Biographies of Rabbis

[Published in the Encyclopedia of Religion]

by Tzvee Zahavy

BERURYAH, (second century C.E.), Israel, one of the few famous women in rabbinic Judaism of late antiquity. She was the daughter of R. Hananyah ben Teradyon, wife of R. Meir.

In rabbinic sources Beruryah appears several times together with the rabbis of the generation of scholars centered around the Galilean town of Usha. She is mentioned twice in Tosefta (in T. Kelim B.M. 1:6 by name and referred to in T. Kelim B.Q. 4:17 as the daughter of R. Hananyah ben Teradyon) and seven times in the Babylonian Talmud.

Beruryah's contemporary importance lies in her prominence as a rare woman-scholar in the male-dominated rabbinic culture. Goodblatt believes that Beruryah exemplifies the possibility, though quite uncommon, of a woman receiving formal education within rabbinic society. Goodblatt argues however that the traditions which ascribe rabbinic learning to Beruryah appear to be late, not telling us about Roman Palestine, the setting which they depict, but informing us better concerning the situation of Sassanian Babylonia, the place where they were formulated in the process of Talmudic compilation.

Whether historical or not, the rabbinic traditions do portray Beruryah as a sensitive yet assertive figure. The Talmud recounts anecdotes illustrating Beruryah's piety, compassion and wit. In one source she admonishes her husband Meir not to be angry at his enemies and not to pray for their death. She suggests that instead he pray that their sins cease and that they repent (b. Berakhot 10a).

When two of her sons died one Sabbath day, a story in the Midrash reports that she delayed telling her husband until Saturday night when he had finished observing the Sabbath day in peace (Midrash to Proverbs 31:10).

The Talmud also recounts anecdotes of Beruryah's sharp wit. When Yose the Galilean asks her for directions on the road, one story tells us, she derides him for speaking to much with a woman (b. `Eruvin 53b).

The folklore surrounding Beruryah is extensive and poignant. Accounts which weave together the rabbinic sources retell the tragic events of Beruryah's life and the life of her family. According to tradition, Beruryah's father was martyred in the Bar Kokhba rebellion. Two of her sons died suddenly one Sabbath day. Her sister was taken captive to Rome. Her brother became a brigand, possibly an anti-Roman terrorist, and was murdered.

The drama of her life climaxes in the so-called Beruryah Incident. She is said in an eleventh century tradition preserved by Rashi (commentary to Talmud Babli Avodah Zarah 18b) to have mocked a mysogynistic rabbinic tradition which labelled women as flighty. Meir is said to have sent a student to tempt her to prove her actions were wrong. Tragically, she is thought to have committed suicide after submitting to the advances of her husband's disciple.

One recent study (Goodblatt) takes a skeptical view of the identification of Beruryah as the wife of Meir and the daughter of Hananyah ben Teradyon. It is thought that these associations are late Babylonian inventions.


David Goodblatt, "The Beruryah Traditions," in "Persons and Institutions in Early Rabbinic Judaism", ed. W. Green (Missoula, 1977), pp. 207-229 translates and analyzes all of the materials relating to Beruryah in rabbinic literature.

JOSHUA BEN HANANIAH, Rabbi in Jerusalem and later at Yavneh and Peki'in in Israel (first and second centuries C.E.). As a Levite, it is assumed that he sang in the Temple before it was destroyed.

Legend has it that as a child his mother carried him to the study hall so that he would become accustomed to hearing words of the Torah (Talmud Yerushalmi Yebamot 3a).

He is said to have made his living at a humble trade as a needlemaker or blacksmith. Joshua achieved prominence as a leading rabbinic authority of his day. He was one of the five prominent disciples of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai (Mishnah Abot 2:8).

With Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Joshua is alleged to have carried Yohanan ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem in a coffin during the siege of the city (Talmud Babli Gittin 56a).

During his later career he was the center of some contention within rabbinic circles. Several sources recount how he was humiliated by the Patriarch, Gamaliel (Talmud Babli Rosh Hashanah 25a). Joshua's dispute with Gamaliel over the requirement to recite the evening prayer brought about the events which lead to the deposition of Gamaliel and ascension of Eleazar ben Azariah to the Patriarchate (Talmud Babli Berakhot 28a).

Joshua is also associated with a dispute with Eliezer ben Hyrcanus over the ritual cleanness of the ovens of Akhnai. Joshua ruled these ovens be deemed unclean. Eliezer said they were clean. Eliezer invoked a heavenly voice on his own behalf to prove his position correct. Joshua responded with the famous declaration: "The Law is not in heaven (a reference to Deut. 30:12)" i.e. the rabbis alone have the authority to decide matters of the law, not some supernatural voice, even a direct revelation. Many other legal disputes between Joshua and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus appear in rabbinic sources.

An important teaching attributed to Joshua shows a positive attitude towards outsiders. He declared that the pious gentiles will be able to enter heaven (Tosefta Sanhedrin 13:2).

According to tradition he engaged in many discourses with political figures and various groups: the Roman emperor Hadrian; with the elders of Athens; with the Jews of Alexandria. Recent scholarship has questioned the legitimacy of attempts at reconstructing the lives of the rabbis from the scattered traditions in rabbinic literature. In light of this, Green believes that assembling a meaningful biography of Joshua, or any of the other ancient rabbis for that matter, is not possible. At most, he argues, one can discover and follow the development of traditions about these religious leaders in the generations subsequent to their lifetimes.


J. Podro, "The Last Pharisee. The Life and Times of R. Joshua ben Hananiah" (New York, 1959), is an early attempt at Joshua's biography. W. Green, "The Traditions of Joshua ben Hananiah" (Leiden, 1980), represents a hypercritical approach to rabbinic sources concerning this master following some of the methods of J. Neusner, "Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: the Tradition and the Man" (Leiden, 1973).

JUDAH BAR ILAI, Rabbi (second century C.E.), born in Usha, in the lower Galilee in Israel. He was a student of Aqiba and Tarfon and was ordained by Judah ben Baba. Judah was a survivor of the Hadrianic persecutions.

Numerous traditions attributed to Judah are preserved in rabbinic literature. Along with Meir, Simeon and Yose, he is one of the most frequently quoted authorities of his generation. Judah is also one of the most important Ushan tradents of Yavnean materials. He cites numerous legal rulings in the names of Aqiba, Tarfon and other masters of the period of rabbinic activity at Yavneh.

His importance is reflected, for instance, in the tradition which tells us that Judah's contemporaries were called members of Judah bar Ilai's generation (Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 20a).

To date no systematic analysis has been made of Judah's traditions, probably because of the sheer size of the corpus of sayings attributed to him. Some 180 disputes between Judah and Nehemiah, for example, appear in rabbinic literature, only a fraction of the entire collection of traditions ascribed to Judah. Epstein believes that the corpus of his traditions was one of the primary documents used in the redaction of the Mishnah.

Judah's legal sayings often reflect the concerns and activities of the rabbis of his generation. Several of his rulings, for example, deal with the standardization of rabbinic liturgy (Mishnah Berakhot 4:1) and the regulation of prayer (Mishnah Berakhot 4:7, Tosefta Berakhot 1:9, Tosefta Berakhot 3:5) and daily liturgical blessings (Tosefta Berakhot 6:18). Other rules ascribed to Judah emphasize the importance of concentration and intention during the performance of rituals, e.g. in the recitation of prayers (Tosefta Berakhot 2:2), or with the importance of maintaining the proper frame of mind during recitation of prayers (Mishnah Berakhot 2:2). Judah also is associated with legislation concerning the recitation of blessings over foods (Mishnah Berakhot 6:4, Tosefta Berakhot 4:4-5), with blessings over natural wonders, both those for which one is permitted to recite blessings (Mishnah Berakhot 9:2) and those for which one is forbidden to recite blessings because it would appear to be a form of idolatry (Tosefta Berakhot 6:6). Overall Judah's legal, exegetical, and theological sayings range across the whole spectrum of rabbinic thought and life.


J. N. Epstein, "Prolegomena ad Litteras Tannaiticus" (Jerusalem, 1957), discusses the role of Judah's materials in the development of the Mishnah. I. Konovitz, "Rabbi Judah bar Ilai" (Jerusalem, 1965) collects all the references to Judah in rabbinic literature. , "Early Jewish Prayer: The Evidence of Mishnah and Tosefta" (forthcoming, 1984), analyzes some of the major contributions of Judah to the development of early Jewish prayer.

MEIR, (second century C.E.), rabbi in Israel. According to legend, Meir was a descendent of a family of proselytes which traced its line back to the Roman emperor Nero. He allegedly studied with both R. Aqiba and R. Ishmael. He is listed as one of the seven disciples of Aqiba who issue a famous edict concerning the intercalation of the year. Meir was one of the five rabbis ordained by Judah ben Baba during the Hadrianic persecutions.

No systematic critical analysis has been made of the rich and extensive corpus of traditions associated with Meir. Goldenberg's analysis is confined to the Sabbath laws attributed to Meir.

In rabbinic literature there are numerous colorful stories concerning Meir. He was married to Beruryah, one of the few learned women mentioned in the Talmud. Meir was thus involved in the tragic life of Beruryah. His father-in-law, Hananyah ben Teradyon was martyred in the Bar Kokhba war. His brother-in-law joined up with a group of bandits and was murdered. His sister-in-law was taken hostage to Rome. According to legend, Meir rescued her from there by performing wondrous acts. In another tragic story both his sons died during one Sabbath day.

Meir's wife, Beruryah, objected to the negative rabbinic characterization of women. A legend, attested only to the middle ages, recounts how Beruryah committed suicide after submitting to the advances of a student whom Meir had sent to test her to prove to her that women indeed are flighty.

Meir is also associated with the legendary Elisha ben Abuya, the well-known heretic of his time, known also as Aher, the "other". Some rabbinic sources depict Meir as Aher's would-be disciple who sometimes followed him to learn from him Torah. Meir is also said to have been called after Elisha's death to extinguish the fire of his smoking tomb.

According to folklore, a famous tomb and place of pilgrimage in Tiberias is the burial place of Rabbi Meir. Other traditions suggest that Meir died in exile in Asia Minor where, at his request, he was buried near the sea so that he could be near the waters that washed up on the shores of the Land of Israel.

Meir is prominently linked to the major rabbinic legislative and political activities of his generation. He is said to have served as "Hakham", Sage, in the Ushan court. His ability tof defend both sides of opposing legal viewpoints was greatly extolled. Ultimately, his opposition to the patriarch Simeon ben Gamaliel, is said to have been the basis for his exile from Israel.

Legal rulings ascribed to Meir comprise an important part of the earliest rabbinic compilations, Mishnah and Tosefta. His role in these works is so important that the Talmud stipulates that any anonymous ruling in the Mishnah is to be attributed to Meir. Epstein believes that the corpus of his traditions was one of the primary documents used in the redaction of the Mishnah. Since the laws in the Mishnah form the basis for much of Talmudic and later rabbinic thought and practice, it is fair to say that Meir is one of the most influential classical rabbinic figures.

Meir's dicta deal with most of the central values of rabbinic Judaism. One illustration of a tradition attributed to him indicates his understanding of rabbinic ritual as a coherent system of practice: "R. Meir used to say, 'There is no man in Israel who does not perform one hundred commandments each day [and recite over them one hundred blessings] . . . And there is no man in Israel who is not surrounded by [reminders of the] commandments: [Every person wears] phylacteries on his head, phylacteries on his arm, has a mezuzah on his doorpost and four fringes on his garment around him . . .[Tosefta Berakhot 6:24-25].'"

Many midrashic teachings and several fables are attributed to Meir. As is common of other contemporary rabbinic figures, numerous traditions valorize Meir's ethical and moral standards. Some sayings associated with Meir place extreme emphasis on the importance of the study of Torah and strongly castigate the unlettered.


A. Blumenthal, "R. Meir: Leben und Wirken eines judischen Weiser" (Frankfurt a/M, 1888), is a classical treatment of rabbinic biography. N. Cohen, "R. Meir: A Descendent of Anatolian Proselytes," "Journal of Jewish Studies", 23, 1972, pp. 51-59 critically examines the sources pertaining to Meir's lineage. J. N. Epstein, "Prolegomena ad Litteras Tannaiticus" (Jerusalem, 1957), discusses the role of Meir's materials in the formation of the Mishnah. R. Goldenberg, "The Sabbath Law of Rabbi Meir" (Missoula, 1978), examines Meir's contribution to the laws of a single tractate. I. Konovitz, "Rabbi Meir" (Jerusalem, 1967), collects all the references to Meir in rabbinic literature. A. Shinan, "The Brother of R. Meir," "Jerusalem Studies in Hebrew Literature", 2, 1983, pp. 7-20 analyzes one midrashic story about Meir.

SIMEON BEN GAMALIEL (II), Rabbi (second century C.E.), Israel. He held the hereditary office of Patriarch or President. It is said that he studied Greek and that he supported a policy of peace with Rome.

According to one Talmudic source, two of his rabbinic colleagues, Meir and Nathan sought to oust Simeon from his position as Patriarch during a struggle for power within the ranks of rabbinic leadership. In the talmudic account of the political tension, the two masters became angry when Simeon decreed that the students in the academy should not stand in their honor when they entered the college. They then conspired to test Simeon on an obscure tractate of the law in order to bring him to disgrace. One of Simeon's supporters prepared him in the laws of this tractate and he was able to pass the test. He then banished Meir and Nathan from the academy. Nonetheless they continued to send messages with legal problems to the college. The leaders of the academy then recognized that they should readmit the two, and did so (Talmud Babli Horayot 13b). The account demonstrates how this episode of internal strife was brought to resolution through compromise.

On the basis of the presence of a reference in this story to a ceremonial sash worn by Nathan, Neusner suggests that Nathan was head of the Jewish community in Babylonia, son of an official in the Parthian government. He came to Palestine to advance the influence of the Parthians in preparation for their struggle against roman authority. Since Simeon was a sympathetic supporter of Roman interests, Neusner suggests, he was the primary target of Nathan's conspiracy. Still, Meir's part in this intrigue is not explained by this mainly speculative theory. It is equally plausible that the events did not involve a direct conflict between the communities of Palestine and Babylonia, but were components of a local struggle confined to the Palestinian community.

Many legal rulings in Simeon's name appear throughout the major rabbinic compilations. He also serves as a tradent of teachings of his contemporaries Judah, Meir and Yose.

Simeon sometimes cites precedents for religious prescriptions and rulings. For example he refers to several customs for fellowship meals in Jerusalem (Tosefta Berakhot 4:9). Among the other rules attributed to him is his statement that not all who wish to recite God's name in the prayers may do so (Mishnah Berakhot 4:8), showing a restrictive view regarding the use of divine names for liturgical purposes. Simeon's legal views are almost always decisive. The Talmud declares that the law follows inf accordance with Simeon Ben Gamaliel in all instances except for three (Talmud Babli Ketubot 77a).


No full critical analysis of the corpus of Simeon's tradition has been undertaken. I. Konovitz, "Tannaitic Symposia" 4 (Jerusalem, 1969, pp. 159-228), collects all the references to Simeon in rabbinic literature. J. Neusner, "A History of the Jews in Babylonia", vol. 1 (Leiden, 1969), pp. 79-85 proposes a historical approach to the analysis of one major tradition.

SIMEON BAR YOHAI, (second century C.E.), rabbinic leader, mystic and ascetic of the generation of rabbinic activity whose center was the city of Usha in the Galilee (Israel). Simeon was one of the two most prominent students of Aqiba (with Meir). He was said to be one of the five rabbis ordained by Judah ben Baba during the Hadrianic persecutions.

Simeon taught in Tiberias and Meron in the Galilee. According to several legends, he is responsible for locating many lost tombs and removing sources of ritual uncleanness from Tiberias, thereby reestablishing its prominence in the region.

Simeon is the subject of many rabbinic legends. Best known is the story of his hiding in a cave with his son after having been sentenced to death by the Romans. According to some versions of the story when he emerged from the cave after twelve years and saw that people were not engaged in the study of Torah, he set them afire with only a glance in their direction (Talmud Babli Shabbat 33b), and had to return to the cave for another year.

Simeon is associated with additional magical powers in other stories: e.g. he filled a valley with gold coins (Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot ix, 13d); he exorcised a demon from the daughter of the Roman emperor (Talmud Babli Meilah 17b). One source recounts his own belief that he was the holiest person to have ever lived: he says if one individual were to merit entering heaven, it would be Simeon (Talmud Yerushalmi, ibid).

He was the student who provoked the deposition of Gamaliel from the position of Patriarch of Israel by bringing up in the academy the issue of whether the recitation of the Evening Prayer was obligatory or optional, according to the version of the incident in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 28a).

Simeon is one of the most frequently mentioned authorities in the basic rabbinic legal code, the Mishnah, where he is referred to without patronymic. There is yet no systematic critical study of his traditions. Epstein believes that the corpus of his traditions was one of the primary documents used in the redaction of the Mishnah.

Simeon's rulings cover most of the major topics taken up in rabbinic sources. On the importance of the study of the Torah for instance, he says, "If I had been at Mount Sinai at the time the Torah was given to Israel, I would have asked God to endow man with two mouths, one to talk of the Torah and one to attendf to his other needs." On further reflection, he retracted this saying, "But the world can barely withstand the slander of [persons with] one [mouth]. It would be all the worse if [each individual] had two [mouths] (Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot, i, 3b)."

The Talmud considers Simeon the paradigm of a scholar totally immersed in the study of the Torah. Accordingly a rabbi of his caliber would not be required to interrupt his study even for the important and timely daily recitation of the "Shema" (ibid).

In medieval Judaism he was named as author of the Zohar, one of the most important rabbinic mystical compilations. He was also associated with the day of Lag B'Omer, the eighteenth day of Iyar. This mystical festival is celebrated to this day at the traditional place of his burial in Meron in the Galilee in Israel.

One of the more famous messianic sayings attributed to him declares that if the Jews properly observed two consecutive Sabbaths, they would be redeemed (Talmud Babli Shabbat 118b).

He is assigned authorship of the Midrashic compilations of Sifre Numbers and Deuteronomy (Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 86a) and of the Mekhilta of R. Simeon Bar Yohai to the book of Exodus. Several short apocalyptic mystical compilations are also linked with his name.


J. N. Epstein, "Prolegomena ad Litteras Tannaiticus" (Jerusalem, 1957), discusses the place of Simeon's traditions in the development of the Mishnah. I. Konovitz, "Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai" (Jerusalem, 1966) collects all the references to Simeon in rabbinic literature.

TARPHON, rabbi and priest (late first and early second centuries C.E.), lived in Lydda, Israel, teacher of Judah bar Ilai, a prominent leader of the generation of rabbis active at the seaside town of Yavneh after the destruction of the Temple.

According to recent scholarship (Gereboff), because most of the biographical traditions about Tarfon are found in late compilations which were redacted many years after Tarfon's death, as is the common case for the biographical data of most rabbis of the time, a meaningful reconstruction of the details of a biography of Tarfon's life is not possible. Nevertheless we can know the major outlines of Tarfon's general legal and theological views.

Gereboff identifies two strands within the traditions associated with Tarfon. One group of materials were probably formulated by pro-Aqiban masters. These place Tarfon in a position secondary to Aqiba and occasionally mock Tarfon for his foolish behavior or opinion. A second group of traditions which cite Tarfon's actions as precedents for Judah's rulings appear to have been formulated by disciples of Judah bar Ilai.

Gereboff concludes that in the realm of religious philosophy Tarfon emphasized the importance of deed over intention, of formal action or objective fact over subjective thought. This posture differs sharply from that of Aqiba who appears to have placed greater emphasis on the role of a person's intention in establishing the criteria for legal decisions. In several instances it seems that Tarfon's view serves merely as a foil for Aqiba's authoritative opinion.

Tarfon's major independent legislation dealt with issues of interest to the priests. In matters of dispute his materials consistently rule in favor of the priestly families. His legal rulings frequently relate to rituals performed by priests. Tarfon's dicta emphasized that the priests could play a central role in the life of the Jews even after the destruction of the Temple. His ruling, for instance, that a Priest may receive heave-offering of wine and oil from a householder throughout the year, exemplifies his legislation in favor of the priestly groups.


J. Gereboff, "Rabbi Tarfon: The Tradition, the Man and Early Rabbinic Judaism" (Missoula, 1979), presents a systematic study and analysis of all the materials concerning this rabbi. I. Konovitz, "Tannaitic Symposia" (Jerusalem, 1967), collects all the references to Tarfon in rabbinic literature.

YOSE BEN HALAFTA, rabbi (second century C.E.), born in Sepphoris in Israel. He was a student of Yohanan ben Nuri, Aqiba and Tarfon.

Numerous traditions attributed to Yose are preserved in rabbinic literature. He is one of the most frequently quoted authorities of his generation, along with Meir, Simeon, and Judah. Epstein believes that the corpus of his traditions was one of the primary documents used in the redaction of the Mishnah. Like many of his contemporaries, Yose is alleged to have had a humble occupation (Talmud Babli Shabbat 49a-b). Yose is also thought to have been a leader of the rabbinic court at Sepphoris (Talmud Babli Sanhedrin 32b).

In several well-known traditions Yose is said to have engaged in dialogues with a gentile matron. He is also associated with early mystical traditions. It is said that he studied with Elijah the prophet (Talmud Babli Berakhot 31).

Yose's traditions evince a special interest in the events of biblical history as well as in the entire range of rabbinic theological topics, statements about the nature of God, the centrality of the Torah and the special nature of Israel. To date no systematic analysis has been made of Yose's traditions, probably because of the sheer size of the corpus of sayings attributed to him.

Yose's legal rulings often reflect the concerns and activities of the rabbis of his generation, from agricultural taboos, and rules for table fellowship, holidays and family life, to regulations for the rabbinic system of purities. Yose is associated for example with legislation concerning the recitation of blessings over foods (Tosefta Berakhot 4:4), where he rules that one who alters the formula which the sages established for blessings does not fulfill his obligation. Overall, Yose's legal, exegetical, and theological sayings contributed to the whole spectrum of rabbinic thought and life.


J. N. Epstein, "Prolegomena ad Litteras Tannaiticus" (Jerusalem, 1957), discusses the role of Yose's materials in the formation of the Mishnah. I. Konovitz, "Rabbi Yose ben Halafta" (Jerusalem, 1967), collects all the references to Yose in rabbinic literature. , "Early Jewish Prayer: The Evidence of Mishnah and Tosefta" (forthcoming, 1984), analyzes the role of Yose's rulings in the development of early rabbinic liturgy.