whether Meir was renamed twice (from Nehorai and previously from another name), or whether two rabbis (Meir and Nehorai) were each renamed.

According to Yeshayah Berlin, Meir and Nehorai were separate rabbis.[17] This reading supported by several of the oldest Talmud manuscripts.[18]

In contrast, modern scholar John McGinley assumes that Meir was renamed twice. To explain the renaming, McGinley notes that Eleazar ben Arach is elsewhere is described as being the greatest of the Sages,[19] and a student of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who (at an early age) had mastered the meaning of the mystical revelations which are associated with "the Work of the Chariot."[20] McGinley suggests that the virtual disappearance of Eleazer Ben Arach from Rabbinic ways allowed for the usage of this name as a cognomen for Rabbi Meir, acceptably to Rabbinic officialdom who permitted this "cover name" to honor this great scholar but with sufficient indirectness so as not also to honor his checkered history with Rabbinic officialdom.[21] The book also points out that Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai set up a bet midrash at Bror Hayil after he left Yavneh, apparently because he was so radically shamed and discredited by what would become the mainstream of the rabbinic movement after "that very day" memorialized in Mishna Sotah chapter 5.[22] Rabbi Meir was not a student of Zakai at Yavneh. But it is argued that it is entirely possible that he became a student of Zakai at Bror Hayil.

Teachings[edit]

Halacha[edit]

First a disciple of Elisha ben Abuyah and later of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Meir was one of the most important Tannaim of the Mishnah. Rabbi Akiva's teachings, through his pupil Rabbi Meir, became the basis of the Mishnah.

According to the Babylonian Talmud, all anonymous Mishnas are attributed to Rabbi Meir.[23] This rule was required because, following an unsuccessful attempt to force the resignation of the head of the Sanhedrin, Rabbi Meir's opinions were noted, but not in his name, rather as "Others say...".[24]

Meir infused new life into the development of the Halakhah. He introduced the rule of testing the validity of a halakhah on rational grounds. The dialectical power displayed by him in halakhic discussion was so great that most of his hearers followed him with difficulty. "He was able to give 150 reasons to prove a thing legally clean, and as many more reasons to prove it unclean".[25] This excess of dialectics is given in the Talmud as the only reason why his halakhot did not receive the force of law; the pros and cons offered by him were so nearly equal in strength that one never knew his real opinion on a subject.

In the deduction of new halakhot from the Biblical text, Meir used with great caution the hermeneutic rules established by his teacher Ishmael, regarding them as unreliable; and he rejected Akiva's method of deducing a new halakhah from a seemingly superfluous particle in the Scriptural text.[26] Meir's greatest merit in the field of halakhah was that he continued the labors of Akiva in arranging the rich material of the oral law according to subjects, thus paving the way for the compilation of the Mishnah by Judah ha-Nasi.

Aggadah[edit]

Meir's aggadot won by far the greater popularity; in this direction he was among the foremost. Well versed in the Greek and Latin literatures, he would quote in his aggadic lectures fables, parables, and maxims which captivated his hearers. To popularize the aggadah he wrote aggadic glosses on the margin of his Bible and composed midrashim. Both glosses and midrashim are no longer in existence, but they are quoted in the midrashic literature, the former under the title "Torah shel Rabbi Meir," or "Sifra shel Rabbi Meir," and the latter, on the Decalogue, under the title "Midrash Anoki de-Rabbi Meir".[27] To Meir is attributed also a collection of three hundred fables, three of which are referred to in the Talmud.[28]

Meir exalts work and recommends parents to instruct their children in a clean trade.[29]

Meir was noted for his hatred of ignorance. "He that gives his daughter to an am ha'aretz is as though he put her before a lion".[30] "He who leaves an am ha'aretz in his house asleep and returns to find him awake may be sure the house has been polluted".[31] Still he would rise before an old man, even if he were an am ha'aretz.[32]

With all his piety, Meir showed a spirit of great tolerance. He declared that a heathen who occupied himself with the Torah was as worthy of Judaism as a high priest, for it is said, "Ye shall therefore keep my statutes . . . which if a man do, he shall live in them".[33] He explained this to mean that eternal happiness was not the heritage of the Jews exclusively.[34] Thus Meir is said to have lived on friendly terms with heathen scholars, with whom he had religious controversies; he was especially intimate with the Greek philosopher Euonymus of Gedara, to whom he paid a visit of condolence on the death of the latter's parents.[35]

Meir's tolerance, however, is best shown by his attitude toward the apostate Elisha ben Abuyah ("Aher"), his teacher. Of all Elisha's colleagues he alone, perhaps in the hope of reclaiming him for Judaism, continued to associate with him and discuss with him scientific subjects, not heeding the remonstrances of some pious rabbis who regarded this association with some suspicion. Meir's attachment for Elisha was so great that on the death of the latter he is said to have spread his mantle over his friend's grave. Thereupon, according to a legend, a pillar of smoke arose from it, and Meir, paraphrasing Ruth 3:13, exclaimed, "Rest here in the night; in the dawn of happiness the God of mercy will deliver thee; if not, I will be thy redeemer".[36] The same aggadah adds that at the death of Meir smoke ceased to issue from Elisha's grave. Notwithstanding his tolerance, Meir's treatment of the Samaritans was very severe; and he enacted several laws that were destined to widen the breach between them and the main body of Judaism.[37] The Midrash reports several religious controversies between Meir and Samaritan scholars concerning creation, resurrection, and similar subjects.[38]

Quotes[edit]

  • Why was the Torah given to Israel? Because they are impetuous.[39]
  • He that occupies himself in the study of the Torah for its own sake merits many things; still more, he is deserving of the whole world. He is called friend, beloved, lover of God, lover of mankind, he that makes God happy, he that makes mankind happy; and it clothes him with humility and with reverence, and makes him fit to become a pious man, saintly, upright, and faithful, while keeping him away from sin and bringing him near to virtue; while others enjoying from him counsel and sound knowledge, understanding and [deriving from him] fortitude...[40]
  • "Have little business, and be busied in the Torah"; "Be lowly in spirit to every man"; "If thou idlest from the Torah, thou wilt have many idlers against thee"; "If thou laborest in the Torah, He hath much to give unto thee"[41]
  • "He who does not work on week-days will end by being compelled to work even on Sabbaths; for idleness leads to misery, and misery to crime; and once a prisoner, the idler will be forced to labor even on the Sabbath".[42]
  • "It is not the trade followed but the merit of the workman which makes him rich or poor".[43]

Other maxims of his, on study and the fear of the Lord, have been transmitted by Johanan: "Learn the ways of the Lord with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul"; "Watch at the gates of the Law"; "Keep the Law in thy heart"; "Let the fear of the Lord be always before thine eyes and keep thy tongue from evil words"; "Cleanse and make thyself pure that thou mayest stand without sin before the Lord, and He will be with thee" [44]

Meir reproved those who run after riches:

  • "Man comes into the world with closed hands as though claiming ownership of everything; but he leaves it with hands open and limp, as if to show that he takes nothing with him. Yet if man has sought the best course in life, his reward awaits him beyond the grave; there he finds the table set for a feast of joy that will last through eternity".[45]

Meir's experience of the world was wide and varied, and the aggadah records several of his social maxims:

  • Love the friend who admonishes thee and hate the one who flatters thee; for the former leads thee to life and the future world, while the latter puts thee out of the world." "Conciliate not thy friend in the hour of his passion; console him not when his dead is laid out before him; question him not in the hour of his vow; and strive to see him not in the hour of his disgrace".[46]

Meir was fond of discoursing upon traveling:

  • If you've entered a city, follow after its customs.[47]
  • "Travelers should go in threes, for a single traveler is likely to be murdered; two are likely to quarrel; but three will always make their way in peace".[48]

Tomb in Tiberias[edit]

Rabbi Meir's tomb, view from the seashore of the Sea of Galilee

Although Rabbi Meir died outside of the Land of Israel, he was brought to Tiberias (the same city where his well-known teacher Rabbi Akiva is buried) and buried there in a standing position near the Kinneret. It is said that he asked to be buried this way so when the Final Redemption occurs, Rabbi Meir would be spared the trouble of arising from his grave and could just walk out to greet the Jewish Messiah.[49] He requested that he be buried in Eretz Yisrael by the seashore so that the water that washes the shores should also lap his grave.[50] Visitors to his grave traditionally recite Tehillim and a special prayer. Every year, thousands of Jews make pilgrimage to his grave to receive blessings for health and success, in particular on his yahrtzeit (anniversary of his death) the 14th of Iyar, which is also Pesach Sheni (known as the holiday of the 'second chance').[51]

Four tombs in Israel and one or two in Iraq have over time been associated with Rabbi Meir.[52] The 12th century visitors Benjamin of Tudela and Petachiah of Regensburg favored the Iraqi option and did not mention a tomb near Tiberias.[52] The first clear mention of a tomb of Rabbi Meir in this place was made in the early 13th century by Samuel ben Samson, but he also mentioned a tomb of Rabbi Meir in Jish, as did many other writers in the following centuries.[52] There was also until the 16th century some disagreement over which Rabbi Meir was buried here.[52] For example, Moses ben Mordecai Bassola, while noting the story that the person here was buried standing up, stated explicitly that it was a Rabbi Meir different than the tanna.[52] However, from sometime in the 16th century there has been general agreement that Rabbi Meir the tanna has his tomb in Tiberias.[52]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "MEÏR (MEÏR BA'AL HA-NES = "Meïr the miracle-worker")". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

  1. ^ Drew Kaplan, "Rabbinic Popularity in the Mishnah VII: Top Ten Overall [Final Tally] Drew Kaplan's Blog (5 July 2011).
  2. ^ Gittin 56a
  3. ^ Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b.
  4. ^ Eruvin 13b
  5. ^ Sanhedrin 14a; see Rashi ad loc.
  6. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia, Meir
  7. ^ Tosefta Megillah 2
  8. ^ Quoted in Yalkut Shimoni, Prov. 964
  9. ^ Rashi to Avodah Zarah 18a
  10. ^ Yerushalmi Moed Kattan 3 81a
  11. ^ Lev. R., Deut. R.
  12. ^ Psalms 37:25
  13. ^ Ecclesiastes Rabbah 2:18
  14. ^ Avodah Zarah 18a; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:12
  15. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-04-14. Retrieved 2012-11-27.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  16. ^ Eruvin 13b
  17. ^ In Mesorat HaShas, his notations on Talmud. See Emet L' Yaakov ([Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky) to Eiruvin 13b for an explanation on the symbolism of the two names Meir and Nehorai.
  18. ^ The Munich, Vatican 109, and Vatican 127 manuscripts, as well as the text of Rabbenu Hananel, preserve a slight different wording of the passage: it states that Meir's actual name was Meisha (מיישא), while Nehorai's actual name was Nehemiah or Elazar ben Arach. Thus Meir and Nehorai are distinct people.
  19. ^ Avot 2:8, Avot of Rabbi Natan 2:8
  20. ^ Haggigah 14b
  21. ^ McGinley, 'The Written' as the Vocation of Conceiving Jewishly, 2006; pages 408-409.
  22. ^ 2006; pages 114-223. See Mishnah Sotah, chapter 5
  23. ^ Gittin 4a
  24. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 13b-14a
  25. ^ Eruvin 13b
  26. ^ Sotah 17a; Sifre Balak 131
  27. ^ Genesis Rabbah 9:5
  28. ^ Sanhedrin 38b; see Æsop's Fables Among the Jews
  29. ^ Kiddushin 82a
  30. ^ Pesachim 56a
  31. ^ Toharot 8a
  32. ^ Yerushalmi Bikkurim 65c
  33. ^ Leviticus 18:5
  34. ^ Sifra to Lev. l.c.
  35. ^ Genesis Rabbah 65; Lamentations Rabbah, proem, 2
  36. ^ Hagigah 15b
  37. ^ Hullin 6a
  38. ^ Genesis Rabbah 15; Pesikta Rabbah 23
  39. ^ Beitzah 25b
  40. ^ Pirkei Avot 6:1
  41. ^ Pirkei Avot 4:14
  42. ^ Avot of Rabbi Natan 21
  43. ^ Kiddushin 82a
  44. ^ Berachot 17a
  45. ^ Ecclesiastes Rabbah 1
  46. ^ Avot of Rabbi Natan 29; compare Avot of Rabbi Natan 36. and Avot 4:18, where these maxims are given in the name of Simeon ben Eliezer
  47. ^ Genesis Rabbah 48:14
  48. ^ Ecclesiastes Rabbah 4
  49. ^ Tiberias - Walking with the sages in Tiberias Archived 2012-01-12 at the Wayback Machine
  50. ^ Jerusalem Talmud, Kelaim 9:4
  51. ^ JewishBless
  52. ^ a b c d e f Dan Ben-Amos (2006). Folktales of the Jews. 1. Jewish Publication Society. pp. 73–78.

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