Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta

Rabbi Yossi ben Halafta lived during a dark time of our history, an era of persecution and danger. He was one of the four disciples whom Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava ordained at the risk of his life (Sanhedrin 13b). It was the time of the cruel decrees of Emperor Hadrian, who after the fall of Betar tried by all means possible to destroy Judaism at its very foundation: He prohibited the study of Torah study, the ordination (smicha) of Torah instructors, the recital of Shema, circumcision, etc. It was also the era in which nascent Christianity tried to become popular among our ranks.

Persecution subsided after the death of Emperor Hadrian, but these cruel decrees were still not revoked.

Rabbi Yossi was one of the best-known teachers of the Mishnah. His name is cited hundreds of times in Halachic discussions. According to an ancient tradition, he was the descendant of the famous Jehonadab son of Rehab (see II Kings 10:15), who himself was a descendant of Jethro. Rabbi Yossi thus descended from the Rachabites, who were cited by the prophet Jeremiah for their loyalty to Hashem and tradition. He was a descendant of this illustrious family, and in the Mishnah he calls upon us to honor the Torah.

“The one who honors Torah is honored by men.” Rabbi Yossi lived in the Galilee, in the town of Sepphoris. According to a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, the inhabitants of that town “were hard-hearted and scarcely honored the teachers of Torah” (Taanith 3-4). On the other hand they were very sensitive, like most Galileans, to their honor. It was thus in this setting, the one in which Rabbi Yossi lived, that the words of the Sage cited in the Mishnah found particular resonance and brought those who had previously been indifferent to Torah close to it. “The one who honors Torah is honored by men.” Rabbi Yossi made use, as it were, of their ambitions – of their need to feel honored – by putting these ambitions into the service of Torah. And this lesson, of course, is valid for all ages.

The honor due to Torah is a great thing. Sometimes Rabbi Yossi made an appeal to the feelings of the believer, and sometimes he appealed to his intelligence and reasoning. In all cases, this effort to honor Torah will drive the believer to better honor and respect Hashem Himself. This honor is due first to the Sefer Torah, to holy books in general. Yet it does not only consist of treating them with respect. To study sacred texts – to get close to them – this is completely our way, and it is a way that should always be replete with respect. Rabbi Yossi teaches us, therefore, that one who honors Torah, by showing respect both to books and to those who instruct it, will be honored by men.




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