The Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: When R. Yose b. Kisma became ill, R. Chanina b. Teradyon visited him. [R. Yose] said to [R. Chanina], “Chanina, my brother! Don’t you know that Heaven set this nation [Rome] to rule over us? For they destroyed [God’s] House (the Temple), burned [God’s] Sanctuary (the Holy of Holies), killed [God’s] pious ones, and caused [God’s] best ones to perish—and still [Rome] exists. Yet I have heard that you sit and engage in Torah study and convene gatherings in public, and a scroll [of Torah] rests in your lap.” [R. Chanina] said to [R. Yose], “Heaven will have mercy.” [R. Yose] said to him, “I am speaking reason to you, and you tell me that Heaven will have mercy?! I will be amazed if they don’t burn you and the Torah scroll in fire!” [R. Chanina] said to him, “Rabbi, where am I vis-à-vis the world-to-come?” [R. Yose] said to him, “Is there a particular deed you have done?” [R. Chanina] said to him, “I once exchanged Purim funds for charity funds and distributed [the Purim funds] to the poor.” [R. Yose] said, “If so, may my portion be from your portion, and may my lot be from your lot.”
As we move from Tisha B’Av toward Rosh Hashanah, the destruction of the First and Second Temples and theological interpretations of their meaning, the High Holy Day themes of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and theological beliefs about God’s justice in this world and reward in the world-to-come all come to be braided together.
Eleh Ezkerah (“These we remember”), the traditional martyrology of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av recounts the legendary deaths of ten Sages at the hands of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Our passage precedes the account of R. Chanina’s martyrdom, setting the stage for the gruesome story. The bridge (immediately following our passage) is an account of R. Yose b. Kisma’s death. Talmud recounts that because R. Yose opposed the Jewish rebellion against Rome, Roman dignitaries attended his burial. Upon returning from his funeral, they encountered R. Chanina b. Teradyon teaching Torah in public. Immediately, they executed R. Chanina in precisely the manner predicted by R. Yose: Talmud records that he was wrapped in a scroll of Torah and set on fire.
R. Yose expresses alarm at the risky behavior of R. Chanina from two distinct perspectives. First, from the theological viewpoint that God, as Sovereign of the universe, has set the Romans to rule over Israel and therefore Israel must accept this onerous imposition, with all the suffering it entails, as God’s will. This is part and parcel of a traditional theology that interprets the Destruction of the Temple as God’s just punishment for Israel’s sins. (While this is a predominant view, it is not a theology universally subscribed to by all the Rabbis.) Rome’s continued existence—and even more, her continuing power—reflect God’s will. R. Chanina replies that he can trust God, who has set Rome over Israel, to be merciful and protect him from ultimate harm, since studying and teaching Torah is also God’s will.
Upon hearing this response, R. Yose applies his second perspective: It is not reasonable to take such risks. By gathering disciples together and teaching them in public with a Torah scroll in his lap, R. Chanina is publicly snubbing Roman rule. R. Yose says, in essence: I would sooner bet on the Romans to respond to your taunt by wrapping you in a Torah scroll and burning you alive, than I would bet on God to intervene and save you from the vile, violent, and vindictive Romans.
R. Chanina shifts the conversation from the current situation and his possible execution by the Romans, to his ultimate disposition: will he be consigned a portion in olam ha-ba (the world-to-come)? R. Yose asks R. Chanina: Have you done something to earn olam ha-ba? This seems a peculiar question. Do not the risks to his life to further Torah learning, which bespeak his limitless commitment to God and Torah, suffice? Yet R. Chanina mentions instead, a small incident. Once, while distributing communal charity funds that he oversaw, R. Chanina inadvertently used his personal Purim tzedakah money. We are to understand that he did not correct the mistake by removing the equivalent amount from the public fund to replenish his personal Purim fund. Hence, R. Chanina made an additional contribution to the communal tzedakah fund. R. Yose’s response confirms that this deed is sufficient not only to insure his ultimate reward in the world-to-come, but in principle the magnitude of heaven’s reward ought to be (at least metaphorically) sufficient to cover R. Yose, as well.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- R. Yose contrasts R. Chanina’s trust in God to intervene and save him with common sense. Is R. Chanina making a public statement fully aware of the risk he is taking, or he tempting fate? Does R. Chanina’s desire to move the conversation to a discussion of olam ha-ba suggest he is not expecting God to intervene to save him?
- The deed that R. Chanina cites, and which R. Yose confirms has earned him a reward in olam ha-ba seems rather ordinary, as good deeds go. Why do you think that the rabbis who told this story choose to juxtapose his risking his life to subvert the Romans with an ordinary act of tzedakah? What does this say about the Rabbis’ understanding of olam ha-ba?
- The graphic and painful description of the martyrdom of R. Chanina and nine other sages in Eleh Ezkarah, based on the legendary accounts in the Talmud, is read in some, but not all, synagogues on Yom Kippur. Do you find it meaningful? The Shalom Center has offered an alternative Martyrology highlighting a minyan of Jews who were killed in the last 50+ years affirming the Jewish values of justice, truth, and peace. You can view it here. Would this martyrology be meaningful to you on Yom Kippur?