Elishaʿ ben Avuyah

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ELISHAʿ BEN AVUYAH (first half of the second century ce), also known as Aher (the "other"), a Palestinian tanna (sage), is unique among the Jewish sages of the first centuries of the common era. Even though he was thoroughly versed in rabbinic Judaism and had been the teacher of Meʾir (one of the leading sages of the latter half of the second century), Elishaʿ eventually rejected his heritage.

There are numerous accounts of the life of Elishaʿ as a rabbi and of his eventual rejection of the rabbinic teachings (B.T., ag 14b15b; J.T., ag 2.1, 77b-c; Ru. Rab. 6.4; Eccl. Rab. 7.8). The Tosefta names Elishaʿ, along with Ben ʿAzzʾai, Ben Zomaʾ and ʿAqivaʾ ben Yosef, as one who entered the "orchard" (pardes) where he "mutilated the shoots" (Tosefta ag 2.3), a phrase explained in several different ways in Talmudic literature (B.T., ag 15a; J.T., ag 77b; Sg. Rab. 1.4; Dt. Rab. 1.4).

Many have attempted to explain the apostasy of Elishaʿ in terms of the philosophical schools of his timeGnosticism, Epicureanism, and the likewhile some have seen the story of his life as presenting an opposition between Jewish and non-Jewish thought. Talmudic sources give several reasons why Elishaʿ left Judaism. One source claims that when Elishaʿ saw that the righteous suffer while the wicked were rewarded, he decided that following the laws of the Torah was of no avail. Elsewhere, the Talmud explains that while Elishaʿ was in his mother's womb, she passed by a pagan temple and the odor of the incense being burned for the idol within affected the embryo in her womb.

Elishaʿ is accused of committing a variety of sins. He is charged with killing rabbis, discouraging their disciples from continuing their studies, exacting forced labor from the Jews on the Sabbath during the persecutions of Hadrian, riding a horse on the Sabbath, and interrupting a Torah lesson on another Sabbath. The results of his actions are described in dramatic fashion. Elishaʿ claims to have heard a voice from heaven that proclaimed that all would be forgiven except for Elishaʿ. After Elishaʿ was buried, fire came forth from heaven and burned his grave.

Although the sources are unanimous in their picture of Elishaʿ as an apostate, they do not place him completely outside the rabbinical circle. Meʾir never lost respect for his teacher and continued to discuss the law with him even after his apostasy. When the daughter of Elishaʿ sought charity after her father's death, the sages stated, "Do not look at his deeds, look at his Torah," and allowed her to be supported by the community (J.T., Hag. 2.1, 77c). In addition, Avot de-Rabbi Natan contains a collection of sayings attributed to Elishaʿ that emphasize the value of good deeds.

Elishaʿ, along with Ben ʿAzzʾai, Ben Zomaʾ, and ʿAkivaʾ, is said to have entered the "orchard," or pardes (Tosefta ag 2:3). The ancient sages and scholars have interpreted this episode along three major lines: (1) it hints at the mystical practices in which these four sages were engaged; (2) it is a parable about these sages' investigations into a variety mystical practices; and (3) it points to various aspects of Torah study. The passage states that Elishaʿ "gazed and cut the shoots" and then cites Qoh 5:5. Generations of ancient sages and modern scholars have labored fruitlessly over this passage. The most commonly held scholarly opinion is that Elishaʿ became a Gnostic dualist. This is based on Elishaʿ's confrontation with Metatron, presumably in Heaven, in which he seems to have referred to two ruling powers (B.T. ag 15ab). The ancient mystical traditions combine a good deal of imagery, so that Elishaʿ plays a minor role in both the Hekhalot traditions and the Merkabah traditions, based on his experience in pardes and his conversations with Metatron.

The story of Elishaʿ's life, his grounding in Judaism during his youth, and his rejection of it during his adulthood resonated in the souls of a number of writers who confronted the impact of modernity following the Jewish Enlightenment. Meir Halevi Letteris (c. 18001871), Elisha Rodin (18881946), and Benjamin Silkiner (18821933) all utilize the image of Elishaʿ in their works. In addition, Milton Steinberg used the life of Elishaʿ as the basis for his novel As a Driven Leaf, in which the American rabbi raises the problem of Jewish identity in a non-Jewish environment and the importance of Jewish values in comparison with those of the secular culture.

See Also



For traditional views of Elishaʿ, see the Encyclopedia of Talmudic and Geonic Literature, edited by Mordechai Margalioth (Tel Aviv, 1945), vol. 1, pp. 105109; Aaron Hyman's Toledot tannaʾim ve-amoraʾim (1910; reprint, Jerusalem, 1964), vol. 1, pp. 155157; and Samuel Safrai's "Elisha ben Avuyah," in Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1971), vol. 6, cols. 668690. Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf (New York, 1939) is a superb novel based on the life and times of Elishaʿ. For a modern critical evaluation of the Elishaʿ material, see William S. Green's "Otherness Within: Towards a Theory of Difference in Rabbinic Judaism," in To See Ourselves as Others See Us, edited by Jacob Neusner and E. Frerichs (Chico, Calif., 1985); Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore and London, 1999), pp. 64104; Alan F. Segal, Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism (Leiden, 1977); and David J. Halperin, The Faces of the Chariot: Early Jewish Responses to Ezekiel's Vision (Tübingen, 1988). For a recent reconsideration of the Elishaʿ tradition, see Alon Goshen-Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac: The Rabbinic Invention of Elisha ben Abuya and Eleazar ben Arach (Stanford, Calif., 2000).

Gary G. Porton (1987 and 2005)