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Eliʿezer ben Hyrcanus


ELIʿEZER BEN HYRCANUS , also known as Eliʿezer the Great, but usually simply as Rabbi Eliʿezer, was a Jewish sage of the late first and early second centuries ce, the first generation of the tannaitic period. The legends surrounding Eliʿezer's beginnings, although contradictory, are united in seeking to create an aura of greatness. According to the dominant tradition, Eliʿezer, like ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef, was an adult before he began his studies. Despite this, he was soon found to be "explicating matters that no ear had ever before heard." Elsewhere, Eliʿezer is described as a child prodigy, and those who saw him as a child predicted that he would one day be a great sage. The legends about Eliʿezer convey a close association between him and Yoanan ben Zakkʾai, whom Eliʿezer and his colleague Yehoshuʿa ben Hananyah were entrusted to smuggle in a coffin from the embattled Jerusalem. The same association is emphasized in Avot (2.8), where Yoanan declares that Eliʿezer's great wisdom outweighs that of all the sages of Israel.

Eliʿezer's statements regarding himself reflect what might be termed an intense, even obsessive work ethic. He describes his extraordinary perseverance in Torah study (B.T., Suk. 28a), and in the same tradition he claims never to have uttered a profane word. Elsewhere Eliʿezer voices suspicion of sexuality. Most crucial, perhaps, is the claim of extreme conservatism in matters of tradition ascribed to Eliʿezer; he declares that he "never uttered a word that he did not hear from his teacher" (ibid.). Although not literally true, this accurately portrays the conservatism of Eliʿezer's legal opinions. Eliʿezer's legal concerns closely parallel those of his Pharisaic predecessors, to the extent that they can be reconstructed. His exegetical method is also often conservative, a tendency that sometimes leads him to conclusions that are harshly literal.

A picture of Eliʿezer's persona is derived to a great extent from reports of an event that led to his ban (erem ) from rabbinical circles. The traditions that describe the precipitating event (B.T., B.M. 59b; J.T. Moʿed Q. 3.1, 81cd), composed long after it occurred, are not unified in their description, but they agree that the immediate dispute concerned the ritual purity of a certain oven ("the oven of ʿAkhnʾai"), and they appear to agree that Eliʿezer's refusal to submit to the will of the majority was the cause for his ban. This is a compelling explanation because contemporary conditions demanded cooperation with the new rabbinic center of power, the authority of which Eliʿezer was challenging. Still, other explanations for Eliʿezer's exclusion developed. One suggests that Eliʿezer's offense was his ascription to beit Shammai (the school of Shammai). Although widely repeated, there is no support for this conclusion in earlier sources. Another possible explanation is suggested by an enigmatic tradition that speaks of Eliʿezer's arrest for dealings with minim ("sectarians"; Christians?). Whatever the reason, the effect of the ban is felt in a wide variety of sources. This is particularly true in the traditions that describe Eliʿezer's death (where Yehoshuʿa arose and declared "the vow is annulled"), but it extends even to the Mishnah itself, where a few of Eliʿezer's views are explicitly suppressed.

Despite this, Eliʿezer's immense contribution to the rabbinic corpus is indicative of the respect that his genius commanded. Eliʿezer is mentioned by name in the Mishnah more often than any of his contemporaries. His opinions are often debated in the Talmuds, and despite his ban, they form the basis of halakhic (legal) decisions. Legend reflects the same conclusion. Even the text that describes the ban demonstrates heavenly support for Eliʿezer's view, support that is repeated elsewhere. Much later, respect for Eliʿezer led to the pseudonymous attribution of the Midrashic work Pirqei de-Rabbi Eliʿezer (ninth century) to him.

Eliʿezer's contributions are particularly prevalent in the areas of purity and sacrifice, perhaps a reflection of his belief that the Temple would soon be rebuilt. He was a zealot for the circumcision ritual, preparation for which he permitted even on the Sabbath. In matters of commandment and transgression he was concerned for the act, and not the intention.

See Also



By far the best work on Eliʿezer is Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: The Tradition and the Man, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1973), by Jacob Neusner. Though one might dispute individual interpretations or conclusions, Neusner's work is comprehensive and his method superior to any employed previously. A useful synthetic analysis of Eliʿezer's legal traditions is Itzchak Gilath's Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: A Scholar Outcast (Ramat Gan, Israel, 1984). A full review of the literature on Eliʿezer is given in volume 2 of Neusner's book, pages 249286.

New Sources

Goldin, Judah. "On the Account of the Banning of R. Eliezer ben Hyrqanus: An Analysis and Proposal." JANES 1617 (1987): 8597.

Gutoff, Joshua. "The Necessary Outlaw: The Catastrophic Excommunication & Paradoxical Rehabilitation of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus." Journal of Law and Religion 11 (19941995): 733748.

Jaffé, Dan. "Les relations entre les Sages et les judéo-chrétiens durant l'époque de la Mishna; R. Eliézer ben Hyrcanus et Jacob le 'min' disciple de Jésus de Nazareth." Pardès 35 (2003): 5777.

David Kraemer (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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