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Rabbi Nehorai: Rosh Hashanah 22b

Who was Rabbi Nehorai? He traveled on Shabbat to the Sanhedrin in Usha, together with a witness to the new moon. That person was unknown to the court, so Rabbi Nehorai vouched for the man’s validity, thus carrying out the procedure laid out in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 22b). Rabbi Nehorai was well-known to the members of the court, but is he known to us? As it turns out, he is either relatively obscure or incredibly famous.

The fifth-generation Tanna, Rabbi Nehorai, appears three times in the Mishnah. In Pirkei Avot (4:14) he advises to exile oneself to a place of Torah if Torah scholars aren’t local, because it is through interaction with one’s fellow scholars, rather than self-study, that one’s knowledge is established. Surrounding statements are by Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yannai, fifth-generation Tannaim. In Kiddushin (4:14), while Rabbi Meir (fifth generation) suggests teaching one’s son a clean and easy trade, Rabbi Nehorai says that he sets aside all trades in the world and teaches his son only Torah. In Nazir (9:5) his position is cited that the prophet Shmuel was a nazir based on a verbal analogy (of ומורה) to Shimson the Nazir. He also appears a few times in Midrash. For instance, in Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, while some interpret Shemot 13:8, “chamushim ascended from Egypt” to mean that only 1/5 or 1/500 of the Hebrew population left Egypt in the Exodus, he reacts by exclaiming HaElokim, and argues they were so numerous that 600,000 was less than 1 in 5,000. “Nehorai” appears about 20 times in the Talmud, mostly in aggadic contexts. Some of these are patronymics. Also, there is a Rabbi Nehorai who was a second-generation Amora from Israel, so we need to disambiguate.

Scholars of midrash contrast the open-canon and closed-canon approach. When encountering some figure, either anonymous (the collector of sticks on Shabbat, Bamidbar 15) or appearing only once or twice (Shifra and Puah, Shemot 1), we could assume that these are people otherwise unknown, who had existence outside the Biblical canon (which is then open). In the closed-canon approach, we seek only inside the Biblical canon for further detail and definition, so Tzelafchad collected sticks and Shifra and Puah are Yocheved and Miriam. This is sometimes called the Law of Conservation of Biblical Personalities.

The same closed-canon approach could transform the infrequent Rabbi Nehorai into a more famous Tanna, such as Rabbi Meir. In Eruvin 13b:

תָּנָא: לֹא רַבִּי מֵאִיר שְׁמוֹ אֶלָּא רַבִּי נְהוֹרַאי שְׁמוֹ, וְלָמָּה נִקְרָא שְׁמוֹ רַבִּי מֵאִיר? שֶׁהוּא מֵאִיר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים בַּהֲלָכָה. וְלֹא נְהוֹרַאי שְׁמוֹ אֶלָּא רַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה שְׁמוֹ, וְאָמְרִי לַהּ רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ שְׁמוֹ, וְלָמָּה נִקְרָא שְׁמוֹ נְהוֹרַאי? שֶׁמַּנְהִיר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים בַּהֲלָכָה.

Rabbi Meir’s name wasn’t really Meir, but Nehorai. And, it wasn’t Nehorai but either Rabbi Nechemia or Rabbi Eleazar b. Arach (depending on girsa). Meir/Nehorai is similarly descriptive, since he “enlightened” the Sages’ eyes in halacha. Note, in Shabbat 147b, only the latter half (from “His name wasn’t Nehorai”) is cited, in context, so perhaps these are two sources glommed together. The first equates Meir with Nehorai while the second equates Nehorai with Rabbi Nechemia or Rabbi Eleazar b. Arach. Each identification has its own impetus. Meir/Nehorai is a Hebrew/Aramaic root alternation, so one was his secular name, like Yehoshua/Joshua. Meanwhile, Nehorai/Nechemia is a heh/chet guttural replacement, and a resh/mem lamnar-group replacement (think Nevuchadnetzar/Nevuchadretzar, Margolita/Marganita/Margarita). Finally, Rabbi Eleazar b. Arach, because he traveled to Phrygia and Deyomset, a place dedicated to wine and bathing rather than Torah, and forgot his learning. The Sages prayed for him and he recovered his learning. The statement of Rabbi Nehorai above about exile to a place of Torah is advice due to personal experience (Shabbat 147b).

The problem with the Meir/Nehorai identification is that we see Rabbi Nehorai disagreeing with Rabbi Meir (Kiddushin, above; Sanhedrin 99a). This is like seeing Clark Kent and Superman in the same place! Dikdukei Soferim/Yuchsin/Oxford have, for the first statement, “his name wasn’t Rabbi Meir but Rabbi Meisha” (instead of Rabbi Nehora; we know Rabbi Meisha as a sixth-generation Tanna; see Nedarim 8b). R’ Isaac Hirsch Weiss theorizes that Rabbi Meir was a Sage in the Sanhedrin in Usha and was known at that time as Rabbi mei-Usha. Later on they misunderstood this and believed his proper name was רבי מיאשה. R’ Aharon Hyman finds this explanation impressive but ultimately incorrect. Rabbi Meir lived until the wedding of Rabbi Shimon b. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, and this a braita, composed in the generation after Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, so not enough time would have elapsed for such an egregious error to occur. Further, we never find this name pattern in Talmud, the Rabbi from Place X. (Generations later, we have the Rebbe from Breslov and the Maggid of Dubno.) Rather, Hyman suggests, Rabbi Meir indeed bore the name Nehorai, which was shared with a Sage from Usha; his contemporaries called him Rabbi Meir to avoid confusion.

I’d add that מאיר/מיאשא are orthographically similar, and שמו is in proximity, so a derivation of “from Usha” seems unlikely to happen in parallel. Also, in our sugya, Rabbi Nehorai travels to Usha to testify, rather than being a resident Sage there. Finally, I’ll speculate that Rabbi Maysha’s real name was Rabbi Moshe, and he was from Lithuania rather than Usha.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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