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Ishmael ben Elisha

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Title: Ishmael ben Elisha  
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Ishmael ben Elisha

For the First Generation Tanna sage with a similar name, see Ishmael ben Elisha ha-Kohen.
For the 3rd-century Tanna sage, see Ishmael ben Jose.
Rabbinical Eras

Rabbi Ishmael or Ishmael ben Elisha (90-135 CE, Hebrew: רבי ישמעאל) was a Tanna of the 1st and 2nd centuries (third tannaitic generation). A Tanna (plural, Tannaim) is a rabbinic sage whose views are recorded in the Mishnah.


Ismael son of Elisha was a young boy during the destruction of the Temple. He was redeemed from captivity by Rabbi Neḥunya ben ha-Ḳanah, who Mesecheth Shabbat lists as his teacher. He was a close colleague of Rabbi Joshua. He is likely the grandson of the high priest of the same name.


Ishmael's teachings were calculated to promote peace and goodwill among all. "Be indulgent with the hoary head;" he would say, "and be kind to the black-haired [the young]; and meet every man with a friendly mien" (Avot, iii. 12).

What he taught he practised. Even toward strangers, he acted considerately. When a heathen greeted him, he answered kindly, "Thy reward has been predicted"; when another abused him, he repeated coolly, "Thy reward has been predicted." This apparent inconsistency, he explained to his puzzled disciples by quoting Gen. xxvii. 29: "Cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee" (Yerushalmi Berakhot, viii. 12a; Gen. R. lxvi. 6).

Ismael was fatherly to the indigent, particularly to poor and plain maidens, whom he clothed attractively and provided with means, so that they might obtain husbands (Nedarim, ix. 10; 66a). One Friday night, while absorbed in the study of the Bible, he inadvertently turned the wick of a lamp; and he vowed that when the Temple was rebuilt, he would offer there an expiatory sacrifice (Shabbat, 12b).

R. Ishmael delayed Eleazar ben Damma from being cured in the name of Ben Pandera long enough for Eleazar to die without becoming associated with the minim.

Views on marriage

Ishmael manifested the same spirit of hope in declining to countenance the refusal of the ultra-patriotic to beget children under the Roman sway (Tosefta, Sotah, xv. 10; Bava Batra, 60b). Even under the conditions then existing, he recommended early marriage. He said, "The Scripture tells us, 'Thou shalt teach them [the things thou hast seen at Horeb] to thy sons and to thy sons' sons;' and how may one live to teach his sons' sons unless one marries early?" (Deuteronomy 4:9 Yerushalmi Kiddushin, i. 29b; Kiddushin 61a)

Halakhic exegesis

Ishmael gradually developed a system of halakhic exegesis which, while running parallel with that of Rabbi Akiva, is admitted to be the more logical. Indeed, he established the principles of the logical method by which laws may be deduced from laws and important decisions founded on the plain phraseology of the Scriptures. Like Akiva, he opened up a wide field for halakhic induction, but, unlike Akiva, he required more than a mere jot or a letter as a basis for making important rulings (Sanhedrin, 51b).

Ishmael was of opinion that the Torah was conveyed in the language of man (Yerushalmi Yevamot, viii. 8d; Yerushalmi Nedarim, i. 36c), and that therefore a seemingly pleonastic word or syllable can not be taken as a basis for new deductions. In discussing a supposititious case with Akiva, he once exclaimed, "Wilt thou indeed decree death by fire on the strength of a single letter?" (Sanhedrin, 51b). The plain sense of the Scriptural text, irrespective of its verbal figures, was by him considered the only safe guide.

Hermeneutic rules

To consistently carry out his views in this direction, Ishmael formalized a set of 13 hermeneutic rules by which halakha was derived from the Torah. As a basis for these rules he took the seven rules of Hillel, and on them built up his own system, which he elaborated and strengthened by illustrating them with examples taken from the Scriptures (see Baraita of R. Ishmael; Talmud; comp. Gen. R. xcii. 7). Even these rules, he would not permit to apply to important questions, such as capital cases in which no express Scriptural warrant for punishment existed; he would not consent to attach a sentence of death, or even a fine, to a crime or misdemeanor on the strength of a mere inference, however logical, where no such punishment is clearly stated in Scripture (Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah, v. 45b), or to draw a rule from a law itself based on an inference (Yerushalmi Kiddushin, i. 59a). His rules were universally adopted by his successors, tannaim, as well as amoraim, although occasionally he himself was forced to deviate from them (see Sifre, Numbers, 32).

Thus, his name became permanently associated with the halakha; but in the province of the Haggadah also, it occupies a prominent place (Mo'ed Katan, 28b). In answer to the question whether future punishment will be limited to the spirit or to the body, or whether in equity, any punishment at all should be inflicted on either, seeing that neither can sin when separated from the other, Ishmael draws this parallel:

A king, owning a beautiful orchard of luscious fruit, and not knowing whom to trust in it, appointed two invalids—one lame, and the other blind. The lame one, however, tempted by the precious fruit, suggested to his blind companion that he ascend a tree and pluck some; but the latter pointed to his sightless eyes. At last the blind man raised his lame companion on his shoulders, and thus enabled him to pluck some of the fruit.
When the king came, noticing that some fruit had disappeared, he inquired of them which was the thief. Vehemently asserting his innocence, each pointed to the defect which made it impossible for him to have committed the theft. But the king guessed the truth, and, placing the lame man on the shoulders of the other, punished them together as if the two formed one complete body. Thus, added Ishmael, will it be hereafter: soul and body will be reunited and punished together (Lev. R., iv. 5; compare Sanhedrin, 91a et seq.).

Ishmael laid the foundation for the halakhic midrash on Exodus, the Mekhilta; and a considerable portion of the similar midrash, the Sifre on Numbers, appears also to have originated with him or in his school, known as "Debe R. Ishmael". Some suppose that he was among the martyrs of Betar (compare Avot of Rabbi Natan, xxxviii. [ed. Schechter, p. 56b]). The more generally received opinion, however, is that one of the martyrs, a high priest, was a namesake (Nedarim, ix. 10).

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