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Debe Rabbi Ishmael

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

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Tanna of the first and second centuries (third tannaitic generation). He was a descendant of a wealthy priestly family in Upper Galilee (Tosef., Ḥal. 1:10; B. Ḳ. 80a;comp. Rabbinovicz, "Diḳduḳe Soferim," ad loc.; Ḥul. 49a), and presumably the grandson of the high priest of the same name. As a youth he was carried away by the Romans, but Joshua b. Hananiah, succeeding in purchasing his liberty, restored him to Palestine, where he rapidly developed into him accomplished scholar (Tosef., Hor. 2:5; Giṭ. 58a). Of his teachers, only Neḥunya ben ha-Ḳanah is expressly mentioned (Sheb. 26a), but he doubtless learned much from his benefactor, between whom and himself grew up a close friendship; Joshua called him "brother" ('Ab. Zarah 2:5; Tosef., Parah, [] 3), a term by which he was afterward known to his colleagues (Yad. 4:3; Sanh. 51b).

His Kindly Disposition.

Ishmael's teachings were calculated to promote peace and good-will among all. "Be indulgent with the hoary head;" he would say, "and be kind to the black-haired [the young]; and meet every man with a friendly mien" (Ab. 3:12). What he taught he practised. Even toward strangers he acted considerately. When a heathen greeted him, he answered kindly, "Thy reward has been predicted"; when another abused him, he repeated coolly, "Thy reward has been predicted." This apparent inconsistency he explained to his puzzled disciples by quoting Genesis 27:29: "Cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee" (Yer. Ber. 8:12a; Gen. R. 66:6). He was fatherly to the indigent, particularly to poor and plain maidens, whom he clothed attractively and provided with means, so that they might obtain husbands (Ned. 9:10; 66a). One Friday night, while absorbed in the study of the Bible, he inadvertently turned the wick of a lamp; and he vowed that when the Temple was rebuilt he would offer there an expiatory sacrifice (Shab. 12b).

Views on Marriage.

He manifested the same spirit of hope in declining to countenance the refusal of the ultra-patriotic to beget children under the Roman sway (Tosef., Soṭah, 15:10 [comp. ed. Zuckermandel]; B. B. 60b). Even under the conditions then existing he recommended early marriage. He said, "The Scripture tells us, 'Thou shalt teach them [the things thou hast seen at Horeb] to thy sons and to thy sons' sons; and how may one live to teach his sons' sons unless one marries early?" (Deuteronomy 4:9, Hebr.; Yer. Ḳid. 1:29b; Ḳid. 61a; see Samuel Edels ad loc.).

Ishmael was one of the prominent members of the Sanhedrin at Jabneh ('Eduy. 2:4), and when that august body was forced by circumstances to move to Usha, Ishmael attended its sessions there (B. B. 28b), though his residence was at Kefar 'Aziz, on the borders of Idumæa, where Joshua b. Hananiah once visited him (Kil. 6:4; Ket. 5:8). He gradually developed a system of halakic exegesis which, while running parallel with that of Akiba, is admitted to be the more logical. Indeed, he established the principles of the logical method by which laws may be deduced from laws and important decisions founded on the plain phraseology of the Scriptures. Like Akiba, he opened up a wide field for halakic induction, but, unlike Akiba, he required more than a mere jot or a letter as a basis for making important rulings (comp. Sanh. 51b). He was of opinion that the Torah was conveyed in the language of man (see Yer. Yeb. 8:8d; Yer. Ned. 1:36c), and that therefore a seemingly pleonastic word or syllable can not be taken as a basis for new deductions. In discussing a supposititious case with Akiba, he once exclaimed, "Wilt thou indeed decree death by fire on the strength of a single letter?" (Sanh. 51b). The plain sense of the Scriptural text, irrespective of its verbal figures, was by him considered the only safe guide.

Hermeneutic Rules.

To consistently carry out his views in this direction Ishmael drew up a set of thirteen hermeneutic rules by which he interpreted Scripture. As a basis for these rules he took the seven rules of Hillel, and on them built up his own system, which he elaborated and strengthened by illustrating them with examples taken from the Scriptures (see Baraita of R. Ishmael; TALMUD; comp. Gen. R. 92:7). Even these rules he would not permit to apply to important questions, such as capital cases in which no express Scriptural warrant for punishment existed; he would not consent to attach a sentence of death, or even a fine, to a crime or misdemeanor on the strength of a mere inference, however logical, where no such punishment is clearly stated in Scripture (Yer. 'Ab. Zarah 5:45b), or to draw a rule from a law itself based on an inference (Yer. Ḳid. 1:59a). His rules were universally adopted by his successors, tannaim as well as amoraim, although occasionally he himself was forced to deviate from them (see Sifre, Num. 32).

Thus his name became permanently associated with the Halakah; but in the province of the Haggadah also it occupies a prominent place (M. Ḳ. 28b). In answer to the question whether future punishment will be limited to the spirit or to the body, or whether in equity any punishment at all should be inflicted on either, seeing that neither can sin when separated from the other, Ishmael draws this parallel: A king owning a beautiful orchard of luscious fruit, and not knowing whom to trust in it, appointed two invalids—one lame and the other blind. The lame one, however, tempted by the precious fruit, suggested to his blind companion that he ascend a tree and pluck some; but the latter pointed to his sightless eyes. At last the blind man raised his lame companion on his shoulders, and thus enabled him to pluck some of the fruit. When the king came, noticing that some fruit had disappeared, he inquired of them which was the thief. Vehemently asserting his innocence, each pointed to the defect which made it impossible for him to have committed the theft. But the king guessed the truth, and, placing the lame man on the shoulders of the other, punished them together as if the two formed one complete body. Thus, added Ishmael, will it be hereafter: soul and body will be reunited and punished together (Lev. R. 4:5; comp. Sanh. 91a et seq.).

Ishmael laid the foundation for the halakic midrash on Exodus, the MEKILTA; and a considerable portion of the similar midrash, the SIFRE on Numbers, appears also to have originated with him or in hisschool, known as "Debe R. Ishmael." Some suppose that he was among the martyrs of Bethar (comp. Ab. R. N. [ed. Schechter, p. 56b]); the more generally received opinion, however, is that one of the martyrs, a high priest, was a namesake (Ned. 9:10).

  • Bacher, Ag. Tan. 1:210 et seq.;
  • Brüll, Mebo ha-Mishnah, 1:103 et seq.;
  • Frankel, Darke ha-Mishnah, pp. 105 et seq.;
  • Grätz, Gesch. 4:60;
  • Hamburger, R. B. T. 2:526 et seq.;
  • Heilprin, Seder ha-Dorot,;
  • Hoffmann, Einleitung in dic Halachischen Midraschim, pp. 5 et seq.;
  • Weiss, Dor, 1:101 et seq.;
  • idem, introduction to his edition of Mekilta, et seq.;
  • Zacuto, Yuḥasin, ed. Filipowski, p. 25.
S. M.
Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Debe Rabbi Ishmael'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​d/debe-rabbi-ishmael.html. 1901.
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