JOSEPH BEN ḤIYYA (d. 333 C.E.), Babylonian amora and head of the Pumbedita academy for two and a half years, after the death of *Rabbah. Joseph was a pupil of Judah b. Ezekiel. Hundreds of his sayings in halakhah and aggadah are to be found throughout the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and a large number of his pupils transmitted statements in his name. He devoted himself particularly to the text of the Mishnah, which he would clarify by means of the beraitot. His knowledge was exceptionally comprehensive, his teaching was well ordered, and his halakhic decisions clear, so that he was called Sinai, i.e., a scholar with wide knowledge (Hor., end). He also delved into mysticism, and was one of the "masters of the merkabah" (see Merkabah *Mysticism; Ḥag. 13a). He was also distinguished in biblical exegesis and left an Aramaic translation of parts of the Bible, which is often quoted. It is not to be assumed, however, that Joseph translated the whole Bible, though the Aramaic translation of the Book of Chronicles is ascribed to him and is called "the Targum of Rav Joseph."
Despite the fact that Joseph was recommended for the position of head of the yeshivah, he deferred this honor for the 22 years that Rabbah headed the yeshivah, and during this period Joseph accepted Rabbah's authority, declining even the slightest external signs of honor or office (Ber. 64a). According to the Talmud, he had an overwhelming love of the Torah and its students and, possessing considerable wealth (he owned fields and vineyards and his wine was praised), he undertook the support of 400 of his pupils (Ket. 106a). He stressed the importance of the Torah and its students in his aggadah and underwent many fasts, until he received assurance from heaven that the study of Torah would not depart from his descendants during the course of three generations (BM 85a). One of the central events in his life was a severe illness which caused him "to forget his learning," and Abbaye – his pupil – re-taught him what he had forgotten (Ned. 41a; cf. Er. 10a), and this illness may have been the cause of his blindness (Kid. 31a; cf. Pes. 111 b).
Many remarkable stories of his conduct are related, and even the details of his death and burial were embellished by legends. His teachings and rulings stress concern for the plight of the poor and the improvement of social life. His aspiration to raise the importance of the academy above that of the exilarch, which would lead to the dependence of the latter upon the academies, is discernible in his aggadic dicta, and can also be seen in the tendency in his teachings toward giving increased authority to the courts of law and their decisions (see e.g., Beẓah 5a; Ket. 81b; Git. 88b; et al.). The first struggle in the conflict of the academies with the exilarch originated with Joseph. Another noteworthy detail in his aggadah is that he is the only one to mention conversations with *Asmodeus (Asmedai), king of the demons (Pes. 110a).
Hyman, Toledot, 742–9; Halevy, Dorot, 2 (1923), 440ff.; Epstein, Mishnah; Judelowitz, Ḥayyei ha-Yehudim bi-Zeman ha-Talmud: Ir Pumbedita bi-Ymei ha-Amora'im (1939), 96–98; J.S. Zuri, Shilton Rashut ha-Golah ve-ha-Yeshivot (1939), 127–56, 184–9; Ḥ. Albeck, Mavo la-Talmudim (1969), 291–3.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.