The Miracle of Usha

20 Jun

by Yosef TeppermanTen days ago, I stood in an open pasture covered with Atzei Eila (Pistachio trees), about a kilometer south of the Somech Junction (Highways 70 and 79), just east of the modern town of Kiryat Ata, which is near Haifa. I was on foot, searching the western slopes of the hill on the eastern side of Highway 70 for the ruins of an Arab village called Husha, which was abandoned during the battles of the War of Independence in 1948. Most researchers believe that below the ground underneath these ruins we will find the archaeological remains of the ancient village of Usha, one of the homes of the Sanhedrin (the Assembly). For all practical purposes, the Sanhedrin served as the religious governing body of the Jewish people in Israel, before and after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The miracle that took place on this hill, in approximately 140 CE, was to ensure the survival of the Jewish people throughout another 1900 years of exile, until the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. It took about half an hour, but eventually I came upon a cardboard and Styrofoam figure left behind by some youth program members. I had arrived in Usha.

The historical record of what actually took place there is sketchy, but we do find legends, stories, and midrashim in the Talmud that describe isolated anecdotes and allow us to paint a broad picture of what took place at that time from a Jewish perspective.

The legend of how Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai saved the Sanhedrin in 70 CE is well known. Jerusalem was under Roman siege and his priority was to relocate the Sanhedrin and preserve its institutions. He had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem disguised as a corpse being carried out of the city for burial. Somehow, he then arranged an audience with Vespasian, General of the Roman Legions, and correctly predicted that Vespasian would become the next Emperor of Rome. In return, he was granted several wishes, one of which was the right to reassemble the Sanhedrin in Yavneh, a coastal Mediterranean Jewish city due west from Jerusalem and uninvolved in the fighting.

Less well understood are the events after the Bar Kochba revolt of 132 – 135 CE when the Emperor of the time, Hadrian, ethnically cleansed Judea of its Jews, resorting to mass murder, enslavement and exile. He forced the Jews that did remain to concentrate their activities in the Galilee and in the semi-desert areas in the southern parts of the country. At the same time, he blamed the rebellious nature of the Jews on the Sanhedrin, and the strength of their religious beliefs. Hadrian outlawed many Jewish religious practices, the appointment of any new religious judges or teachers, and all religious study. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 14A) tells us that the collective punishment for the ceremonial transmission of judicial authority (appointing new judges) was to be the complete destruction of the people and structures of the town where it took place up to and including the Shabbat boundaries. Once again the institution of the Sanhedrin and the entire system of Jewish law and tradition was in danger of extinction. Three legends shed light on the resurrection of the Sanhedrin in the ensuing years. All involve our hero, a man named Yehuda Bar Eelai, who was a native of the town of Usha.

The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yehudah Ben Baba (see Sanhedrin 14A) located a quiet valley between the hills of the towns of Usha and Shefaram (about 3 kilometers to the north-east) that was not within the Shabbat boundaries of either town. He flaunted Hadrian’s decrees by transmitting his authority as a judge and teacher to five very talented students; Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehudah bar Eelai, Rabbi Yossi bar Halafta, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Shamua. Not surprisingly, the elder, Rabbi Yehudah ben Baba, was captured by the Romans and was killed. We recognize his name listed in a number of traditional poetic lamentations among the ten Rabbinic leaders executed by Hadrian’s Legions after the rebellion. Luckily, the five students and future Jewish leaders escaped, including our hero, Rabbi Yehudah bar Eelai.

Another Talmudic legend (see Shabbat 23B) tells us that three of those same students were once sitting, engrossed in a political discussion about the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah bar Eelai argued that, out of necessity, they should come to terms with the Roman presence and at least appreciate the positive initiatives the Romans were instituting in the country. He pointed to the new marketplaces, bridges, and bathhouses they were building to modernize the economy and improve quality of life. His companion Rabbi Yossi bar Halafta was pensive and silent, but the third friend, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, sneered and said, “Surely they are building all those things, but they are building them all for their own benefit, not for ours. The new marketplaces bring with them decadence and houses of ill-repute, the bathhouses serve to pamper their own populace, and the bridges were built so they can more effectively collect heavier and heavier taxes.” Somehow, the gist of their discussion was overheard and repeated in the wrong places and the Roman officials got wind of what was said. The authorities promptly promoted the first student, Rabbi Yehudah bar Eelai, to a position of trust. They exiled Rabbi Yossi bar Halafta, the silent student, to Tzippori – the Roman capital of the north – where they could keep an eye on him. Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the rebel, was sentenced to death. Subsequently, he and his son were forced to flee in order to preserve their lives.

The third legend (see Shir Ha’Shirim Rabba 2:5:3) describes a time after the decrees of Hadrian have eased when Rabbi Yehuda bar Eelai, along with six other Rabbinic leaders, sent a message out to the entire Jewish population of the Galilee saying, “Anyone who has previously studied and possesses the required knowledge and qualifications, please come to Usha and teach, and anyone who has not yet studied but is interested in learning please come to Usha and learn.” In other words, our hero Rabbi Yehuda bar Eelai, the same man who was favored by the Romans because of his tolerant views, was successful, despite the odds, in reconstituting a free school of religious studies and Jewish law in the small town of Usha. Discreetly, and without fanfare, he and his associates built-up an institution for high level studies of Jewish law and tradition – a yeshiva. The continuity of oral transmission from teacher to student was not broken. At the appropriate moment, the Sanhedrin was then able to gather in Usha. At some point, they proceeded to enact much needed official proclamations of Jewish law in order to ease the poverty and social chaos caused by the war. The Edicts of Usha were instrumental in helping Jewish life in the Galilee regain its vitality.

This miracle of miracles began in Usha almost 1900 years ago. Out of the ashes of the death and destruction of the Hadrianic atrocities, and thanks to the self-sacrifice and determination of a few Jewish heroes like Rabbi Yehuda bar Eelai and the residents of the relatively small town of Usha, Jewish tradition and Jewish law, as well as the quiet yearning for Jewish independence and freedom, were reborn.

Yosef Tepperman is a licensed Israeli Tour Guide – for more information visit his personal blog at yosefsdreamtours.blogspot.com

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One Response to “The Miracle of Usha”

  1. Emanuel Yakobson June 29, 2011 at 7:02 pm #

    Very interesting!

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