Eleazar ben Arakh

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ELEAZAR BEN ARAKH (second half of the first century c.e.), tanna. He was one of the most outstanding disciples of R. *Johanan b. Zakkai, who described him as "an overflowing spring," i.e., an inexhaustible source of innovative interpretation and insight into the meaning of the Torah. According to one tradition, he was considered to "outweigh all the sages of Israel" (Avot 2:8). Relatively few traditions are preserved in his name in the tannaitic sources. To his teacher's question, "Which is the good way to which a man should cleave?" Eleazar answered, "A good heart," a reply which, in R. Johanan's opinion, embodied all those given by his other pupils (Avot. 2:9). In addition he is associated with two other aggadic statements: the one "Be eager to study the Torah, and know what you should answer to an unbeliever …" (Avot 2:14); and the other that God humbled Himself by speaking to Moses from the burning bush and not from some high mountain or elevated place (Mekh. Sby, to 3:5; cf. Mid. Hag. to Ex. 3:2). Only two of his halakhic statements are cited in tannaitic sources (Tosef. Ter. 5:15; tj, Yev. 2:1, 3c, and parallel passages; Sifra 2:8; Hul. 106a). According to two early traditions (Mech. of Rabbi Shimon, 158–159; Tos. Hag. 2:1), Eleazar engaged, together with his teacher, in mystical speculation concerning the Divine Chariot (see *Merkabah Mysticism). While this story may have an historical foundation, the literary figure of R. Eleazar – the "overflowing spring" – may also have been used here by later story tellers to exemplify Hag. 2:1, which permits mystical speculation only in the case of "a sage who understands by himself." According to the Mech. of Rabbi Shimon, R. Eleazar expounded the secrets of the Chariot "on the basis of his own understanding" until "a fire surrounded him" – a sign of divine confirmation of his experience. The story as related by the Tosefta is a far more sober affair, involving a form of "scholastic" mysticism, which takes place wholly on the earthly plane, and which was strictly supervised by Rabban Johanan. The Babylonian Talmud (following the lead of the Jerusalem Talmud) combines and elaborates these two traditions, relating that while they were traveling together, Eleazar asked R. Johanan to teach him the secrets of the Chariot, to which the latter replied: "Have I not taught you that such speculations may not be conveyed to an individual, unless he is a scholar who is able to think and speculate for himself?" Having obtained R. Johanan's permission, Eleazar began to expound the subject, whereupon fire immediately descended from heaven and enveloped all the trees in the field, which broke forth in song. R. Johanan then kissed his pupil and said: "Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel, who has granted our father Abraham a descendant capable of understanding, inquiring into, and expounding the Divine Chariot" (Hag. 14b). Later traditions tell a story of his having followed his wife's advice to go to Emmaus instead of accompanying R. Johanan from Jerusalem to Jabneh. As a result of his isolation he is reputed to have forgotten his learning in Emmaus, "a place of bath-houses and luxury" (Shab. 147b; arn 14:30; arn2 29, 3; Eccl. R. 7:7). It is likely, however, that these traditions, rather than reflecting the historical truth of Rabbi Eleazar's own life, reflect an attempt to explain the paucity of traditions preserved in his name despite the lavish praise bestowed upon him by his teacher as recorded in Avot.


Geiger, in: jzwl, 9 (1871), 45–49; Bacher, Tann, 1 (19032), 69–72; Frankel, Mishnah, 95f.; Alon, Toledot, 1 (19582), 63. add. bibliography: A. Goshen-Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac (2000); S. Wald, in: jsij (2006).

[Shmuel Safrai /

Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]

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Eleazar ben Arakh

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Eleazar ben Arakh