Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Gamaliel [guh-MAY-lee-ull]
n. any great teacher

[Hebrew name]

The only person I've ever heard of with the name Gamaliel is Warren G. Harding, the G. standing for Gamaliel. Until I came across this passage in Edmund Morris's biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, where powerful Senator Mark Hanna (a political opponent of Teddy Roosevelt's) explained to the president proper protocol, it never occurred to me that a Gamaliel was anything but a name:
Hanna: You had better pass around the room, Mr. President, and shake hands with each one.
T.R.: All right, I was just wondering which was the best way to get at them.
Hanna: You will have no trouble.... They are all anxious to see you.
T.R.: (bowing to Hanna) I have sat at the feet of Gamaliel.

Laughter warmed the room as he made his circuit.

Two days later, the committee came out of conference and expressed almost unanimous support for the President. As an endorsement, it was neither binding nor, indeed, expressed with any particular enthusiasm. But clearly Gamaliel had laid down his staff.

Where Gamaliel came to mean "great teacher" is from the Christian Bible. (There was a different, unrelated Gamaliel mentioned in the Torah, Numbers 10:23, "And over the host of the tribe of the children of Manasseh was Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur.") According to the Acts of the Apostle (Paul), Gamaliel was Paul's teacher. Though it is not mentioned in the Bible, this Gamaliel was also supposedly the grandson of the famous Rabbi Hillel:
I am verily a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as ye all are this day.

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