Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


(c. 180–c. 279)

One of the most prominent Palestinian amoraim of the second generation whose teachings comprise a major portion of the Jerusalem Talmud (TJ), and a significant portion of the Babylonian Talmud as well. The fact that R. Johanan's name is more frequently mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud than that of any other amora led Maimonides to ascribe to him the compilation of this Talmud (Intro. to Yad), though R. Johanan certainly could not himself have served as the final redactor of the Jerusalem Talmud as we possess it today (see Jerusalem *Talmud). His cognomen "bar Nappaḥa," which is found in this Aramaic form throughout the Babylonian Talmud (see Rashi, Sanh. 96a) is usually understood to mean "the son of a smith" (cf. the parallel Hebrew form "ben ha-nappaḥ" found in TJ, RH 2:7, 58a, Sanh. 1:2, 18c), and it has even been understood as a reference to R. Johanan's extraordinary physical beauty (Rashi ad. loc., presumably interpreting bar nappaḥa to mean "capable of inflaming [one's desires]"; cf. TB, BM 84a, Ber. 20a, 5b). It is nevertheless quite likely that it originally refers to his home town, the village of "nappaḥ" (Epstein, Introduction, 238). He is generally cited as "R. Johanan," sometimes by his cognomen only (e.g., Mak. 5b), but never by both together.

Like many of the tannaim and like many other prominent amoraim, R. Johanan's life quickly became the subject of numerous aggadot, which developed and changed as the stories were told and retold, each time in accordance with the literary and theological aims of the different storytellers. As a result it is difficult to give a precise account even of those few events from R. Johanan's life which are actually related in talmudic sources, since they are often reported in various ways in different versions of the same story. Similarly, R. Johanan's own halakhic and aggadic teachings were subjected to intense scrutiny, not only by his immediate disciples, but also by virtually all subsequent scholars. This process of study and analysis gave rise to varying and often conflicting interpretations of his words. These differing interpretations in turn were formulated as independent and sometimes contradictory statements, and then disseminated under R. Johanan's name (see, for example, Wald, Pesaḥim III, 59–65). This problem is further compounded by the fact that in the eyes of the Babylonian Talmud virtually any authoritative tradition deriving from the Land of Israel may come to be ascribed to R. Johanan, whether he was the original author of the statement or not. For example, the halakhic statement ascribed to R. Johanan in TB, Shabbat 73b top, is virtually identical to the anonymous tannaitic statement found in Tosefta Shab. 8:3 (see Wald, Shabbat VII, sugya 11). Similarly, the famous aggadic statement ascribed to R. Johanan in TB, Git. 56a, "The humility of R. Zekharia b. Avkulas destroyed our Temple, burned our Holy of Holies, and exiled us from our land," is in fact a slightly expanded version of the statement of the tanna R. Yose found in Tosefta Shab. 16:7 (see Five Sugyot, 106–111). After describing in outline the life and career of R. Johanan as it is reflected in talmudic sources, we will examine a few of the problems involved in the critical evaluation of these traditions, using one halakhic tradition and one aggadic tradition as examples.

Apparently born at Sepphoris, Johanan was said to be descended from the tribe of Joseph (Ber. 20a). According to the Babylonian Talmud, his father died before his birth and his mother in childbirth (Kid. 31b), and according to the Jerusalem Talmud R. Johanan was raised by his grandfather (TJ, Ma'as. 1:2, 48d). One tradition relates that R. Johanan inherited fields and vineyards from his parents, all of which he sold to support himself during his student years, claiming that he was disposing of objects created in six days to acquire the Torah, which was given in 40 days (Song R. 8:7). While this source represents him as having chosen poverty voluntarily, another mentions his poverty without any such qualification (Ta'anit 21a). These representations of R. Yohanan as a struggling scholar are consistent with his view – quoted by R. Abbahu – that a talmid hakham is one who neglects his business for study (TJ, Moed Katan 3:7, 83b). According to the Babylonian Talmud, R. Johanan's family life was marred by tragedy, and during his lifetime he buried ten of his sons. He is said to have retained a "bone" (according to the commentaries "a tooth") of the last of his sons, showing it to people in mourning to induce in them a spirit of resignation such as he himself had found in his successive bereavements (Ber. 5b; Arukh ad. loc.). In a parallel version of this aggadah (Song R. 2), however, there is no mention either of this tragedy or of this particular practice, and in another source reference is made to the marriage of a daughter who survived (Kid. 71b).

The Babylonian Talmud states that in his youth he studied with *Judah ha-Nasi for a short time, although R. Johanan apparently could not then comprehend his master's teachings (Ḥul. 137b). Nevertheless, according to this aggadah, Judah recognized Johanan's talents and predicted that he would be a leading teacher in Israel (Pes. 3b; cf. Yoma 82b). His primary teachers were R. *Yannai (BB 154b; TJ, Ket. 9:5, 33b), and *Oshaiah Rabbah (Eruv. 53a; TJ, Ter. 10:3, 47a). From Ḥanina b. Hama, he apparently received homiletic traditions on almost all the biblical books, as we are told that Ḥanina once noticed unusually large crowds hurrying by to hear R. Johanan's lectures on the aggadah; whereupon Ḥanina thanked God for permitting him to see his life's work bearing such blessed fruit (TJ, Hor. 3:7, 48b). Johanan also is described as having mastered the mystical traditions of the Merkabah (Ḥag. 13a), the science of intercalating months (TJ, RH 2:6, 58a, b), and medicine (Shab. 109b; 110b).

R. Johanan began teaching in his native city, Sepphoris, in the yeshivah of R. Bana'ah, and his classes became very popular. Later, R. Johanan opened his own academy in Tiberias (TJ, Beẓah 1:1, 60a) which soon attracted the most gifted students of his generation, among whom were Abbahu, Ammi, Assi II, Eleazar b. Pedat, Ḥiyya b. Abba, Yose b. Ḥaninah, and Simeon b. Abba. His disciples spread his teachings, and R. Johanan also visited other localities, deciding questions of law there (Ket. 7a; Yev. 64b). His fame spread afar, and in certain circles in the Diaspora the impact of his teaching was felt almost as strongly as in his native land (Z.M. Dor).

According to a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud, R. Johanan recognized no authority outside Ereẓ Israel exceptfor *Rav, with whom he corresponded, addressing him as "our master in Babylon." After Rav's death, R. Johanan addressed his colleague, Samuel, as "our colleague in Babylon." However, after Samuel had sent him his calendar calculations and responsa concerning terefah, R. Johanan reportedly exclaimed that Samuel was also his master. He therefore resolved to visit Samuel, but to spare him from the hardships of the long journey to Babylon, "God caused him incorrectly to believe that Samuel had in the meantime died" (Ḥul. 95b).

R. Johanan is represented not only as authoritative among other rabbis (cf. TJ, Ber. 8:1, 12a), but also outside of rabbinic circles. A litigant in Antioch is said to have agreed in advance of adjudication to abide by whatever R. Johanan decided (TJ, Sanh. 3:2, 21a), while another source stresses his popularity as a preacher (TJ, Hor. 3:7, 48b; TJ, BM 2:11, 8d). R. Johanan is also described as giving orders to the Kifra synagogue (TJ, RH 4:4, 59c) and to midwives (TJ, Shab 9:3, 12a), descriptions which presuppose some degree of receptivity on the part of the persons and communities in question.

R. Johanan is also represented as a man of affairs. He is described as having enjoyed the regard of the archon of Sepphoris (TJ, Ber. 5:1, 9a), and he is also represented as having regard for the honor of the patriarchate (e.g., Gen R. 97:48, Theodor-Albeck, p. 1245). R. Johanan reportedly felt that there should only be one leader in a generation (Sanhedrin 8a) – presumably the patriarch – whom he is also represented as urging to dress in a manner more appropriate to his office (TJ, Sanh. 2:5, 20c). On one occasion when the patriarchal house was late in informing R. Johanan and Resh Lakish of the proclamation of a public fast, R. Johanan insisted that they nevertheless had to observe it, since – presumably as the patriarch's subjects – they were legally presumed to have accepted the fast when it was proclaimed (Ta'an. 24a). R. Johanan also reportedly made a journey to perform a service on behalf of the patriarch (TJ, Av. Zar. 2:4, 41b). Descriptions of R. Johanan's willingness to submit to the authority of the patriarch may be connected to the accounts of how he was able to mediate between the patriarch and Resh Lakish (TJ, Sanh. 2:1, 19d–20a; TJ, Hor. 3:2, 47a), and how he had the stature to intervene in a conflict involving two of the most prominent families in Sepphoris (TJ, Shab. 12:3, 13c). R. Johanan also reportedly used his connections with the patriarchate in order to begin integrating rabbinic scholars into the patriarchal bureaucracy, as well as into positions of communal leadership. R. Johanan's students continued his policy of appointing scholars for such posts. This expansion of R. Johanan's influence into the political realm may account at least in part for his influence over Palestinian rabbinism overall. The Talmud also ascribes to R. Johanan's an almost unbounded respect for the previous generations of scholars, quoting him as saying that "the hearts of the ancients were like the larger outer door to the Temple [ulam], but that of the later generations is like the smaller inner door [heikhal], while ours is like the eye of a fine needle" (Er. 53a), and that "the fingernail of the earlier generations is better than the whole body of the later generations" (Yoma 9b).

In addition to his numerous halakhic and aggadic statements (memrot), which touch on virtually every aspect of talmudic law and lore, the Babylonian Talmud also ascribes to R. Johanan a number of general rules which were accepted as authoritative in determining the halakhah. (e.g., Sanh. 31a, Er. 46b). One notable example of this sort of statement is the widely quoted (cf. the list in the margin of Shab. 46a) principle that "the halakhah is in accordance with an anonymous Mishnah." Nevertheless, it is difficult to accept the accuracy of this tradition on face value. In every case where this statement is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, it is contradicted by another explicit statement of R. Johanan in which he decides the halakhah in opposition to the view of an anonymous Mishnah. In many cases the Talmud manages to "resolve" these contradictions, but some of these resolutions require textual emendations (Shab. 147b, 157b), some involve explicitly forced interpretations (Shab. 46a, 112b), and some remain unresolved (Yev. 16b, Nid. 56b).

The source of this problematic tradition can be traced to a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, (Yev. 4:11, 6b; cf. TB, Yev. 42b–43a, and TJ, Ta'an. 2:14, 66a; Meg. 1:4, 70d), where R. Johanan decided the halakhah in favor of the position of R. Jose, and in opposition to an anonymous halakhic position, both of which are brought in Mishnah Yev. 4:11. The Jerusalem Talmud explains that R. Johanan did not consider an anonymous halakhah binding unless it represented the position of the majority of scholars, whereas in this case the anonymous halakhah was only the opinion of R. Meir. Further on the Jerusalem Talmud indeed quotes a tradition in the name of R. Eleazar, according to which the halakhah always follows the anonymous position of the Mishnah, even when it is only the view of an individual tanna. It is clear, however, that thisis not the view of R. Johanan himself, but rather only of his disciple R. Eleazar.

Why then was this tradition ascribed to R. Johanan in the Babylonian Talmud? The answer to this question can be found in another statement by R. Johanan in the Jerusalem Talmud there (TJ, Yev. 4:11, 6b): "R. Johanan said: Any place where [Rabbi] taught an anonymous Mishnah, that [anonymous Mishnah] is [presumed to represent] the majority position, until one receives explicit information from one's teacher [to the contrary]." Assuming that the halakhah is generally in accordance with the majority opinion, one could summarize R. Johanan's rather convoluted statement in the following way: "The halakhah is in accordance with an anonymous Mishnah" – but only if one recalls that R. Johanan's statement is not a universal and binding legal rule, but rather a generalization, which may serve as a legal presumption, so long as it has not been contradicted by other evidence. When this simplified, but still correct, version of this tradition was transmitted to Babylonia, however, these qualifications were blurred or lost altogether, and it was interpreted as a universal and binding legal rule: "the halakhah is [always] in accordance with an anonymous Mishnah" – as if R. Johanan himself agreed with the position of his disciple R. Eleazar! As a result of the conflation of these two traditions, a contradiction arose between this tradition (as understood by the Babylonian Talmud) and more than 20 other explicit rulings ascribed in the Babylonian Talmud to R. Johanan, in which he decided the halakhah in opposition to the position of an anonymous Mishnah.

Similar problems arise when one tries to trace the origin and to verify the authenticity of aggadic traditions relating to R. Johanan. Talmudic storytellers frequently elaborated and reformulated historical traditions, transferred stories from one narrative to another, and even from one historical figure to another. For example, the Talmud In TB, BM 84a provides a detailed account of the manner in which R. Johanan first met his life-long study partner, R. *Simeon b. Lakish (Resh Lakish), and of the tragic events surrounding their deaths. We are told there that R. Johanan was once bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish, who at that time was a highway robber by profession, passed by. Resh Lakish was so impressed with R. Johanan's beauty that he "jumped over the Jordan" to get a better look. R. Johanan was so impressed by Resh Lakish's physical strength that he said to him: "Your strength should be devoted to the study of Torah." Resh Lakish replied: "Your beauty should be devoted to women." Johanan responded: "If you come back with me [to study Torah], I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is even more beautiful than I am." As soon as Resh Lakish agreed to return and study Torah, he lost all his physical strength, and was unable to jump back across the Jordan in order to bring his things. The story then breaks off and picks up some years later, with R. Johanan and Resh Lakish engaged in a dispute over the halakhic status of various weapons – "The sword, the dagger," etc. – in which Resh Lakish disagreed with R. Johanan's view as to when such weapons are considered finished and ready for use. R. Johanan quipped that Resh Lakish's apparent expertise in this matter would seem to be due to his former occupation as a highway robber. Resh Lakish was taken aback by this insensitive reference to his former life of crime, became despondent and eventually died. R. Johanan, in turn, also became increasingly despondent, not so much because he had caused the death of his lifelong friend, but rather because he was unable to learn Torah effectively without the assistance of an aggressive study partner like Resh Lakish, who was always both willing and able to challenge him on every point. R. Johanan's mental state eventually deteriorated into insanity, whereupon R. Johanan's colleagues prayed for him that he might find peace – and so he died.

This story is fascinating in many respects, but it is also highly suspect as a report of events that supposedly occurred in the lives of these two scholars. The opening scenario is remarkably similar to another story found in Song R. 2, in which a member of Rabban Gamaliel's household, who is described as possessing superhuman strength, becomes enfeebled as soon as he begins to learn Torah. Even R. Johanan's comment to Resh Lakish in the Babylonian Talmud is remarkably similar to Rabban Gamaliel's words there: "You have all this great strength (ḥela), and you do not learn Torah (oraita)?" (Song R.) = "Your strength (ḥelakh), should be devoted to the study of Torah (loraita)." Also, the story of R. Johanan's pathetic inability to study Torah in the absence of Resh Lakish is the subject of another, very different, aggadah found in Yerushalmi Sanh. 2, 19d and Hor. 3, 47a (see Friedman, Rav Kahana, 265–67). Moreover, the entire halakhic discussion between R. Johanan and Resh Lakish in this story seems artificial and somewhat improbable (cf. Tosefot BM 84b bottom). Finally, the striking description of R. Johanan's insanity and resulting death are not reflected in any parallel description of R. Johanan's death (cf. MK 25b; TJ, Kil. 9:3, 32b, Ket. 12:3, 35a; Gen. R. 100:2, Theodor-Albeck 1285).

The lives of great figures such as R. Johanan inevitably become enmeshed in a web of legend, as their teachings are subjected to reinterpretation and reformulation. It is often difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle the more original elements of these traditions from later accretions and elaborations. Notwithstanding these difficulties, these traditions bear clear witness to the enormity of the achievement and legacy which R. Johanan left to posterity.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.