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A thought on Sanhedrin 98b


Am Yisrael Chai
Staff member
Premium Member
Judaism DIR

Sanhedrin 98b is loved by a great many modern Messianic missionaries (alliteration is awesome) for reasons all too well-known to the members of this DIR, so no reason to get into all that stuff. Setting aside their interpretations which are meaningless to those of this DIR, a thought occurred to me earlier this day, which I wanted to share.

In the now-infamous passage, it says:

"מה שמו דבי רבי שילא אמרי שילה שמו שנאמר (בראשית מט, י) עד כי יבא שילה דבי רבי ינאי אמרי ינון שמו שנאמר (תהלים עב, יז) יהי שמו לעולם לפני שמש ינון שמו דבי רבי חנינה אמר חנינה שמו שנאמר (ירמיהו טז, יג) אשר לא אתן לכם חנינה ויש אומרים מנחם בן חזקיה שמו שנאמר (איכה א, טז) כי רחק ממני מנחם משיב נפשי ורבנן אמרי חיוורא דבי רבי שמו שנאמר (ישעיהו נג, ד) אכן חליינו הוא נשא ומכאובינו סבלם ואנחנו חשבנוהו נגוע מוכה אלהים ומעונה"​

Apropos the Messiah, the Gemara asks: What is his name? The school of Rabbi Sheila says: Shiloh is his name, as it is stated: “Until when Shiloh shall come” (Genesis 49:10). The school of Rabbi Yannai says: Yinnon is his name, as it is stated: “May his name endure forever; may his name continue [yinnon] as long as the sun; and may men bless themselves by him” (Psalms 72:17). The school of Rabbi Ḥanina says: Ḥanina is his name, as it is stated: “For I will show you no favor [ḥanina]” (Jeremiah 16:13). And some say that Menaḥem ben Ḥizkiyya is his name, as it is stated: “Because the comforter [menaḥem] that should relieve my soul is far from me” (Lamentations 1:16). And the Rabbis say: The leper of the house of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is his name, as it is stated: “Indeed our illnesses he did bear and our pains he endured; yet we did esteem him injured, stricken by God, and afflicted” (Isaiah 53:4).​

Recently I came upon two very fascinating interpretations of the last two drashes, "Menachem ben Chizkiyah" and "The Leper of the House of Rebbi (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi)" which I believe cast a new light on this portion, and I think I have evidence now that this may also have been the understanding that the sages were aiming for.

The Leper of the House of Rebbi:

Sophiee Saguy in her blog Jesus Is Not 4 Jews wrote:

"This small portion of the passage mentions the "leper scholar" (the word was not really leprosy -- it related to many skin diseases not just what modern people think of as leprosy). The "leper scholar" was a real Jew and he is mentioned a few times in Talmud. Marguliout HaYom a commentary on the Talmud by Rabbi Reuven Margolious (an Israeli Talmudic scholar and head of the Rambam Library at Tel Aviv University) wrote: “Look at the Jerusalem Talmud Tractate Chagigah chapter 2 Halacha 1. There we see that Rabbi had a special תלמיד /talmid / wise student who taught on the ‘Work of the Chariot’, without the approval of Rabbi, and for that he was stricken with leprosy. This talmid who was stricken was called ‘the leper of the house of Rabbi.’ And they said about him, ‘Surely our diseases he did bear’”

The leper scholar mentioned in the Talmud was a real person, a "wise student." In this passage he is the butt of one of the jokes."
The relevant portion in the Yerushalmi reads: "תלמיד וותיק היה לו לרבי ודרש פרק אחד במעשה המרכבה ולא הסכימה דעתו של רבי ולקה בשחין"

Menachem ben Chizkiyah:

I don't have access right now to Margaliyot Hayam, so I don't know what Rabbi Margaliyot wrote about the other names, but yesterday I read something interesting about Menachem ben Chizkiyah in Alter Walner's book "A Nation In Its Struggles":

In Yerushalmi Brachot 17b it says:

"...א"ל בר יודאי בר יודאי קטור תוריך וקטור קנקניך דהא יליד מלכא משיחא א"ל מה שמיה מנחם א"ל ומה שמיה דאבוי א"ל חזקיה א"ל מן הן הוא א"ל מן בירת מלכא דבית לחם יהודה..."​

"...he said to him: Son of Judea, son of Judea, tie up your ox and your plow, for the King Mashiach has been born. He said to him: What's his name? [he answered:] "Menachem". He said to him: And what is his father's name? He said to him: "Chizkiyah". He said to him: And from where is he? He said to him: From the royal town of Beit Lechem of Judea..."
Walner noted that Menachem ben Chizkiyah was a real person. His full name was Menachem ben Yehudah ben Chizkiyah, a third-generation zealot that appears several times in Wars of the Jews by Josephus (only now having checked out his English Wiki entry did I see that this interpretation was also brought there). If I'm not mistaken, he killed the last or one of the last of the High Priests during the Revolt, among other things he did at the time.

To sum up, The Lepper of the House of Rebbi was a student of Rebbi and Menachem ben Chizkiyah was a zealot fighter during the Great Revolt.

So who are the others, Shiloh, Yinon and Chaninah? I believe they are only intended to be plays on the names of the sages that brought those names: [the students of] Rav Shelah - Shiloh, [the students of] Rav Yannai - Yinon and [the students of] Rabbi Chaninah - Chaninah. Shelah might be the Aramaic version of Shiloh and Yannai is Greek, so his Hebrew name might have been Yinon, as the names are similar, both in spelling and phonetically.

So, five names/titles of five real people. What does that tell us?

I think the conversation in the beit midrash that day went like this:

The students of Rav Shelah: "Our rabbi can be the Mashiach, as it says etc!"
The students of Rav Yannai: "Our rabbi can be Mashiach, as it says etc!"
The students of Rabbi Chaninah: "Our rabbi can be Mashiach, as it says etc!"
Other sages: "Heck, even Menachem ben Chizkiyah could be Mashiach, as it says etc!"
Other other sages: "Heck, even the Lepper Student of the House of Rebbi could be Mashiach, as it says etc!"​

Or in other words: Anyone can be Mashiach, everyone has the potential for this, yes, even a wild zealot like Menachem ben Chizkiyah or a down-on-his luck and sickly student like that of Rebbi.

As to why I think this is the intended interpretation of the Talmud, that brings us to the adjacent passage in the Talmud:

"אמר רב נחמן אי מן חייא הוא כגון אנא שנאמר (ירמיהו ל, כא) והיה אדירו ממנו ומושלו מקרבו יצא..."​

"Rav Naḥman says: If the Messiah is among the living in this generation, he is a person such as me, as it is stated: “And their prince shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from their midst” (Jeremiah 30:21)..."​

Rav Nachman tells us explicitly that the Mashiach can be any one of us.

(Note Sefaria's translation has a different interpretation of Rav Nachman's statement, so I edited that out)