The Jewish sages of ancient times were not only expected to be experts in their learned disciplines, but also paragons of unblemished virtue and holiness. It was widely believed that this entitled them to a special degree of providential guidance.
This belief had certain implications when applied to the rabbi’s most important responsibility, that of issuing decisions on matters of Jewish religious law, halakhah. Whereas a gaffe on an academic topic might produce a factual inaccuracy that can afterwards be corrected, a mistaken ruling on a halakhic question could have not only practical consequences (such as by imposing a penalty on an innocent party), but it might also lead people to commit religious transgressions. Some rabbis liked to believe that their saintly teachers were safeguarded against that daunting prospect.
For example, it was reported that two distinguished third-century sages, Rabbis Yoḥanan and Assi, ate meat that had been slaughtered by Samaritans, though the court of the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel had forbidden Jews to eat their meat. Now, the attitude of the ancient rabbis to the Samaritans was ambivalent, because they accepted the same Torah as the Jews (albeit with a few textual differences), but did not share the Jewish interpretations or oral traditions.
Therefore, later students in the Talmud were uncertain how to understand Rabbis Yoḥanan and Assi’s apparent defiance of Rabban Gamaliel’s decree: was it because they disagreed with that ruling or because they were altogether unaware of it?
Rabbi Zera dismissed the latter option as a theological impossibility. It was obvious to him that divine providence would never allow a situation in which righteous persons would actually commit or bring about the violation of an accepted law, even out of ignorance or misunderstanding—as would have been the case if those two saintly rabbis had partaken of food that had been forbidden by an authoritative decree.
As the basis for his confidence in divine protection from erroneous halakhic rulings, Rabbi Zera cited the remarkable tale of Rabbi Phineas ben Yair and his donkey. It seems that that Rabbi Phineas, while en route to carry out the important mitzvah of ransoming some captives, left his donkey in the care of the staff at an inn, but they found to their consternation that the animal (possibly played by Eddie Murphy) refused to eat any of the feed that was offered it no matter how meticulously they tried to ensure its gourmet quality. When Rabbi Phineas returned from his mission, he separated tithes from the produce, and only then did the donkey gobble it up happily—prompting the rabbi to blurt out to the staff, “this poor beast was on its way to perform its creator’s will, and you wanted to feed it untithed food!”
From that story Rabbi Zera drew the conclusion: “If the Holy One prevented even the beasts belonging to righteous persons from committing transgressions, is it not obvious that the righteous persons themselves would never be allowed to cause a mishap!”
Indeed similar stories of Jewish saints and their religiously scrupulous beasts occur frequently in rabbinic lore. When Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa’s donkey was abducted, it refused to eat the food provided by its captors, until the miscreants had no choice but to set it free to return to its master. Another legend had it that Abraham’s camels would refuse to enter any premises that housed idolatrous images. And then there was the tale about the Jew whose dire economic straits forced him to sell his cow to a heathen, but the purchaser was distressed to discover that his new acquisition refused to pull the plough on Saturdays; until the former owner patiently explained to the beast how she was no longer entitled to a day of rest now that she was the property of a non-Jew. The heathen was so impressed by all this that he converted to Judaism.
Stories of this kind enhanced the aura of holiness that emanates from spiritual titans. We are reassured that they (and even their beasts) will invariably be sources of blessing, but never of any harmful consequences, even inadvertent ones. This is truly a comforting belief.
However, further reflection raised problems with that rosy picture. After all, it not always dovetail with our real-life experiences in a world where even the finest people sometimes make mistakes that can cause real harm. Commentators cited passages from the Talmud that described the unfortunate consequences of errors committed by righteous people.
There was, for instance, the case of Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha who ignored a rabbinic enactment that forbids reading by the light of an oil lamp on the Sabbath because of the concern that one might be tempted to adjust the light by tilting the lamp, thereby transgressing a Torah prohibition. In the end Rabbi Ishmael did forget himself once and committed the forbidden act.
And there was also an unfortunate dispute that arose in Tiberias over a certain point of talmudic law: it became so contentious that it resulted in the rending of a Torah scroll.
A most alarming case was when Judah ben Tabbai ordered the execution of a perjured witness who had sought to have an innocent man put to death through false testimony. Judah was most distressed to learn afterwards that capital punishment could not be imposed under these circumstances, and that his mistaken ruling had resulted in an unlawful execution.
The Jewish commentators strove in diverse ways to account for these cases. Rabbi Jacob Tam, for instance, was impelled to limit the scope of Rabbi Zera’s statement. He suggested that the protective power of divine providence was only exercised to prevent the consumption of forbidden food. Somehow the prospect of ingesting al forbidden substance carries a special stigma that impels the Almighty to intervene to prevent its occurrence. This scenario was considered more repugnant from the divine perspective than the actual taking of a human life (which, after all, was allowed to happen in the story about Judah ben Tabbai).
Rabbi Ḥayyim Ben ‘Aṭar cited a tradition current among the kabbalists, that those scrupulous donkeys housed the reincarnated soul of the heathen prophet Balaam. According to the account in the Torah, Balaam had been drawn into a notoriously humiliating spat with his talking beast, and he later prayed “Who can count the dust of Jacob,...? Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his!” In the eyes of the kabbalists, Balaam's transmigration into the bodies of righteous Jewish animals was a fitting destiny for this penitent arch-villain.
The Maharal of Prague, on the other hand, insisted that the virtue that attached to Rabbi Phineas ben Yair’s donkey did not derive from its own personality or past life, but from its association with the great Rabbi Phineas who was the epitome of spiritual enlightenment, possessing an intellect that was capable of shedding light upon the most hidden and sublime mysteries. This quality was symbolized not only in his name (“ya’ir” in Hebrew means “he sheds light”), but in the virtuous act that he was performing in the story: “ransoming of captives” was an apt allegorical image for the liberating of unenlightened souls from their spiritual confinement.
Accordingly, his donkey, although possessing no virtue of its own, partook of the holiness of its righteous master. Indeed, its finickiness about food was also an allegorical way of representing a powerful spiritual truth. Untithed produce, after all, consists of a mixture of sacred and profane components that have not yet been separated. As understood by the Maharal, this symbolizes the supreme attainment of Rabbi Phineas whose refined intellect strove to purify the holy light from the taint of ignorant darkness.
Already in the Talmud we find the perception that times have changed since those bygone days of heightened spirituality: “If those earlier generations were angels, then we are mere humans. If the earlier generations were humans, then we are but donkeys—and not even like the donkey of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa nor like the donkey of Rabbi Phineas ben Yair—but like plain, ordinary donkeys.”
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