James E. Thorold (James Edwin Thorold) Rogers.

Rabbi Jeshua : an eastern story online

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for wisdom, sanctity, and supernatural power,
which was due to the purity of his life and the
medical knowledge distinctive of his sect. He
gained their affections by the tender compassion
which he evinced for their sufferings, and by the
good deeds which he wrought among them. He
earned the hatred and distrust of the higher orders
by the superiority to class prejudices which he


manifested in his treatment of the poor, and by
the novelty of some of his doctrines on traditional
and religious questions. He was cast off by his
family, accused of sorcery by the Pharisees, and
importuned to give proof of the prophetic character
which had been thrust upon him rather than
assumed by him. The elements of a great future
struggle with constituted authority were perceptible ;
yet in the tenor of his daily life there was no
trace of that spirit of rebellion against the ruling
powers which was so marked a characteristic of
the Galilean fanatics of his time.

We may picture to ourselves the little band of
ascetics who travelled barefoot, and clad each in a
single garment, across the rugged ridges of Upper
Galilee or through the dark brown plains of Sep-
phoris. We may recall to the mind's eye the eager
crowds of tanned peasants, the blue-robed women,
the naked children, who pressed round the Master,
intent not so much on listening to his exhortations or
to his mysterious fables, as on bringing to his notice
the sick child, the withered limb, the sightless eyes
of a relative or friend. On the shore they crowded
round the little boat in which he sat apart. In the
village they tore up even the brushwood roof of
the cabin where he sat, to lower the palsied into
the midst of the attendant circle of his listeners.


Conspicuous by his spotless turban, his white
garment, his distinctive girdle, by the beauty of his
features, by the calm dignity of his manner, the
great Master moved among them all. Patiently
he listened to their troubles, healed their ills, and
instructed their ignorance ; but among these
humble followers, who heard with their ears but
understood not the beautiful fables which he
uttered, there was no man who could comprehend
the genius, or fathom the wisdom of the teacher.
Alone in his greatness, and removed as far from the
rabbinic doctor as from the untaught peasant,
Rabbi Jeshua moved among his fellow-countrymen
in the solitude of genius, distinguished from all
other teachers in his self-created vocation the
Messiah of the Poor.



Rabbinical maxims Rabbi Jeshua's peculiar views The
praise of poverty Fanaticism The Sabbath Fasting
Divorce Tribute Washing Immortality Fables
Messianic claims Concealment Genealogy Fatalism
Oriental character.

WHEN the heathen scoffer came to Shammai and
asked to be taught the Law in such time as he
could remain standing on one leg, the vice-presi-
dent of the Sanhedrim dismissed him in great anger.
But when he made the same demand of Hillel,
the answer was :

"Do not to others what you would not that
others should do to you. This is the whole Law,
the rest is only a comment on this."

" Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself." In
these words likewise Hillel was wont to epitomise
the Law. Yet, curiously enough, both these sayings
have been attributed to Rabbi Jeshua, and sup-
posed to be original, although the latter, at least, is


merely a paraphrase of a passage in the Pentateuch

Many other sayings are common to Rabbi
Jeshua, and to other doctors who were his con-
temporaries or his predecessors.

" Do His will as if it were thine own will, that
He may fulfil thy will as His own will," was a say-
ing of Gamaliel.

" Judge not," was the advice of Hillel ; and to
him also are attributed the maxims, " He that
exalteth himself shall be abased," " If I do no
good works, who shall do them for me ? "

The repetition of such sayings is not, however,
sufficient to prove that Rabbi Jeshua was a disciple
of Hillel, or of the Jerusalem rabbinical school. The
maxims do not contain any statement of startling
originality or of metaphysical importance. They
are rather reflections arising from a careful study
of the Law, and from a right appreciation of its
spirit and intention, and are thus likely to have
been independently uttered by students who were
mutually unknown one to the other.

The maxims of Rabbi Jeshua must indeed be
considered as altogether secondary in importance
to the facts of his career, and as such they are
regarded by the chronicler, who, while jotting
down here and there in his brief record of events


such sayings or parables as had most firmly fixed
themselves in his memory, admits that many others
which he has not preserved were spoken by the

If, then, it may be asked, the sayings of this
rabbi are so little different from those of his con-
temporaries, of what interest is his career beyond
that of other Jewish doctors who, however well
known to the curious student of Talmudic litera-
ture, are but obscure names in the history of their
age, and have left no impress of their influence on
the world in general ?

The answer must be that the interest of the life
of Rabbi Jeshua lies in his actions rather than his
words ; and, moreover, that in two important points
his teaching is entirely distinct from that of his
contemporaries : namely, first, his doctrine as to
the poor and ignorant ; and, secondly, his doctrine
as to the expected Messiah, whom he claimed to be.

The teaching of Rabbi Nitai, of Arbela, com-
manded the student to "withdraw from an evil
neighbour and not to associate with the wicked."
Yet Rabbi Jeshua, who lived two centuries later
than this great authority, was in daily contact with
sinners, and never shunned the society of his
neighbour, however fallen away from ceremonial



"A boor cannot fear sin, nor can a peasant
become a saint," was the opinion of Hillel. Yet
Rabbi Jeshua consorted with the peasantry far
more than with the devout, and announced himself
more than once to be the prophet of the lost sheep
of the flock of Israel.

" Get thyself a master," said Joshua Ben Pera-
kiah, the contemporary of Alexander Jannseus,
and the same maxim is recorded of Gamaliel. Yet
the Galilean Rabbi was ambitious to become a
master rather than to find one, and is said to have
spoken in a tone of authority and originality very
different from that of the students who (like a
modern Moslem preacher) traced back every cove-
nant or interpretation which they repeated, from
one authority to another up to the inspired original
exposition of Ezra himself. Rabbi Jeshua gave to
his hearers not the tradition of a certain school,
but his own deductions from a deep and intelligent
study of the Law of Moses ; and while on the
one hand it is wrong to suppose that his maxims
on questions of morality were entirely original
founded as they were on the authority of the
Scriptures it seems, on the other hand, equally
erroneous to suppose that he belonged to either of
the great Pharisaic schools which were then con-
tending in Jerusalem.


Like other doctors, then, Rabbi Jeshua advocated
peace, humility, charity, good works, submission to
lawful authority, forgiveness of injuries, and the
abnegation of self-will. Like other rabbis, he
couched his teaching in fables ; and like them also
he addressed his Hebrew hearers as children of

On the other hand, his treatment of the Law is
marked by an originality which distinguishes his
utterances from those of any school of the day,
although there is apparently nothing in his doc-
trine which could be considered as plainly irrecon-
cilable with the words of Moses.

This view of the doctrines of Rabbi Jeshua is
supported by many instances in which maxims
supposed by most writers to be his original ideas,
may be compared with the passages in the Law
from which they were derived. The radical differ-
ence between Rabbi Jeshua's views and those of
other doctors as regarded the teaching of the
peasantry, was moreover but a feature of the mild
philosophy of the Hasaya, who, while approaching
the Pharisees in their regard for tradition, were
distinguished, as Josephus and Philo relate, by
their love of peace, poverty, and seclusion, their
contempt for riches and for the ambitions of the


In the maxims of Rabbi Jeshua we find indeed
expressed some of the best-known tenets of the
Hasaya and of the Abionim. The praise of celi-
bacy and chastity was one of their distinguishing
and least orthodox doctrines. They were instructed
to wear their garments to rags, and their shoes into
holes before buying new ones, to bathe frequently
in cold water, to have all things in common, to
travel from city to city, to heal the sick, to exhort
the worldly.

It is, then, in the light of an acquaintance with
the views of these humble pietists that we must
regard many of the doctrines of Rabbi Jeshua, for to
his wandering emissaries he enjoined chastity and
celibacy, the rites of ablution, the contempt for
wealth. He bade them wear only the single gar-
ment which distinguished the poor peasant from the
rich citizen clad in his closely-fitting upper gaber-
dine. He enjoined on them to go barefoot, as the
poorest of the poor, or shod with the sandals of
desert wanderers. "Blessed are the needy, the
sad, the lowly, the hungry, the merciful, the pure,
the peaceful, the persecuted, for to them are given
the times of the Messiah." Such were his words,
and such were the doctrines of the Hasaya hermits,
who had preceded and who followed him. It was
the ideal of that unknown prophet of the captivity,


whose description of himself applied later by the
Jews to the Messiah represented the shepherd of
wandering sheep, the man of sorrows, despised and
rejected, afflicted and poor, preaching to the meek,
and comforting the broken in heart.

The advice which was offered to the rich by the
great puritan of Galilee was couched in a similar
strain. They were to sell their goods and give
away their patrimony to the poor. It was, perhaps,
rather in view of the speedy coming of the Messiah,
the necessity of doing some good work before that
day should arrive, the transient nature of all
worldly advantages in consequence of the im-
pending change, than because of any radical or
communistic ideas on his own part, that such advice
was given ; but the ring of the Hasaya asceticism
echoes through the exhortation the desire for
treasure in heaven, the contempt for riches on

Rabbi Simeon records an instance in which a
young Pharisee, one of the sect of the " inquirers,"
as they were called, who made it a custom to ask
others to point out to them their faults, demanded
of the Rabbi in what respect he had failed in devout
obedience to the law. The answer was, that until
he had sold all for the poor he had not fulfilled the
injunctions of the command, "thou shalt not harden


thy heart nor shut thy hand against thy poor
brother." Such advice was no doubt unpalatable
to the rich Pharisee, whose religion was but a
refined selfishness ; but Rabbi Jeshua condemned,
without scruple, all who hesitated to go to the
same lengths with himself in the zealous pursuit of

Traces of that stern fanaticism, which appears to
be inseparable from the religious enthusiasm of the
East, are indeed not wanting in the sayings of the
Galilean Rabbi. Not only the rich were condemned,
but those who spared father or mother, sister or
brother, who shrank from the most appalling sacri-
fice of natural affection, or from the loss of life or
limb in the cause of the faith, were alike pronounced
unworthy of a place in the future kingdom of God.
It is true that the sacrifices which he demanded
were perhaps more difficult for the rich and pros-
perous than for the poor and needy ; yet in spite
of the tender pity which Rabbi Jeshua evinced for
the sinners whom he addressed, we find often that
the standard of conduct which he placed before his
followers, as an ideal, was one which has been
recognised by the world in all ages as impracti-
cably exalted, and beyond the capacity of human
frailty to attain.

On many questions of the day or of sectarian


difference, Rabbi Jeshua had a strong opinion of
his own. To us these questions are for the most
part of little interest. But, like other great men,
he was but little in advance of the spirit of his time.
The relative proportions of things appeared to his
mind according to the importance which early
education and immediate surroundings had origin-
ally given to them. A leader, whose mind is so
remotely divided from that of his followers as to
dull and weaken his interest in those things which
are to them of primary importance, cannot hope to
influence in a marked manner the thought and
actions of his fellows, however much his superiority
may be recognised later, by men of more advanced
intellect and education.

Rabbi Jeshua was a man of his own times.
Educated in the tenets of Jewish faith, he looked
forward, as did others, to a Messiah whose advent
might be immediately expected. Brought up in
the belief that only in the Law of Moses was the
whole and finite sum of truth to be found, he
devoted his energies to the right understanding of
that Law rather than to any independent and
original search after truth. Accustomed from his
childhood to connect the acquisition of wealth with
oppression, injustice, corruption, and deceit, he was
naturally inclined to believe that only through


poverty and asceticism could the temptations of
the world be avoided, and the indispensable holi-
ness of a perfect life be attained.

Thus to Rabbi Jeshua the questions which then
agitated the Jewish world, assumed an importance
with which we rind it hard to sympathise ; yet, as
illustrating the views with which he regarded life
in general, they have still some interest for the
reflective mind. The observance of the sabbath,
fasting, divorce, the payment of tribute, the wash-
ing of hands, such were the subjects concerning
which fierce disputes were raging among the
doctors in the time of Rabbi Jeshua. To the
philosophic Roman of the day, no less than to the
philosophic Englishmen of our own times, such
matters of the Jew's superstition may have ap-
peared too puerile to be seriously discussed by men
of mature intellect ; but to the Oriental, whose
religion is the very essence of his daily life, such
questions were, and are, of greater importance
than any matters of merely worldly interest could
possibly claim to be.

There was, perhaps, no instance in which the
self-torturing ingenuity of anxious obedience had
more completely frustrated the original intentions
of the Law of Moses than in the observance of the
sabbath. Designed as a day of rest, of worship,


and of recreation, it became, under the direction of
the Pharisees, a continually recurring period of
discomfort and inconvenience. The very slightest
semblance of work was prohibited ; but the law
which forbade a Jew to travel more than two thou-
sand cubits was evaded by a complicated system
of legal fictions, which only find a parallel in the
modern Arab evasions of the law of the Koran.
It is true that the instinct of self-preservation had
induced the Hasmoneans to justify self-defence
against the heathen on the sabbath ; but short of
the danger of life, no necessity was allowed to
supersede the law of the sabbath. Perhaps the
day of rest may have been somewhat less dismal
than the dreary Sundays of our Northern fellow-
countrymen, inasmuch as the wearing of ornaments,
and indulgence in harmless recreation, or exercise
in the open air, were not forbidden. But, on the
other hand, the Jews were far more thorough than
the most devout Scot can claim to be, in their
abstention even from any act which might be classed
as a " son of works." Mechanical action might not
be set in motion so as to continue through the
sabbath. A tailor might not carry his needle on
his person, nor might the net of the fowler remain
spread after the sabbath eve. At Tiberias, a pipe
of cold spring water was carried through the hot


baths, and thus gave a warm supply ; yet the liquid
thus heated by the action of a natural agent was
unlawful for drinking or washing on the sabbath.
" The cow of Rabbi Eleazar was led forth with a
strap between her horns (which, it was argued,
might have been tied to them on the sabbath), but
it was contrary to the will of the wise men."

"Whoever brings out food, even the size of a
dried fig, is guilty of death." Such was the stern
decision of the doctors, and such dicta were no
doubt enforced on all over whom the Sanhedrim
had authority.

Boldly to break through the trammels of such a
bondage, to set at nought the devices which had
gained authority through long custom, was no
doubt to the Jew, as to the Moslem of our own
days, a moral impossibility. Subterfuges, legal
fictions, equivocations, and dexterous perversions
of the plain words of the Law, were recognised as
allowable ; but there was, no doubt, a certain
originality in the view which reverting to the true
spirit of the institution Rabbi Jeshua enunciated,
in the pithy maxim that " the sabbath was made
for man, and not man for the sabbath."

The question of fasting was, in like manner, one
which distinguished the followers of Rabbi Jeshua
from the Pharisees. By fasting, we must under-


stand, not the voluntary abstinence of individual
ascetics, but the national fasts proclaimed by the
Sanhedrim, in addition to those annually observed
in obedience to the Law. Fasting, moreover, as
explained in the Talmud, appears to have been
similar among the Jews to the modern fasting of
Orientals in Ramadan. Thus, while neither food
nor drink might pass the lips during the day time
of a fast, flesh and wine might be eaten and drunk
after nightfall, excepting on the occasion of the
great day of Atonement, when even children were
to be induced, if possible, to fast.

The annual fasts, and those specially proclaimed
in times of drought, pestilence, or public calamity,
do not appear to have been observed by the
Hasaya, although the frugality of their ordinary
habits might well be contrasted with the intemper-
ance of other sects during the great feasts. Rabbi
Jeshua claimed such independence for his disciples,
on the ground that the new expected order dis-
pensed with the traditional observances authorised
by the Sanhedrim. His maxim was couched in
language which resembles that used at a later
period by the famous Rabbi Meier. " Look not at
the flask, but at that which is therein," said Rabbi
Meier, " for there are new flasks full of old wine ;
and old flasks which have not even new wine in


them." A somewhat similar figure of Rabbi
Jeshua's is recorded, to the effect that the strong
wine of a freshly fermenting enthusiasm might not
be safely trusted in the old flask of an effete formal-
ism, lest it should burst out and be spilled.

The abuse of the power of divorce which
remained as little restricted as in the primitive age
of Moses, was also undoubtedly a crying evil of the
day. Those who are familiar with the domestic
life of the modern Jews of the East, will know how
prejudicial an influence to the happiness of women
is the constant terror of capricious divorce, with its
consequent separation from child and home. The
condemnation of such conduct which Rabbi Jeshua
pronounced was sweeping and unqualified. He
agreed, it is true, with the school of Shammai,
against that of Hillel, in allowing only one reason
as justifying divorce, but his argument was founded
on the words of the earliest dictum of the Law :
"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his
mother and cleave unto his wife."

No less delicate was the question of paying
tribute to foreign and heathen rulers, among a race
whose sacred literature belonged mainly to a
time when they had enjoyed independence. The
Herodian party with whom the Pharisees were in
league, and the Sadducees who had accepted the


rule of the Romans, were alike interested in a settle-
ment of this question which might reconcile their
consciences with their practice ; but the fierce
Zealots of Galilee, who refused to recognise any
king, Hebrew or heathen, native or foreign, save
only Jehovah Himself, were the compatriots of
Rabbi Jeshua, who might reasonably be suspected
to share their sentiments. The Hasaya, however,
were a peaceful people, who sought to solve
questions in which religious principles clashed with
political expedience, by retreat to the seclusion of
the desert, rather than by violent revolutionary
attempts ; and in consequence of this spirit Rabbi
Jeshua safely escaped the snares of his crafty
enemies, when they endeavoured to entangle him
into a declaration of rebellion against the existing
rule of the Caesar.

Yet more offensive in the eyes of the Pharisees
was the neglect of ceremonial purifications on the
part of the followers of Rabbi Jeshua. Tradition
prescribed that half a wineglassful of water (and
no more) should be poured on the hands before
meals. It mattered not that frequent and copious
ablutions were used by the followers of the
Hasaya, for in the eyes of the Pharisees those
who neglected this simply ceremonial purification
were as unclean as though they had touched a


house smitten with leprosy, or had held in their
hands a sacred copy of the Law ; for by some
extraordinary process of reasoning the contact of a
scroll written in the sacred characters was con-
sidered to necessitate a similarly .infinitesimal
cleansing of the hands.

In most of these questions Rabbi Jeshua was
directly opposed to the great traditional schools of
the Pharisees ; yet could he not, on the other hand,
be classed among their adversaries the Sadducees ;
for while he denounced, with vehemence and con-
tempt, the hollow formalism and hypocrisy of
those who, in following the letter, had forgotten
the spirit of the Law, he equally condemned the
materialism of their Sadducean opponents and
held firmly the belief which characterized the
Hasaya that " the immortal souls of men im-
prisoned in their bodies should when released from
their bondage mount upwards with joy." Yet in
combating the grotesque ideas of the followers of
Sadok and Boethus, Rabbi Jeshua could find no
text in the Pentateuch on which to base his belief,
and his argument is worthy rather of the subtle
casuistry of the Pharisees than of the noble
simplicity of his other expositions of Scripture.
The maxim of Antigonus of Sochoh was indeed, in
this matter, more admirable than anything which


was said later respecting that doctrine of future
punishment and reward which had been gradually
introduced into the Jewish moral system.

" Be not," said the successor of Simon the Just,
" as servants who serve their master for reward, but
be as servants who serve without regard to recom-

The views which have thus been briefly noticed
as expressed in the maxims of Rabbi Jeshua were
enunciated from time to time as occasions pre-
sented themselves or questions were asked. Pro-
found as was his knowledge of the Law, his utter-
ances were fragmentary, and without connection,
and no great ethical system, no strikingly novel
views of morality, nothing, in short, beyond the
teaching of the Law of Moses as studied according
to its original spirit, is found in the sayings of
Rabbi Jeshua.

Noble and clear as were his words, it was not on
his teaching that his fame rested in his lifetime,
and it was the triumph of Messiah, not the develop-
ment of a new religious system, which formed the
true ambition of his career.

Some attempt has been made in the Jerusalem
chronicle to present an epitome of the teaching
of Rabbi Jeshua in the form of a pretended exhor-
tation delivered on the mountains near Tiberias ;


but no such sermon occurs in the artless narrative
of Simeon, and in the chronicle of Rabbi Saul it
is cut into sections, and distributed over various
occasions. The teaching is, moreover, coloured in
each account by the peculiar views of the writers;

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Online LibraryJames E. Thorold (James Edwin Thorold) RogersRabbi Jeshua : an eastern story → online text (page 6 of 14)