Beit Midrash

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  • Redemption - Geula
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicatedin the memory of

R. Avraham ben-tziyon ben shabtai

Self- Sacrifice: From Exile to Redemption

In the long run, what appears to be a terrible desecration of God's name becomes an act of sanctification. The sanctification of God's name in the Redemption outweighs the desecration of His name in the Exile.


Rabbi S. Yossef Weitzen

Tevet 5761
2 min read
1. Rabbi Hanina's Exceptional Self-Sacrifice
2. "I occupied myself with Torah alone"
3. A World Not Worthy of its Name
4. Rabbi Hanina Burns Like a Torch
5. Desecration Followed by Sanctification

Rabbi Hanina's Exceptional Self-Sacrifice
"Our Rabbis taught: When Rabbi Yose ben Kisma fell ill Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion went to visit him. He said to him, 'Hanina, my brother, do you not know that this nation (the Romans) has been placed in power by God himself, for she has destroyed His house, burned His Temple, killed His pious ones, and caused His goodly ones to perish, and still continues to rule! - Yet, I have heard that you sit and study Torah and gather crowds in public with a Torah Scroll resting on your lap [despite the Empire's decrees]!'
He replied, 'Compassion will come from Heaven.'
'I am trying to be sensible,' continued Rabbi Yose, 'and you say, "Compassion will come from Heaven"!? I would not be surprised if they were to burn you together with your Torah scroll!'
Rabbi Hanina then asked, 'How do I fare as far as the World to Come is concerned?'
Rabbi Yose said, 'Have you no merits at all?'
He answered, 'I once mistook the Purim Feast charity money for the ordinary charity money [both of which I was responsible for] and distributed it to the needy [compensating for the loss from my own pocket].
Rabbi Yose said, 'If that is the case, let my portion be with you and my fate similar to yours.'"

"They said, It was not long before Rabbi Yose ben Kisma passed away, and all of the Roman notables went to his grave and delivered a great eulogy in his honor.
Upon returning, they came across Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion sitting and studying Torah and gathering crowds in public with a Torah scroll resting on his lap. They took him out and wrapped him in the Torah scroll, encircled him with bundles of twigs, and lit them on fire. Then they brought cotton sponges and soaked them in water and placed them on his heart in order that his soul not leave his body too quickly.
His daughter said, 'Father, am I to believe my eyes [i.e. Could this possibly be the fate of a Torah scholar like yourself]!?'
He said to her, 'If I were burned by myself it would be difficult for me to bear. Now that I am being burned with the Torah scroll, the one who avenges the desecration of the Torah will avenge my desecration as well.'" (Avodah Zara, 18a)

In the above excerpt, the Rabbis of the Talmud recall an interesting dialogue between two Mishnaic Sages. Though they express opposing attitudes towards the ruling Kingdom of Rome, we find Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Yose addressing one another with honor and respect. This is not the only disagreement of its kind: In the same period we find additional disputes between Torah Sages concerning how to relate to the evil Kingdom of Rome. Particularly well-known is the argument between Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai. It seems, though, that in the above dialogue, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion and Rabbi Yose ben Kisma give expression to the most extreme opinions of their time.

On the one hand, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion actively rebels against the Empire. He challenges Roman rule in public, organizing a sort of popular uprising against its evil decrees. His actions contain a more piercing statement than those of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai who, after speaking his mind privately, flees to the cave. On the other hand, Rabbi Yose ben Kisma maintains close relations with the Roman higher-ups, while they, for their part, paid him due respect... "And all of the Roman notables went to his grave and delivered a great eulogy in his honor."

Rabbi Hanina becomes one of the famous "Ten-Martyrs." He fulfills, through his death, the commandment to sanctify God's name - what is known as "Kiddush HaShem." True, this commandment does not obligate an individual to intentionally place his life in danger on behalf of his faith. Kiddush HaShem only applies in a situation where a Jew is forced to perform one of those specific forbidden acts concerning which Judaism teaches that one must "die rather than transgress." In these cases, one is called upon to give his life for the love of God and for His Oneness. However, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, "the Rambam," writes in his "Iggeret HaShemad" ("Letter on Forced Conversion") that if Jews happen to reside in a place where there are decrees against them which call on them to give their lives, they must flee to another place. At the very least, one ought to go into hiding as did Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, or behave in a manner similar to that of Rabbi Elisha "Ba'al HaCnafayim" ("the Winged One"):
"Once, the evil Kingdom of Rome decreed that any Jew caught wearing Tefillin would have his brain pierced, yet Elisha would wear them around the market-place. One of the King's men caught site of him and he began to run, the officer running after him. When the officer finally caught up with him, Rabbi Elisha took the Tefillin off his head and hid it in his hand. The man asked him, 'What's that you have in your hand?' 'Dove wings,' said the Rabbi. He then opened up his hand and - lo and behold - dove wings! Therefore he is called "Ba'al HaCnafayim." (Shabbat 130b)

Rabbi Elisha, like Rabbi Hanina, demonstrates great self-sacrifice. He does not flee as such, yet, when he sees the Roman officer, he attempts to hide his Tefillin . Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion, on the other hand, appears to have acted with the intention of being caught by the Romans. He gathers people around him in public, a Torah scroll on his lap. And while it is just as easy to teach Torah verbally, concealing all evidence from the "sight of the crime," Rabbi Hanina chooses not to do this.
Rabbi Yaakov ben Yoseph of Prague in his "Shevut Yaakov" understands, from the behavior of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion, that it is permissible for the most adamantly pious of his generation to give his life in order to strengthen the morale of the masses. Rabbi Hanina could see that the Romans were not far from breaking the Jewish People's spirit completely; therefore, he performs voluntary Kiddush HaShem as a way of showing the people that nothing can break the spirit of Israel.

Despite Rabbi Hanina's great self-sacrifice for the sake of teaching Torah to the masses, he was still uncertain if he would be worthy of the World to Come. Why was he uncertain about his standing? What's more, how are we to understand his reply to the words of Rabbi Yose ben Kisma who asked, "Have you no merits at all?" Could Rabbi Hanina have possibly believed that through the mere merit of the charity money incident he would be granted eternal life?

Let us put this dialogue aside for the time being and examine a different dialogue - this time between our Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Elazar ben Prata.

"I occupied myself with Torah alone"
"Our Rabbis taught: When Rabbi Elazar ben Prata and Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion were caught [by the Romans], Rabbi Elazar ben Prata said to Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion, 'How fortunate you are to have been charged with only one offense; woe is me, for I am being charged with five offenses.' Rabbi Hanina responded 'How fortunate you are: Though having been charged with five offenses, you will survive the ordeal; woe is me, for I have been charged with one offense and will not escape. You occupied yourself with both Torah and acts of kindness, while I occupied myself with Torah alone,' and, as Rabbi Huna said: 'One who occupies himself with Torah alone is like one who has no God...'" (Avodah Zara 17a)

This time we are dealing with Sages who share more similar approaches, for both Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion and Rabbi Elazar ben Prata continued, despite the harsh decrees, to put their lives at stake. The difference between them is that Rabbi Hanina displayed self-sacrifice only when it came to Torah study, while Rabbi Elazar ben Prata risked his life performing acts of kindness as well. It would appear that the meaning of "occupying oneself with acts of kindness" is that one not concern himself entirely with lofty, spiritual matters, but with the mundane needs of the common folk as well.
We also notice a difference in the extent of self-sacrifice which these two Sages display, for when the Romans catch Rabbi Elazar ben Prata he manages to evade punishment. Yet, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion, when interrogated by the authorities as to why he dealt in Torah , answers, without thinking twice: "My God has commanded me."

The discussion between Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Hanina in the above excerpt centers on the question of just which deeds demand self-sacrifice. Rabbi Elazar is of the opinion that one must be willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of Torah study alone; Rabbi Hanina, on the other hand, believes that there is clearly no place for Torah study which ignores the rest of the necessities of the generation. Yet, which of these two Sages merely wished to console his partner, and which spoke his true mind and conviction in an attempt to present real practical advice?

The continuation of the dialogue leads us to believe that Rabbi Hanina earnestly meant what he said and desired that his opinion be seen as actual practical guidance; he was not simply trying to console his partner. To begin with, the Talmud brings the words of Rabbi Huna who says quite blatantly that, "One who occupies himself with Torah alone is like one who has no God..." There is no place for a Torah which ignores the needs of man. The Torah begins and ends with acts of kindness.
Another indication of Rabbi Hanina's earnestness can be felt in his words: "You will survive... I will not escape." Considering that this is indeed what happened, it would appear that he says what he says as actual practical guidance.

However, if this is the case, why did Rabbi Hanina not occupy himself performing acts of kindness himself? Once again, we find Rabbi Hanina behaving in a manner which is not in strict keeping with Jewish law. He is driven, it appears, by zealousness and a sense that he must act immediately for the sake of God.
So, we have seen Rabbi Hanina inviting the wrath of Rome upon himself by gathering Jews in public to study Torah . In addition, we find the same Rabbi Hanina ignoring the needs of the needy, instead dedicating himself entirely to the Torah . If we look closely we will discover that both of these steps can be traced back to the same essential point.

A World Not Worthy of its Name
The Evil Kingdom of Rome who rules and advances the world, has decreed that there be no Torah study in the world. It is creating a world which is empty of the God's name and completely cut off from the His word, yet a world which is developing and advancing all the time. There are two approaches to dealing with evil in the world. One calls for demonstrating that the evil which does exist is not absolute. In it and through it one may discern the good. However, there is another approach which claims that, although, in this world, evil has the upper hand, this world does not constitutes the most absolute realm of existence. This world is merely the tip of the iceberg of all the inner, transcending worlds. The main existence is that which lies beyond this world.

Rabbi Yose ben Kisma claims that, though the "Evil Kingdom" rules the world, "form Heaven she has been appointed;" that is, even this terrible kingdom is nothing more than an axe in the hand of the cutter, with the purpose of being God's agent in the world. True, her appearance is a complex one, but we must strive to discover the good points she contains. Rabbi Hanina, on the other hand, defies the authorities, gathering people in public, in order to announce to all that existence of this world is nothing when compared to the world beyond - the world of the Torah . Fulfilling the commandment to sanctify God's name - Kiddush HaShem - is the most concrete expression to the effect that metaphysical, non-worldly existence is more real than our own physical world.

Rabbi Akiva also sacrificed his life gathering people in public. When he was asked concerning his behavior, he explained himself in his famous fish parable: A Jew without Torah is like a fish on dry land. Rabbi Akiva did not deny the value of this world, but explained that we can only exist in this world in a place which contains "water" - and our water is Torah study. Rabbi Hanina, though, says, "compassion will come from Heaven." In these words he delegitimizes all human endeavor, denies the value of this world, and asserts that all of life is completely dependent on Heavenly compassion. It is futile to base human existence on ordinary, natural effort. Because in the generation of Rabbi Hanina decrees have been declared against the Heavens, nature has no meaning or value whatsoever.

The continuation of the Talmud describes Rabbi Hanina's execution. Here it is explained why exactly Rabbi Hanina was convicted and sentenced to death.
"They brought in Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion and said to him, 'Why did you occupy yourself with Torah study?'
He answered, 'My God has commanded me!'
They immediately sentenced him to burning. ...And what was the [underlying] reason for this [Divine] punishment? ...for he was accustomed to pronounce, in public, God's holy name as it is written." (Avodah Zara 17a)

The desire to pronounce the name of God according its actual written form stems from a great yearning to come close to Him. Yet, so long as we exist in this world, we are not worthy of such a level of closeness. Rabbi Hanina's whole point is to demonstrate that in his generation there is no "this world," to show that the existence of this world is a shattered one, and is not worthy of its name. For this purpose he goes out in public pronouncing God's unpronounceable name, demonstrating, thereby, his attitude towards this world and its shortcomings.
So extreme was Rabbi Hanina that he stopped caring for the hardships of the people of his generation, and stopped occupying himself with acts of kindness. He invests all of his strength in proclaiming God's name and in nullifying this world's importance.

Rabbi Hanina Burns Like a Torch
Despite the fact that all of his actions were for the sake and honor of Heaven, Rabbi Hanina understood that there was a price for his ways. Rabbi Hanina, for the sake of Heaven, is willing to forego more than just this world: He risks forfeiting his World to Come as well. This is what brings him to ask Rabbi Yose ben Kisma, "How do I fare as far as the World to Come is concerned?" Man is placed in this world in order to repair this world. Therefore, Rabbi Hanina was concerned that, because he did not occupy himself with acts of kindness, he was not doing his part in this world and was "like one who has no God."

Rabbi Yose ben Kisma replies, "Have you no merits at all?" That is, "Are you so completely cut off from this world to that you turn your back on it altogether, or has this extremist course you follow been taken for the sake of those who come after you, that they be able to repair and lighten up the world, thus making even you worthy of the World to Come?
The act which Rabbi Hanina mentions to Rabbi Yose is, in fact, a indication that, when all is said and done, even he is concerned about repairing the present world. Rabbi Hanina was responsible for the charity box. He did not involve himself directly in kind deeds but those who collected money for charity would give it to Him because they trusted him. This demonstrates that the circle which does deal in kind deeds places its trust in him; he is involved in the actions of others who are inspired by his character.

Rabbi Yehudah ben Betzalel, "the Maharal of Prague," explains that charity is designated for the poor who symbolize detachment from, and lack of success in this world. This money gets swapped with charity for the Purim Feast. The Purim Feast is "this-worldly" to say the least. It is a feast which calls for drinking to the point of detaching oneself completely from one's mind and devoting oneself entirely to the physical world. This, as a matter of fact, is the whole point of Purim. Rabbi Hanina swapped his World to Come with his present world. True, his life was an expression of disrespect for this world, but his death burns like a torch for those who follow him. We draw from Rabbi Hanina the strength to give positive Divine meaning to this world.

Desecration Followed by Sanctification
Undoubtedly, the death of Rabbi Hanina was, in its time, a serious desecration of God's name. Thousands of Jews ask themselves: "Is this the fate of a Torah scholar?" There is no greater desecration of God's name than the dishonor of Torah giants. This, though, is true only when viewed from up close. In the long run, what appears to be a terrible desecration becomes an act of sanctification. By virtue of their great self-sacrifice throughout the Exile, the Jewish People have internalized a set of values which places above all the importance of worshipping God. This highest of values outweighs all else, and only because we are willing to sacrifice ourselves does this world have value.

In the Holocaust hundreds of thousands of Jews went up in flames with the cry "Shema Yisrael" on their lips. Certainly their suffering represents a severe desecration of God's name in the world. The nations say to themselves: "Here is God's chosen people, from whom He has turned his back completely. But in light of the revival which came about after the Holocaust, it becomes possible to view the Holocaust through different eyes. The Holocaust made clear to all the need of the Jews to remove themselves from among the nations in order to build their own independent life, establishing a covenant with God alone. The Holocaust teaches us that the cry of "Shema Yisrael" - "Hear O Israel," in the final moment, must become a cry of life for the Jewish People: "The Lord is our God, the Lord is One!"

The act of Kiddush HaShem is not confined to the moment of sacrifice alone. It is an act which accompanies us forever after. The moment of torture is not the ideal. Sanctifying God's name through death is an unavoidable step which we are sometimes forced to take out in order to sanctify His name through life afterwards. In the Exile, because God had taken His personal, miraculous providence away from us, we were obligated, time after time, to sanctify God's name through sacrificing our lives. Rabbi Hanina ben Tradion and the other "Ten Martyrs" lived in a period which may rightfully be termed the "height of the Exile." Therefore, the act of Kiddush HaShem had to be performed in a way which was fitting for the Exile - through the sacrificing of one's life. In the Exile, the People of Israel proclaimed: I have no connection to this land. There is no place for me in this world - a world which lacks the dwelling of the Divine Presence. But, in the end, with the rebirth of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel and the ingathering of her exiles, a great sanctification of God's name springs forth from the desecration. And the Sages teach us that the sanctification of God's name in the Redemption outweighs the desecration of His name in the Exile.

Now that we, the Jewish People, have returned to the Land of Israel and have set ourselves to the task of repairing this world, imbuing with holiness all spheres of life - the true performance of Kiddush HaShem is through living a life which sanctifies God's name.


Ten Martyrs - Ten righteous men murdered by the Romans during the Mishnaic period. Their executions did not, though, take place at the same time. They include such personages as Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, and the High Priest Rabbi Yishmael.

Mishna - The oral tradition as recorded by and arranged by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (the Prince) some hundred and thirty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. The Mishna is the first part and the basis, of the encyclopedia of Jewish law and lore known as the Talmud .

Talmud - The embodiment of the Oral Torah as taught by the great masters between around 50 b.c.e. and 500 c.e. It constitutes the most important text for the Jew outside of the Torah itself, and serves as the foundation of the sea of Jewish law practice and theology.

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