Incarcerated: Imprisoned Jewish Leaders


Some famous prisoners:

Abraham: imprisoned by Nimrod for ten years (Talmud, Bava Batra 91a).
Joseph: incarcerated in the royal jail of Pharaonic Egypt for twelve years (Genesis 39:20).
Rabbi Akiva: imprisoned by the Romans for teaching Torah (Talmud, Berachot 61b).
Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai: confined to a cave for thirteen years after the Romans placed a price on his head.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi: held for 52 days in the Peter-Paul Fortress in Petersburg on charges of treason against the Russian Czar. Released on Kislev 19, 5559 (1798).

The common denominator of these “prisoners” is that each one’s life and teachings constituted a milestone in the dissemination of Torah. Abraham commenced the “age of Torah.”[1] Joseph was the link between the Torah of the Patriarchs and the generations of exile in Egypt.[2] Rabbi Akiva was the central figure in the transmission of the “Oral Torah”—the body of Torah law and interpretation that is the key to understanding and applying the “Written Torah”—from Sinai to Diaspora Jewry.[3] Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, is our source for the Kabbalah , the mystical dimension of Torah. And Rabbi Schneur Zalman was the founder of Chabad Chassidism, the movement that fused the rational and mystical streams of Torah into a unified, comprehensive program for life.[4] In each of these cases, imprisonment served as the incubation period for the revelation of a new, unprecedented dimension of G-d’s wisdom in our world.

Indeed, confinement always precedes a new beginning—consider the circumstances of every birth (under Torah law, a newborn infant has the legal status of a newly-released prisoner, since “there is no greater prison than the womb”[5]). Thus the prophet Ezekiel compares the experience of galut (our current state of exile and spiritual displacement) to a pregnancy, and the redemption to the birth that follows.

Confinement—whether in the womb, in galut, or in an actual prison—is a time of external limitation. But it is also a time of inner foment, a time that can be utilized as a launch point for the infinite possibilities of a new birth.

Based on a “19th of Kislev” entry in the Rebbe’s journal[6].


[1]. “The world exists for six thousand years: two thousand years of chaos (e.g. the Flood, the Tower of Babel), two thousand years of Torah (beginning from when Abraham began speading the knowledge of G-d at age 52), and two thousand years of the messianic era (i.e, the world has the potential to attain the ultimate perfection, and Moshiach is destined to come in this period)”—Talmud, Avodah Zarah 9a.

[2]. See Rashi on Genesis 37:3.

[3]. “All mishnayot, unless otherwise specified, are from Rabbi Meir; all toseftot, unless otherwise specified, are from Rabbi Nechemiah; all of sifra, unless otherwise specified, is from Rabbi Judah; all of sifri, unless otherwise specified, is from Rabbi Shimon; and all of the above is according to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva”—Talmud, Sanhedrin 86a.

[4]. Editor’s note: According to the Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot 168), Moses, who transmitted the Torah to humanity, was also a prisoner (of his future father-in-law, Jethro) in Midian for ten years.

[5]. Talmud, Moed Katan 14a.

[6]. Reshimot #1, p. 10.



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