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Acquiring Torah 20: Articulation: Part 1: The Story & Questions

The Roman government had once issued a decree that [Jews] might not keep the Sabbath, circumcise their children, and that they should have intercourse with menstruant women. Thereupon Rabbi Reuben son of Istroboli cut his hair in the Roman fashion, and went and sat among them. He said to them: If a man has an enemy, what does he wish him, to be poor or rich? They said: That he be poor. He said to them: If so, let them do no work on the Sabbath so that they grow poor. They said: ‘He speaks rightly’, let this decree be annulled. It was indeed annulled.


Then he continued: If one has an enemy, what does he wish him, to be weak or healthy? They answered: Weak. He said to them: Then let their children be circumcised at the age of eight days and they will be weak. They said: ‘He speaks rightly’, and it was annulled.

Finally he said to them: If one has an enemy, what does he wish him, to multiply or to decrease? They said to him: That he decreases. If so, let them have no intercourse with menstruant women. They said: ‘He speaks rightly’, and it was annulled.

Later they came to know that he was a Jew, and [the decrees] were re-instituted.

The Jews then conferred as to who should go to Rome to work for the annulment of the decrees. “Let Rabbi Shimon b. Yochai go for he is experienced in miracles.”

“And who should accompany him?”

Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Yosi.

Said Rabbi Yosi to them: And were my father Halafta still alive, would you have said to him to give his son for slaughter?(So you cannot expect me to send my son. He feared that Rabbi Shimon might curse his son as he explains later in the conversation, but Rabbi Shimon misunderstood this as cowardice, viz., that he feared to run the risk of being executed by the Romans, and therefore replied with displeasure that he, too, is risking his life.)

Answered Rabbi Shimon: Were Yochai my father still alive, would you have said to him to give his son for slaughter?

Said Rabbi Yosi to them: I shall accompany him, for I fear Rabbi Shimon may punish him (my son, when finding fault with him).

Rabbi Shimon undertook thereupon not to inflict any punishment on him. Notwithstanding this, he did punish him, for when they were proceeding on the way the following question was raised in their presence: “Wherefrom do we know that the blood of a reptile is unclean?”

Rabbi Elazar son of Rabbi Yosi curved his mouth (speaking in an undertone; for it is unseemly for a pupil to speak unasked in his master’s presence), and said: It is written: “And these are they that are unclean (Vayikra 11:29).”

Said Rabbi Shimon to him: From the undertone of your words, one can see that you are a scholar, yet the son shall not return to the father (because he taught Torah in an undertone). (According to both Rashi and Tosafot, Rabbi Shimon was angry that Rabbi Elazar ruled in front of his Rebbi, and that Rabbi Shimon, prayed for him, [Tosafot: who was already choking to death] and he lived.)

Then Ben Temalion (a demon [Rashi]) came to meet them. He said: Is it your wish that I accompany you? Thereupon Rabbi Shimon wept and said: “The handmaid of my ancestor’s house was found worthy of meeting an angel (the story of Hagar and the angels) three times, and I not even to meet him once. However, let the miracle be performed, no matter how.”

Thereupon Ben Temalion advanced and entered into the Emperor’s daughter (who was seriously ill). When Rabbi Shimon arrived there, (According to Rashi the daughter continuously proclaimed the name of Rabbi Shimon who was thereupon invited to cure her) he called out: ‘Ben Temalion leave her, Ben Temalion leave her’,and as he proclaimed this he left her (And she was cured.)

The Emperor said to them: Request whatever you desire. They were led into the treasure house to take whatever they chose. They found that bill,(the one containing the decrees against the religious practices of the Jews) took it and tore it to pieces. (Me’ilah 17b; The Soncino translation and notes)

Why did Rabbi Reuben son of Istroboli pretend to be a Roman, rather than use his normal political connections to argue his case? Why did the government reject his cogent arguments when they found out he was a Jew?

Why would Rabbi Yosi be more concerned about his son traveling with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on this trip, rather than always be so concerned? Why did the Sages insist that someone accompany Rabbi Shimon?

Why is the story of Rabbi Elazar inserted into the middle of this story? Why did he answer at all in front of Rabbi Shimon? If he felt he was permitted to respond, why speak in an undertone? Why was Rabbi Shimon so bothered by the undertone? How did Rabbi Shimon discern that Rabbi Elazar was a scholar only now? If the Sages chose him as Rabbi Shimon’s companion, they must have had a reason! Why did Rabbi Shimon break his promise to Rabbi Yosi?

What is the significance of the interaction with the demon?

Why did Rabbi Shimon not directly request that the Emperor tear up the decree? Why was it stored in the treasure room, rather than a library?

There must be more to this story than meets the eye!

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