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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [1]

Rabbi (surnamed "illuminator," i.e. the enlightener, from the estimate which his contemporaries had formed of his merit), lived about 120. He was a native of Asia Minor. Legend traces his origin to the emperor Nero. He was a disciple of the famous rabbi Akiba (q.v.), and was very intimate with Elisa ben Abua, who, after his apostasy and subserviency to the Romans, was called Acher, i.e. the other one. Meir's talents early procured him ordination from his teacher Akiba. As an instructor, he was remarkable for a thorough and effective investigation of his subject. The rabbins used to say, in their Oriental manner, that he dealt with difficulties of the law as a giant would uproot the mountains, and shatter them against each other. So replete was he with knowledge, and so successful in the communication of it, that "were a man even to touch the staff of rabbi Meir, he would become wise." His wife was Beruria, the talented and accomplished daughter of Chananja ben-Teradion, who was burned, wrapped-in the roll which he had been discovered studying, during the persecution under Hadrian. Meir supported himself by making copies of the Scriptures. This occupation required not only considerable learning, but especially scrupulous exactness, a quality for which Meir was not particularly distinguished. His teacher, the conscientious Ishmael, anxiously set these things before him, representing the danger which must result from any neglect on his part. But Meir, who felt no peculiar scruples, and was vain of his excellent memory, which on one occasion had enabled him to copy the whole book of Esther, set these prudent counsels aside. It was the. practice of Jewish copyists to use an ink which, in case of any mistake, could easily be obliterated. On the other hand, Meir, confident of his accuracy, used an indelible ink prepared from sulphate of copper (Chalcanthon). Referring to this, he replied to Ishmael's admonitions in his usual off-hand manner, " Oh, I have a remedy at hand against all mistakes: I use sulphate of copper." As has already been -said, his talents had procured him ordination from Akiba. The youthful appearance of the rabbi excited the jealousy of some, whom he reminded that, as it was not the vessel but its contents which were precious, it might happen that, while a new vessel contained old, an old-looking vessel might only enclose new wine. Meir was very fond of illustrating his doctrine by apologue and parable, and is reported to have invented no less than three hundred fables about foxes (Sanh. 38, b; Sota, 49, a). The. only lasting merit of rabbi Meir was his continuation of the labors of Akiba in the arrangement of the Ilalacha. This he carried a stage further, by dividing, according to their contents, the traditions which had hitherto been only strung together according to their number. In this respect Jehuda Hakkodesh, the compiler of the Mishna, was much indebted to his tuition.

The domestic history of Meir is in many respects touching. "It has already been stated that our rabbi was married to Beruria, so famed for her talents and rabbinical lore; as, in the opinion of contemporaries, to occupy a high place among the sages of the time. Her sister had, after the martyrdom of their parents, been carried to Rome for the purpose of public prostitution. But there Providence had watched over her honor. When the persecutions ceased, Beruria found no rest till Meir went to Rome to rescue his sister- in-law from. infamy. Before entering on the dangerous undertaking, he resolved to try whether her principles had remained unshaken. Disguising himself as a Roman, he approached her, and, having satisfactorily ascertained her steadfastness, he bribed the attendants and procured her escape, though in the attempt he himself escaped capture only by disguise and feigning to :eat forbidden meat... Beruria, throughout all these trials, proved herself not only an attached, but a devoted wife. She had shared his trials when, during the persecutions, Meir had fled from Palestine. On his return she cheered and encouraged. him, and by her conduct softened the domestic afflictions,with which he was visited. For example, while on a certain Sabbath the rabbi was engaged in the college, his two sons were suddenly taken ill and died. To spare her husband some hours of grief, and' especially not to commute the festivities of the Sabbath into a season of mourning, the mother carefully repressed her own feelings and concealed the sad tidings. The Sabbath had been spent as usual, and its holy exercises and stillness were ended with the evening, when Beruria asked her husband whether it were not duty readily and: cheerfully to restore to its owner any property, however pleasant, which had been intrusted for safe-keeping. When the astonished rabbi answered the strange inquiry in the affirmative, his weeping wife took him by the hand, and led him to the bed on which the lifeless remains of their two children were stretched, reminding him that he whose two children these right fully were had taken back what for a time he had in trusted to their keeping." Unfortunately Beruria afterwards compromised her character and committed suicide. Her death appears to have unsettled Meir's tranquillity. He left Palestine and resided some time in Babylonia, whence he returned to his colleagues with another and less learned bride.

Meir, besides cultivating intercourse with the most noted theologians of his own time, was also on friendly and even intimate terms with heathen sages, especially with Naumenius the philosopher, of Apamea, in Svria. The principles of this philosopher were essentially those of Neo-Platonism, in the peculiar modification of that philosophy which the influx of Eastern elements had brought about. The most noted, if not the most sophistical, among Meir's numerous pupils, was Symmachus, of Samaritan origin, known as a translator of the Bible into Greek. He had attended Meir's prelections, and thoroughly imbibed his method. It is said that this dialectician on one occasion undertook by forty-nine arguments to prove that the touch of a certain dead reptile could not defile a person. It was opprobriously said of Symmachus by his contemporaries that his ancestors could not have heard the law on Mount Sinai. Svmmachus afterwards joined the Christian sect of the Ebionites. His translation of the Bible is stated to have been more free from errors and more faithful than that of Aquila. According to Grttz, this Symmachus is not the translator of the Bible.

Meir had frequently changed his residence. When the Sanhedrim was restituted under Simeon (q.v.), he returned to the Holy Land, and was elected vicar of the rabbinical see; but his continual disagreements with the Nasi induced him at last to leave Palestine for Asia Minor, where he died, bequeathing to his countrymen the following proud and characteristic message: "Tell the children of the Holy Land that their Messiah has died in a strange country." According to his expressed wish, the tabernacle of his unquiet spirit found its last resting-place by the- sea-shore, where his grave was washed by the waves, and looked out upon the wide, storm-tossed ocean. See Etheridge, Intr. to Hebr. Literature, p. 79 sq.; Griitz, Gesch. d. Juden, 4:188-196, 468-470; Edersheim, Hist. of the Jewish Nation (Edinburgh, 1857), p. 251-259. (B. P.)