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The Rabbi and The Emperor

Updated on February 9, 2013

Although I probably could have written this article under the 'Why Karaism' banner I decided that it warranted to be placed separately under some other category that had as little association with Karaism as possible because it represents everything that is abhorred amongst Karaites. You see, the story I'm about to relate comes directly from the Talmud and commits so many sins that it actually casts Judaism in a bad light in its entirity. Of course as Karaite we would say, "what would you expect, after all it is the product of Rabbanites," but even Rabbanites have a 'modus decorum' by which they must operate and this is dictated by the Torah which still governs how Jews must behave. The fact that this story concerns Rabbi Judah ha Nasi should not be that great a surprise to Karaites. The presumption of his title, 'The Prince' considering he had no government or population to actually rule over I do not hold against him. As a descendant of Hillel, I have to believe his claim to be from the House of King David in the same way that I believe the lineage in my own family to be accurate as being from the House of Phiabi. These claims were passed down from father to son and were intended to be preserved, so I do not doubt his claim to be a Prince of Israel. What I do take exception to is possibly his warranting of the title based on the story to follow. A Prince must act with honour; a Prince must preserve the truth; a Prince must not commit murder; and a Prince must not be boastful when his own people are made to suffer. These would all appear to be lessons that Judah ha Nasi failed to learn, yet he is extolled above all other by the Rabbis through the Talmud. So perhaps the banner for this article rather than 'Why Karaism' would more correctly be 'Why not Rabbinic Judaism'.

From The Abodah Zerah

The Following Story is taken from the Talmud; Abodah Zerah.  I have placed my comments and explanations in brackets so I do not alter the original verse.

[Emperor] Antoninus [Pius] once said to Rabbi [Judah ha Nasi], "It is my desire that my [adopted] son Asverus [Marcus Verus] should reign instead of me and that Tiberias should be declared a Colony [Self governing Sartrapy].  Were I to ask one of these things [from the Senate] it would be granted while both would not be granted. Rabbi thereupon brought a man, and having made him ride on the shoulders of another, handed him a dove bidding the one who carried him to order the one on his shoulders to liberate it. The Emperor perceived this to mean that he was advised to ask [of the Senate] to appoint his son Asverus to reign in his stead, and that subsequently he might get Asverus to make Tiberias a free Colony.

[On another occasion] Antoninus mentioned to him that some prominent Romans were annoying him. Rabbi thereupon took him into the garden and, in his presence, picked some radishes, one at a time. Said [the Emperor to himself] his advice to me is: Do away with them one at a time, but do not attack all of them at once.  But why did he not speak explicitly? — He thought his words might reach the ears of those prominent Romans who would persecute him. Why then did he not say it in a whisper? — Because it is written: For a bird of the air shall carry the voice. 

The Emperor had a daughter named Gilla [Anna Galina] who committed a sin, so he sent to Rabbi a rocket-herb,  and Rabbi in return sent him coriander.  The Emperor then sent some leeks  and he sent lettuce in return.

Many a time Antoninus sent Rabbi gold-dust in a leather bag filled with wheat at the top, saying [to his servants]: 'Carry the wheat to Rabbi!' Rabbi sent word to say. 'I need it not, I have quite enough of my own', and Antoninus answered: 'Leave it then to those who will come after thee that they might give it to those who will come after me, for thy descendants and those who will follow them will hand it over to them.'

Antoninus  had a cave which led from his house to the house of Rabbi. Every time  [he visited Rabbi] he brought two slaves, one of whom he slew at the door of Rabbi's house and the other [who had been left behind] was killed at the door of his own house.   Said Antoninus to Rabbi: When I call let none be found with thee. One day he found R. Haninah b. Hama sitting there, so he said: 'Did I not tell thee no man should be found with thee at the time when I call?' And Rabbi replied. 'This is not an [ordinary] human being.' 'Then', said Antoninus, 'let him tell that servant who is sleeping outside the door to rise and come in.' R. Haninah b. Hama thereupon went out but found that the man had been slain. Thought he, 'How shall I act now? Shall I call and say that the man is dead? — but one should not bring a sad report; shall I leave him and walk away? — that would be slighting the king.' So he prayed for mercy for the man and he was restored to life. He then sent him in. Said Antoninus: 'I am well aware that the least one among you can bring the dead to life, still when I call let no one be found with thee.' Every time [he called] he used to attend on Rabbi and wait on him with food or drink. When Rabbi wanted to get on his bed Antoninus crouched in front of it saying. 'Get on to your bed by stepping on me.' Rabbi, however, said, 'It is not the proper thing to treat a king so slightingly.' Whereupon Antoninus said: 'Would that I served as a mattress unto thee in the world to come!' Once he asked him: 'Shall I enter the world to come?' 'Yes!' said Rabbi. 'But,' said Antoninus, 'is it not written, There will be no remnant to the house of Esau?'  'That,' he replied. 'applies only to those whose evil deeds are like to those of Esau.' We have learnt likewise: There will be no remnant to the House of Esau, might have been taken to apply to all, therefore Scripture says distinctly — To the house of Esau, so as to make it apply only to those who act as Esau did. 'But', said Antonius, is it not also written: There [in the nether world] is Edom, her kings, and all her princes.'   'There, too,' Rabbi explained, '[it says:] 'her kings', it does not say all her kings; 'all her princes', but not all her officers!

True History

From the Talmudic tale we would be led to believe that there was a very close and personal relationship between the Emperor of Rome and the self-titled, Prince of the Jews. Furthermore, the Emperor would seek Judah ha Nasi's wise counsel repeatedly to the point that it even extended into how he should run his affairs and control the Senate. But what do we really know of the relationship between these two men? The answer is that they simply didn't have a relationship. In fact, Antoninus Pius, though not as intolerant as his predecessor Hadrian towards the Jews still had an axe to grind. It is stated that during Antoninus' reign that the Jews were deprived of the right to have their own courts, which prerogative was by the Pharisees considered essential to religion (Yer. Sanh. vii. § 2, 24b). This certainly doesn't sound like the Empror would come to the Nasi seeking legal advice. Furthermore, those that dared to criticize the measures of the emperor were banished or put to death (Shab. 33b). What we also know is that as a result of his harsh treatment of the Jews, the Jews attempted once again to overthrow the Roman domination ("Scriptores Historiæ Augustæ, Antoninus Pius," ch. v.) but there was so little fight left in them after the Bar Kochba revolt against Hadrian that this rebellion was put down quickly and barely rated a mention. The strained relations existing between the Parthians and the Romans may have led the Jews to believe as well as encouraged them to revolt with the expectation of assistance from the Parthians but such assistance was never realized. Whereas the biography of Antoninus Pius in Historia Augusta speaks of this revolt the Jewish sources in the Talmud do not even allude to it and instead provide this fairy tale relationship between the Rabbinic leader and the Emperor of Rome.

But it wasn't all bad news as Antoninus did repeal some of the edicts of Hadrian —such as the prohibition of circumcision which prevented the Jews from exercising their religion—on the condition that they should not receive proselytes (Meg. Ta'anit, xii.; "Digesta" of Modestinus, xlviii. 8, 11). Moreover, they were forbidden, on penalty of death, to enter Jerusalem which hardly sounds like the edict of a man whom according to the Rabbis had approached Judah ha Nasi on how he would be able to best grant the city of Tiberias independent status. Those Jews who had fled to foreign countries in order to escape the persecutions of Hadrian gradually returned to their homes but by then most of the land and homes had become the possessions of non-Jewish populations.

The actual edict of Antoninus Pius reads as follows: ‘By a rescript of the divine Antoninus the Jews are allowed to circumcise only their own sons. If anyone performs the operation on a national of another race, he is liable to the same penalty as for castration’. The penalty being referred to was death so this is hardly the words of an Emperor that would let himself be a stepping stool for the Rabbi. Antoninus was still determined to restrict and control the spread of Judaism and thus would have no interest in God's preservation of a place in the world to come for him. In fact he would have had no interest in the Jewish God at all for it was well documented that he was faithful to the traditonal Roman pantheon of gods and no others.

History also records that Hadrian before Antoninus Pius visited Judea and Septimus Severus after Antoninus Pius visited Judea but Antoninus Pius himself did not visit the Roman province. That being the case then there was no house with an undergound passage that led to Rabbi Judah's house that the Emperor ever used. The story is a fabrication with no other purpose to portray the Emperor as a man with a compulsion to murder his slaves, an act which the Nasi obviously tolerated and to portray Rabbi Hanina ben Hama as having the ability to raise the dead even if he was inferior to Rabbi Judah ha Nasi. In their efforts to record themselves as being far greater than they really were, these sages of Rabbinic Judaism were obviously not adverse to lying and a gullible Jewish population has believed them ever since..

So Why Lie?

I asked myself that question repeatedly. What was to be gained? What were the Rabbis seeking with this story? I could understand why Rabbi Judah was mute for much of the story, performing actions that the Emperor had to interpret rather than speaking to him directly. It provided the Rabbis with the ability to say that their Prince never actually spoke to the Emperor if they were ever challenged. Plausible denial I think we call it now.

Even when the story of his picking radishes would be challenged as his advising and approving that the Emperor eliminate his enemies which in that day and age meant killing them off one by one, an act which according to the Torah made Rabbi Judah as guilty of murder as the man that perpetrated it, the Rabbis could deny such a thing was ever suggested by saying, "he was only picking radishes. Why would you ever think he was condoning murder?"

The entire story is to express the superiority the rabbis held for themselves above their Roman masters. The fact that one of their own, Rabbi Akiba not only anointed a false messiah in Simon Bar Kochba, but spurred him on to fight a second war against Rome in which close to half a million Jews died should have taught them some modicum of modesty, restraint and recognition that their beliefs were faulty. But they could not see the truth in that regard. Rome was still beneath them. A foot stool for their Prince to step upon when climbing into bed. A story of how Rome could kill them but they mystically held the power to resurrect our dead so they had no fear of Rome's threats. Sadly the half million that died following their instruction could not be resurrected but these Rabbis survived and their own survival would appear to be all they cared about. After all, just as Judah ha Nasi replied when given the gift of gold by the Emperor, he had no need of it, he had plenty of his own. Only the Emperor was wise enought to suggest he hold on to it, not for his sake but for those less fortunate that might need it after he passed on. Perhaps the rabbis should have been thinking of the people all along and listened to the sagely advice of the Emperor!


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