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January 18, 2017 / 20 Tevet, 5777
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Yannai and Rabi Shimon

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The Return Of The Sage

When Rabi Simeon ben Shetach saw that he had found favor in the eyes of King Yannai (after he appointed him Nasi of the Sanhedrin), he approached the king and said:

“If I have found favor in your eyes will you grant me a wish? Something sorely vexes me that only you can rectify.”

“Tell me your problem,” replied the king, “and I will hasten to help you.”

Rabi Simeon replied, “Do you remember when you became infuriated with the sages and ordered them to be killed? One of the great sages, Rabi Joshua ben Pirachya, escaped in time and is now in exile, in Alexandria. His heart yearns for the holy city of Yerushalayim and we sorely miss him.”

“But he preached hatred against me,” replied the king, “and he made a fool of me and mocked my behavior.”

“It is not true,” replied Rabi Simeon. “His enemies spread false reports about him. One of the cardinal principles of this great sage is the following, ‘Give your fellowman the benefit of the doubt and judge him for the good.’ A man with such lofty aims and principles could never speak badly against you.”

The king was impressed and he gave Rabi Simeon ben Shetach permission to call back Rabi Joshua ben Pirachya.

Rabi Simeon thereupon sent the following letter to Rabi Joshua: “From the City of Yerushalayim to the City of Alexandria, My teacher and master dwells in your midst and I live desolate. Come home.”

Stops Over At An Inn

When Rabi Joshua received this letter he knew that the king had forgiven him and he began to travel back to Eretz Yisrael accompanied by the many disciples he had gathered while in exile.

Traveling many hours, they reached a certain inn and stopped for the night. The innkeeper’s wife did everything within her power to please the Rabi and his disciples. She prepared a sumptuous meal them and provided them with the best accommodations.

In the morning when they prepared to leave the hotel, Rabi Joshua ben Pirachya paid the innkeeper’s wife a compliment by saying, “How beautiful is this innkeeper’s wife.”

One of his disciples, hearing this, remarked with a gleam in his eyes, “It is true what you say, my master, her eyes are beautiful and round.”

Mistaken Interpretation

Rabi Joshua turned to the disciple and in an angry tone said, “You wicked person, how dare you attribute such evil thoughts to me. Is it with such thoughts that you occupy yourself? She is a married woman and I was only referring to her good deeds and kindness.”

Rabi Joshua thereupon ordered that this disciple be placed in excommunication. To emphasize the extreme severity of this offense, he had the shofar blown 400 times.

The disciple regretted his words and came before Rabi Joshua many times begging forgiveness, but the Rav refused. One day while Rabi Joshua was reciting the Shema, the disciple appeared before him again and asked to be forgiven.

Rabi Joshua had already made up his mind to forgive him, but could not interrupt his prayer so he motioned with his hand for him to wait until he completed his prayer. But the pupil thought that he was again being repelled so he decided to leave Judaism and began to worship an idol.

Rabi Joshua went to the disciple and urged him to repent but the disciple answered, “Thus have I learned from you, that whoever sinned and caused others to sin is deprived of the power of doing penitence.”

Our sages then tell us that this disciple began to practice magic and he led many Jews astray. Therefore did Chazal teach: Always let the left hand thrust away and the right hand draw near, and not be like Rabi ben Pirachya who thrust one of his disciples away with both hands (one must not be too severe in chiding or reproving a disciple, a child or a wife lest they be driven to extremes).

The Ingenious Family

As King Yannai grew older he increasingly came under the influence of the Saducees, who refused to follow in the path of Chazal in their interpretation of the Torah. They would speak evil against the rabanim and the king would listen to them.

One day they advised the king to prohibit the custom of bringing wood to Yerushalayim for use on the mizbayach.

“Nowhere can we find in the Torah of Moshe that Bnei Yisrael are required to bring wood for the mizbayach,” they told the king. “The Chmuash only mentions korbanos, not wood.”

Prohibits Carrying Wood

The king listened to them and issued a decree prohibiting the carrying of wood to Yerushalayim. To see that this decree was enforced he posted guards at all roads leading to Yerushalayim. There was a pious G-d-fearing family in Israel named Salami Netofah (the ladder of Netofah) who hit upon a scheme to avoid this decree and still fulfill the mitzvah. They took logs of wood and made them into ladders that they carried on their shoulders and they proceeded to the holy city.

When they reached the point where the guards were stationed, they were questioned as to where they were going and what they were carrying.

They replied, “We are carrying our ladders to a place further on to take down young pigeons from the dovecot.”

The guards saw nothing suspicious and they permitted them to pass. Having safely eluded the guards they arrived at the Beit Hamikdash where they took the ladders apart and carried in the wood for the mizbayach.

To these men and to others who emulated their examples, Chazal quoted the following passage in Proverbs 10:7, “The memory of the righteous shall be for a blessing.” To the evil people who issued the decree, they applied the sentence, “But the name of the wicked shall rot” (ibid.).

Rabbi Sholom Klass

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