Tanna of the first third of the second century. His full name is Simon b. Zoma without the title "Rabbi"; for, like Ben 'Azzai, he remained in the grade of "pupil," and is often mentioned together with Ben 'Azzai as a distinguished representative of this class (see Ben 'Azzai). Like Ben 'Azzai, also, he seems to have belonged to the inner circle of Joshua b. Hananiah's disciples; and a halakic controversy between them is reported in which Ben Zoma was the victor (Naz. viii. 1).
His erudition in the Halakah became proverbial; for it was said, "Whoever sees Ben Zoma in his dream is assured of scholarship" (Ber. 57b). He was, however, specially noted as an interpreter of the Scriptures, so that it was said (Soṭah ix. 15), "With Ben Zoma died the last of the exegetes" ("darshanim"). Yet only a few of his exegetic sayings have been preserved. The most widely known of these is his interpretation of the phrase, "that thou mayest remember the day when thou camest forth out of Egypt" (Deut. xvi. 3), to prove that the recitation of the Biblical passage referring to the Exodus (Num. xv. 37-41) is obligatory for the evening prayer as well as for the morning prayer. This interpretation, quoted with praise by Eleazar b. Azariah (Ber. i. 5), has found a place in the Haggadah for the Passover night. In a halakic interpretation Ben Zoma explains the word "naḳi" (clean) in Ex. xxi. 28 by referring to the usage of the word in every-day life (B. Ḳ. 41a; Ḳid. 56b; Pes. 22b).
The principal subject of Ben Zoma's exegetic research was the first chapter of the Torah, the story of Creation. One of his questions on this chapter, in which he took exception to the phrase "God made" (Gen. i. 7), has been handed down by the Palestinian haggadists (though without the answer), with the remark, "This is one of the Biblical passages by which Ben Zoma created a commotion all over the world" (Gen. R. iv.). An interpretation ofthe second verse of the same chapter has been handed down in a tannaitic tradition (Tosef., Ḥag. ii. 5, 6; compare Ḥag. 15a), together with the following anecdote: Joshua b. Hananiah was walking one day, when he met Ben Zoma, who was about to pass him without greeting. Thereupon Joshua asked: "Whence and whither, Ben Zoma?" The latter replied: "I was lost in thoughts concerning the account of the Creation." And then he told Joshua his interpretation of Gen. i. 2. When speaking to his disciples on the matter, Joshua said, "Ben Zoma is outside," meaning thereby that Ben Zoma had passed beyond the limit of permitted research.
As a matter of fact, Ben Zoma was one of the four who entered into the "garden" of esoteric knowledge (see Ben 'Azzai). It was said of him that he beheld the secrets of the garden and "was struck" with mental aberration (Ḥag. 14b). The disciples of Akiba applied to the limitless theosophic speculations, for which Ben Zoma had to suffer, the words of Prov. xxv. 16, "Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it" (Tosef., Ḥag. l.c.; Bab. Ḥag. l.c.; compare Midr. Mishle on xxv. 16).
Even the few sentences of Ben Zoma that have come down to us show the depth of his thoughts; as, for instance, his reflections on seeing large crowds of people (Tosef., Ber. vii. [vi.] 2; Ber. 58a):
"Ben Zoma, seeing the crowds on the Temple mount, said, 'Blessed be He who created all these to attend to my needs. How much had Adam to weary himself with! Not a mouthful could he taste before he plowed and sowed, and cut and bound sheaves, and threshed and winnowed and sifted the grain, and ground and sifted the flour, and kneaded and baked, and then he ate; but I get up in the morning and find all this ready before me. How much had Adam to weary himself with! Not a shirt could he put on before he sheared and washed the wool, and hatcheled and dyed and spun and wove and sewed, and then he clothed himself; but I rise in the morning and find all this ready before me. How many trades are anxiously busy early in the morning; and I rise and find all these things before me!'"
Also his reflections on man as the guest of God in this world (ib.):
"A grateful guest says, 'That host be remembered for good! How many wines he brought up before me; how many portions he placed before me; how many cakes he offered me! All that he did, he did for my sake.' But the ill-willed guest says, 'What did I eat of his? A piece of bread, a bite of meat. What did I drink? A cup of wine. Whatever he did, he did for the sake of his wife and his children.' Thus the Scripture says [Job xxxvi. 24], 'Remember that thou magnify His work, whereof men have sung.'"
Again, take his fourfold motto (Ab. iv. 1) on the truly wise, the truly rich, the truly powerful, and the truly esteemed. In the closing words of Ecclesiastes, "for this is the whole man," he finds the thought expressed, that the pious man is the crown and end of mankind; the whole race ("the whole world") was created only to be of service to him who fears God and respects His commandments (Ber. 6b; Shab. 30b; see 'Aruk, s.v. , 5). Ben Zoma is also the originator of the beautiful sentence, "Hast thou, in repentance, been ashamed in this world, thou wilt not need to be ashamed before God in the next" (Ex. R. xxx. 19).
- Bacher, Agada der Tannaiten, i. 429;
- Frankel, Darke ha-Mishnah, pp. 134-136;
- Graetz, History of the Jews, ii. 358, 381;
- Weiss, Dor, ii. 126;
- Braunschweiger, Lehrer der Mischnah, pp. 257-259.