THERE were once two great Jewish colleges in Sura and Pumpeditha, famous cities in Babylonia. It was in one of these colleges that Saadiah was Gaon. When people had a quarrel and could not make peace, where do. you think they went? To Babylonia. For, this great college also served as a court. When a man wanted to become a rabbi, where do you think he went? To Babylonia.
A time came, however, when the Jews stopped sending their students to Babylonia. Little by little Babylonia was losing its greatness. It seemed as if all the work that had been done there would be lost. What was to be done? The Babylonian Jews, very much worried, called a meeting of all the rabbis and all the important people. The question was: "What should be done to keep up the great learning which had been started in Babylonia?" Some said:
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"Send out letters to all the countries where Jews live. Tell them what great colleges we have here, and ask them for the sake of Jewish learning to help support these colleges. Tell them that otherwise all the good work of the rabbis will be lost. The schools will have to be closed."
"No, no," said others. "Don't send letters. Send people. Send our very own great scholars."
So they decided to send out four of their greatest scholars to different parts of the world. They were to assemble Jews wherever they went and say to them:
"We have fine schools and colleges in Babylon. You remember that when Johanan ben Zakkai risked his life to go before Vespasian, he asked for only one thing--to build a little school.
"Now that we have all these great and fine colleges there, will you allow them to be closed? If you do not send your students and your great scholars to Babylonia--that is what will surely happen."
So, in accordance with this plan, these four great scholars started out from Babylonia. On their travels they had to cross a big sea. On this sea there were many pirates who fell on the vessel on which the rabbis were sailing. The pirates captured the four rabbis and carried them off to slave markets. Two of them were taken to Africa, the third to France, and the fourth
to Spain. Was this to be the end of the rabbis and the schools in Babylon? Would the schools have to be closed after all? Would these great rabbis be sold as slaves? Was this to be the sad end of such well-laid plans?
In those days every country had a market place where the rich people came to buy their slaves. To these market places the rabbis were brought. And these old, learned men were placed on the block, on show, where everybody could see them. These old rabbis, loved and honored by the Jewish people, were put up for sale just like sheep or cows or horses. Can you imagine the shame and sorrow these men felt?
The pirates, however, were very happy. Now they would get rich! These Jewish men were worth thousands of dollars. In Spain the captain of the pirates stepped up on the platform and called out:
"Hear ye; hear ye. Here we have an extraordinary slave, but of course he is very expensive. It isn't every day that we can offer you slaves as fine as this one."
There was great excitement in the market place. The Jews and even the Gentiles were greatly astonished. How had these pirates succeeded in capturing a great rabbi? What! A rabbi to be sold as a slave! What a disgrace, they cried. It all seemed so impossible. A cry of horror arose from the Jews. No,
they would never allow it. That would be terrible!
Meanwhile the pirate cried again:
"Well, what am I offered for this one? A great man, a great scholar. Tested him myself." At that the stupid crowd began to laugh. "What am I bid? Guaranteed to know everything!" the pirate continued.
Jews and Gentiles alike could not bear to hear the pirate poke fun at the great rabbi. The Gentiles offered high prices, but the Jews always added to the offers. The Jews had made up their minds not to let the rabbi be sold into slavery. To their joy, they did at last buy freedom for this highly respected man.
Among the bidders in the slave market was a man whose name you have heard before. Yes, that man was the famous Jewish scholar, Hasdai. When Rabbi ben Enoch was put up on the platform, Hasdai offered a larger price for him than anybody else there, so that he was sold to Hasdai. I don't know whether you can imagine how happy Hasdai was. For surely, you don't think that he had bought the rabbi for his slave! Hasdai was happy because he knew that God had sent him a great treasure. He knew that no amount of money could pay for that treasure. The first thing that Hasdai did was to give Rabbi ben Enoch his liberty. Then, when Rabbi ben Enoch had told him the whole story of his mission, Hasdai offered to help him accomplish
what he had set out to do. He took the learned Rabbi ben Enoch with him to the college in Spain.
The rabbis who had been taken to the other countries were freed, too.
Can you imagine how happy the rabbis were to be free again? So their trouble had not been in vain. Their hopes would be fulfilled. The work at Babylonia would not be wasted.
Moses ben Enoch was so anxious to do his duty that he did not stop even to take off his slave's clothes. As soon as he was set free, he went to the college with Hasdai at once. There he asked Hasdai to let him stand near the door and listen to the discussion. No one noticed him at all. He had been standing there some time when a very hard problem came up. It was so difficult that even the head of the college could not solve it.
Suddenly a voice was heard asking:
"May I please try to answer the question?"
Everybody turned to see who was talking. Can you imagine their surprise when they saw a slave in the school? And not only that, but the slave trying to answer a question--and such a hard one at that.
"That must be some slave who has gone out of his mind," a number of scholars said, But the head of the
college being wiser than they, in his usual polite way, asked Ben Enoch to come up to the front. When he had modestly done so, quietly and slowly, he answered the question.
Seeing how wise Ben Enoch was, the head of the college said:
"So wise a man should take my place, for he knows more than I do." So Moses ben Enoch, this rabbi from Babylonia, became the head of the college in Spain.
Hasdai went up to the head of the college and asked his permission to speak to the Assembly and Hasdai told the whole story of Rabbi Moses ben Enoch.
Now, when a man wanted to become a rabbi, where do you think he went? To Spain, of course. When people quarreled and could not make peace with each other, where did they go? To Spain. And so Spain took the place of Babylonia as the center of Jewish living and of Jewish learning.