the First Week of Advent
Click to donate today!
Judah ben Ilai
The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
One of the most important tannaim of the second century; born at Usha, a city of Galilee (Cant. R. ). His teachers were his father (himself a pupil of Eliezer b. Hyrcanus), Akiba, and Ṭarfon. He studied under the last-named in early youth (Meg. 20a), and was so closely associated with him that he even performed menial services for him (Tosef., Neg. 8:1). Judah b. Baba ordained him as teacher at a time when the Roman government forbade such a ceremony. Almost at the beginning of Hadrian's persecution Judah ben Ilai was forced to flee from Usha and conceal himself; and he often related episodes of the "times of peril" (Tosef., 'Er. 8:6; Suk. 1:7). When, after the revocation of Hadrian's edicts of persecution, the pupils of Akiba held their reunions and councils in Usha, Judah received the right to express his opinion before all others, thus being "Rosh ha-Medabbebrim" (leader among the speakers), on the ground that he was the best authority on the traditions (for other grounds see Cant. R. , 4; Ber. 63b; Shab. 33a). He was intimately associated with the patriarch Simon b. Gamaliel II., in whose house he is said to have been entrusted with the decision in matters pertaining to the religious law (Men. 104a). He was also able to win the confidence of the Romans by his praise of their civilizing tendencies as shown in their construction of bridges, highways, and market-places (Shab. 33a).
Judah's personal piety was most rigid; and he observed many of the practises of the Ḥasidim and the Essenes. He drank no wine except on the days when the Law required, and preferred to eat only vegetable food (Ned. 49b). On Friday, after he had bathed and clad himself in white to prepare for the Sabbath, he seemed to his pupils an angel. According to a later rule of interpretation, Judah b. Ilai is meant in all passages reading, "It once happened to a pious man" (B. Ḳ. 104a). He was naturally passionate and irascible (Ḳid. 52b); but such was his self-control that he seemed the reverse. Thus he once showed exceptional mildness when he had an opportunity to reconcile a married pair (Ned. 66b). The study of the Law was his chief and dearest occupation; and he lamented the fact that such a devotion was no longer wide-spread as in former times. Yet his interest in the joys and sorrows of his fellow men was keener still. Whenever a funeral or a wedding-procession passed, he interrupted his study to join it (Ket. 17a).
Judah lived in the utmost poverty. His wife made with her own hands a cloak which served them both in turn: the wife as she went to the market; the husband on his way to the college. Nevertheless, he declined all assistance, since he had accustomed himself to the simplest mode of life, and on principle desired to have no delight in this world (Ned. 40b). His high conception of the calling and the responsibility of a teacher of the Law, as well as his mild judgment of the multitude, was expressed in his interpretation of Isaiah 58:1: "Show my people their transgression"—that is, the teachers of the Law, from whose errors wickedness arises—"and the house of Jacob their sins"—that is, the ignorant, whose wickedness is only error (B. M. 33b).
Sources of His Teaching.
Judah often teaches the Mishnah of Eliezer, which he had received from his father (Men. 18a), and frequently explains the traditional halakot by particularizations introduced by the phrases "Ematai?" (= "When does this statement apply?") and "Bameh debarim amurim?" (= "In what connection was this said?" Ḥul. 5:3; Ber. 2:4). His most frequent teachings, however, are the doctrines of his master Akiba. His own halakot he sets forth in the form of midrashim (see MIDRASH HALAKAH); for, in his view, mishnah and midrash are identical (Ḳid. 49a). Those who devote themselves only to the Mishnah, that is, to the stereotyped Halakah without its Scriptural basis, he terms "enemies " (B. M. 33b); but those who direct their attention to the Scriptures are "brothers." Yet it is only they who interpret or expound the Bible who receive this latter name; for he who makes a literal translation of a verse of Scripture is a "liar," and he who adds to it a "blasphemer" (Tosef., Meg., end).
Chief Authority of Sifra.
In his interpretation of the Scriptures and in the deduction of legal requirements from it Judah adheres strictly to the method of his teacher Akiba, whose rules of exegesis he adopts. It is thus that he explains a word apparently superfluous (Bek. 43b; Pes. 42a), and employs the rules of "al tiḳri" ('Ar. 13b) and "noṭariḳon" (Men. 29b). Nevertheless, he interprets also according to the older Halakah in cases where he deduces a definition from the literal wording of a passage, and bases his explanation strictly on its obvious meaning, "debarim ki-ketaban" (Pes. 21b, 91a; Zeb. 59b). The greater portion of the Sifra, or halakic midrash on Leviticus which originated in the school of Akiba, is to be attributed to Judah, nearly all the anonymous statements in it being his, "Setam Sifra R. Yehudah" ('Er. 96b). Of his exegetical principles only one need be noted: "In the Holy Scriptures certain phrases which border on blasphemy have been altered" (Mek., ed. Weiss, 46a).
Many haggadic utterances and traditions of Judah's have been preserved. His traditions regarding the Temple at Jerusalem are very numerous; and special interest attaches to his accounts of the origin of the Temple of Onias (Men. 109b) and of the Septuagint (Meg. 9), as well as to his description of the synagogue at Alexandria (Suk. 51b) and of the conditions and institutions of antiquity (Tosef., Ter. 1:1; Shab. 5:2; and many other passages).
Many of Judah's maxims and proverbs have likewise been preserved; a few are cited here: "Great is beneficence: it quickeneth salvation" (B. B. 10a). "Great is toil: it honoreth the toiler" (Ned. 49b). "Who teacheth his son no trade, guideth him to robbery" (Ḳid. 29a). "The best path lies midway" (Ab. R. N. ).
Judah attained a very great age, surviving his teachers and all of his colleagues. Among his disciples who paid him the last honors was Judah ha-Nasi. His grave was shown at Ensetim beside the tomb of his father ("Seder ha-Dorot," p. 169).
- Frankel, Hodegetica in Mischnam, pp. 158-164, Leipsic, 1859;
- Brüll, Einleitung in die Mischna, pp. 169-178, Frankfort-on-the-Main;
- Hamburger, R. B. T. 2:452-460;
- Bacher, Ag. Tan. 2:191-224;
- Hoffmann, Einleitung in die Halachischen Midraschim, p. 26.
These files are public domain.
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Judah ben Ilai'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tje/​j/judah-ben-ilai.html. 1901.