Surprising Olam HaBa Members by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The Gemara (Ta’anit 22a) relates a remarkable episode:

Rabi Beroka Hoza'ah used to frequent the market at Bei Lapat where Eliyahu HaNavi often appeared to him[1]. Once he asked [Elijah], “Is there anyone in this market who is a ‘Ben Olam HaBa?’” He replied, “No.” Meanwhile Eliyahu caught sight of a man wearing black shoes (which was not the Jewish manner of dress; see Bava Kama 59b and Tosafot ad. loc. s.v. Havah) and who had no thread of blue on the corners of his garment (i.e. he was not wearing Tzitzit) and Elijah exclaimed, This man is a "Ben Olam HaBa," has a share in the world to come. Rabi Beroka ran after him and asked him, What is your occupation? And the man replied: “Go away and come back tomorrow.” Next day he asked him again, “What is your occupation?” And he replied: “I am a warden and I keep the men and women separate and I place my bed between them so that they may not come to sin; when I see a Jewish girl upon whom the Nochrim cast their eyes I risk my life and save her. Once there was amongst us a betrothed girl upon whom the Nochrim cast their eyes. I therefore took lees of [red] wine and put them in her skirt and I told them that she was unclean.” [Rabi Beroka further] asked the man, “Why have you no fringes and why do you wear black shoes?” He replied: “That the non Jews amongst whom I move may not know that I am a Jew, so that when a harsh decree is made [against Jews] I inform the rabbis and they pray [to God] and the decree is annulled.” He further asked him, “When I asked you, ‘What is your occupation,’ why did you say to me, ‘Go away now and come back tomorrow?’” He answered, They had just issued a harsh decree and I said I would first go and acquaint the rabbis of it so that they might pray to God.

When [they were conversing] two [men] passed by and [Elijah] remarked, “These two are also Benei Olam HaBa.” Rabi Beroka then approached and asked them, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters, when we see men depressed we cheer them up; furthermore when we see two people quarrelling we strive to make peace between them.”

Two Preliminary Insights

Before we explore the primary themes of the story, two important preliminary insights will be discussed. First, Eliyahu HaNavi’s first response to Rabi Beroka’s question is shocking – there was no one present who was entitled to a share in Olam Haba! Doesn’t this seem overly harsh? The rest of the story also teaches that only a very limited number of people will merit a share in Olam HaBa. Doesn’t the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) teach that “Kol Yisrael Yeish Lahem Olam HaBa,” every Jew has a share in Olam Haba?! A commonly offered answer to this question is that while all of Israel have a share in Olam HaBa, many of them require a one year period of rehabilitation in Geihinom to rectify the serious wrongs they did in this world (see Rosh HaShanah 17a). Rabi Beroka, on the other hand, was inquiring as to who will be eligible to enter immediately without the need for temporary rectification.

Nonetheless, this story is exceptionally demanding, insisting on exemplary behavior to escape a visit to Geihinom. This Aggadah is an illustration of an idea articulated by Rav Soloveitchik regarding Aggadah. The secular Jewish author Chaim N. Bialik complained that Halachah was overly demanding and that Aggadah was a welcome liberation from the severe Halachah. Rav Soloveitchik responded that on the contrary, the Halachah is comparable to a merciful parent who is flexible and is open to a degree interpretation and exceptions (Sha’at HaDechak etc.). Aggadah, argues Rav Solveitchik is much harsher than Halachah. Our story illustrates the cogency of Rav Soloveitchik’s insight.

A second preliminary point is  a very important life lesson that emerges from Rashi to our story. Rashi explains the word jesters (“Baduchi”) as “happy people who make other people happy.” Rashi simply could have explained Baduchi as people who make others happy. Instead, Rashi adds that the Baduchi are happy. This teaches an incredibly important lesson: if one wishes to make others happy, he must first be happy himself. Interestingly, we find a similar idea implicit in the Torah when it commands us, (VaYikra 19:18) “VeAhavta LeRei’acha Kamocha,” to love others as one loves himself. This similarly teaches that in order to love others, one begins with first loving himself.

This is also reminiscent of the instructions on airplanes to first place oxygen masks on oneself in case of emergency before assisting others to place on their masks. One cannot help others unless he is first in basic order.

The Primary Lessons of this Story

The most important question one must pose on this and many other Aggadic narratives is simply what lessons are Chazal seeking to impart. In our incident we must ask what lesson is communicated by teaching that we would be surprised to learn who are entitled to immediate access to Olam HaBa. I suggest that we may glean four very important lessons from this episode.

First, the story fits very well with some central “Chassidic” ideas. Chassidut teaches that every Jew can excel in spirituality, not only those blessed with the talent and opportunity to become Torah scholars. In fact, in our story it is the warden and the jesters who are of the highest spiritual rank and the local scholars are not even mentioned. We should also note that the warden’s deep devotion to the local sages (regarding whom he cannot waste a second to inform them of  trouble brewing for the Jews) and his trust in the efficacy of their Tefilot, also constitute major Chassidic themes. The story also teaches a theme sounded by Chassidut that appearances (in our case black shoes and no Tzitzit) can be deceiving and sometimes the least expected individual can be the one of the highest spiritual rank.

A second Chassidic lesson that emerges from our story is that one can earn his Olam HaBa from his efforts to earn a living for his family and not only from more predictable spiritual endeavors such as Tefilah and Talmud Torah. One would hardly think that serving as a prison warden or town jester could serve as a means to earn a prominent place in Olam HaBa. Our story teaches us not to view our professional endeavors as a time out or break from his spiritual pursuits. Rather, if conducted properly, one’s professional life can constitute an integral part and extension of his spiritual life. For an expression of a similar idea see Tosafot to Berachot 11b s.v. SheKevar.

A third point is that our story is similar to a Gemara (Bava Batra 10b) which relates what transpired when Yosef the son of Rav Yehoshua died and was restored to life. His father asked him what he saw during the time he was dead. Yosef answered, “He saw an upside down world; those who were prominent in this world were the least prominent in Olam HaBa while those who were on the lowest rungs of society in this world were on the highest rungs in Olam HaBa.” In our story as well, it is difficult to imagine that the warden and the jesters were regarded as high ranking members of society. Nonetheless, they advance first and furthest in Olam HaBa.

A fourth insight is that these stories constitute the exact opposite of the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, for which the Gemara (Gittin 55b) states, Jerusalem was destroyed. The Gemara records:

It happened this way: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man who gave the party found Bar Kamtza there he said, “See, you are my enemy; what are you doing here? Get out!” Said the other: “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” Said the host: “Absolutely not.” “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” The host refused. “Then let me pay for the whole party.” Still the host refused, and took him by the hand and threw him out.

Rav Yehuda Amital explained that the names Kamtza and Bar Kamtza express the essence of the problem with society at the time of the Churban. The Jewish community, explains Rav Amital, was splintered into cliques, Kemitzot (Kamatz means limited). Yerushalayim, by contrast, is intended to unify our people as it says in Tehilim 122:3, “Yerushalayim HaBenuyah KeIr SheChubrah Lah Yachdav,” “Yerushalayim that is built as a city which is united together.” Thus, when the Yerushalayim community splintered into cliques, it was not fulfilling its mandate and no longer deserved to exist.

The warden and the jesters represent the antithesis of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The warden made great efforts to help the least regarded in society, the ones condemned to prison. The jesters helped those who were depressed, who are not necessarily the most highly respected members of society. Kamtza and Bar Kamtza represent the ugly behavior of those who wish to advance their standing in society by limiting their association to those who will help them in their senseless pursuit. The warden and the jesters were eager to help anyone regardless of their stature. The Kamtzas and Bar Kamtzas of society will have to painfully rectify their behavior before gaining entry into Olam HaBa. Only those whose behavior mirrors that of the warden and the jesters will be welcomed into Olam HaBa without need to correct their souls.


The Aggadic portions do not serve as entertaining diversions from the “real” business of the Gemara, the Halachah. Rather, Chazal intend the stories to impart life lessons that create very high expectations of us and demand that we make the necessary corrections if we have not done so already. The story of the warden and the jesters are not simply a heartwarming tale about kindly Jews; rather their behavior establishes a model for which we expected to emulate (see Yoma 38a, where the Gemara teaches that one’s Jew’s outstanding behavior places demands upon the behavior of all other Jews).

[1] The Gemara records many incidents of Chachamim interacting with Eliyahu HaNavi. Being that Eliyahu HaNavi (according to Chazal and most Meforashim) merely ascended to the heavens but did not die in the full sense, he “commutes” between heaven and earth, spending time in both places. Thus, Eliyahu frequently provides Chazal with “insider information” regarding that which transpires in the heavenly sphere. His messages are a sort of Nevu’ah for the post-prophetic era. 

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