Decline of the Generations: As for Us the Opening is no Bigger than the Eye of a Fine Needle
“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, cf. Gittin 81a).
“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).
“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).
“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 Gemara.’ 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).
“Rav said: Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as is said, [If you do not keep to do all the words of this teaching written in this book to fear this solemn and fearsome name, YHWH your God,] YHWH will make your plagues and the plagues of your seed הִפְלָא (hifla), astounding, [great and relentless plagues, evil and relentless illnesses] (Deuteronomy 28:59): now, I do not know what this astonishment is, but when it is said, [And the Master said, Inasmuch as this people approached with its mouth and with its lips honored Me but kept its heart far from Me, and their reverence for Me was a commandment of men learned by rote,] therefore will I continue to strike this people with הַפְלֵא וָפֶלֶא (ha-fle va-fele), wonder upon wonder, [and the wisdom of its wise men shall vanish and the discernment of its discerners disappear] (Isaiah 29:13–14), it follows that this wonder refers to Torah” (BT Shabbat 138b).
“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 rest 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 companions 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 government” (BT Sotah 48b).
“Our Rabbis have taught: Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples, thirty of whom were worthy of the Shekhinah resting upon them, as [it did upon] Moses our Master, thirty of whom were worthy that the sun should stand still for them [as it did for] Joshua son of Nun [see Joshua 10:12], [and the remaining] twenty were ordinary. The greatest of them was Yonatan son of Uzziel [cf. BT Megillah 3a], the smallest of them was Yoḥanan son of Zakkai.
They said of Rabbi Yoḥanan son of Zakkai that he did not leave [unstudied] Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara, Halakhah, Aggadah, details of the Torah, details of the Scribes, inferences a minori ad majus, analogies, [the calculation of] seasons, gematriyyot, the speech of the ministering angels, the speech of spirits, and the speech of palm-trees, parables of launderers and fox fables, great matters or small matters; great matters mean the Account of the Chariot, small matters [such as halakhot that were ultimately formulated in the framework of] the disputes of Abbaye and Raba; in order to fulfil what is said, To pass substance on to my lovers, and their storehouses to fill (Proverbs 8:21). And if the smallest of them was so great, how much more so was the greatest? They said of Yonatan son of Uzziel that when he used to sit and occupy himself with the study of Torah, every bird that flew above him was burnt immediately” (BT Sukkah 28a).
“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 impudence will swell; prices will surge; the vine will give its fruit but wine will be costly [or: scarce]; the kingdom will turn to sectarianism; and there will be no rebuke. The meeting place [of the Sages] will become a whorehouse; the Galilee will be destroyed; the highland will be desolate; the border people will wander from city to city and none will show them mercy; 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; the son reviles the father, the daughter rises against her mother, the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies are the people of his household (Micah 7:6); The face of the generation is like the face of a dog; sons have no shame in front of their fathers; and on what can one depend? Our Father in Heaven”(M Sotah 9:15; BT Sotah 49b, cf. Plato, The Republic 562b).
“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).
“Rabbi Simon said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshu’a son of Levi: מנצפ״ך (MNTsPK)—צוֹפִים (tsofim), Watchers [i.e., the visionary prophets], uttered them [i.e., the open form of the letters], Halakhah from Sinai [see BT Shabbat 104a]. Rabbi Yirmeyah said in the name of Rabbi Ḥiyya son of Abba: They are what the Watchers instituted [hence the mnemonic מנצפ״ך rather than כמנפ״ץ following the order of the Hebrew alphabet].
It once happened on a stormy day that the Sages did not attend the House of Assembly. Some children were there and they said, ‘Come and let us make a House of Assembly! What is the reason it is written מֵ״ם מֵ״ם נוּ״ן נוּ״ן צָדִּ״י צָדִּ״י פֵּ״א פֵּ״א כָּ״ף כָּ״ף [i.e., why do these letters have two forms]? These [teach that Torah was transmitted] from מַאֲמָר לְמַאֲמָר (ma’amar le-ma’amar), from utterance to utterance, נֶאֱמָן לְנֶאֱמָן (ne’eman le-ne’eman), from steadfast to steadfast, צַדִּיק לְצַדִּיק (tsaddiq le-tsaddiq), from righteous to righteous, פֶּה לְפֶה (peh le-feh), from mouth to mouth, and כַּף לְכָף (kaf le-khaf), from palm to palm…’” (Bereshit Rabbah 1:11).
“The words of the wise are כַּדָּרְבֹנוֹת (ka-darvonot), like goads (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Rabbi Berekiah the Kohen said: כְּכַדּוּר שֶׁל בָּנוֹת (ke-khadur shel banot), like a girls’ ball. As with a child’s סְפַיְרָה (sefairah), ball, which they pickup and throw about, this way and that, so too the words of the wise” (Bemidbar Rabbah 14:4, cf. Tanḥuma, Beha’alotḥa 15).
“The words of the wise are כַּדָּרְבֹנוֹת (ka-darvonot), like goads (Ecclesiastes 12:11)—כְּכַדּוּר שֶׁל בָּנוֹת (ke-khadur shel banot), like a girls’ ball. What is a ball turned from hand to hand which has never fallen to the ground? [Tradition,] thus: Not a single word has fallen of all the good words that YHWH your God has spoken (Joshua 23:14).
What is a ball tossed by hands which has never fallen to the ground? [קַבָּלָה (Qabbalah), tradition,] thus: ‘Moses קִבֵּל (qibbel), 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’ (M Avot 1:1)” (Qohelet Rabbah on 12:11, cf. Tanḥuma, Beha’alotḥa 15).
“Every man must conduct himself to employ this Name [i.e., this book] with fear of sin and humility. Love is first, desirable actions second, and fear 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 (Numbers 12:8) [cf. BT Ḥagigah 13a; Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed 1:71].
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 [cf. Pirqe de-Rabbi Eli’ezer 8; Zohar 1:52a; 2:55a], 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, by 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 started to stray from the way and to spread whoring [cf. Tanḥuma, Bereshit, 12:3; Job 21:14]. With great lust they gazed at the הַרַּכֶּבֶת הַכֹּחוֹת (ha-rakevet ha-koḥot), 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 Arpachshad [cf. Jubilees 9:4] who became very wise in it and Arpachshad handed it on to Methuselah [cf. Yalqut Shimoni, Bereshit, 5:42], 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 his academy 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 [on Shem as the youngest, yet, wisest of Noah’s sons, see BT Sanhedrin 69b. On Shem’s academy, see BT Makkot 23b; Avodah Zarah 36b; Bereshit Rabbah 63:7, 67:8].
Shem handed it on to his son Eber and Eber handed it on to Abraham and Eber handed it on to Isaac and Eber handed it on to Jacob [each generation receiving from the source]. And Abraham added wisdom and knowledge to it and handed it on to his son Isaac in exacting detail [cf. MS Vatican 299; Bahir §192]. And Jacob handed it on to his sons, but to Levi he gave the main part [see Rabbi Yosef Gikatilla, Sha’arei Tsedeq, 2b, on Deuteronomy 33:8]. 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 [cf. BT Yevamot 49b: ‘All the prophets gazed through a dim glass, whereas Moses our Rabbi gazed through a clear glass’; BT Rosh ha-Shanah 21b; Nedarim 38a: ‘Fifty gates of Binah were created in the world, and all were given to Moses save one, as it says, And You made him little less than אֱלֹהִים (Elohim) (Psalms 8:6)].
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 [see Leviticus 10:1–2; cf. Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana 26:9; Zohar 2:126a]. However, the קַבָּלָה (qabbalah), tradition, remained with Phinehas. And he delved to know more than all who preceded him and Phinehas handed it on to Joshua, although Joshua learned this teaching—this profound secret—from Moses [cf. Ba’al ha-Turim on Numbers 27:20: ‘And YHWH said to Moses, ‘Take you Joshua son of Nun, a man who has spirit within him, and lay your hand upon him… and you shall set something of you grandeur upon him in order that all the Israelite community will heed’ (Numbers 27:18–20)—מֵהוֹדְךָ (me-hodekha), something of your grandeur, is numerically equivalent to הַסוֹד (ha-sod), the secret’].
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 (Joshua 15:16–17; Judges 1:12–13).
Othniel handed it on to Ehud and Ehud to his sons but all of them were punished, however, he handed it on to Machir son of Jair and Machir handed it on to Eli and Eli to Samuel and Samuel delved to know like Moses, quality by quality [see BT Berakhot 31a on Psalms 99:6], and he arranged 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 in it Solomon became 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 hid it in the Temple archives. Then came the wise kings of Judah and took it out from there [see 2 Chronicles 17:3–9].
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 in the breach [see Ezra 10:14; cf. Psalms 106:23]. And Ezra and his court handed it on to Shemaiah and Avtalion, sons of Sennacherib king of Assyria who came to shelter under His wings [i.e., to convert, see BT Gittin 57b]. When the Sages saw that they were deserving of this name they handed it on 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 [see 1 Chronicles 3; 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 [see BT Sukkah 28a], and they plumbed its depths according to their reach [but not like Rabbi Neḥunia son of ha-Qannah, see Heikhalot Rabbati §203], 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 Rabbi Shim’on [son of Yoḥai] came, but from the days of Rabbi Shim’on it remained hidden and closed [cf. Zohar 1:224b–225a; 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 for a few later sages who grasped and understood it according to [mere] intellect such as the Geonim 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.
When it arose in thought before the Creator to create this world with this Name, to extend a cord (Isaiah 44:13), and stand Mount Moriah by His qualities—the mountain God desired for His dwelling (Psalms 68:17)—He stood the table at the north with all sorts of food, created orbs to praise His Name, and servants performing His pleasure (ibid. 103:21). And with this Name, hung the world over its position. He built the Temple such that through windows this very light, without end and without limit, might dwell and illuminate. From this Name pillars of understanding were rooted, walls of wisdom, and windows of light. With this Name the Temple was filled with illustrious זוֹהַר (zohar), radiance [see BT Menaḥot 86b; Tanḥuma (Buber), Beha’alotkha 2:1; Vayiqra Rabbah 31:7].
He is our God and we are His servants but there are none who may approach Him proudly to see His beauty, except three. Their sign is, שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם (shemi le-olam), My name forever [and thus am I invoked in all ages] (Exodus 3:17) [cf. BT Sanhedrin 38b on Exodus 23:21], and they are: שְׁמוּעִיאֵל (Shemui’el), מְטַטְרוֹן (Metatron), and יָהוֹאֵל (Yaho’el) [cf. Tiqqunei ha-Zohar 55, 89a]. [Since the gates of light have been closed from the time of Rabbi Shim’on son of Yoḥai] these three angels reveal secrets of the Name to created beings in order to make known His splendor and the triumph of His strength. It is the root of our Torah and the essence of our faith, the place of Rest. The first to make known the singularity of the Creator and His covenant with Israel. To make known His dominion with them and His partnership with them [see Zohar 1:5a]. It is named in memory of the mystery of His wisdom: סֵפֶר בְּרִית הַמְנוּחָה (sefer berit ha-menuḥa), The Book of the Covenant of Rest.
Happy the man whose strength is in You (Psalms 84:6)—to know His highways, His conduct; My God’s processions, my King in holiness (ibid. 68:25)—His wondrousness. And thus I have recounted the names of the Sages who have employed it [i.e., the secret of the great Name]….
And now you will be able to grasp and understand the strength of your God, the essence of His vast wonders, more than the ancients in their great wisdom. For the truth is that the first generations are very wise, the middle generations not so [wise], and the last generations are wiser than the first, for this accords with the nature and יְצִירַת הָעוֹלָם (yetsirat ha-olam), 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’; Rabbi Yeshayahu ben Mall di Trani, She’elot u-Teshuvot Rid, № 62]….
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, Eighth Vowel, Ninth Vowel).
“Rabbi Shim’on replied… ‘We have revealed what was not revealed to the ancient ones!’” (Zohar 3:287a).
Recount to the last generation (Psalms 48:14).