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Joshua ben Levi or Yehoshua ben Levi (early third century C.E.) was a important Jewish teacher who headed the school of Lydda in southern Palestine. He was one of the first generation of the Talmudic rabbis known as the Amoraim.
Noted for his gentle disposition, philanthropy, and striking appearance, he often represented the Jewish community of Palestine in its dealings with the Roman authorities. He was noted for his leniency in his legal rulings and his tolerance of Jewish Christians despite their offensive denunciations of those who did not accept Jesus.
In his teachings, he emphasized study as well as piety and spoke of the relationship between humans and God in intimate personal terms: "Not even a wall of iron could separate Israel (Jacob) from his Father in Heaven." Although he enjoyed close personal connections with the central Jewish council (Sanhedrin) under Judah haNasi, Joshua ben Levi provoked regional tensions when he took the unprecedented step of ordaining rabbis locally.
After his death, Joshua ben Levi became a noted figure of legend. He reportedly spoke daily with the prophet Elijah and even had a conversation with the Messiah himself, who promised him that he would come to the Jews "today!" if only God's people would repent and obey Him.
Little is known about Joshua ben Levi's early background. It is doubtful that the name "ben Levi" meant that he was the son of Levi ben Sisi, the disciple of Judah haNasi. He may have been a descendant of the tribe of Levi, or more probably the son of a man named Levi who is otherwise unknown.
Joshua studied under Shimon Bar Kappara, the talented poet and storyteller, whom he often quoted. However, Joshua considered his greatest teacher to be Rabbi Judah ben Pedaiah, from whom he learned a great number of legal rulings (Exodus Rabbah 6; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7; Genesis Rabbah 94). Another of his teachers was Rabbi Phinehas ben Jair of Lydda, whose piety and sincerity exerted a powerful influence upon the character of Joshua.
Joshua ben Levi himself possessed a gentle disposition and became well known for his modesty and piety. His reputation was such that whenever he instituted public fasting and prayer, the local communities willingly responded to his appeals (Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 66c).
He was also a lover of peace who refrained as much as possible from rancorous disputes. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he made no attacks against the Christian theology that was then gaining ground throughout the Roman Empire. He was even tolerant of Jewish Christians, despite their denunciations of their fellow Jews for not accepting Jesus. Instead of cursing a certain Jew who had gone over to the Christians, he famously recited Psalm 145:9: "God's mercies extend over all His creatures." (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a; Avodah Zarah 4b) His love of justice and his concern that the innocent might suffer on account of the guilty led him to speak against the custom then prevailing to remove from office a reader who, by omitting certain benedictions, had aroused the suspicion of heresy (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9c).
A man of considerable wealth, Joshua devoted much of his time to furthering the public welfare (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7). His son Joseph became the son-in-law of the patriarch Judah haNasi.
Joshua ben Levi's striking appearance and erudition also won him the respect of the Roman authorities, who recognized him as a representative of Palestinian Jewry. With his friend Rabbi Hanina, he interceded on behalf of the Jews before the Roman proconsul in Caesarea, who accorded Joshua and his colleague much honor and respect. (Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9a). When his counselors asked the governor why he treated the two Jews so respectfully, he reportedly replied: "They have the appearance of angels."
Joshua was not unwilling to cooperate even more directly with the Romans. On another occasion, when his city of Lydda (today's Lod, near Tel Aviv) was besieged because a political fugitive had found refuge there, Joshua saved the city and its inhabitants by turning the man over to the Romans (Jerusalem Talmud Terumot 46b; Genesis Rabbah 94). He also made a journey to Rome, although his mission there is not known (Genesis Rabbah 33).
Although he was connected through family ties with the patriarchal house of Judah haHasi and always showed respect for its members (Kiddushin 33b), it was largely due to Joshua ben Levi that the friendly relations between the southern rabbinical schools and the patriarchal house became strained. The issue which brought about this animosity was the fact that Joshua took the step of ordaining his own disciples as local rabbis (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 42b), thus assuming a power that hitherto had lain in the hands of the head of the Sanhedrin alone.
In the field of legal interpretation, Joshua's rulings came to have considerable importance, his decisions being generally declared valid even when disputed by his younger contemporaries, the great rabbis Yochanan bar Nafcha and Resh Lakish. Joshua devoted himself to the elucidation of the Mishnah, and his legal interpretations are noted for their succinctness. He was also known for his leniency, not so much regarding moral law, but especially in cases where cleanliness and the preservation of health were involved (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 121b; Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 44d).
He was even more influential, however, in his exegesis of non-legal aspects of the classical Jewish texts (aggadah), having a particularly high opinion of that study. For example, he explained Psalm 28:5—"the works of God"—as referring to aggadic exegesis (Midrash Tanhuma 28:5). Joshua also used his homiletic interpretations to deduce legal rulings, and some of his explanations informed later commentators as well.
Joshua ben Levi’s emphasis on study is demonstrated in his referring to God as saying to David (Psalm 84:11) that "one day" of study in the Law is "better" in God’s sight "than a thousand" sacrifices (Makkot 10a; Midrash Tehillim 122:2).
Though learning was of paramount importance (Megillah 27a), Joshua also insisted on piety. He emphasized regular attendance at public prayer, saying that those who attend the synagogue service both morning and evening will have their days prolonged (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a) and those who move their lips in prayer will surely be heard (Leviticus Rabbah 16; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9d). He instituted a number of rules regulating the reading of the Law in the synagogue on weekdays (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a) and other matters relating to the service, many of which are to this day observed in Orthodox synagogues (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 39b).
Some of Joshua's philosophical and theological opinions are also recorded. He conceived the relation between Jacob and God as an intimate bond of father and son: "Not even a wall of iron could separate Israel from his Father in Heaven" (Pesachim 85b; Sotah 38b). Speaking of the attributes of God, he represented God as "great, mighty, and awe-inspiring" (Yoma 69b; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 11c; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 74c).
In his doctrine of future reward and punishment, Joshua taught that Paradise will receive those who have performed the will of God, while the netherworld becomes the habitation of the wicked. (Eruvin 19a). In Psalm 84:5 he found Biblical authority for the the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead (Sanhedrin 91b). He also expressed the liberal view that immortality is the portion not only of Israel, but of all other nations as well (Genesis Rabbah 26).
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was a favorite hero in legend. He was often depicted as the companion of the prophet Elijah in the latter's wanderings on earth (Pesikta 36a). One tradition holds that Joshua ben Levi walked and talked with Elijah on a daily basis. On one occasion, Joshua inquired as to when the Messiah would come, and Elijah directed him to ask this of the Messiah in person. Learning of the Messiah's location, when Joshua finally found the him, he asked about the moment of the anointed one's advent. "Today! Even today…" the Messiah replied. Overjoyed, Joshua returned to a Elijah to tell him the good news. Elijah, however, explained to Joshua that this answer means that the Messiah will come as soon as all the Jews repent and return to God by practicing fully the commandments of the Torah (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a).
Joshua ben Levi also had legendary dealings with the Angel of Death (Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 51a). While yet alive, he was permitted to visit Paradise and Sheol. He sent a description of what he saw there to Rabban Gamaliel IV, the son of Judah haNasi, using the obedient Angel of Death as his messenger (Derek Eretz Zuta 1).
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi reportedly lived to a very old age. It was related that when he entered Paradise, joining the patriarchs and other saintly souls in the presence of God, his old friend the prophet Elijah ran ahead of him, calling out: "Make room for the son of Levi!"
Joshua ben Levi was one of the first generation of the Amoraim (approx. 230–250 C.E.) along with such notables as Abba Arika, known as Rav, the founder of the great yeshiva at Sura, Babylonia; and Shmuel the disciple of Judah haNasi who became the dean of the yeshiva at Pumbedita. As one of the Amoraim, Joshua ben Levi took his place among the great rabbis who "told over" the teachings of the Oral law from about 200 to 500 C.E. Their legal discussions and debates were eventually codified in the Gemara, which forms part of the core teachings of the Talmud.
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