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Sukka 28a-b - The students of Hillel

March 03, 2014

 

 

In the context of discussing Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and his teacher, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the Gemara mentions that Hillel HaZaken had eighty students – thirty who are described as deserving of divine revelation like Moshe Rabbenu, thirty who merit the cessation of heavenly orbits as did Yehoshua bin Nun, and twenty intermediate students. The greatest of his students was Yonatan ben Uzziel; the youngest of them was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai.
 
In what fields was the "youngest of the students" expert?
 
It was said of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai that his studies included the written Torah, the Mishnah, 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 proverbs 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 – the Sages of his generation.
 

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

 

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger. To learn more about the Steinsaltz Daf Yomi initiative, click here.

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