Sunday, August 19, 2007

Yehoshua Ben Gamla

Yehoshua Ben Gamla is famous for instituting that every town have a local Jewish school. For this, he is praised as having prevented the Torah from being forgotten (Bava Basra 21a). However, after piecing together the history we find a much more complex picture.

Nowhere is he mentioned with the appellation "Rabbi". The Gemara (Yevamos 61a) states that his wife, Martha Bas Baisus, bought for him the position of high priest. Josephus (Antiquities 20:9:4) describes a high priest Jesus Ben Gamaliel as being wicked and living right before the destruction of the Temple. The Gemara in Gittin discusses a Martha Bas Baisus who lived through the destruction of the Temple. If all of this is true, why does the Gemara in Bava Basra praise him for saving the Torah? And how effective could his educational reform been if it was eclipsed by the confusion and fighting surrounding the destruction of the Temple?

R. Yitzchak Isaac Halevi (Doros Ha-Rishonim part 2 [vol. 3] pp. 465-468) explains this based on a Yerushalmi in Kesuvos (end of ch. 8) that Shimon Ben Shetach was the one who instituded the educational reform. R. Halevi theorizes that Shimon Ben Shetach utilized Yehoshua Ben Gamla in his battle against the dominant Sadducees. Ben Gamla was sympathetic to the Pharisees but because of his great wealth, was not suspected by the rich Sadducees as being disloyal to them. Therefore, Shimon Ben Shetach planned that Ben Gamla would by the position of high priest and implement reforms that would be beneficial to the Pharisees, including the educational reform that was so effective.

The weak link in this recreation of history is that we have to posit that, prior and during the destruction of the Temple, there was another high priest with the name Yehoshua Ben Gamla and another woman with the name Martha Bas Baisus. R. Aharon Hyman (Toldos Tanna'I'm Ve-Amora'im vol. 2 p. 623) justifies this by pointing out that the Talmud does not name any of the wicked high priests during the era of the destruction in order not to perpetuate their memories. We only know of then from Josephus. So it is reasonable that the Yehoshua Ben Gamla mentioned in the Talmud was not the wicked high priest. And regardin his wife, R. Hyman notes that according to the Midrash the name of the lady during the destruction was Miriam Bas Baisus and not Martha.

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