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Title page from Rachlin, I. (1906). Bar Levoi. New York: A. H. Rosenberg.

Joshua ben Levi (Yehoshua ben Levi) was an amora, a scholar of the Talmud, who lived in the Land of Israel in the first half of the third century. He lived and taught in the city of Lod.[1] He was an elder contemporary of Johanan bar Nappaha and Resh Lakish, who presided over the school in Tiberias.[2] With Johanan bar Nappaha, he often engaged in homiletic exegetical discussions.[3]


It is uncertain whether the name "ben Levi" meant the son of Levi, whom some identify with Levi ben Sisi, or a descendant of the tribe of Levi.[4]


Rabbi Joshua ben Levi studied under Bar Kappara, whom he often quoted. But Joshua considered his greatest indebtedness to Rabbi Judah ben Pedaiah, from whom he learned a great number of legal rulings.[5] Another of his teachers was Pinchas ben Yair, whose piety and sincerity must have exerted a powerful influence upon the character of Joshua. Joshua himself had a gentle disposition. He was known for his modesty and piety, and whenever he instituted public fasting and prayer, it was said that his appeals were answered.[6]

His love of peace prevented him from making any attacks against the theology of the minim (heretics). He was tolerant, though they often annoyed him. And he forbore cursing one of them, pronouncing rather Psalm 145:9, "God's mercies extend over all His creatures".[7] His love of justice and his concern that the innocent might suffer on account of the guilty[8] led him to speak against the custom then prevailing of removing from office a reader who, by omitting certain benedictions, had aroused the suspicion of heresy.[9]

Joshua devoted much of his time to furthering the public welfare.[10] His wealth, and his alliance to the patriarchal family through the marriage of his son Joseph,[11] must have added to his authority. He was recognized as a representative of the Land of Israel Jewry, for he was found in company with his friend Rabbi Hanina interceding on behalf of his people before the proconsul in Caesarea, who accorded Joshua and his colleague much honor and respect.[12] On another occasion, when the city of Lod was besieged because a political fugitive had found refuge there, Joshua saved the city and its inhabitants by surrendering the refugee.[13] He also made a journey to Rome, but his mission is not known.[14] Although Rabbi Joshua was connected through family ties with the patriarchal house, and always manifested his high esteem for its members,[15] it is largely due to him that the friendship between the southern schools and the patriarchal house diminished.[16] Joshua was the first to ordain fully his own pupils in all cases where ordination was requisite,[17] thus assuming a power that hitherto had lain in the hands of the head of the Sanhedrin alone.

His son and student Joseph, also a notable amora,[18] married the daughter of Judah haNasi.[19]

In legend

Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was a favorite hero in legend. He was often made to be the companion of Elijah in the latter's wanderings on earth.[20] See, for example, The Messiah at the Gates of Rome. He also had legendary dealings with the Angel of Death.[21] While yet alive, he was permitted to visit paradise and the nether world, and he sent a description of what he saw there to Rabban Gamaliel through the submissive Angel of Death.[22] Many of the legends relating to Joshua have been collected in separate small works entitled "Ma'aseh deRabbi Yehoshua ben Levi" and "Massekhet Gan Eden veGehinnom."


The site of his grave is not known, but Mitch Pilcer of Tzipori claims to have found Rabbi Joshua ben Levi's gravesite while doing construction on his property in Tzipori. The grave may be that of another man by the same name.[23][24]


In the field of legal interpretation, Joshua was of considerable importance, his decisions being generally declared valid even when disputed by his contemporaries Rabbi Johanan and Resh Lakish. He was lenient, especially in cases where cleanliness and the preservation of health were involved.[25] Joshua devoted himself to the elucidation of the Mishnah. And his own legal interpretations resemble in their form and brevity the writings of the Tannaim in the Mishnah.

In homiletic exegesis (aggadah), however, he was even more influential. He had a high opinion of that study, and he explained Psalm 28:5, "the works of God," as referring to homiletic exegesis.[26] Similarly in Proverbs 21:21, he identified "glory" (kavod) with homiletic exegesis.[27]

There is also a reference to a book ("pinkes") by Joshua ben Levi which is presumed by some to have presented aggadic themes,[28] but this can not be well reconciled with Joshua’s disparaging of the writing down of homiletic exegesis.[29] Nonetheless, homiletic exegesis occupied an important place in the teaching of Rabbi Joshua. His disciples and contemporaries quoted many such propositions in his name.

As an exegete, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi was of some importance, his interpretations often enabling him to deduce legal rulings. Some of his explanations have been accepted by later commentators.[30]

A number of his teachings were recorded in the sixth and final chapter of Pirkei Avot (6:2-7) including his 48 attributes of excellent students—the 48th being that of attributing a saying to its original speaker.[31] Joshua ben Levi’s emphasis of study was seen when he spoke of God as saying to David (Psalm 84:11) that "better" in God’s sight is "one day" of study in the Law "than a thousand" sacrifices.[32] Though learning was of paramount importance,[33] still he also insisted on piety. He said that those who attends the synagogue service morning and evening will have their days prolonged,[34] and those who move their lips in prayer will surely be heard.[35] He instituted a number of rules regulating the reading of the Law in the synagogue on weekdays[36] and other matters relating to the service, many of which are to this day observed in synagogues.[37]

Some of Joshua's philosophical and theological opinions are recorded. Speaking of the attributes of God, he represented God as "great, mighty, and awe-inspiring" (Deut. 10:17).[38] He conceived the relation between Israel and God as most intimate, and he expresses it in the words, "Not even a wall of iron could separate Israel from his Father in heaven."[39] In his doctrine of future reward and punishment, paradise will receive those who have performed the will of God, while the underworld becomes the home of the wicked.[40] In Psalm 84:5 he found Biblical authority for the resurrection of the dead,[41] and in Genesis Rabbah 26 he expressed the liberal view that immortality is the portion not only of Israel, but of all other nations as well. In a legend, Joshua inquired of the Messiah when he was coming, and Elijah answered that it will be when Israel heeds God's voice.[42] In another connection, he spoke of the futility of estimating the time of the coming of the Messiah.[43]

In popular culture

See also


  1. ^ Between Rome and Babylon: Studies in Jewish Leadership and Society, Aharon Oppenheimer and Nili Oppenheimer
  2. ^ Genesis Rabbah 94
  3. ^ Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 116a; Megillah 27a; Shevuot 18b
  4. ^ Grätz, "Gesch." 4:263; Frankel, "Mebo," 91b; Weiss, "Dor," 3:60; Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." 1:124.
  5. ^ Exodus Rabbah 6; Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7; Genesis Rabbah 94
  6. ^ Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 66c.
  7. ^ Talmud, b. Berakhot 7a; Talmud, b. Avodah Zara 4b
  8. ^ Babylonian Talmud Yoma 19b
  9. ^ Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9c
  10. ^ Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7
  11. ^ Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 33b
  12. ^ Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9a
  13. ^ Jerusalem Talmud Terumot 46b; Genesis Rabbah 94.
  14. ^ Genesis Rabbah 33.
  15. ^ Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 33b
  16. ^ For evidence that such friendship once existed, see Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 65b; Jerusalem Talmud Pesachim 32a.
  17. ^ Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 42b
  18. ^ Shabbat 68a; Berachot 8b; Yevamot 9a
  19. ^ Kiddushin 33b
  20. ^ Pesikta 36a
  21. ^ Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 51a
  22. ^ Derekh Eretz Zuta 1
  23. ^ "Court to Decide on Fate of Rabbi Yehoshua's Grave". 24 August 2009. Retrieved 24 August 2009.
  24. ^ "רצה לבנות צימר, ומצא את קברו של הריב"ל".
  25. ^ Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 121b; Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 44d
  26. ^ Midrash Tanhuma 28:5
  27. ^ Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 9b
  28. ^ Weiss, "Dor," p. 60
  29. ^ Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 15c; Midrash Tehillim 22:4; Bacher, "Ag. Pal. Amor." 1:129, against Weiss, "Dor," 3:60, who assumes that the "pinkes" was the work of another rabbi of the same name.
  30. ^ See, e.g., Abraham ibn Ezra and others on Exodus 15:1; see Exodus Rabbah 23.
  31. ^ Pirkei Avot 6:6
  32. ^ Babylonian Talmud Makkot 10a; Midrash Tehillim 122:2.
  33. ^ Babylonian Talmud Megillah 27a
  34. ^ Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a
  35. ^ Leviticus Rabbah 16; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 9d
  36. ^ Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 8a
  37. ^ Babylonian Talmud Sotah 39b
  38. ^ Babylonian Talmud Yoma 69b; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 11c; Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 74c.
  39. ^ Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 85b; Sotah 38b
  40. ^ Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 19a
  41. ^ Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 91b
  42. ^ Psalm 95:7.; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98a
  43. ^ Midrash Tanhuma 9:1; Leviticus Rabbah 19
  44. ^ Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth (January 1863). "The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi". The Atlantic.