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Second Century C.E.

RABBI MEIR BAAL HANEIS (Rabbi Meir, Master of Miracles was one of the greatest sages who lived in the Mishnaic era. The name Meir is actually a sobriquet which means‘Illuminator’ in Hebrew. His real name is thought to have been Nahori, but he was called Meir because he ‘enlightened’ the eyes of scholars in Torah study and to know the light of G-d. The appellation ‘Baal Haneis’ means ‘master of miracles’ which was added due to the wondrous miracles that G-d performs in his great merit.

Jewish tradition reports that Rabbi Meir came from a family of geirim (converts) and that he was a descendant of the Emperor Nero, (37 AD-68 AD), the fifth and last Roman Emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. (His full name was Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus). The historical background is as follows: The Romans first occupied Israel in 63 B.C.E. As time progressed their rule grew more and more onerous. The Roman procurators often imposed confiscatory taxes. Equally infuriating to the Jews, Rome took over the appointment of the High Priest of the Holy Temple. Anti-Roman sentiments were seriously exacerbated during the reign of the half-crazed emperor Caligula, who in the year 39 declared himself to be a deity and ordered his statue to be set up at every temple in the Roman Empire, including the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews refused to defile God's Temple with a statue of pagan Rome's newest deity. Caligula threatened to massacre the Jews and destroy the Temple. His sudden, violent death saved the Jews from wholesale massacre. In the decades after Caligula's death, Jews found their religion subject to gross indignities. Ultimately, the combination of financial exploitation, Rome’s unbridled contempt for Judaism, and the unabashed favoritism that the Romans extended to gentiles living in Israel brought about the revolt. It broke out in the year 66, Florus, the last Roman procurator, stole vast quantities of silver from the Temple. The outraged Jewish masses rioted and wiped out the small Roman garrison stationed in Jerusalem. Cestius Gallus, the Roman ruler in neighboring Syria, sent in a larger force of soldiers. But the Jewish insurgents routed them as well. When the Romans returned, they had 60,000 heavily armed and highly professional troops. They launched their first attack against the Jew's most radicalized area, the Galilee in the north. The Romans vanquished the Galilee, and an estimated 100,000 Jews were killed or sold into slavery. According to the Talmud, Nero wanted to lead his army into battle to destroy Jerusalem. Before embarking on this very risky mission he wished to determine if he would be successful. He therefore shot arrows in all four directions. Miraculously they all fell towards Jerusalem. He took this as a heavenly sign that he would be victorious. As an additional omen he also asked a passing Jewish child to repeat the Scriptural verse he had learned that day. The child quoted a verse in Ezekiel 25-14 "I will take revenge of Edom, through the Jewish people". Nero was terrified. He said to himself, "G-d is using me as His messenger to destroy His House and His nation and He will later avenge Himself in me!" Nero decided to flee to Rome and convert to Judaism to avoid Divine retribution. Rabbi Meir was later born into Nero’s family. Vespasian was placed in charge of the Roman armies at Jerusalem and the scene was now set for the revolt's final catastrophe. Outside Jerusalem, Roman troops prepared to besiege the city; inside the city, the Jews were engaged in a suicidal civil war. In later generations, the rabbis declared that the revolt's failure, and the Temple's destruction, was due not to Roman military superiority but to causeless hatred (sinat chinam) among the Jews (Yoma 9b). Some great figures of ancient Israel opposed the revolt, most notably Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. Since the Zealot leaders in Jerusalem ordered the execution of anyone advocating surrender to Rome, Rabbi Yochanan arranged for his disciples to smuggle him out of Jerusalem, disguised as a corpse. Once safe, he personally surrendered to the Roman general Vespasian, who granted him concessions that allowed Jewish communal life to continue. During the summer of 70 on the 9th of the month of Av (August 29) Jerusalem fell; the Temple was burned, and the Jewish state collapsed, although the fortress of Masada was not conquered by the Roman general Flavius Silva until April 73. It is estimated that as many as one million Jews died in the Great Revolt against Rome. When people today speak of the almost two-thousand-year span of Jewish homelessness and exile, they are dating it from the failure of the revolt and the destruction of the Temple. Indeed, the Great Revolt of 66-70, followed some sixty years later by the Bar Kochva revolt, were the greatest calamities in Jewish history prior to the Holocaust.

Rabbi Meir studied under Rabbi Yishmael and then under Rabbi Akiva. He also studied under the famed scholar Elisha ben Avuya, who after adopting a worldview considered heretical by his fellow Tannaim, the rabbis of the Talmud refrained from relating teachings in his name and referred to him as Acher, the ‘Other One’. Rabbi Meir continued studying under him while at the same time used their relationship to implore him incessantly to repent his ways and return to the fold. When Elisha was on his deathbed Rabbi Meir was there and one last time begged him to repent. Elisha asked "After all I have done, will I still be accepted? Rabbi Meir said: Is it not written: You return a person to dust (Psalm 90:3) which means, even to the point that a life is ground to the dust one can return. Elisha ben Abuya cried and died. Rabbi Meir rejoiced and said "It seems to me that my teacher departed in a moment of repentance". When they buried him, a fierce fire came and began to burn his grave. They came and told Rabbi Meir: Your teacher's grave is burning. Rabbi Meir went out and spread his Tallis over Elisha's grave and prayed. The fire died down. When later generations questioned how it was permitted for Rabbi Meir to continue studying under Elisha even after he had soured, the response was given that Rabbi Meir was very great and he was able to take only the good and reject the bad.

Rabbi Meir became one of the greatest of the Tannaim. There are three hundred and thirty five laws in the Mishnah that are quoted explicitly in the name of Rabbi Meir. In addition there is a rule in the Talmud that all anonymously authored opinions in the Mishnah are attributed to Rabbi Meir. One of the sages of the Talmud, Rav Acha Bar Chanina said “There is no question that Rabbi Meir was the greatest scholar of his generation. Nevertheless, the final Halacha is not necessarily established according to his opinion because he was so brilliant, the greatest sages of his generation could not plumb the depth of his great genius and wisdom."

Rabbi Meir was married to Beruriah, one of the few women cited in the Talmud and famous for her great brilliance and wisdom. She was the daughter of Rabbi Chananiah ben Teradyon, one of the ten Jewish leaders martyred by the Roman Government. The Roman Government ordered that Rabbi Chanina and his wife be executed for teaching Torah publicly. They also decreed that their younger daughter (Beruriah's sister) be placed in a brothel. Beruriah asked Rabbi Meir to save her sister. Rabbi Meir took a bag of gold coins and went to the brothel disguised as a Roman horseman. He offered the money as a bribe to the guard. The guard replied, "When my supervisor comes, he will notice the prisoner missing and kill me." Rabbi Meir replied that when you are in danger - say the words, "God of Meir - answer me" and you will be saved." The guard wondered, "How can I be guaranteed that this will save me?" Rabbi Meir replied, "Look! There are man-eating dogs over there. I will go over to them and you will see for yourself." Rabbi Meir walked towards the dogs. They ran over to tear him apart. He cried out "God of Meir - answer me!", and the dogs retreated. The guard was thus convinced and handed over the girl to Rabbi Meir. When the brothel prison supervisors came, the guard bribed them with the money. Eventually, the money was exhausted, and the guard's deed was publicized. The government arrested the guard and sentenced him to death by hanging. When they tied the rope around his neck he cried out "God of Meir - answer me!" The rope tore and the guard escaped.

Rabbi Meir suffered great personal tragedy. He had two sons and a daughter. When his two dear sons suddenly passed away on the Sabbath, his wife Beruriah covered them and hid the news from him so as not to sadden him on this holy day. After the Sabbath she asked him, "What if someone gave me a great treasure to hold for him and he now demands that I return it, must I give it back?" "Of course" he replied, not realizing what she was leading up to. She took his hand and led him into the room where the two dead children lay. When she removed the cover and he realized the great tragedy, he began to cry. She confronted him "Didn't you just say that we must return the treasure to its owner? G-d gave them to us and now G-d took them back. May His name be blessed". In fact, you my dear husband taught that "one is required to bless G-d for the bad just like for the good." (Talmud, Berachot 48).

Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis passed away on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar. He is buried on the shores of Lake Kinneret, only a short distance from the city of Tiberius. The grave of Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis is one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and thousands of people flock there to pray for their salvation.

Before his death, Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis promised - as his legacy to all generations - that he will personally intercede in Heaven, on behalf of anyone in distress, who will give charity to the poor in Israel in his memory.

To this very day it has been a sacred and hallowed tradition for Jews, in crisis or need, to recite the words “God of Meir - answer me!” while giving Tzedakah to the RABBI MEIR BAAL SALANT charity, established in 1860 by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Shmuel Salant and his father-in-law Rabbi Yosef Zundel Salant. Countless stories abound of men and women who during a personal crisis, experienced miraculous help when they gave charity to this holy fund in memory of Rabbi Meir Baal Haneis.