When it comes to the Talmud, we can’t limit a story to a single meaning. But when it comes to analysis of a story, sometimes the literal interpretation doesn’t make any sense. Often times the best way to understand the Talmudic aggadot is to break from the concrete into the abstraction.
The Story: Sanhedrin 107b
“Let the left hand repulse but the right hand always invite back; not as Elisha, who thrust Gehazi away with both hands, and not like Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perakhia who repulsed Yeshu (haNotzri) with both hands… …. When King Yannai slew our Rabbis, R. Yehoshua ben Perakhia (and Yeshu) fled to Alexandria of Egypt. On the resumption of peace, Shimon ben Shetakh sent to him: ‘From me, Jerusalem, the holy city, to you, Alexandria of Egypt, my sister. My husband dwells within you and I am desolate.’ He arose, went, and found himself in a certain inn, where great honor was shown to him. ‘How beautiful is this aksania!’, he said [The word denotes both inn and innkeeper. Yehoshua used it in the first sense and Yeshu apparently in the second]. Thereupon (Yeshu) observed, ‘Rabbi, her eyes are narrow’. He rebuked him, ‘Wicked! in such a thing you occupy yourself [i.e. in looking at women’s physical aspect]!.’ He sounded four hundred trumpets and excommunicated him. He (Yeshu) came before him many times pleading, ‘Receive me!’ But he would pay no heed to him. One day he (Rabbi Yehoshua) was reciting the Shema’, when Yeshu came before him. He intended to receive him and made a sign to him with his hand. He (Yeshu), thinking that he was repelling him, went, put up a brick, and worshipped it. ‘Repent,’ said he (Rabbi Yehoshua) to him. He replied, ‘I have learnt this from you: He who sins and causes others to sin is not afforded the means of repentance.’ And a master has said, ‘Yeshu haNotzri practiced witchcraft and led Israel astray.’”
There’s a complete anachronism happening in this first version of the story (which by the way is censored in some English translations). We don’t exactly know the exact year in which Yeshua the Nazarene was born, but we certainly know he lived in the first part of the first century CE; on the other hand, Yehoshua ben Perakhia lived 100 years before Yeshua of Nazareth, and Alexander Yannai, a persecutor of the Pharisees, ruled between the 104 and 78 BCE. Anyone claiming that this event is historical is failing to see that the dates don’t match. And if anyone wants to claim that here the Talmud is right and Yeshua’s mainstream historical account must be wrong or has been altered, they should know that this same story appears three times in the Talmud: Twice in the Babylonian Talmud, and once in the Talmud Yerushalmi. The three accounts tell different details and the Yerushalmi version is completely different from the Babylonian one. In Sanhedrin (107b) we learn the story is about Yeshu. In Sotah (47a) the name of Ben Perakhia’s student is nowhere mentioned; it only says “one of his disciples”, and in the Yerushalmi Hagigah (2:2) the teacher is not Yehoshua ben Perakhia, but Yehudah ben Tabai (who lived one generation after).
The accounts say that this story is the origin of Notzrut, i.e, how Christianity began. Now, anyone knows that this is NOT how Christianity started. Christians don’t worship bricks, and Christians didn’t exist before the 1st century. In fact, they didn’t even exist in the first century either. And he was excommunicated at the sound of 400 trumpets… isn’t that a heavy exaggeration? Any serious scholar, or historian, or simply any critical analyst could tell you this story in the Talmud is nonsense. However, we fail to see the lesson of the story when we take it literally. Same story repeated three times, and they seem to contradict each other. Could not the sages be more careful? Now, one must understand here that this story is an oral tradition that was being passed down from mouth to mouth. The details vary, the intention remains, and the mysticism increases. So, If we take it at face value, the story is simply teaching what the text says, the left rejects, but the right welcomes. Never push someone away with both hands. Now, we can take the whole story as a non-historical, spiritual parable and it will make much more sense.
Yehoshua ben Perakhia taught: “Judge every person favorably; i.e. on the side of mercy” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). This is because in the story he didn’t judge Yeshu favorably and everything ended up in the wrong way. The Lubavitcher Rebbe says (in his explanation on Pirkei Avot) that this statement was in reference to “that man” (That man being Yeshu). So according to Pirkei Avot, Yehoshua ben Perakhia learnt the hard way that we must judge every person, even Yeshu, favorably.
Part 1 – Egypt: When Yannai was killing Pharisees, Yehoshua ben Perakhia fled to Egypt. When the time for him to come back to Jerusalem was propitious, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetakh sent him a letter. In the letter, Jerusalem is personified as a woman, and she asks Alexandria her sister to bring her husband back. Who’s her husband? The righteous sages of Israel, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perakhia concretely. In Kabbalah we know the Holy Land represents Malkhut, and the righteous who come from Egypt represent the Son (i.e. Zeir Anpin, which is the husband of Malkhut), thus Scripture says: “From Egypt I called my son” (Hoshea 11:1). There’s obviously a positive connection between the incident and Yeshu being with ben Perakhia.
Part 2 – The inn: So when they came back they lodged in certain inn where Yehoshua ben Perakhia was paid great respect. He felt proud, he felt good with the ambient, with everything, so he said to Yeshu: “How beautiful is this aksania!” aksania means “inn”, but it also means the “innkeeper” and so the story plays with both meanings. Ben Perakhia was proud, praising the external of the place, but as we know, one of Yeshua’s characteristics in the Gospels is that he always cares for the inside of the things, he judges by the smell, and so, although the place looks great, when he examines the details of the “aksania”, he finds “her eyes are narrow, or bleared”. Meaning, this is far from being “beautiful”. A quick glance at this portion seems to indicate that Yeshu was pervertedly looking at the woman, and also causing his master to look at her in the same manner, at least that’s what Ben Perakhia understood. But we can judge him favorably. After all, why would a tzaddik, a student of Yehoshua ben Perakhia do such a thing? Yeshu was looking the inside, he was seeing what his Rabbi failed to see. He was saying: You love Jerusalem because they honor you here, because is beautiful, because is full of observant Jews, because there are so many sages…. but I look at it, and I see the people is blemished. I don’t see what you see. But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perakhia failed to understand Yeshu’s message and considered him a wicked person.
Part 3 – the excommunication: Yeshu was excommunicated with 400 trumpets or shofarot. This is obviously an exaggerated number. The terminology is borrowed from Moed Qatan 16a, which says that Barak pronounced excommunication against Meroz by the blast of 400 shofars. What is interesting here, is that according to the opinions in this same portion, Meroz was either a legendary hero or a planet, so here we are dealing with a cosmic and metaphoric excommunication rather than the literal excommunication of a Jew. Let’s get logical here, no one is excommunicated for looking at women, otherwise there would be no Jews in the world, all of them would have been excommunicated. 400 is the numerical value of the letter Tav (ת), which is made up of a Dalet and a Nun, which spell the word “Din” (judgment). The attribute of Judgment is that of humbling, the head cannot be proud over the feet, because the feet make the head arrive to its goal, so here ‘Dan’ represents the feet, which brings the body to its destination, but never gets any recognition for their job. This is Yeshu in the story (see the definition of “Dan” in Liqutei Sikhot vol 1, Pg 103-104).
Part 4 – the creation of Notzrut: Many times Yeshu was coming to his master telling him: receive me, receive me. But he never did. Except one day in which Ben Perakhia was willing to forgive…. but he was busy praying the Shema. He made a gesture with the hand inviting him to wait a moment until he finishes his prayer. The picture of the “hand” gesture is again borrowed from a baraita (Yoma 19b) in which it is advised not to make ‘gestures with the hand’ by ‘pointing with the fingers’ while praying the Shema – at least the first part of it. The idea that Yeshu “thought he was repelling him” is not to be taken literally either, it is a common formula in the Talmud. Many times the students think that their Rabbi is repelling or fobbing them off, and after examining the matter they understand that the Rabbi’s answer has some deeper meaning (e.g., Yevamot 105a, Hagiga 19a… etc).
Nevertheless, one may get a lesson from this; and the lesson is basically what the Gospels describe about Yeshua: sometimes being excessively meticulous and excessively strict with Jewish Law may push people away, even if the intention is correct. Sometimes is ok to be kind on people (especially people who is coming for mercy under the wings of the shekhina) more than being meticulous in prayer and Torah observance. Furthermore, when one is so strict… he may confuse his followers with a gesture that technically is not supposed to do. These are the followers of Yeshua, telling their pharisaic brothers, let us in, let us in… But then Yeshu did something unexpected. He אזל זקף לבינתא פלחא, stood a brick and worshipped it. The idea that Yeshu ‘stood a brick’ (zaqaf leveinatha) and then worshipped it (palkha) sounds ridiculous. This is of course allegorical language borrowed from a hallakhic rule on Avoda Zara, that says an Israelite is permitted to set up an egg for worship as long as he doesn’t worship it, but he’s not permitted to set up a brick for worship, even though he may not worship it (Avoda Zara 46a). The whole ‘brick’ phrase in Aramaic equals 837 which is the value of: “I am HaShem, and beside me there’s no savior” (Isaiah 43:11). The brick mentioned here (leveinatha) is a white big brick, like the ones in the Temple or in the synagogues. If we interpret this in qedusha (in holiness), here we have the real story of how Christianity was born. In this instance Yeshu represents his later followers, after the separation (excommunication) with Judaism. They got and erected a brick from the house of Israel, that is, a Tzaddiq; namely, Yeshua of Nazareth, and then worshipped him, while divorcing themselves from Judaism.
Part 5 – repent: Witnessing such behavior, Yehoshua replies “Repent!”, but here’s the interesting part. The word for “Repent” is “Khazur”, or return, and is completely related to the Khazir (the pork) which is often used in midrash in reference to Esav (who is Edom, who is Rome, from where Christianity emerged). The midrash says that “in the future the Blessed Holy One will cause the pork (khazir) to return (le’khaziro) to Israel” (cf. Otzarot Akharit hayamim I, ch 12).
Part 6 – the extra info: At the end of the story there’s some marginal information, in the form of an addendum. The text says that a master, in Aramaic: ‘mar’ i.e. someone unknown, claimed that Yeshu performed witchcraft (kishef) and led others astray. This is of course an opinion that existed somewhere among the people, but it is not clear who said it or when. The opinion may very well be wrong, and in fact it is. As the great Yaqov Emden (the Yaavetz, one of the greatest Torah authorities and talmudists) says that “even according to the ‘evangelion’, the Nazarene and his disciples did not come to abolish the Jewish faith… for according to the writers of the Gospels a Jew is not permitted to abandon the Torah…. so the Nazarene did a double good to the world, on the one hand he confirmed the Torah of Moshe… and on the other hand he caused many nations to abandon idolatry and earned for themselves elevated levels of morality (through the Noahide Laws)” (cf. Seder Olam Rabbah veZuta).
How could someone of the level of Yaqov Emden say such a thing when he’s a talmudist and the Talmud says that Yeshu led others astray? Obviously it wasn’t Yeshua who led Israel astray, his main message was for them to repent, not to abandon Torah; it was Yeshu, the demi-god fabricated by Christianity, who came later and told people to abandon Torah, to disregard Moshe, and to follow a book that is not the Tanakh. Many other critical talmudists agree with this. Yosef Klausner, for instance, dedicates an entire essay to the character of Yeshua of Nazareth, and again he somehow deduces that Yeshu was not as bad as it is apparently pictured in the surface of the Talmud. Finally, the claim that he performed witchcraft (that is, through spells) is, I repeat, something that people heard in the streets, not sure who said it, or if the claim is true at all. Actually it can be seen as an alternative counter argument to the Gospels’ claim that he performed miracles. Practical mysticism in that time was only for the initiated, only for a few selected sages, so if you saw someone who you despise making use of this discipline, you could easily claim he’s performing witchcraft.