The gemorah tells us (Gittin 56) that when the Roman Caesar Nero led his army into battle against Yerushalayim he wanted to determine if he would be successful in destroying her. He therefore shot arrows in all four directions and they all fell towards Yerushalayim. He took this as a heavenly sign that he would be victorious. He then found a young boy and asked him to expound upon a posuk . The child read him the verse “and I will take revenge of Edom, through the Jewish people”. He thereupon said to himself, “G-d wants me to destroy His House and later avenge Himself in me?” He immediately decided to convert and become a Jew, and it was from him that the great Tanna Rebbi Meir descended.
His actual name was Rebbi Nehora’i (which is the Aramaic equivalent for “light”) and so he was called Rebbi Meir because “he lit up the eyes of the chachomim with his Halacha” (Eruvin 13:).
While he was a student of the famed Rebbi Akiva, from whom he received his semicha at a very young age, he also studied Torah under the tutelage of Rabbi Yishmoel and Elisha ben Avuya (usually referred to as “Acher”).
When he was much older, he was ordained once again by Rebbi Bava ben Buta who was riddled to death by more than three hundred spears by Roman soldiers for defying the Roman decree forbidding rabbinical ordination. Rebbi Meir as well as Rebbi Yehudah, Rebbi Yossi, Rebbi Elozar bar Rebbi Shimon and Rebbi Nechemiah where able to escape with their lives and it was through them that the unbroken chain of the oral tradition was passed on to all oncoming generations.
He was married to Bruriah the daughter of Rebbi Chaninah ben Tradyon, who is the only woman quoted in the gemorah for her great brilliance and wisdom.
When Rabbi Meir once prayed that the wicked people who where constantly harassing and annoying him should die, she told him that he should rather pray that they do teshuvah. He took her advice and, sure enough, they repented and became G-d fearing Jews.
When she saw a student studying silently, she scolded him by saying that only by studying out loud does one remember his learning.
She mocked the words of the chachomim that said that women were “light-minded” and are easily influenced. Rabbi Meir wanted to prove her wrong, so he put up one of his students to test her. He kept on trying to seduce her to sin with him until she finally consented. Rebbi Meir thereupon disguised himself as the student and now proved to her that chazal were right on target when they said that “noshim daatom kalos”. The entire episode backfired when she committed suicide out of great shame. Rabbi Meir now left the country in terrible embarrassment on account of what happened.
He lived right after the destruction of the Bais Ha’mikdosh, a time of terrible Roman persecution. He saw twenty four thousand students of Rebbi Akiva die in a devastating plague between Pesach and Shevuos. Both his father-in-law and his Rebbi where brutally murdered by the hated and evil Roman government for defying their decree not to teach or study the Torah. Rebbi Chaninah ben Tradyon was burned at the stake wrapped in a Sefer Torah, while Rebbi Akiva was tortured to death with metal scrapers that tore at his skin mercilessly.
His wife’s sister was jailed in a prison filled with harlots and immorality. Upon the pleas of his wife, Rebbi Meir set out to see if he would be able to rescue her. “If she is not guilty of an immoral act then I’m sure that a miracle will occur and I will be able to set her free” he said. He dressed himself up as a distinguished Roman nobleman and bribed his way into the prison compound and tried to seduce her to see if she was truly righteous. When she resisted all his attempts, he realized that she merited a miracle. He bribed the guard to let her out, but the guard was afraid that his superiors would hold him responsible if she would be found missing. Rebbi Meir assured him that if he ever gets caught, all he has to do is cry out “May the G-d of Meir answer me” and he would immediately be saved. As proof that this incantation would really work, the guard untied some of the ferocious dogs which began to attack Rebbi Meir. The moment Rebbi Meir uttered these words, the dogs turned into little puppies. Upon seeing this miracle, the guard released her. Sure enough, her escape was soon found out and the warden was taken out to be hung. As they began pulling upon the rope he cried out “May the G-d of Meir answer me” whereupon the rope snapped and he fell to the ground. When they questioned him as to what he had said, he told them the entire story. Rebbi Meir was immediately placed on the most wanted list and a handsome reward for his arrest was offered. A large bust of his face was put up at the entrance gate so that he could be easily recognized.
One day as he was walking down the street, someone recognized him and gave chase. One version of the story goes that Eliyahu Ha’novi disguised himself as a beautiful harlot and he ran into her arms and embraced her. Realizing that this couldn’t be Rebbi Meir, for such a holy man would never act in such a manner, they let him go.
Rebbi Meir was a Sofer and earned but three selo’im a day. One he used for food, the other for clothing and the third he gave to poor scholars. His Rebbi, Rebbi Yishmoel once warned him to be extremely careful when writing a Sefer Torah for even a single mistake can destroy worlds. (Eruvin).
He encouraged parents to teach their children a clean, simple and easy trade. “Wealth and poverty depends on G-d and not on one’s profession,” he would tell them. He advises us to lessen the time we occupy with business and rather use it for Torah study. (Avos perek 4 , mishnah 12). “One must be extremely humble before any man. If one wastes even a single moment of precious Torah study time, then he will eventually be burdened with many other things that will occupy his time. Those who learn with great effort will be richly rewarded,” he would constantly tell his students. “Don’t judge the contents of a jug by its outside looks,” he would often say.
He was a very tall man and reached to the shoulders of Rebbi Tarfon who was the tallest man of his generation.
One Friday night a woman came home very late because she enjoyed listening to Rebbi Meir’s Friday night lectures. Her husband was furious and demanded that she go to Shul and spit into Rebbi Meir’s eye. Rebbi Meir, in his great holiness, realized the problem and made believe that his eye ached him . ‘Please”, he said to the woman, “I need you to spit in my eye seven times so that it will be cured of my great pain,” he asked of her. After finally convincing her to do so, he told her to go back and tell her husband that not only did you spit once but you spit seven times in all. He would do absolutely anything to bring peace between man and wife no matter how he would have to degrade himself.
He suffered great personal tragedy. When his two dearest sons passed away on the holy day of Shabbos, his wife covered them up and didn’t tell him anything about it so as not to sadden him on this joyful day. When he came home and asked her if she had seen them, she brushed his question aside and said that they were probably in the study hall. After Havdala she asked him, “What if someone gave me a great treasure to hold for him and he now demands that I return it, must I give it back?” ” Why of course,” was his reply, not understanding what the question was all about. She now took his hand and led him into the room where the two dead children lay. When she removed the cover and he realized the great tragedy he began to cry. “Didn’t you just say that we must return the treasure to its owner?” she consoled him. “G-d gave them to us and now G-d took them back. May His name be blessed,” -for didn’t Rebbi Meir teach us that “one is required to bless G-d for the bad just like for the good”. (Berochos 48:) And like his Rebbi, Rebbi Akiva, he was always in the habit of saying that “all Hashem does is for the good”. (Berochos 60:) It was only with such faith and trust in Hashem that life could go on during those terrible times.
His arguments were so brilliant that even his own contemporaries could not get to the very depths of his thoughts and therefore the halacha did not follow his opinion. His arguments were so fierce that it would seem as if he “would uproot giant mountains and crush them against one another” . One could learn even from seeing Rebbi Meir’s cane. He was a master at giving mosholim-fables- in order to get his point across. Any mishnah left nameless usually means that it follows the opinion of Rebbi Meir – for the rule is “stam mishneh Rebbi Meir”.
He had an amazing insight into people’s names. Once when he and some of his friends stayed at an inn, he suspected that the innkeeper was a thief and therefore hid his money in a nearby cemetery. Sure enough, his friend’s monies were all stolen and his was the only money not taken. When they asked him what it was that had tipped him off as to the innkeeper’s dishonesty, he replied that he had recognized him by his name which was Kiddor. There is a posuk which reads ” Ki dor tapuchos haymoh” ,which shows that the name is related to dishonest people.
He once stayed at an inn where the owner would wake the guests at night and tell them to go on their way. In fact, the owner himself would offer to escort the guests and was in cahoots with a band of robbers who would then rob the guests of all they owned. When the owner asked Rebbi Meir to leave in the middle of the night, he replied that he had to wait for his brother to arrive. He told the owner that his brother’s name was Ki Tov and that he was staying at a nearby shul, The owner went there at once and called out his name but no one answered. He waited there all night and kept calling “Ki Tov, Ki Tov”, but no one arrived.
In the morning when Rabbi Meir began to leave, the innkeeper asked him where his brother was and why he doesn’t wait for him? He replied “the light of the day is my brother and it is for him that I have waited!”. (Medrash)
When he saw his Rebbi, Elisha ben Avuya (referred to as Acher) going astray, he tried his very best to reason with him so that he does Teshuvah but his rebbi refused to listen . “I’ve heard a heavenly voice call out that I’m too far gone and my Teshuvah, will not be accepted”, he replied. Little did his Rebbi realize that this was only being done in order to deter him from doing Teshuvah. Yet as we all know, the doors of Teshuvah are never closed! When “Acher” died, the heavenly court refused him entry into Gan Eden because of his many sins and saw it unfit for him to be put into gehenom because of his greatness in Torah learning. Thereupon Rabbi Meir prayed that he be put into gehenom so that he will eventually be able to enter Gan Eden. Upon Rebbi Meir’s death, one could see smoke rising from “Acher’s” grave. When Rebbi Yochanan died the smoke stopped; a heavenly sign that his punishment was over.
Rebbi Meir taught his students that Torah was the most important thing in life and that anyone who learns Torah for its own sake-lishmoh- would be greatly rewarded. (See the first mishnah in Mesechta Avos perek 6, for all the good things one merits by learning Torah lishmoh.)
Being such a great and holy man, he simply couldn’t understand how someone could succumb to the yetzer horah’s temptations until he was taught a powerful lesson. While walking along the banks of a river he suddenly saw the most beautiful woman standing on the opposite side. He lost all control of himself and tried everything in his power to cross over to the other side. It was only then that the woman vanished and he shamefully realized that it was just a mirage and that he nearly failed the test. This taught him that no matter how holy a person can be, one can never trust himself until the day of his death. One must forever be on guard lest the yetzer horah get the better of him. Never challenge Hashem to test you. In fact, the greater the person, the stronger and more powerful is his yetzer horah. (see Mesechta Sukka). If it weren’t for Hashem’s constant help, man would not be able to fight the yetzer horah on his own. And so a person is led along the path he himself chooses. The decision is ours-so we had better wisen up. When we open up our hearts even as much as the size of a pin hole to serve Hashem , then Hashem will help us along by opening our hearts to the size of the entrance to the Ulam.
While Rebbi Meir died someplace in Asia, he asked that he be buried in Eretz Yisroel. And so he lies buried on the shores of the Kinneret only a short distance from the city of Tveryah. Thousands of people flock to his holy grave site and pray “may the G-d of Meir answer me”. It has become a worldwide custom to give tzedokah to kollelim in Eretz Yisroel in which people are immersed in Torah day and night and pray that in their great zchus one’s prayers be answered. These tzedokos are called Rebbi Meir Ba’al Ha’nes. Many people claim that they have been helped on account of it.