Eleazar ben Azariah

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ELEAZAR BEN AZARIAH (first–second century c.e.), one of the sages of Jabneh. He was one of the most prominent tannaim and is quoted dozens of times in the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the tannaitic Midrashim, his statements touching on all areas of halakhah and aggadah. A priest, it is said that he could trace his ancestry back ten generations to Ezra (tj, Yev. 1:6, 3a–6). Like many prominent tannaim, events mentioned briefly or in passing in the earlier sources were expanded and elaborated in the later talmudic literature. For example, Ben Azzai mentions in three places (Zev. 1:3; Yad. 3:5; 4:2) "the day that they seated R. Eleazar ben Azariah in the yeshivah." The Mishnah itself associates a series of important discussions and decisions with "that day" (Yad. 4:1–4). "That day" afterwards became the focus for a number of other important events mentioned or hinted at in tannaitic literature. For example, on that day the tractate Eduyyot was supposed to have been formulated (see however Epstein, Tanna'im, 422–4). "That day" was associated with the stories surrounding the removal of *Rabban Gamaliel ii from office. It is told that when Rabban Gamaliel was deposed as nasi because of his autocratic behavior toward Joshua b. Hananiah, Eleazar was chosen to succeed him. The selection was prompted not only by his aristocratic lineage, but also by his great wealth, the nasi being required to bear a considerable proportion of the expenses of his office (tj, Ber. 4:1, 7d; ibid. 27–28a). When appointed nasi he was, according to a tradition preserved in both Talmuds, only about 18 years old, but a miracle was wrought for him and his hair turned gray (Ber. 28a). This legend probably originated in Eleazar's remark (Ber. 1:5), "I am about (like one who is) 70 years old," which has been interpreted to mean that he merely had the appearance of an old man (Ber. 28a). From elsewhere in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ber. 1:9, 3d), it would seem that he made this statement in his old age. It is told that on "the day" he was appointed nasi, the college was thrown open to all who wished to study, without restriction, contrary to the previous ruling of Rabban Gamaliel that "No disciple whose true character does not correspond to his outer bearing may enter the bet ha-midrash. On that day hundreds of benches were added to the bet ha-midrash, and there was no halakhah about which there was any doubt that was not elucidated" (see Ber. 28a). After a reconciliation between the sages and Rabban Gamaliel and his reinstatement as nasi, it was decided that they share the discourses on alternate Sabbaths with Eleazar's known as "the Sabbath of Eleazar b. Azariah" (Ber. ibid.).

In another example, tannaitic literature tells of Eleazar ben Azariah's journey, together with Rabban Gamaliel and other sages, to Rome (Sif. Deut. 20:3; cf. Ma'as. Sh. 5:9; Er. 4:1). In the later literature we hear many more details of their stay there, of their meetings with the members of the Jewish community, with the authorities, and with the emperor, and with prominent Romans who had been attracted to Judaism, of their return voyage, and of Eleazar's pilgrimage, together with the nasi and the elders, to Jerusalem (Mak. 24a-b; et al.).

R. Eleazar was both a halakhist and an aggadist. A statement reported in the name of Judah ha-Nasi (or in that of his contemporary Issi b. Judah) praises him as being "a basket of spices" and "a spice-dealer's basket," i.e., carefully endeared by fragrant allusions to his vast, finely ordered learning, which enabled him to answer with equal facility questions on Bible, Mishnah, midrashic halakhah, or aggadah (arn1 18:66; Git. 67a). Eleazar is the author of the observation that a Sanhedrin which executes a person once in 70 years is to be branded a murderous tribunal (Mak. 1:10). His exegetical practice is similar to that of the school of R. *Ishmael in keeping with the view that "the words of the Bible are to be construed literally" (Kid. 17b) and that no special significance is to be attached to the duplication of verbs in the infinitive construct since "the Bible speaks in the language of human beings" (bm 31b). He is thus at variance with the school of R. *Akiva, which felt that such duplications of the verb required an halakhic interpretation. At times Eleazar explicitly controverts the exegetical principles of Akiva (Sifra 7:12 et al.).

He was famous for his aggadic comments. After hearing one of R. Eleazar's aggadic interpretations of scripture, Joshua said, "The generation in which Eleazar b. Azariah lives is not forsaken" (Tosef., Sot. 7:12). In his aggadic interpretations he makes frequent use of two exegetical principles: the juxtaposition of biblical texts semukhin and the argument a fortiori (kal va-homer). On the significance of the Day of Atonement he declared: "The Day of Atonement can bring forgiveness for transgressions between man and the Almighty, but not for transgressions between one man and another until the one has obtained the other's pardon" (Yoma 8:9). And again, "Where there is no Torah, there is no right conduct" (Avot 3:17). He also said: "A man should not say, 'I have no desire to eat pig's flesh' … but rather, 'I would like to do so, but how can I, seeing that God has prohibited it?'" (Sifra 11:22). Eleazar's wealth was proverbial, and it was said that "whoever sees Eleazar b. Azariah in a dream can expect riches" (Ber. 57b). He survived Rabban Gamaliel and was apparently alive at the time of the Jewish revolt under Trajan (115–117), although not at the outbreak of the Bar Kokhba revolt (131). When R. Eleazar b. Azariah died, it was stated "the crowns of wisdom have departed" (Sot. 49b).


J. Bruell, Mevo ha-Mishnah, 1 (1876), 88–91; Derenbourg, in: mgwj, 37 (1893), 395–8; Bacher, Tann, 1 (19032), 212–32; Weiss, Dor, 2 (19044), 85–91; Graetz, Gesch, 4 (19084), 35ff.; Frankel, Mishnah, 96–99; Hyman, Toledot, 186–91; L. Ginzberg, Perushim ve-Hiddushim ba-Yerushalmi, 3 (1941), 168–220; Alon, Toledot, 1 (19582), 368 (index); 2 (19612), 273 (index); S. Lieberman, Tosefta ki-Feshutah, 5 (1962), 1162.

[Shmuel Safrai]

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Eleazar ben Azariah

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Eleazar ben Azariah