It may seem surprising that the Talmud quotes a sage named Rabbi Ishmael. Biblically, Ishmael the son of Abraham and Hagar, is portrayed as a wild trouble-maker sent away from Abraham’s home. But the Midrash maintains that the biblical Ishmael eventually did teshuva (repented) and returned and followed Abraham’s ways.
Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha lived a few decades after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), during a peak era of Roman persecution of the Jewish people for having rebelled. In fact, as a boy, Rabbi Ishmael was taken to Rome as a captive. Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania heard about him and called to the boy from in front of the jail: “Who delivered Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers” (Isaiah 42:24). Ishmael called back the second half of the verse: “Was it not God, He against Whom we have sinned.” Rabbi Joshua paid a sizable ransom for the boy and then raised him to become a great scholar (Gittin 58a).
Rabbi Ishmael is noted for the exceptional lengths he went to help others, especially girls having trouble finding proper mates. His scholarship touched all topics, and his knowledge astounded even his peers. He is best known, however, for his 13 hermeneutic rules for deriving halacha from the Torah–a system that is still in use today.
The death of Rabbi Ishmael is included in Ayleh Ezkerah,* (“These I Will Remember”) the liturgical poem read on Yom Kippur, which describes the horrible deaths of ten martyred sages, including Rabbi Akiva. While Rabbi Ishmael weeps over the death of Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel, the emperor’s daughter covets Rabbi Ishmael’s physical beauty. She begs her father to spare Rabbi Ishmael’s life, but, when her request is rejected, she requests that Rabbi Ishmael’s flesh be removed from his face in order to preserve his beauty.
*The historical accuracy of this document is subject to debate.
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