When Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi defeated the Angel of Death

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When Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi defeated the Angel of Death

The Legend Of Rabbi Ben Levi; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Avi Katz, Gefen Publishing House, US $19.95, Pp 32, November 2020, ISBN 978-9657023549

Nineteenth century poem by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – The Legend of Rabbi Ben Levi – is a beautiful and inspirational poem that describes Rabbi Ben Levi’s struggle at the gates of Paradise with the Angel of Death. The legend from the Talmud tells us that his fight with the Angel of Death put an end to his reign of terror over mortal humans. In The Legend Of Rabbi Ben Levi, Avi Katz illustrates the legend as described by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The volume provides illustrations with mosaics side by side the quotations from the original Aramaic Talmud text.

According to the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi lived in the third century in Zippori, ancient Jewish capital of the Galilee. The Talmud mentions the legend of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi and his encounter with the Angel of Death. Jewish Scriptures praises him as one of the few righteous souls allowed to Paradise while he was still alive. Miltch Pilcer says that, in the middle of the third century, the Jewish community flourished under the leadership of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi who gathered all the great scholars of the day in Zippori to create a compilation of Jewish law in the book that became known as the Mishnah. This became the basis of the laws that guide Jewish communities throughout the world to this day. Talmud mentions him as an authority in halachah (Jewish law) and was a leading political figure as well, travelling as far as Rome to represent the Jewish people against the imperial forces of Roman occupation.

In early 21st century, his tomb was discovered on a hillside facing the remains of ancient Zippori. The inscription on the tomb said, “Here is the resting place of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi.” According to Miltch Pilcer, there are niches for six tombs inside the burial chamber. Five tombs contain the untouched remains of the original occupants, but one crypt remains mysteriously empty – its occupant long gone or never there. Zippori enjoys a unique status among the ancient cities of Israel. It was founded by Jews returning from the Persian exiles in the fifth century BCE. It was then called Kitron.

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi wasn’t surprised by what he found on arrival in Paradise: a supernal yeshiva attended by the souls of the great scholars, studying for all eternity with Elijah the Prophet serving as the heavenly concierge. Miltch Pilcer says that it’s all a matter of timing. Had the rabbi arrived in Jewish Celestial City a thousand years earlier, he might have found nothing at all. Every age spawns its own concept of the afterlife. The generations of Jews who recorded their legacy in scrolls that we now call the Hebrew Bible didn’t seem to attach much significance to a hereafter. And the forefathers never related to the concept of the afterworld during their lives.

Miltch Pilcer says that the celestial kingdom conceived by the rabbis of the Talmud has endured and remains the foundation of Jewish belief to this day. With his last breath, a pious Jew will recite the “Shema Yisrael” payer with the expectation that he will be greeted on the other side by loved ones and ancestors. Together they all will await the coming of the Messiah, and all souls will be returned to a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. Miltch Pilcer says that while the majority of modern Jews are skeptical as to the abilities of deceased rabbis to intervene in our lives from the afterworld, there remains the possibility that it can’t hurt either, so the phenomenon has grown and is widespread among certain Jewish communities today.

The Legend Of Rabbi Ben Levi, is an amazing primer on a Talmud legendary saint. It is beautifully written and artistically illustrated. It is a must-read for everyone who wants to know about this Talmud legend – both Jewish and non-Jewish people. It is particularly recommended for children who need to start their Talmud study. It is a pure joy to hold this artistically designed little book in your hands. Avi Katz is an accomplished artist.

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