Ben Azzai, Simeon

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BEN AZZAI, SIMEON (early second century c.e.), tanna, generally referred to in talmudic literature simply as "Ben Azzai." In three places in the Mishnah (Zev. 1:3, Yad. 3:5, 4:2) he is referred to by his full name: Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai (according to Parma de Rossi 128 and others). Presumably a disciple of *Joshua b. Hananiah, he transmitted rulings in his name (Yoma 2:3), brought a proof in support of R. Joshua's position (Yev 4:13), and interpreted an obscure tradition before R. Joshua (Par. 1:1). He is found disagreeing with R. Akiva (Shek. 3:1, 4:5) and he transmitted a tradition in the name of R. Joshua in the presence of R. Akiva, who changed his ruling in line with this tradition (Taan 4:4). In the Bavli he is called a "disciple-colleague" of R. Akiva (bb 158b). It was said of him: "With the passing of Ben Azzai, diligent scholars passed from the earth" (Sot. 9:15). According to tradition Ben Azzai was one of the four "who entered the Garden" (pardes). According to Tosefta Ḥag. 2:3, "he caught a glimpse and died," while his companion Beb Zoma went mad as a result of this mystical experience. In the Jerusalem Talmud (Ḥag. 2:1 77b) their roles are reversed. Although he declared that whoever abstains from procreation is regarded as though he had shed blood (Tos. Yev 8:7), he himself never married so as not to be distracted from his studies. When accused of not practicing what he preached, he answered: "What shall I do if my soul yearns for Torah? The world can be perpetuated by others" (ibid.). The Bavli, nevertheless, reports in one place that he married, but separated from his wife (Sot. 4b), and according to another tradition he was betrothed to Akiva's daughter who, as her mother had done, made it a condition of marriage that her husband devote himself to the study of the Torah (Ket. 63a, but cf. S. Friedman, jsij, 3 (2004) 1–39, and Tosefot to Ket. 63a). His aphorisms included: "Be quick in carrying out a minor commandment as in the case of a major one, and flee from transgression; for one good deed leads to another good deed and one transgression leads to another transgression; for the reward for a good deed is another good deed and the reward for a transgression is another transgression" (Avot 4:2). While R. Akiva said that the verse "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" (Lev. 19:18) is a great principle of the Torah, Ben Azzai declared that the verse "This is the book of the generations of man" (Gen. 5:1) embodied an even greater principle, i.e., of the common origin of mankind (Sifra 7:4 and parallel passages). Ben Azzai was not referred to as "rabbi" and was not described as one of the "sages," but rather as one of the "disciples" who argued in the presence of the sages (Sanh. 17b). Because of his reputation, later generations of scholars used to underscore their own scholarship by claiming: "I am like Ben Azzai in the marketplace of Tiberias" (Kid. 20a). Ben Azzai was renowned for his saintliness; it was said: "He who sees Ben Azzai in his dreams may look forward to achieving saintliness" (Ber. 57b). He is numbered by some among the *Ten Martyrs (Lam. R. 2:2, no. 4).


Bacher, Tann; Hyman, Toledot, 1206–09.

[Zvi Kaplan]