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Joshua ben Levi


JOSHUA BEN LEVI (first half of the third century c.e.), Palestinian amora of the transition period from the tannaim to the amoraim. In his youth he was apparently in the company of Judah ha-Nasi, since Joshua mentions the customs which he followed (Shab. 46a; Yev. 60b; tj, Meg. 1:1, 70a; et al.). He was a native of Lydda and studied under its scholars Eleazar ha-Kappar (Av. Zar. 43a; et al.), Bar Kappara (Ber. 34a; et al.), and Judah b. Pedaiah (tj, Or. 1:3, 61b; Gen. R. 94:5). He also transmitted teachings in the names of Antigonus (tj, Hor. 3:7, 48a) and Oshaiah (tj, Ḥag. 3:8, 79d). He was an associate of Ḥanina b. Ḥama (tj, Kil. 9:4, 32c), who, however, was his senior (Yoma 49a; Shab. 156a) and was in contact with Ḥiyya (Lam. R. 3:17, no. 6). According to the Babylonian Talmud, Joshua's son was a son-in-law of Judah Nesiah (Judah ii; see Kid. 33b). Joshua b. Levi taught in his native town (Lam. R. ibid.), and occupied himself greatly with communal needs (Tanḥ. Va-Era 5). He was also active in matters affecting the community in their relations with the Roman authorities and was a member of various missions to them in Caesarea and in Rome (tj, Ber. 5:1, 9a; Gen. R. 78:5). His sound practical common sense in these matters is evident (see tj, Ter. 8:10, 46b). He transmitted sayings in the name of "the holy community of Jerusalem" (Yoma 69a).

Joshua was a halakhist whose opinions were widely accepted (Tos. to Meg. 27a; Tos. to Ḥul. 97a), but he was especially renowned as an aggadist (bk 55a). Talmudic tradition relates that in his bet midrash particular attention was devoted to aggadah, and it included a special scholar who was called "the arranger [mesadder] of the aggadah" (Ber. 10a). He was, however, opposed to committing the aggadah to writing (tj, Shab. 16:1, 15c). He preached in praise of humility: "He whose mind is lowly is regarded by Scripture as if he had offered all the sacrifices, as it says [Ps. 51:19] 'The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit'" (Sot. 5b); he also asserted that humility is greater than all the virtues (Av. Zar. 20b). He emphasized the need for pure speech: "One should never utter a gross expression, for the Bible employs a circumlocution rather than utter a gross expression, for it is said (Gen. 7:8) 'Of every clean beast … and of the beasts that are not clean' instead of 'every unclean beast'" (Pes. 3a). He vehemently denounced slander (Zev. 88b; Lev. R. 16:6) and even unnecessary speech: "A word is worth a sela, but silence is worth two" (Lev. R. 16:5).

His love of and devotion to Torah also found expression in the story that he attached himself to sufferers from raʾatan (an acute festering disease) and studied the Torah (see Ket. 77b). He also said: "If a man is on a journey and has no company, let him engage in the study of Torah … if his head aches, let him occupy himself with the Torah … if he feels pain in his throat, let him occupy himself with the Torah … if he feels pain in his bowels, let him occupy himself with the Torah … if he feels pain in his bones, let him occupy himself with the Torah … if his whole body aches, let him occupy himself with the Torah" (Er. 54a). He had discussions with Christian heretics, but he refrained from cursing them despite his annoyance with their questions, because it is written (Ps. 145:9), "And His tender mercies are over all His works" (Ber. 7a; but see tj, Shab. 14:4, 14d). He was accustomed to fast on the two successive days, the ninth and the tenth of Av "because most of the Temple was burned on that latter day" (tj, Ta'an. 4:9, 69c). He said of himself that he had never excommunicated any man (tj, mk 3:1, 81d). It was also said of him that by virtue of his prayers rain fell in the south of Israel (tj, Ta'an. 3:4, 66c), and that because of his merit the rainbow was not seen during his lifetime (Ket. 77b; see also Gen. R. 35:2). He himself was a hero of the aggadah, which narrates that he becameworthy of and achieved the revelation of Elijah (Mak. 11a; tj, Ter. 8:10, 46b; Gen. R. 35:2).

He once asked Elijah: "When will the Messiah come?"

Elijah replied: "'Go and ask him himself."

"And by what sign may I recognize him?"

"He is sitting among the poor, who are afflicted with disease; all of them untie and retie [the bandages of their wounds] all at once, whereas he unties and rebandages each wound separately, thinking, perhaps I shall be wanted [to appear as the Messiah] and I must not be delayed."

Joshua thereupon went to the Messiah and greeted him:

"Peace unto thee, master and teacher!"

To this he replied, "'Peace unto thee, son of Levi."

"When will you come, master?"


He returned to Elijah … and said: "He spoke falsely to me.

For he said he would come today and he has not come."

Elijah rejoined: "This is what he said! [Ps. 95:7]: Today – if you would but hearken to His voice" (Sanh. 98a as adapted by J. Ibn-Shmuel, Midreshei Ge'ullah (19542), 292–4, 306–8).

Joshua b. Levi had a son named Joseph (see Ḥul. 56b and Dik. Sof. ad loc.), who, according to the aggadah, on one occasion became ill and fell into a trance. When he recovered, his father asked him what he had seen in the upper world. The son replied: "I saw a topsy-turvy world. The upper [class] below and the lower [class] on top." "My son, you saw the world clearly," observed his father (Pes. 50a; bb 10b; however see Dik. Sof. ad loc.).

Descriptions of the future life of the righteous (Sanh. 92a), of the punishments of the wicked after death, and of Joshua b. Levi's conversations with the angel of death (Ber. 51a; Ket. 77b) served as the basis for stories about Joshua b. Levi's journeys to the Garden of Eden and Gehinnom which have been preserved in various forms (see A. Jellinek, Beit ha-Midrash, 2 (19382) 48–51; M. Higger, Halakhot ve-Aggadot (1933), 141–50). One of them has been preserved only in a Latin translation in the work of Peter of Cluny against the Jews and apparently derives from the "Alphabet of Ben Sira." These stories contain motifs known from the legends about the journeys of Pythagoras.

Although he was an amora, some of Joshua b. Levi's sayings are attached to collections of tannaitic sayings. The Mishnah concludes with one of his aggadic statements: "In the world to come the Holy One will make each righteous person inherit 310 worlds." In the chapter on "The Acquisition of Torah," appended to Avot in the prayer book, appears his saying: "Every day a bat kol [heavenly voice] goes forth from Mt. Horeb proclaiming, 'Woe to mankind for contempt of the Torah … for no man is free but he who labors in the Torah. But whosoever labors in the Torah constantly shall be exalted'" (Avot 6:2).


Hyman, Toledot, 636–46; Bacher, Pal Amor; I. Rachlin, Bar Livai (1906); I. Levy, La Légende de Pythagore (1927), 154ff., 165, 192; S. Lieberman, Sheki'in (1939), 34–42; Ḥ. Albeck, Mavo la-Talmudim (1969), 767.

[Zvi Kaplan]

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