In II (15:5) the navi describes how King Azarya was struck with leprosy that did not allow him to continue acting in his capacity as monarch, so his son, Yotam, acted in his stead. During this period Azarya was exiled to beit ha-hofshit – literally “the house of freedom” – which is understood by the Gemara to indicate that the Jewish monarch is supposed to see his role as that of a servant to the people. The Me’iri argues that the simple meaning of the phrase was that the king had a retreat where he could rest from the stresses of his work, and that Azarya retired to that place when he became unable to fulfill his duties as king, but that the Sages made use of the terminology to teach a lesson about Jewish leadership.
To underscore this teaching, the Gemara tells a story that ultimately leads to the appointment of two scholars – Rabbi Elazar ben Hisma and Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgeda – to positions of responsibility with the admonition that they were not being honored, rather they were being asked to accept a position of servitude.
The story that leads to this goes as follows:
Once Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabban Gamliel were traveling on a boat. Rabban Gamliel took bread; Rabbi Yehoshua took bread as well as flour. The trip took longer than expected, and Rabbi Yehoshua shared his food – which he baked using the additional flour that he had brought – with Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel asked Rabbi Yehoshua how he knew that the trip would take longer than expected, and Rabbi Yehoshua explained that he knew of a certain star that appears every 70 years that fools the navigators, and that he thought that it might create problems with the trip. Impressed with his knowledge, Rabban Gamiliel asked Rabbi Yehoshua why he was traveling on the boat. The Rosh, quoting the Remah, explained that he asked why someone with this knowledge would have risked traveling at this time. In response, Rabbi Yehoshua pointed to Rabbi Elazar ben Hisma and Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgeda as examples of people who are very intelligent but cannot succeed in supporting themselves. This made Rabban Gamliel decide to give them positions of responsibility.
The star referred to by Rabbi Yehoshua was a comet, whose orbit brought it back to Earth at regular intervals. Perhaps the most famous comet is Halley’s Comet whose orbit brings it to Earth every 76 years, and it is possible that Rabbi Yehoshua was referring to it. If so, this may be the earliest recorded reference to it in history.