Rabbi Joshua

This early Rabbi of the Mishnah regularly debated Rabbi Eliezer.

Rabbi Joshua, who lived in the first to second centuries CE, was one of the most distinguished of the early Rabbinic teachers known as the Tannaim. Rabbi Joshua was a disciple of Rabban Johanan ben Zakkai and a colleague of Rabbi Eliezer; the debates between these two teachers are found throughout the Talmud.

Rabbi Joshua appears to have had a somewhat conciliatory attitude towards the Romans after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. In a famous parable attributed to him, a fox put his head into a lion’s mouth in order to remove a bone that had lodged in the lion’s teeth and was troubling the lion. When the fox demanded a reward for his pains, the lion replied that for a creature to have its head in a lion’s mouth and yet remain unscathed was in itself sufficient reward.

When some zealots wished to give expression to their mourning over the destruction of the Temple by abstaining from wine and from marriage, Rabbi Joshua is said to have advocated less severe tokens of mourning, since one does not impose on the community regulations impossible for the majority to follow (Bava Batra 60b).

On a number of occasions Rabban Gamaliel is said to have behaved in an autocratic manner towards Rabbi Joshua, as a result of which Rabban Gamaliel was deposed for a time from his position as Nasi and head of the Sanhedrin.

As with Rabbinic biography generally, these and similar statements about Rabbi Joshua’s life and career have to be treated with a degree of caution since they are not eyewitness accounts but stories told much later. Nevertheless, the stories do reflect the high regard in which Rabbi Joshua was held by later generations as a foremost teacher of the Torah.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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