Ishmael ben Elisha

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ISHMAEL BEN ELISHA (first half of the second century c.e.), tanna, the Ishmael generally mentioned without patronymic. Ishmael was one of the sages the stamp of whose personality and teachings had a permanent effect on tannaitic literature and on Judaism as a whole. He was a kohen (Ket. 105b), and in a baraita (Tosef., Ḥal. 1:10) it is stated that he once took an oath "by the [priestly] garments worn by my father and by the miter which he set between his eyes"; this suggests that his father was a high priest, but since no high priest called Elisha is known during the relevant period, he may have had an ancestor in mind. Still a child at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, he was taken captive to Rome and ransomed by R. Joshua (Git. 58a), whose pupil he became (Tosef., Par. 10:3). He also studied under Neḥunyah b. ha-Kanah, who was his teacher in halakhic Midrash (Shev. 26a). Ishmael lived at Kefar Aziz, south of Hebron near Idumea (Kil. 6:4; Ket. 5:8), and appears to have taken local tradition into account in his decisions (Ket. 5:8). One of the chief spokesmen among the sages of *Jabneh, he took part in and expressed his view at all its meetings and assemblies and was present, too, on the day when Eleazar b. Azariah was appointed in the yeshiva (Yad. 4:3). In the debate concerning the commandments for which one should suffer martyrdom rather than transgress, he was of the opinion that it was permissible to transgress the prohibition against idolatry in order to save one's life, as long as it was not done in public (Sifra, Aḥarei Mot. 13:14).

His most intimate colleague was *Akiva, and he disputed with him on halakhah, aggadah, and in halakhic expositions of the Bible. Both of them laid down and evolved different systems of exposition and the derivation of the halakhah, and different schools were named after them: De-Vei ("the house (or school) of ") R. Ishmael and De-Vei R. Akiva. Most of the extant halakhic Midrashim belong to one of those schools, the Mekhilta de-R. Ishmael on Exodus, and the Sifrei on Numbers coming from Ishmael's school, the Sifra on Leviticus and the Sifrei on Deuteronomy coming from Akiva's school. For the fundamental differences between these two schools see *Midreshei Halakhah, section ii.

Many of the actions and ethical sayings ascribed to Ishmael testify to his love of mankind, and especially of every Jew. On one occasion, when mentioning "the children of Israel," he added: "May I be an atonement for them" (Neg. 2:1); on another he said: "All Israel are to be regarded as princes" (i.e., there can be no distinctions between Jews; bm 113b). He declared that mourning over the destruction of the Second Temple would demand abstinence from meat and wine, were it not for the principle that no restriction is imposed on the public unless the majority can endure it; similarly the prohibition instituted by the Roman authorities against the study of the Torah and the observance of the mitzvot would require that one should not marry or beget children, so "that the seed of Abraham might cease of itself. But let Israel go their way. Better that they err unwittingly than presumptuously" (bb 60b, and parallels). The following story is told in the Mishnah (Ned. 9:10): "It once happened that a man vowed to have no benefit from his sister's daughter (i.e., not to marry her); and they brought her to the house of R. Ishmael and beautified her. R. Ishmael said to him, 'My son, didst thou vow to abstain from this one?' And he said, 'No!' And R. Ishmael released him from his vow. In that same hour R. Ishmael wept and said, 'The daughters of Israel are comely but poverty destroys their comeliness.' When R. Ishmael died the daughters of Israel raised a lament saying, 'Ye daughters of Israel, weep over R. Ishmael!'" His very human approach is evidenced in his aphorism: "Receive all men joyfully" (Avot 3:12). From his school came the dictum, "One should always use decorous language" (Pes. 3a), as well as an ethical explanation of why the whole ear is hard and only the lobe is soft – "so that if one hears anything improper, one may stop up the ear with the lobe" (Ket. 5b).

According to the Talmud he opposed the extreme view of Simeon b. Yoḥai, who encouraged men to refrain from mundane pursuits, such as plowing, sowing, reaping, threshing, and winnowing, in order to fulfill the literal interpretation of the verse, "This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth" (Josh. 1:8). For his part, Ishmael recalled that the Bible states, "Thou shalt gather in thy corn" (Deut. 9:14), thus teaching that the study of the Torah is to be combined with a worldly occupation (Ber. 35b). Yet the Talmud states that he prohibited Eleazar b. Dama, his sister's son, from learning Greek wisdom because this would be at the expense of studying the Torah (Men. 99b). He adopted an uncompromising attitude toward the Christian sectarians, then still within the Jewish fold, and several of his statements against them and their writings are couched in harsh terms (Shab. 116a, and see Av. Zar. 27b).

It is doubtful whether Ishmael survived until the Bar Kokhba revolt. His name is apparently included among the first martyred sages killed in the persecutions which followed that revolt (Mekh. Nezikin 18; and parallels, but cf. Tosef., Sot. 13:4). Later aggadot combined various traditions on the martyrs into a single literary work, making their martyrdom take place simultaneously (see *Ten Martyrs) and dwelling in legendary terms on the personality of Ishmael. This legendary figure of the high priest's son (see Tosef., Ḥal. 1:10 above), who is said to have himself been a high priest, knew the Tetragrammaton, by means of which he was able, at the request of his companions, to ascend to heaven to learn whether the decree of death had indeed been issued from on high. While Akiva, the leading figure among the "four who entered the pardes," served as the protagonist of the early heikhalot text, Heikhalot Zutarti, it was R. Ishmael who took over this role in later works like Heikhalot Rabbati, and similar works relating to Ma'aseh Bereshit, and Ma'aseh Merkavah (see *Kabbalah and *Merkabah Mysticism). Among his pupils were Illai, the father of R. Judah (Git. 6b), Meir (Er. 13a), Jonathan, and Josiah (Men. 57b), who are most mentioned in the halakhic Midrashim of the school of Ishmael.


Hyman, Toledot, 3–29; I. Konowitz, Ma'arekhot Tanna'im, 2 (1968), 261–367; Frankel, Mishnah (19232), 112–8; J. Bruell, Mevo ha-Mishnah 1 (1876), 103–16; Graetz-Rabbinowitz, 2 (1893), 191–4, 231f.; D. Hoffmann, in: Jahresbericht des Rabbiner-Seminars zu Berlin 5647 (1886/87), 5ff.; Bacher, Tann; M. Petuchowski, Der Tanna R. Ismael (1894); M. Auerbach, in: Jeschurum, 10 (1923), 60–66, 81–88 (Heb. pt.); Allon, Toledot, 1 (19593) index; 2 (19612), 11f.; Zeitlin, in: jqr, 36 (1945/46), 1–11.

[Shmuel Safrai]