Decline of the Generations: As for Us the Opening is no Bigger than the Eye of a Fine Needle
“Compared with Sarah, all other people are like a monkey to a human being, and compared with Eve Sarah was like a monkey to a human being, and compared with Adam Eve was like a monkey to a human being, and compared with the Shekhinah Adam was like a monkey to a human being. The beauty of Rabbi Kahana was a reflection of the beauty of Rabbi Abbahu; the beauty of Rabbi Abbahu was a reflection of the beauty of our father Jacob, and the beauty of Jacob was a reflection of the beauty of Adam” (BT Bava Batra 58a).
“Moses received Torah from Sinai and handed it on to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it on to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be careful in judgment; raise up many disciples; and make a fence for Torah” (M Avot 1:1).
“Rabbah son of Son of Ḥana said in the name of Rabbi Yoḥanan, reporting Rabbi Yehudah son of Ila’i: See what a difference there is between the earlier and the later generations. The earlier generations made their Torah permanent and their ordinary work occasional, and both prospered in their hands. The later generations made their ordinary work permanent and their Torah occasional, and neither prospered in their hands” (BT Berakhot 35b).
“Rabbi Zera said that Rava son of Zamina said: ‘If the early ones were like angels then we are like human beings, but if the early ones were like human beings then we are like donkeys; not like the donkey of Rabbi Ḥanina son of Dosa or the donkey of Rabbi Pinḥas son of Ya’ir but like ordinary donkeys’” (BT Shabbat 112b).
“Rabbi Yoḥanan said: ‘The heart of the earlier ones was open like the entrance to the outer hall of the Temple, while the heart of the later ones was open only like the entrance to the inner hall [which was smaller]. But as for us the opening is no bigger than the eye of a fine needle….’ Abbaye said: ‘We are like a peg in a wall with regard to Gemarah.’ Rava said: ‘We are like a finger in wax with regard to common sense.’ Rabbi Ashi said: ‘We are like a finger in a pit with regard to forgetfulness’” (BT Eruvin 53a).
“Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The fingernail of the earlier generations is better than the belly of the later generations. Resh Laqish said to him: On the contrary, the latter generations are better, although they are oppressed by the governments, they are occupying themselves with Torah. He [Rabbi Yoḥanan] replied: The Temple will prove it for it came back to the former generations, but not to the latter ones. The question was put to Rabbi El’azar: Were the earlier generations better, or the later ones?—he answered: Look upon the Temple! Some say he answered: The Temple is your witness” (BT Yoma 9b).
“Come and hear: When the First Temple was destroyed, the cities with pastureland [… for the Levites] (Numbers 35:2) were abolished, the Urim and Thummim ceased, and there was no more a king from the House of David. However, if a person should whisper to you [that, in fact, the Urim and Thummim remained, as is written with regard to the time of the Second Temple:] And the governor said to them, that they should not eat of the most holy things, till a priest could consult with Urim and with Thummim (Ezra 2:63), reply to him: like a man says to his fellow, ‘Until the dead live and the Messiah, son of David, comes!’ [i.e., the distant future].
However, Rav Naḥman son of Yitsḥaq said: Who are the former prophets? This excludes Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi who are the latter prophets. For our Rabbis have taught: When Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi died, the רוּחַ הַקֹּדֶשׁ (ruaḥ ha-qodesh), Holy Spirit, departed from Israel; nevertheless they made use of the בַּת קוֹל (bat qol), Daughter of Voice [i.e, a reverberating sound or echo, see Tosefta, Sotah 13:3; JT Sotah 9:12, 24b; BT Yoma 9b, Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah on 8:10].
On one occasion they were sitting in the upper chamber of Gurya’s house in Jericho; Daughter of Voice was granted to them from the heavens, announcing, ‘There is in your midst one man who is deserving that the Shekhinah should alight upon him, but his generation is unworthy of it.’ They all looked at Hillel the elder; and when he died, they lamented over him, ‘Alas, the devout man! Alas, the humble man! Disciple of Ezra!’ On another occasion they were sitting in an upper chamber in Yavneh; Daughter of Voice was granted to them from the heavens, announcing, ‘There is in your midst one man who is deserving that Shekhinah should alight upon him, but his generation is unworthy of it.’ They all looked at Shemu’el the Little; and when he died, they lamented over him, ‘Alas, the humble man! Alas, the devout man! Disciple of Hillel!’ At the time of his death he also said, ‘Shim’on [son of Gamaliel] and Yishma’el [son of Elisha the High Priest are destined] for the sword and their colleagues for death, and the rest of the people for plunder, and great distress will come upon the people.’
They also wished to lament over Rabbi Yehudah son of Bava [a victim of the Hadrianic Persecution], ‘Alas, the devout man! Alas, the humble man!’ But the hour was unstable and they could not lament publicly over those who had been murdered by the מַלְכוּת (malkhut), government” (BT Sotah 48b).
“Rav Papa said to Abbaye: How is it that for the former generations miracles were performed and for us miracles are not performed? It cannot be because of their [superiority in] study, because in the years of Rav Yehudah the whole of their studies was confined to נְזִיקִין (neziqin), Damages, and we study all six orders [of the Mishnah]… and yet when Rav Yehudah took off one shoe, rain used to come, whereas we torment ourselves and cry loudly, and no notice is taken of us! He replied: The former generations used to be ready to sacrifice their lives for the sanctity of the Name; we do not sacrifice our lives for the sanctity of the Name” (BT Berakhot 20a).
“In the footsteps of Messiah חוּצפָּה (ḥutspah), impudence, will increase; prices will rise; grapes will be abundant but wine will be costly; the government will turn into heresy; and there will be no reproach. The meeting place [of scholars] will become a bordello; the Galilee will be destroyed; the highland will lie desolate; the border people will wander from city to city and none will show them compassion; the wisdom of scribes will stink; sin‑fearing people will be detested; truth will be missing; young men will humiliate the elderly; the elderly will stand while the young sit; sons will revile their fathers; daughters will strike their mothers, brides will strike their mothers‑in‑law; and a man’s enemies will take over his house. The face of the generation is like the face of a dog! Sons have no shame in front of their fathers; and on whom can one depend? Only upon our Father in Heaven” (BT Sotah 49b).
“But verging on the days of the Messiah, even children of the world are destined to find hidden treasures of wisdom, thereby discovering calculations of the end. At that time it will be revealed to all, as is written: For then (Zephaniah 3:9). What does then mean? When Assembly of Israel rises from the dust, raised by the blessed Holy One. Then I will transform the language of the peoples into a purer one, so they may all call upon the name of YHWH and serve Him shoulder to shoulder (ibid.)” (Zohar 1:118a).
“Every man must conduct himself to employ this Name [i.e., Torah] with fear of sin and humility. Love is first, desirable actions second, and awe is third [cf. M Sotah 9:15; BT Avodah Zarah 20b; Zohar 3:145a; Tiqqunei ha-Zohar 5b]. And happy is the man whose Creator has granted the understanding and knowledge to fathom the mystery of this great Name which all the sages, men of God who have illuminated our Torah, have employed and handed one to the other in great secrecy and with perfect intention, mouth to mouth.
These are the names of the heads of the generations who employed this Name—see the greatness of these men and how they acted with the necessary honor in these matters: The first to employ it was Adam, who employed it many days to know wisdom and understanding. He handed it on to Seth and Seth composed many books of unfathomable wisdom and arranged all the orders of the מֶרְכָּבָה (merkavah), Chariot, on the discernment of this Name. Seth handed it on to Enosh who went astray and misled the sons of his generation and so the generation of the flood began to stray from the way and spread whoring. With great lust they gazed at the רַכֶּבֶת (rakevet), ladder, of forces [of cause and effect], saying, ‘As it is fitting for these to הַרְכִּיב (harkiv), mount, each other, so will we do.’
And Enosh handed it on to Jared who became very wise in it and Jared handed it on to Methuselah but Enoch, the father of Methuselah, did not favor it because he feared he might seize it and incur guilt. Methuselah handed it on to Lamech and Lamech handed it on to Noah.
Noah handed it on to his son Shem and Shem established academies and dispersed the wisdom to enlighten many to return faithfully to the good and he reigned over all the princes of the earth and all princes of the peoples served at his table. And Shem handed it on to his son Eber and Eber handed it on to Abraham and Abraham added wisdom and knowledge to it and handed it on to his son Isaac. Isaac handed it on to Jacob and Jacob handed it on to his sons, but to Levi he gave the main part, and Levi handed it on to Amram and Amram handed it on to Moses and Moses attained an exceedingly lofty and wondrous wisdom with it.
Moses handed it on to Aaron and Aaron to his sons Nadab and Abihu who delved deeply to know the matter but were punished as the Torah informs us. However, the קַבָּלָה (qabbalah), tradition, remained in the hand of Phinehas and he delved to know more than all who preceded him and Phinehas handed this great secret on to Joshua, although Joshua learned from Moses. Joshua handed it on to Caleb and Caleb handed it on to his brother’s son Othniel who became very strong, as is written [And Caleb said, ‘Whoever strikes Kiriath-Sepher (Scribe Town) and takes it, to him I shall give Achsah my daughter as wife.’] And Othniel son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it (Judges 1:13).
Othniel handed it on to Ehud and Ehud to his sons but all of them were punished, however, he handed to Machir son of Jair and Machir to Eli and Eli to Samuel and Samuel delved in it to know, to ascend like Moses quality by quality, and arrange several wards and handed it on to Saul but he did not know how to wield it and was punished. Saul handed it on to David and David to his son Chileab and Chileab to his brother Solomon and Solomon became exceedingly wise, more than all who preceded him, as is written And he was wiser than all men [… and his fame was in all the nations round about] (1 Kings 5:11). Solomon handed it on to Benaiah and Benaiah put it away in the Temple archives. Then the wise kings of Judah came and took it out again.
There are those who say that Solomon handed it on to Amos, and Amos to Isaiah and Isaiah to Zephaniah and Zephaniah to Jeremiah and Jeremiah to Baruch and Baruch to Ezra and Ezra and his court were wise and discerning [cf. BT Megillah 15a: ‘Rabbi Yehoshu’a son of Korḥa said: Malachi is the same as Ezra, and the sages say that Malachi was his proper name…’]. Their number was as the number of the one hundred-twenty righteous, chieftains of the Israelites who stood firm. And Ezra and his court handed it on to Shemaiah and Avtalion, sons of Sennacherib who came to shelter under the wings of the Shekhinah [i.e., to convert]. When the sages saw that they were deserving of this name they handed it over to them and Shemaiah and Avtalion handed it on to Hillel and Shammai. Hillel was a descendent of the royal house of David as is found in Chronicles [cf. BT Ketubbot 62b: ‘Rabbi (Yehudah ha-Nasi) descended from (Hillel, who, in turn, descended from David’s son) Shephatiah the son of Avital’].
Hillel and Shammai handed it on to Yonatan son of Uzziel and to Rabbi Yoḥanan son of Zakkai and they descended to its depths, according to their reach, and they handed it on to Rabbi Eli’ezer the Great. Rabbi Eli’ezer the Great handed it on to Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Akiva to Yehudah ha-Nasi until it reached the hand of Rabbi Shim’on [son of Yoḥai] but from the days of Rabbi Shim’on it remained hidden and closed [cf. Zohar 3:58a: ‘Come and see: Among generations to come, Torah is destined to be forgotten, and the wise-hearted will gather in the Holy Chamber, yet there will be no one who can close and open (i.e., to declare forbidden, or pure, and permitted, or pure). Woe to that generation! From here on, there will be no generation like this one until King Messiah arrives…’], except a few later sages who grasped it and inquired according to [mere] intellect such as the Geonim, may their memory be for a blessing, who delved to know the mysteries of the blessed Holy One according to the wisdom of the time and according to the [limited] wisdom of the generation [cf. Zohar 1:224b–225a: ‘Rabbi Shim’on said, When I am among those Companions of Babylonia, they gather around me and learn subjects openly, and then insert them beneath an impregnable seal of iron, shut tight on all sides’]….
And now you will be able to understand the strength of your God and the essence of His strength and His wonders, more than the ancients in their great wisdom. The truth is that the first generations are considered always very wise, the middle generations not so wise, and the last generations are considered wiser than the first, for this accords with the nature and formation of the world. As with the rotation of the wheel [of a watermill i.e., the vicissitudes of fortune], the first ones which ascend are full, the middle ones pour, and the last ones draw, and ascend, in order to pour as well [cf. Zohar 1:243b; Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana 5:12; Shemot Rabbah 15:26: ‘When Solomon appeared, the disk of the moon became full’]….
Daughters of Jerusalem, swear to me by the gazelles, by the deer in the field, that you will never awaken love until it is ripe (Song of Songs 2:7; 3:5). For although King Solomon in his great wisdom understood how to vocalize יהוה (YHWH) he swore in the name of all the holy nation not to ponder it until the day the blessed Holy One bestows compassion on His people and their land, and open before them the gates of light. And now as I said, the gates of wisdom have begun to open, and therefore, one may study and gain great wisdom” (Berit Menuḥa, Introduction; The Second Way: The Way of Love, Eight Vowel, Ninth Vowel).
“Rabbi Shim’on replied… ‘We have revealed what was not revealed to the ancient ones!’” (Zohar 3:287a).