רַבָּן יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי קִבֵּל מֵהִלֵּל וּמִשַּׁמַּאי. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם לָמַדְתָּ תּוֹרָה הַרְבֵּה, אַל תַּחֲזִיק טוֹבָה לְעַצְמָךְ, כִּי לְכָךְ נוֹצָרְתָּ.
חֲמִשָּׁה תַלְמִידִים הָיוּ לוֹ לְרַבָּן יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן, רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן הֻרְקְנוֹס, וְרַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן חֲנַנְיָה, וְרַבִּי יוֹסֵי הַכֹּהֵן, וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן נְתַנְאֵל, וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ.
הוּא הָיָה מוֹנֶה שְׁבָחָן. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן הֻרְקְנוֹס, בּוֹר סוּד שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְאַבֵּד טִפָּה. רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן חֲנַנְיָה, אַשְׁרֵי יוֹלַדְתּוֹ. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי הַכֹּהֵן, חָסִיד. רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן נְתַנְאֵל, יְרֵא חֵטְא. וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ, מַעְיָן הַמִּתְגַּבֵּר.
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם יִהְיוּ כָל חַכְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכַף מֹאזְנַיִם, וֶאֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן הֻרְקְנוֹס בְּכַף שְׁנִיָּה, מַכְרִיעַ אֶת כֻּלָּם.
אַבָּא שָׁאוּל אוֹמֵר מִשְּׁמוֹ, אִם יִהְיוּ כָל חַכְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכַף מֹאזְנַיִם וְרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן הֻרְקְנוֹס אַף עִמָּהֶם, וְרַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲרָךְ בְּכַף שְׁנִיָּה, מַכְרִיעַ אֶת כֻּלָּם:
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received [the tradition] from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say, “If you have learned much Torah, do not take the credit, for this is why you were created.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai had five disciples. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, Rabbi Yose HaKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh.
He used to recount their praises: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos is a well-sealed cistern that does not lose a drop; Rabbi Yehoshua - happy is she who gave birth to him; Rabbi Yose is a pious man; Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel fears sin; Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh is an overflowing spring.”
He used to say, “If all the Sages of Israel were on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos were on the other, he would outweigh them all.”
Abba Shaul said in his name, “If all the Sages of Israel, including Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, were on one side of a scale and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh were on the other, [Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh] would outweigh them all.”
Digest of Commentaries:
The Talmud states, “Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples. Thirty of them deserved that the Divine Presence should rest upon them as it rested upon Moses. Thirty of them merited that the sun should stand still for them as it did for Joshua bin Nun. The remaining twenty were in between these two levels. The greatest of them all was Yonatan ben Uziel and the least of them was Yochanan ben Zakkai.
"It was said of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai that from his studies he did not omit anything of Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, halakhah and aggadot, nor the subtleties of biblical and rabbinical exegesis, logical deductions (kal ve-chomer), inferences from parallel expressions (gezerot shavot), calendrical calculations (tekufot), and interpretations based on the numerical value of Hebrew letters (gematriyot). He knew the speech of ministering angels, the speech of demons, the speech of palm trees, washers’ parables, foxes' fables, and great and small matters alike. ‘Great matters’ denotes the mysteries of the Divine Chariot [i.e., the mystical secrets], while 'small matters' denotes the questions of Abaye and Rava [i.e., the debates of later Talmudic authorities]” (Sukkah 28a).
He used to say, "If you have learned much Torah, do not take the credit, for this is why you were created.” Since every Jew is duty bound to study the Torah, it cannot be considered an act of special merit. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was well-qualified to make this declaration, for there was no area of Torah that he had not mastered (Rashi). Alternately, Midrash Shmuel renders this: "Do not keep a good thing to yourself." Share your Torah knowledge with others.
He used to recount their praises. Each of these disciples possessed a quality in which he surpassed the rest. As their teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai did not push them all in a single direction. Instead, he appreciated their uniqueness and endeavored to give each the opportunity to develop his own potential (Likutey Sichot).
He used to say, “If all the Sages of Israel were on one side of a scale and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos were on the other, he would outweigh them all.” As the Talmud states, “Everyone needs the wheat owner [i.e., the one who possesses knowledge in all areas of Torah]” (Berakhot 64a).
Abba Shaul said in his name, "If all the Sages of Israel, including Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkenos, were on one side of a scale and Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh were on the other, [Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh] would outweigh them all.” Abba Shaul does not dispute the previous statement, for both were made by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. Rather, he points out that each Sage demonstrated superiority in a different sense. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkenos was superior in his ability to correctly retain teachings, whereas Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh was superior in his creativity and insight (Bartenura).
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received [the tradition] from Hillel and Shammai
Reb Noson: After the Holy Temple was destroyed, God’s glory departed, the Holy of Holies was in ruins, the Ark of the Covenant was hidden, and Divine knowledge became eclipsed—to the point that all hope seemed lost and it became impossible to illuminate the world with true wisdom. However, God did not spurn our efforts to serve Him. He sent us true tzaddikim in every generation who performed awesome tikkunim to restore the holy light that had been lost, even in the midst of exile and devastation.
During the very hour of destruction, He sent us the holy Tanna, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who was one of those who had received the entire Torah. The entire Torah of Moses was transmitted to us in that generation through him, as Pirkey Avot attests in enumerating all those who transmitted the Torah until "Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai received [the tradition] from Hillel and Shammai."
When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai beheld the extent of the destruction and the ensuing darkness after the Holy Temple was lost, he took it upon himself to rectify the situation. Therefore he decreed that during all seven days of the Sukkot festival, the rite of the lulav[i] – which formerly had been restricted to the Temple grounds – should be performed everywhere in commemoration of the Holy Temple (Sukkah 41a). In this way it would be possible to draw down an illumination of Divine wisdom to those who were most distant from holiness in every land in the world.
Thus destruction and exile are transformed into good by the power of our righteous leaders, exemplified by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. As an extension of Moses, he was the true tzaddik (tzaddik emet) of his day. He accomplished wondrous tikkunim by increasing the number of holy books in order to complete the revelation of the Torah, making it possible in every land for one person to impart holy wisdom to his fellows, until the spirit of enlightenment would fill the world.
This is the meaning of performing the rite of the lulav all seven days of the Sukkot festival. Now that the Holy Temple no longer stands, this task is incumbent upon Jews living in every remote corner of our exile. In this way we continue to transmit the knowledge of God even to those who are most estranged from Him (Likutey Halakhot, Pikadon 5:42, abridged).
Happy is she who gave birth to him
Reb Noson: I once heard from Rebbe Nachman that when a student of Torah formulates original Torah ideas, it is extremely beneficial to his father and mother[ii] (Tzaddik #569; Likutey Moharan II, 105).
It was Rebbe Nachman’s custom to spend the night of the Pesach Seder just with his wife and family.
During the first year when Reb Noson became his follower, Rebbe Nachman spent Pesach in Medvedevka, having just celebrated there the marriage of his daughter, Sarah. Because of the distance, Reb Noson could not return home in time and therefore spent Pesach near the Rebbe.
After the evening prayers in Rebbe Nachman’s lodgings, everyone went home except for Reb Noson, who was still reciting the Hallel prayer. As Rebbe Nachman sat down to the Seder with his family, he heard Reb Noson’s intensive and joyous prayers in an adjoining room and said of him, “Happy is she who gave birth to him!” (Aveneha Barzel, p. 16, #13).
If all the Sages of Israel were on one side of a scale … he would outweigh them all
Rebbe Nachman: The verse which describes Moses as “exceedingly humble, above all men on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3) is problematic to me. How could this be? How could he be more humble in comparison to his disciples?
The only way to explain this is as follows: Moses was “humble, above all men” in the sense that he possessed the trait of humility of all humankind. That is, he embodied their essential humility. As far as he was concerned, all men were all in the category of humility, which is absolute nothingness [before God]. But he considered himself to be even more “nothing”! (Tzaddik #269, abridged).
Rabbi Nachman Goldstein: My own understanding of what the Rebbe meant is that Moses had attained such heights in his perception of the greatness of the Creator that he saw the devotions and service of human beings as being "nothing" in relation to the greatness of God. He himself was the leader and teacher of all Israel, because he had attained more than anyone. Nevertheless, he held himself to be nothing – more so than anyone else. Precisely because his perception was so exalted did he perceive all the more profoundly how all his service and devotions were of no importance whatsoever in relation to the greatness of God (Tzaddik, ad loc.).
[i] This refers to the ritual of na'anuim (the "waving" of the Four Species). A palm branch (lulav), myrtle branches (hadasim), willow branches (aravot) and a citron (etrog) are held together, close to the heart, and then shaken in six directions while verses of praise and thanksgiving to God are recited.
[ii] This refers to the souls of one’s deceased parents, as stated in Tzaddik #521. Similarly, our Sages tell the story of a suffering soul that was elevated to the heights of Heaven when Rabbi Akiva taught the son of the deceased to pray and study the Torah; see Kallah Rabbati, 2; Zohar Chadash, 60a-b; also Likutey Halakhot, Chadash 3:13.