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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works


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Hebrew Name(s): יוחנן; רבי נתן
, Jonathan ben Joseph, Nathan, Yoḥanan, Natan
Period: Tannaim — 2nd Century
Location: Palestine
Dates: Second Century CE

Rabbi Jonathan was a Palestinian Tanna of the 2nd Century; a contemporary of Yoḥanan ben Zakkai. R. Jonathan studied together with R. Josiah and the two are generally quoted as a pair. Some identify him with Jonathan (or Nathan) ben Joseph (or Jose). Jonathan and Josiah were educated together at the academy of Ishmael ben Elisha which taught a dialectical system that was opposed to that of R. Akiva. It is recorded that Jonathan all but converted Azzai, a student of Akiva to R. Ishmael's system. However, later in life, both Jonathan and Josiah adopted some of Akiva's methods and it is noted of Jonathan that "he followed the system of his teacher Akiva" (Palestinian Talmud. Ma'as 51d).
Jonathan was reputed to be clear headed and argumentative. Jonathan and Josiah together devoted their analytical skills to halakhic midrashim and the interpretation of the Law according to the corresponding scriptural texts. Their arguments are recorded in the Mekilta and in the Sifre to Numbers. They appear once in the Mishnah and once in Tosefta, where the text cites Nathan but it is clear that Jonathan is meant, and twice in Sifra.
Tradition tells that Jonathan attempted to emigrate with others from Israel during the Hadrianic persecutions but his love of the land of Israel prevented him from leaving (Sifre, Deut. 80).
Although the work, Avot de Rabbi Natan, was complied around the 8th-10th Century it is possible that the 2nd Century school of R. Nathan was the original source of the material. R. Nathan's name is one of the authorities mentioned in the opening chapter of the work. Notably R. Nathan's name is missing in the version of Avot compiled by Judah I, the redactor of the Mishnah, possibly because of political differences between R. Nathan and Shimon ben Gamaliel. It is also known that R. Nathan produced an independent collection and it is possible that Avot de Rabbi Natan derives from this source.
Sayings: Johanan said, "Consoling the mourner, visiting the sick, and practical benevolence bring heavenly grace into the world" (Avot d. R. Natan 31).
He also said, "The law says (Ex. 31:16), 'The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations'; but one may profane one Sabbath in order to preserve a man that he may observe many Sabbaths" (Mekilta, Ki Tissa) for, "it is holy to you; it [the sabbath] is committed to your hands, not you to its hands" (Yoma 85b).


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