May 22, 2024
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In the last two decades or so, fiction writers have rediscovered what might be called religious cryptography. I’m talking about finding hidden meanings in familiar biblical texts, secret codes and esoteric symbols revealing ever more secret mysteries about the origins of life on our planet. Once upon a time such studies were the staple of every living hermit or social outcast who could find someone to listen to his ravings. The Talmud and Jewish lore have their share of tales of demons, false prophets, monsters, and other supernatural creatures. I’ll confess to a healthy skepticism at one time concerning all these mystical “goings-on,” but for sure many of these tales are good “box office” draws and I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the DaVinci Code and its ilk.

Below is my contribution to the genre, a tale of two rabbis that will cause you to frankly wonder about the connections between our day and the ancient past; it certainly turned me into a believer that there is a whole lot we don’t understand about the world in which we live.

Rabbi Past

Rabbi Judah Ben Beteirah was a master of the Mishnah who lived about 1900 years ago. He lived quite an unusual life by any measure. He was probably one of the few individuals whose life spanned both the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the final suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt by Rome in 134 CE. His survival, the fact that he was neither killed nor enslaved during his life–the fate suffered by tens of thousands of his countrymen–may be attributed to his abandoning Jerusalem soon after the destruction of the Temple.

He fled north to a town called Nisibin, located today in southeastern Turkey. While present-day Nisibin is near the center of the ISIL-Syrian-Iraqi conflict replete with beheadings and massacres, at that time Nisibin was a dusty, sleepy Roman village far from world events. During his exile there, Rabbi Judah became something of a local celebrity. The Syrians, or Arameans as they were then known, came to respect him and often took his counsel on important common matters.

We are interested in one particular event that took place in the rabbi’s life, a tale recounted in the Talmud Pesachim wherein the laws of Passover are generally discussed. As the Talmud recounts, one day Rabbi Judah became aware of a Syrian neighbor of his who was bragging to all that he would annually travel up to Jerusalem to partake from the Passover ritual sacrifice at the Temple. This was clearly prohibited by Jewish law. Rabbi Judah asked the Syrian to confirm this violation for him and the Syrian boasted how he could trick even the most careful participant into sharing his holy offering with him:

“I eat of the best and they never know it,” the Syrian proudly said.

Rabbi Judah was quite upset by this confession and decided to turn the tables on the Syrian.

“Have you ever eaten from the tail of the sacrifice? It’s simply delicious–a true delicacy.”

Rabbi Judah was counting on the Syrian being unaware that the fat-filled tail of the sacrifice was never eaten, but instead burned on the altar.

“No, as a matter of fact, I’ve never been offered it,” replied the Syrian.

“Well,” said Rabbi Judah, ‘next Passover ask them to give you the tail to eat.”

When the holiday approached again, the Syrian ascended to Jerusalem and exactly followed Rabbi Judah’s instructions. No sooner had he requested the tail, then the Temple officials pointedly asked him:

“Who told you to ask for the tail?”

“Rabbi Judah Ben Betairah,” the unsuspecting Syrian responded.

The officials wondered for a moment how it was possible that Rabbi Judah would offer such advice. They immediately investigated, discovered the Syrian’s true identity and took the necessary steps to ensure that he wouldn’t eat from the Passover sacrifice ever again.

To this point the story of Rabbi Judah and the ill-fated Syrian has all the elements of the proverbial wise man tricking the wrong-doer who lacks all the necessary information to make the correct, “safe” choice. But it’s the next phrase in the Talmud, following the punishment of the Syrian, that’s most intriguing for what it may foreshadow in our day. The Temple officials send a message of thanks to Nisibin:

Peace be with you, Rabbi Judah Ben Beteirah. Even though you are in Nisibin, in the distant Diaspora, your net, spread wide, reaches us in far away Jerusalem!

Rabbi Present

Rabbi Menachem Leibtag is an internationally acclaimed Bible scholar and lecturer. He is especially noted for his work as Rosh Mesifta at Yeshivat Har Etzion and lecturer at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem.

Several years ago, a Jewish man in Teaneck found himself in a bit of a quandary. He had been asked to prepare a scholarly talk on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel, time was running short, and he was sorely lacking ideas to pull off his assignment. The man struggled to come up with a meaningful concept, when, in a last-ditch effort, he googled a website he had discovered created by Yeshivat Har Etzion.

On the site the man uncovered a treasure trove of Israeli Independence Day addresses and lectures given by Rabbi Leibtag in the past. Cobbling together some of Rabbi Leibtag’s thoughts on the subject with other sources he had found, the man was able to meet his deadline and gave a satisfactory talk (at least in his own mind!). Imagine how surprised the man must have been when just two weeks later, he received a notice from his shul that the scholar-in-residence on the upcoming Shabbat would be none other than Rabbi Menachem Leibtag himself! The man wanted to thank the rabbi personally for his “assistance” with the Independence Day talk and as the weekend approached he thought hard on what exactly he could say to the Rav.

Friday night arrived and the man despaired of finding something to say to Rabbi Leibtag, other than “Shabbat Shalom” and “thanks.” Just when he had given up all hope, the man stood up from the couch and exclaimed to his wife:

“I’ve got it; I remember this story from Pesachim that’s right on target. I know exactly what to say to Rabbi Leibtag tomorrow. This is incredible!”

His wife looked at him as if he had lost his mind.

“Go to sleep so you won’t be late for shul; stop worrying what you’re going to say to Rabbi Leibtag!”

The next morning Rabbi Leibtag addressed more than 400 congregants at the close of Mussaf services. Following the speech, the man worked his way through the eager throng of people until he stood alone in front of the rabbi. He nervously recounted to the rabbi how he had used his online materials to construct his own speech and, then, remembering Rabbi Judah and the Temple officials, he blurted out:

“Peace be with you Rabbi Leibtag, for even though you are in Jerusalem, your net–the internet–spread wide, reaches us far away in the Diaspora!

In that singular moment, Rabbi Judah’s 2000-year-old Nisibin tale took on a modern, digital life of its own. In truth, Rabbi Leibtag is recognized today as a pioneer of Torah education via the internet. What’s most intriguing is how that fact may be viewed as completing a link foreshadowed in the days when the Temple still stood. Two rabbis, past and present, connecting Jews in a worldwide Torah network!

By Joseph Rotenberg

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