Just south of Teveriah stands a beautiful complex of shuts and bated medrash built in memory of Rabi Meir Baal Haneis who reached the pinnacle of Torah greatness despite his family’s lowly roots. The Gemara (Gittin 56) says that when Caesar Nero of Rome was sent to destroy Yerushalayim and he realized the massive punishment
he would incur for such a heinous deed, he fled and converted to Judaism, and Rabi Meir was one of his descendants. Rabi Meir is famous not only for his greatness during his lifetime, but also for the Rabi Meir Baal Haneis tzeddokah boxes distributed worldwide in his memory.
Sage and Scribe
Rabbi Meir was a close talmid of Rabi Akiva and one of the five talmidim who survived the plague that eradicated 120 thousand of Rabi Akiva’s talmidim. In addition to being the third most mentioned tanna in the Mishnah, Chazaltell us that every anonymous statement in the Mishnah is R. Meir’s ruling in accordance to the opinion of R. Akiva, and praising his greatness the Gemara (Eruvin 13a) declares, “Why was he called Meir? Because he lightened the eyes of the sages in halachah.”
The Gemara (Gittin 67a) also praises him for his scribal skills, summing him up as “a chochom and a sofer.” Rabi Meir is the person who warned Rabi Yishmael, after finding out that he was a safer, that he should be careful to not detract or add one letter because by doing so he would destroy the whole world.
The Gemara (Megillah 18b) relates that when R. Meir came to the
town of Asiah to calculate a leap year and found that there was no megillah for Purim, he simply sat down and wrote one out by heart. Even though a regular person needs to do safrus from a written text in front of him, Rabi Meir was an exception for he remembered the script so well that it was considered as laying in front of him. The Yerushalmi (Megillah 4;31) gives a different explanation of how R. Meir fulfilled the rule of writing from script: he wrote out one Megillah by heart and then wrote a second Megillah from the first one so that it should be copied from script as the halachah requires.
Because of his expertise in safrus, the Ginas Veradim (O.C. 2:15) claims that “halachah is like him in all matters of safrus even if he disagrees with a Tanna Kama, because he was very expert and skillful in the craft of safrus… and certainly plumbed the depths of halachos related to his craft.”
Master of Miracles
In later centuries R. Meir became known as R. Meir Baal Haneis, the master of miracles. Margenisa d’Rebi Meir writes that this is because of the incident recorded in Avodah Zarah (18) where he persuaded a guard to free his imprisoned sister-in-law. When the guard said his colleagues might kill him, Rabi Meir told him that if there was any danger he should recite, “G-d of Meir, answer me,” and he would be saved. Others write that R. Meir is known as Baal Haneis because of the tradition that whenever someone is in trouble, he should pledge to the poor in R. Meir’s merit and he will be saved; the name hints at all the miracles that have come about by following this advice.
In an earlier article, we discussed the minhag of setting up tzeddokah boxes in R. Meir’s memory, saying that the minhag of establishing boxes for the support of the poor of Eretz Yisroel begin in the generation of Rav Yosef Karo and his talmidim, especially Rav Moshe Alshich. At that time, the boxes were called Chosam Tochnis, or Sukkas Dovid. When there were persecutions in Yerushalayim, Rav Yeshayah Halevi Horowitz (the Shaloh Hakodesh, 1565-1630) moved to Teveriah, which became an important center of fundraising for Ashkenazi Jews in Eretz Yisroel, and said that the boxes should be named Kupas Rabi Meir Baal Haneis in honor of R. Meir who is buried close to Teveriah.
Others say that the Rabi Meir box was established by Rav Chaim Vintorah when the Jewish kehillah of Teveriah was reestablished in 1740 after the Druze destroyed Teveriah in 1660.
By 1742 we find Rav Chaim writing a letter to the Jews of Ancona, Italy, requesting: “From today onwards, special boxes should be set up for Teveriah in all shuls and a person should be appointed to look after them. On every Shabbos when people have aliyos to the sefer Torah and on the three regolim and during simchos people should vow… to this town.”
Emissaries from Teveriah took the boxes wherever they traveled and by the middle of the 19th century they became widespread all over the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa, and in many kehillos in Europe.
Rav Chaim Palagi of Izmir wrote of the importance of these boxes in 1842.
“In our town of Izmir people make many vows to that holy place Teveriah for and in the name of R. Meir Baal Haneis and they all fulfill the mitzvah of sending it there,” he reported. “It is certainly a great, lofty concept, first, because of the [mentioning of the] holy name of the tanna R. Meir Baal Haneis. which is tried and tested in the whole world, especially by merchants who insure [their businesses through this vow], and also travelers in seas and deserts. They see the works of Hashem and when they vow to R. Meir they are answered.”
The shu”t Lev Chaim cites opinions that the money of these boxes must go to Teveriah where Rabi Meir is buried for this was the original minhag, and this was the common practice in the Middle East and North Africa. To overcome Teveriah’s advantage the Jews of Tzefas founded their own box named after Rabi Shimon bar Yochai, while the Yerushalayim kehillah began distributing boxes named after Shimon Hatzaddik or Rochel Imeinu. Sometimes the Jews of Teveriah shared the funds with others. In 1883 it was arranged that the Jews of Maknes, Morocco should divide the money they donated to the box into 28 parts. Of these, Yerushalayim received 11, Chevron 6, Tzefas 7, and Teveriah 4. In Europe, however, the R. Meir money was not given specifically to Teveriah but to Ashkenazi Jews living in any of the four holy towns of Eretz Yisroel — Teveriah, Tzefas, Yerushalayim, and Chevron.
The Yahrzeit That Is Not A Yahrzeit
Rabi Meir’s grave near Teveriah is mentioned since the time of the Rishonim. OtzarMasa’os (page 63) cites the Baal Tosfos Rav Shmuel bar Shimshon as writing, “From Beis She’an we went to Teveria and before arriving in the town we saw the grave of Rabi Meir,” and the same sefer cites the rishon Rabi Yechiel of Paris as saying, “At one side of the town on the mountain is buried Rabi Meir, and below it is the warm baths of Teveriah.”
But Jews began only celebrating R. Meir’s yahrzeit on the 14th of Iyar during the 19th century. A.M. Lunz, a researcher of minhagim who traveled through Eretz Yisroel in 1873 said that this was not the actual day of his passing.
“For the past six years, the people of Teveriah began to envy [the people of Tzefas] for people traveling to Tzefas [for Lag Ba’omer] traveled through Teveriah,” he wrote. “They said, ‘We also have amidst us graves of glorious, righteous tana’im and why should we be less than them? They decided to make a fire on the grave of Rabi Meir Baal Haneis on the 14th of Iyar, Pesach Sheni (which is also a Yom Tov for people who were on a distant journey). For by then visitors have already arrived and also not yet spent their money. From then onwards, all the visitors wait in Teveriah and many Tzefas residents come and stay here until Pesach Sheni.”
The Sdei Chemed (Asifas Dinim, Eretz Yisroel, 4a) writes that when he asked the elders of Teveriah how they hit specifically upon this yahrzeit they wrote back in about 1874 that this was the day when they first dedicated the sites new shul and beis medrash.
“Many Jews come from the far ends of the earth and sea for Pesach and Shavuos to pray at the graves of tsaddikim,” they said. “They also come to the graves of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabi Meir and want to rejoices at their graves. Now, at the tomb of Rabi Meir we set up a shul and beis medrash where people learn permanently for the sake of their supporters. It so happened that the dedication of the shul and beis medrash was on Pesach Katan… There was great rejoicing and people said, ‘Let us do this every year.’ The day was established for joy and lighting a lamp topped by a basinful of olive oil and torn clothes.”
The yahrzeit was time of festivity and rejoicing. In the memoir, Avonim Bachomah, Rafael Cohen describes a joyful Yahrzeit procession from Teveriah to the grave during his visit there in 1894:
“At one in the afternoon a procession with sifrei Torah was to leave for the grave of Rabi Meir Baal Haneis. We came to the main shul and found it full to capacity. All the important people in town, the chochomim and the rabbonim, were dressed in Yom Tov clothes and representatives of the government and police were present. After a short time, they took the sifrei Torah with their silver ornaments out the skid. The joy of the people of Teveriah was indescribable. Men, women, and children crowded in the roads and on the roofs.”
Rav Chaim Vital (ShaarHagilgulim, intr. 37) mentions a tradition that Rabi Meir was buried in a standing position. Some say that this symbolized his constant waiting for the moshiach to arrive and support this theory by citing the Yerushalmi (K’layim 2:1) where Rabi Yinniyah commanded before his passing that shoes be put on his feet and a stick in his hand, and that he be laid on his side to be ready for the moshiach.
The Ben Ish Chai (Kiddushin 36a) offers another explanation, writing that Rabi Meir was buried upright because he upholds the Jewish people through his ruling (ibid) that even if Jews sin they are still called Hashem’s children. This is also why we give tzedokoh in the name of Rabi Meir. When Rabi Akiva was asked by a gentile minister why Jews help the poor if Hashem wants them to be poor. Rabi Akiva answered that when one helps the kings son – even if the king punished him, the king is pleased. The gentile asked Rabi Akiva that is true as long as you Jews keep the torah, you are called children of Hashem, otherwise you are not g-d’s children. However, according to Rabi Meir we are always Hashem’s children. But elsewhere (Benayahu, Sukkah 45a) he writes that Rabi Meir is buried upright because of the theme of most of this article – whenever Jews pledge to charity for his sake, his merit stands and protects them after his death as it did in his lifetime.