World of the Sages: The flight of the sacred letters

On Tisha Be'av, we commemorate, recall and recount the tragedies that have befallen our people over the generations.

tisha beav 88 (photo credit: )
tisha beav 88
(photo credit: )
On Tisha Be'av, we commemorate, recall and recount the tragedies that have befallen our people over the generations. The Tisha Be'av liturgy is filled with pages of our history, each passage mourning a different calamity that we have endured. Among the emotional climaxes of the Lamentations recited on this day is the story of the 10 martyred sages. The Talmud relates the tale of the execution of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon, one of the sages persecuted in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple when the Roman Emperor Hadrian outlawed Torah study (B. Avoda Zara 17b, 18a). In open defiance of the Roman edict, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon publicly taught Torah. This was no clandestine operation; it was a bold display of disdain for the Roman prohibition, as Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon sat with a Torah in his hands and instructed all those who wished to study. Sure enough, the Romans caught him: "Why have you rebelliously busied yourself with Torah?" Brashly, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon responded by quoting a few biblical words: "As God, my Lord, has commanded me" (Deuteronomy 4:5). Faced with such insolence, the Romans immediately sentenced him to be burned. The venerable sage was wrapped in a Torah scroll - perhaps the very scroll that he had held in open violation of the Roman edict - and surrounded with bundles of vine branches. Lighting the pyre was not enough for the Romans; the sage's demise was to be slow and painful: Clumps of wool were brought, soaked in water and placed over the heart of Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon. Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon's daughter - herself sentenced by the Romans to a life of disrepute - cried: "Father, must I see you thus?" With tremendous courage, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon calmed his daughter: "If I alone was being burned it would be difficult for me. Now that I am being burned and the Torah scroll is with me - He who will seek a reckoning for the insult to the Torah scroll will seek a reckoning for my insult." As their teacher was nearing his end, the students sought to garner a final lesson: "Master, what do you see?" As the flames scorched his body, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon shared a lasting image: "The parchment is burning, but the letters are taking flight!" Seeing their master's pain, the disciples urged: "You too - like the Torah whose physical shell is being destroyed - open your mouth and the fire will enter you, and your soul will ascend with the letters." But the sage understood that the ordeal was not over: "It is better that He who gave the soul should take it back, rather than a person inflicts harm on himself." The Roman executioner, seeing Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon's bravery and perceiving his pain, turned to the sage: "My master, if I increase the flame and remove the clumps of wet wool from over your heart in order to end your suffering, will you bring me to the life of the world-to-come?" "Yes." "Swear to me." The sage complied and the executioner immediately increased the fire and Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon's soul departed. Without waiting, the executioner jumped into the flames and a Heavenly voice resounded: "Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon and the executioner are prepared for the world-to-come." One commentator explains that Rome's eventual downfall was pronounced in connection with this tragic chapter (Tosafot, 12th-14th centuries, France-Germany). What aspect of this episode precipitated the fall of Rome? Perhaps the horrible death of a scholar, whose only crime was his fidelity to the preservation and promulgation of the Tradition, provided grounds for the demise of the Roman Empire. Alternatively, the fall of Rome was foretold not by the death of the sage but by his fortitude in life. Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon was unwilling to cower before the Roman edicts. Boldly he continued disseminating Torah, flouting the dangers and discounting collegial advice. This spiritual resistance heralded an eventual defeat of the mighty Roman Empire. A third suggestion might focus on those final moments, as the fires licked their prey and Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon's end was nigh. Rome's ruin was foreseen in the vision of those magical letters taking flight as their physical abode succumbed to the flames. What is the meaning of this engaging image of holy letters taking flight? Indeed, the Romans could burn our sages; yes, they could even reduce our cherished texts to ashes. All those present - Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon, his students and even the Romans - witnessed the razing of what is sacred to our people. Yet they may have missed the holy letters floating in the air, uncharred and out of the reach of those who would have our Tradition gutted. Why was the vision of our eternal tradition expressed in those blossoming letters and why was Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon the vehicle for this message? The Talmud asks: What had the sage transgressed such that he warranted death by burning? He would pronounce the name of God according to its letters. The passage exonerates him of this heinous crime, explaining that he did not wantonly utter the name, rather he said it for pedagogic purposes. Nevertheless, the sanctity of the letters was a lesson that Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon did not internalize until his final breaths. Perhaps there was even more to the sage's vision. As the flames engulfed his body, Rabbi Hanina ben Tradyon saw the letters porhot, a Hebrew term that also evokes blossoming, blooming, flowering and flourishing. While the parchment burned, the letters of our Tradition had already taken flight, like a seed box carrying the kernel that will grow into a new tree. This is the eternal charm of the letters of our Heritage: Out of the ashes they rise; and borne by the winds of history, they are supplanted in new fertile ground where they can once again take root and thrive. The eventual victory of our people was foretold by the blossoming letters as they took flight carrying the hope of the rebuilding of our people. The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.