MEÏR (MEÏR BA'AL HA-NES = "Meïr the miracle-worker"):

Ordained in Youth.

Tanna of the second century (fourth generation); born in Asia Minor. The origin of this remarkable scholar, one of the most striking figures of his age, is wrapped in obscurity. According to a haggadah, he was a descendant of Nero, who, says a Jewish legend, escaped death at the time of his deposition and became subsequently a convert to Judaism (Giṭ. 56a). The mystery of Meïr's origin extends to his name, for according to the Talmud the name "Meïr" (="one who enlightens") was given to him because he instructed the wise in the Law ('Er. 13b); as to his original name, the Babylonian Talmud (l.c.) gives it as "Me'asha," but the Jerusalem Talmud seems not to know it. Sometimes he is called "Nehorai," the Aramaic equivalent of "Meïr." Meïr began to study very early in life. At first he entered the school of Akiba, but, finding himself not sufficiently prepared to grasp the lectures of that great master, he went to the school of Ishmael, where he acquired an extensive knowledge of the Law. He then returned to Akiba, who, recognizing his dialectical powers, ordained him over the heads of his other disciples ('Er. l.c.). This ordination, which was considered invalid on account of Meïr's youth, was confirmed by Judah ben Baba (Sanh. 14a; see Rashi ad loc.).

Unlike his master Akiba, Meïr seems to have kept aloof from the revolutionary movement of Bar Kokba. Nevertheless he suffered greatly from its consequences. His father-in-law, Hananiah ben Teradion, fell a martyr to the Hadrianic persecutions, and his sister-in-law was taken to Rome and sold to a keeper of a house of ill fame. A tale of her rescue by Meïr, though embellished with legend, may have a foundation in fact. Urged by his wife to attempt the rescue of her sister, who, she asserted, would rather forfeit her life than her virtue, Meïr journeyed to Rome. Attired as a wealthy Roman, he went to the house to which she had been taken, and asked to see her. "She is very beautiful," said the keeper, "but no man has as yet gained her favor." Overjoyed, Meïr offered him a large sum of money to permit her to be carried off. The keeper hesitated, fearing that it might cost him his head. "Fear not," said the rabbi; "when danger threatens thee say, 'Meïr's God, help me!'" Still the man hesitated. To convince him of the efficacy of his advice, Meïr approached a number of savage watch-dogs at the gate and by a mystic word made them cringe at his feet. His fears allayed, the keeper yielded ('Ab. Zarah 18a; Eccl. R. vii. 12).

At Usha.

During the Hadrianic persecutions Meïr lived abroad, but he returned to Judea after the repeal of the oppressive edicts, and took a prominent part in the reestablishment of the Sanhedrin in the city of Usha. Shortly afterward Simeon ben Gamaliel II. was elected patriarch, and Meïr was raised to the dignity of ḥakam, in which office he was charged with the duty of preparing the subjects to be discussed in the Sanhedrin. To his activity and influence was due the adoption of the laws known as the "Institutions of Usha." To his duties in connection with the Sanhedrin Meïr added the establishment of academies of his own in Bethsan, Ammaus near Tiberias, etc., where he successively lived and lectured. A wonderful feat of memory displayed by him on one of his travels is mentioned in the Talmud. On the eve of the Feast of Purim, Meïr found himself in a small Jewish community where no copy of the Book of Esther could be found; he thereupon wrote out the book from memory without a mistake (Tosef., Megillah, ii.).

Synagogue at the Alleged Tomb of Rabbi Meïr at Tiberias.(From a photograph.)

Meïr infused new life into the development of the Halakah. He introduced the rule of testing the validity of a halakah on rational grounds. The dialectical power displayed by him in halakic discussion was so great that most of his hearers followed him with difficulty. "He was able," says the Talmud, "to give a hundred and fifty reasons to prove a thing legally clean, and as many more reasons to prove it unclean" ('Er. 13b). This excess of dialectics is given in the Talmud as the only reason why his halakot did not receive the force of law; the pros and cons offered by him were so nearly equal in strength that one never knew his real opinion on a subject. In the deduction of new halakot from the Biblical text Meïr used with great caution the hermeneutic rules established by his teacher Ishmael, regarding them as unreliable; and he rejected Akiba'smethod of deducing a new halakah from a seemingly superfluous particle in the Scriptural text (Soṭah 17a; Sifre, Balaḳ, 131). Meïr's greatest merit in the field of the Halakah was that he continued the labors of Akiba in arranging the rich material of the oral law according to subjects, thus paving the way for the compilation of the Mishnah by Judah ha-Nasi.

His Haggadah.

Meïr's haggadot won by far the greater popularity; in this direction he was among the foremost. Well versed in the Greek and Latin literatures, he would quote in his haggadic lectures fables, parables, and maxims which captivated his hearers. To popularize the Haggadah he wrote haggadic glosses on the margin of his Bible and composed midrashim. Both glosses and midrashim are no longer in existence, but they are quoted in the midrashic literature, the former under the title "Torah shel Rabbi Meïr," or "Sifra shel Rabbi Meïr," and the latter, on the Decalogue, under the title "Midrash Anoki de-Rabbi Meïr" (Gen. R. ix. 5). To Meïr is attributed also a collection of three hundred fables, three of which are referred to in the Talmud (Sanh. 38b; see Æsop's Fables Among the Jews). Among those of Meïr's maxims that have found a place with the traditional sayings of the Fathers are these: "Have little business, and be busied in the Torah"; "Be lowly in spirit to every man"; "If thou idlest from the Torah, thou wilt have many idlers against thee"; "If thou laborest in the Torah, He hath much to give unto thee" (Ab. iv. 14). Other maxims of his, on study and the fear of the Lord, have been transmitted by Johanan: "Learn the ways of the Lord with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul"; "Watch at the gates of the Law"; "Keep the Law in thy heart"; "Let the fear of the Lord be always before thine eyes and keep thy tongue from evil words"; "Cleanse and make thyself pure that thou mayest stand without sin before the Lord, and He will be with thee" (Ber. 17a).

Interior of the Alleged Tomb of Rabbi Meïr at Tiberias.(From a photograph by Elkan N. Adler, London.)Hatred of Ignorance.

An instance of Meïr's humility and love of peace is related in the Midrash. Among his hearers was a woman who never missed a lecture of his. Once, the discourse being more prolonged than usual, the woman returned home late in the evening. This infuriated her husband, who turned her out-of-doors and swore that he would not take her in until she had spat in Meïr's face. Refusing to do this, she lived separated from her husband. When Meïr was informed of the incident he went to the woman and, pretending to have a sore eye, requested her tospit in it to heal it (Lev. R., Deut. R.). Meïr was noted for his hatred of ignorance. "He that gives his daughter to an 'am ha-areẓ is as though he put her before a lion" (Pes. 56a). "He who leaves an 'am ha-areẓ in his house asleep and returns to find him awake may be sure the house has been polluted" (Ṭoh. 8a). Still he would rise before an old man, even if he were an 'am ha-areẓ (Yer. Bik. 65c).

Maxims and Views.

Meïr's experience of the world was wide and varied, and the Haggadah records several of his social maxims: "Love the friend who admonishes thee and hate the one who flatters thee; for the former leads thee to life and the future world, while the latter puts thee out of the world." "Conciliate not thy friend in the hour of his passion; console him not when his dead is laid out before him; question him not in the hour of his vow; and strive to see him not in the hour of his disgrace" (Ab. R. N. xxix.; comp. ib. xxxvi. and Ab. iv. 18, where these maxims are given in the name of Simeon ben Eliezer). Meïr was fond of discoursing upon traveling. "When thou art in Rome do as the Romans do" (Gen. R. xlviii.). "Travelers should go in threes, for a single traveler is likely to be murdered; two are likely to quarrel; but three will always make their way in peace" (Eccl. R. iv.). Meïr exalts work and recommends parents to instruct their children in a clean trade (Ḳid. 82a). "He who does not work on week-days will end by being compelled to work even on Sabbaths; for idleness leads to misery, and misery to crime; and once a prisoner, the idler will be forced to labor even on the Sabbath" (Ab. R. N. xxi.). "It is not the trade followed but the merit of the workman which makes him rich or poor" (Ḳid. l.c.). Those who run after riches are reproved by Meïr in the following saying: "Man comes into the world with closed hands as though claiming ownership of everything; but he leaves it with hands open and limp, as if to show that he takes nothing with him. Yet if man has sought the best course in life, his reward awaits him beyond the grave; there he finds the table set for a feast of joy that will last through eternity" (Eccl. R. i).

Meïr's generosity and confidence in God are illustrated by the following details of his private life given in the Midrash (Eccl. R. ii. 18). By successfully following the calling of public scribe he earned three shekels a week. Of these two were spent on his household and one was given to poor fellow students. When asked why he did not save something for his children he answered, "If my children are good the Lord will provide for them, for it is said, 'I was young and I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken nor his seed demanding bread' [Ps. xxxvii. 25]. If my children are not good they deserve nothing, and it would be aiding the enemies of the Lord if I left them wealth." With all his piety, Meïr showed a spirit of great tolerance. He declared that a heathen who occupied himself with the Torah was as worthy of Judaism as a high priest, for it is said, "Ye shall therefore keep my statutes . . . which if a man do, he shall live in them" (Lev. xviii. 5). He explained this to mean that eternal happiness was not the heritage of the Jews exclusively (Sifra to Lev. l.c.). Thus Meïr is said to have lived on friendly terms with heathen scholars, with whom he had religious controversies; he was especially intimate with the Greek philosopher Euonymus of Gedara, to whom he paid a visit of condolence on the death of the latter's parents (Gen. R. lxv.; Lam. R., proem, 2).

Relations with Aḥer.

Meïr's tolerance, however, is best shown by his attitude toward the apostate Elisha ben Abuyah (Aḥer), his teacher. Of all Elisha's colleagues he alone, perhaps in the hope of reclaiming him for Judaism, continued to associate with him and discuss with him scientific subjects, not heeding the remonstrances of some pious rabbis who regarded this association with some suspicion. Meïr's attachment for Elisha was so great that on the death of the latter he is said to have spread his mantle over his friend's grave. Thereupon, according to a legend, a pillar of smoke arose from it, and Meïr, paraphrasing Ruth iii. 13, exclaimed, "Rest here in the night; in the dawn of happiness the God of mercy will deliver thee; if not, I will be thy redeemer" (Ḥag. 15b). The same haggadah adds that at the death of Meïr smoke ceased to issue from Elisha's grave. Notwithstanding his tolerance, Meïr's treatment of the Samaritans was very severe; and he enacted several laws that were destined to widen the breach between them and the main body of Judaism (Ḥul. 6a). The Midrash (Gen. R. xv.; Pesiḳ. R. 23) reports several religious controversies between Meïr and Samaritan scholars concerning creation, resurrection, and similar subjects.

The later part of Meïr's life was saddened by many misfortunes. In one day he lost two promising sons, who died suddenly on a Sabbath while he was at the house of study. A story is related in a midrash (quoted in Yalḳ., Prov. 964) of the fortitude shown on that occasion by Meïr's learned wife, Beruriah. Controlling her feelings, she withheld the knowledge of their death from her husband during the Sabbath in order that the day should not be profaned by weeping and lamentation, and on the conclusion of the Sabbath sought to console her husband with a parable. Shortly after the death of his sons Meïr lost his wife. According to a legend, she committed suicide after having been dishonored by one of her husband's pupils (Rashi to 'Ab. Zarah 18a).

Opposes the Patriarch.

The last years of Meïr's life were passed in Asia Minor. He was induced to leave Palestine because of the conflict that arose between him and the patriarch. The origin of this conflict was the change introduced by Simeon in the ceremonial of the Sanhedrin. Custom required its members to rise when the president, the judge, or the reader entered the academy. Simeon, having an exaggerated idea of his dignity, issued an order that the assembly should rise as a body only on his own entrance, while on the entrance of the judge only the first row, and on that of the reader only the second row, should rise. Meïr and Nathan (the judge) felt justly offended at this new arrangement and determined to show Simeon's unfitness for his office by puzzling him with difficult halakic questions which he would be unable to answer. Informed of this conspiracy,Simeon expelled them from the Sanhedrin, but he could not prevent them from writing difficult questions and distributing them among its members. Compelled to readmit both Nathan and Meïr, he contrived that their names should not be recorded in the ordinances enacted by him. Nathan submitted, but Meïr continued to embarrass the patriarch by addressing to him difficult questions. When, at last, the patriarch threatened excommunication, he answered, "I do not care for your sentence unless you can prove to me on whom, on what grounds, and under what conditions excommunication may be imposed," and left the Sanhedrin (Yer. M. Ḳ. iii. 81a).

Meïr died somewhere in Asia Minor. "Bury me," said he to his pupils, "by the shore, that the sea which washes the land of my fathers may touch also my bones" (Yer. Kil., end). Though during life Meïr had many adversaries, after his death the tribute paid to his virtue and greatness was universal. "He opened the eyes even of the wise in the Law" is said of him in the Talmud ('Er. 13b). An amora said: "The Creator of the world knows that Meïr had not his equal in his time" (ib.). R. Jose, in pronouncing Meïr's funeral sermon at Sepphoris said: "He was a great man and a saint, and was humble withal" (Yer. Bet. ii. 56b). Of all the Tannaim, Meïr's name is most widely known among the people. In the house of every pious Jew there is a money-box hung on the wall in which the inmates deposit their alms for the poor of Palestine; this box is called "Meïr Ba'al ha-Nes Pushke."

  • Heilprin, Seder ha-Dorot, vol. i.:
  • Blumenthal, Rabbi Meïr, Leben und Wirken, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1888;
  • Revson, Toledot Rabbi Meïr, Warsaw, 1889;
  • Meïr Bat 'Ayin, Tunis, 1899;
  • Landsberg, in Ha-Ẓofeh, i. 87;
  • Grätz, Gesch. iv. 430;
  • Weiss, Dor, ii. 132;
  • Bacher, Ag. Tan. ii. 2 et seq.;
  • Braunschweiger, Die Lehrer der Mishnah, pp. 186 et seq., Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1903.
J. I. Br.