Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha

Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, the fellow student of Rabbi Akiva, was for most of the time his opponent in Halachic discussions. He descended from a princely family, and his grandfather, who like him was named Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha, was one of the last High Priests, dying a martyr’s death with Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel the prince.

As a boy, Rabbi Ishmael was brought to Rome in captivity. Later on when Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania came to Rome, he was told that there was a Jewish boy in prison of great ability and wondrous beauty. Rabbi Joshua managed to get to the prison and cried out, “Who delivered Jacob to plunder and Israel to looters?” (Isaiah 42:24). Then the boy responded with the rest of verse: “Was it not the L-RD, He against Whom we have sinned? They did not wish to go in His ways and did not listen to His Torah.” When Rabbi Joshua heard that, he said, “This child will surely become a great teacher in Israel. I will not stop before redeeming him, whatever the ransom demanded for his release.” And that’s exactly what he did. He took the boy away with him into his country, and before long Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha became one of the greatest teachers of Israel (Gittin 58a). He was 13 years old when Rabbi Nechunya ben Hakanah became his teacher. Later on, he was among the great scholars that assembled at Yavneh around Rabban Gamliel the prince.

It is to Rabbi Ishmael that we owe the “Thirteen Rules of Interpretation” that we recite in our daily prayers. Rabbi Akiva and he are called “the fathers of the world.” Both of them were very experienced in medicine. They traveled together often across the country and healed sicknesses. Rabbi Ishmael’s charity is greatly praised, as he provided poor girls with clothes and finery so that they could more easily get married. When he died, all the girls of Israel wept for him. He fed women whose husbands had to go off to war, and everywhere that he saw Talmudic scholars in need, he provided them with everything they required. His mother venerated him to such a point that she wanted to drink the water that he had washed his feet in, but he did not allow her to do so. We have already mentioned above that he possessed great beauty, yet his wisdom exceeded even his physical splendor.




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