In today’s daf (Shabbat 155b) we are told that Rabbi Yona shared a biblical exposition at the entrance of the house of the Nasi.
Basing himself on the words of Mishlei 29:7 stating that ‘the righteous one knows the status of the poor’, Rabbi Yona interpreted the phrase ‘the righteous one’ to refer to God and then taught how ‘the Holy One, Blessed be He, knows that a (stray) dog’s food is scarce – which is why [God decreed] that the food [consumed by a dog] should remain in its stomach for three days.’
Reading this teaching on a basic level, it seems that Rabbi Yona sought to impress his listeners about the great wonders of creation. However, what isn’t so clear is why this teaching would have been shared by Rabbi Yona at the entrance of the house of the Nasi – and I believe that a closer look at where and when Rabbi Yona lived can provide us with a much better understanding of the purpose of his teaching.
Rabbi Yona was an Israel-based Amora who headed the Torah academy in Tiberias and who was particularly active between 320-350ce. Significantly, it was in 312ce when Constantine converted to Christianity, and it was in 325ce when the council of Nicea severed all ties between Christians and Jews. As numerous scholars have explained, all these changes led to a significant decline in the power of the Nasi.
Admittedly, it is not exactly clear when Rabbi Yona shared his biblical exposition, but it could well have been just prior to the attempted revolt to overthrow the Romans in 351 which seem to have been preceded by rumours spread by a Jewish convert to Christianity called Joseph of Tiberias who, it should be noted, was considered to be one of scholars of the court of the Nasi.
Rabbi Yona was clearly aware and concerned by this tense situation, but notwithstanding these challenges, it seems clear from all the teachings we have in his name that he continued to feel a deep sense of responsibility towards the physical and spiritual needs of his community.
Having explained all this, we can now return to the teaching of Rabbi Yona and offer a further explanation of the Gemara as suggested by Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (Hida) in his Petach Einayim.
According to the Hida, Rabbi Yona went to the entrance of the house of the Nasi in order to protest, and while, during his speech, he explicitly shared the teaching about how God shows mercy even towards stray dogs so they don’t go hungry notwithstanding scarce resources, his message to the Nasi was that it was his responsibility – as the political representative of the people – to use the remaining power he had to help and protect all those in need under his rule.
Interestingly, our Gemara does not directly tell us how the Nasi responded to this protest, but it would seem that the Nasi did not appreciate Rabbi Yona’s intervention. In fact, we are told in Ta’anit 23b that after Rabbi Yona’s death, Rabbi Mani – who was the son of Rabbi Yona – was aggressively harassed by members of the Nasi’s house. To this, Rabbi Mani went to pray at the grave of his father and when – soon after – some of the members of the Nasi’s house passed near Rabbi Yona’s grave on horseback, the legs of the horses seized up – which they took as a clear sign not to harass Rabbi Mani any longer.
Clearly there are many lessons we can draw from this Gemara and from this explanation. But for me, the core lesson that I draw from all this is that no matter what is going on in the world – whether it be political unrest or even a pandemic – we need to do all we can to help and protect all those in need; we need to emulate God and ‘know the status of the poor’ and help them, and that even those who don’t have power need to use their voice to speak up and protest for the most vulnerable in our society.