י״א בסיון ה׳תשע״ז (June 5, 2017)

Bava Batra 134a-b: Great Minds

On the previous daf Gemara told a story of a man whose children behaved inappropriately, and he gave all of his money to Yonatan ben Uzziel. The Gemara relates that Yonatan ben Uzziel sold one-third, gave one-third to the Temple and returned one-third to the man’s children, a decision that some of his peers objected to. In connection with that story, the Gemara mentions that Hillel HaZaken had eighty students – thirty who are described as deserving of divine revelation like Moshe Rabbeinu, thirty who merit the cessation of heavenly orbits as did Yehoshua bin Nun, and twenty on an intermediate level between the other two. The greatest of his students was Yonatan ben Uzziel; the least of them was Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai.

In what fields was the “least of the students” expert?

It was said of Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Zakkai that his studies included the written Torah, the Mishna, the Gemara, the Halakhot, and Aggadot; the subtle points of the Torah and the minutiae of the Scribes; the inferences from minor to major and analogies; astronomy and geometry (the simple meaning of the word in Greek is land measurements, but it was commonly used to mean engineering or mathematics in general); the language of the ministering angels; the language of the demons, the whisper of the palms, washer’s parables and fox fables, and matters great and small.

The report on Yonatan ben Uzziel was that when he would sit and study Torah, a bird that flew above his head would immediately burn up.

We have surprisingly little biographical information about Yonatan ben Uzziel. His life’s work, for which he is best known and remembered, is his translation of the books of Nakh (nevi’im ) into Aramaic. It is not clear whether the translation that we have today is actually the one that he wrote, or whether it is based on his work. In any case, it is not simply a translation, but a free interpretation, which includes many details and elucidations. Although a translation into Greek already existed at the time, his work was groundbreaking in that it included interpretations beyond the simple meaning of the words and was done according to – and with the approval of –  of his generation.

We find that Yonatan ben Uzziel was so well regarded during his lifetime, that even Shammai HaZaken, who served as the Av , sought him out to discuss issues of halakha with him.

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