Eliezer ben Hyrcanus

views updated


ELIEZER BEN HYRCANUS (end of the first and beginning of the second century c.e.), tanna. He is sometimes called Eliezer the Great (Sot. 9:15; Tosef., Or., end) and is the Eliezer mentioned without patronymic. R. Eliezer was one of the pillars of the early talmudic tradition, and through his student R. Akiva (and Akiva's circle of disciples) he had a decisive influence on the evolution of halakhah during the tannaitic period and beyond. In the eyes of later talmudic tradition, the period of the tannaim was a heroic age, and even the slightest scrap of information about the least of the tannaim can develop in the later aggadah into a tale of epic proportions. In the case of truly heroic and significant personalities, like R. Eliezer – who was already the subject of many colorful stories in the tannaitic literature itself – this process of literary expansion and elaboration is inevitable. R. Eliezer even became the subject of an early medieval midrashic romance (*Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer), while the talmudic story of his death was retold in the Zohar (1:98a), providing the literary prototype for the Zoharic masterpiece, the Idra Zuta. R. Eliezer remained the object of admiration and the subject of an ongoing and developing narrative tradition for over 1,000 years. As a result it is not always easy to distinguish between the earlier and more fundamental forms of the traditions relating to this historical figure, and those which reflect a later more romanticized and "fictionalized" form of these traditions. In fact it would be fair to say that up to and through the 1970s scholars rarely even made any attempt to distinguish between these different literary and historical levels. Only after Jacob Neusner's revolutionary studies of the life and legend of Rabban Joḥanan ben Zakkai did scholars begin to pay serious attention, not only to the legend, but also to the history of the legend. Below, we will first bring in outline the "legend" of R. Eliezer, as summarized by one of the finest scholars of the last generation, and then make a few brief comments about the "history of the legend."


Eliezer's youth is enveloped in legend. It is said that until the age of 22 (or 28) he worked the estates of his wealthy father, but on deciding to study he left home, making his way to the school of *Johanan b. Zakkai in Jerusalem. There he studied diligently in poverty and want until he became one of the outstanding students of the academy. Some time later his father came to Jerusalem to take a vow to deprive him of his inheritance. When he entered the bet midrash, however, and found his son sitting at the head, with all the great scholars of Jerusalem facing him, expounding the Torah and "transcending what was said to Moses at Sinai, his countenance as luminous as the light of the sun, and beams emanating from him as the rays from Moses," Hyrcanus changed his mind and instead wished to bequeath the whole of his fortune to Eliezer, who, however, refused to accept more than his brothers (arn1 6, 31; arn2 13, 32; pdre 1; 2, and parallels). According to another tradition, he was outstanding already in his youth. It was realized that he was destined to achieve great things, and the verse (Prov. 20:11), "Even a child is known by his doings," was applied to him (Gen. R. 1:11, and parallels). Johanan b. Zakkai had a very high opinion of his pupil and said of him, "If all the sages of Israel were in one scale of the balance and Eliezer b. Hyrcanus in the other, he would outweigh them all" (Avot 2:8). He also praised his phenomenal memory, calling him "a cemented cistern that does not lose a drop" and "a pitched vessel that preserves its wine" (arn1 14, 58), a reference also to his intense conservatism. Eliezer followed the example of his teacher both in his method of study and his behavior. He never walked four cubits without studying and without tefillin; no one ever found him sitting in silence, but only sitting and learning; he never said anything that he had not heard from his teacher (Suk. 28a). During the Roman War Eliezer was closely attached to his teacher. He and his colleague, *Joshua b. Hananiah, bore Johanan in a coffin outside the walls of Jerusalem during the siege for his meeting with Vespasian (Git. 56a).

After the destruction of the Temple he was numbered among the important scholars of the great bet din of *Jabneh (Sanh. 17b). He also played an important part in national affairs. He was a member of a delegation to Rome headed by the nasi to obtain concessions for the Jews (tj, Sanh. 7:16, 25d, et al.); and traveled to Antioch on behalf of the scholars (ibid., Hor. 3:7, 48a). He married into the family of the nasi; his wife, *Imma Shalom, was the sister of Rabban *Gamaliel. His permanent home was in Lydda, where he established an academy. Among his outstanding pupils were *Akiva, *Ilai, *Yose b. Dormaskos, Abba Hanan, and *Aquila the proselyte. His bet midrash was well-known, and the verse "Justice, justice shalt thou follow" (Deut. 16:20) was applied to it: "Follow an eminent bet din, follow the bet din of Johanan b. Zakkai and the bet din of Eliezer [in Lydda]" (Sif. Deut. 144; cf. Sanh. 32b).

Halakhic Method and Relation to his Colleagues

In his halakhic method Eliezer is distinguished by his great attachment to early traditions and ancient halakhot. This tie with early halakhah brought him into conflict with the trends operating in the council of Jabneh to adjust the halakhah in the light of the changes that took place with the destruction of the Temple, and to crystallize the religious tradition into a fixed and uniform system. In his disputes with *Joshua and his associates, different attitudes to the halakhah found expression. Thus Eliezer endeavored to limit the use of hermeneutical rules as a basis for deriving new halakhot, regarding the tradition and doctrine which had been handed down as the foundation and essence of the halakhah (Neg. 9:3; Tosef., ty 1:8 and 10; et al.). He regarded the act as the determinant of a person's obligations and punishments, in contrast to his associates who regarded intent and purpose as the deciding factor (Ker. 4:3; Tosef., ty 2:13f.; et al.). Even the tendency to stringency which he reveals in a considerable number of his halakhot was grounded in the early halakhah, which was based on the doctrine of *Bet Shammai, as a result of which he was called "Shammuti" ("follower of Shammai"; Shab. 130b; tj, Beẓah 1:4, 60c; et al.). He was very determined and unfore-bearing (Ta'an. 25b). The drawn-out struggle between him and the nasi and scholars of the Sanhedrin ended tragically. The Talmud relates that during a discussion on the ritual purity of the "oven of Akhnai" (an oven made by Akhnai) in the college, Eliezer brought every conceivable argument in favor of his view but they were rejected by his colleagues. "He said to them: 'If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it,' whereupon the carob tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place… He then said to them: 'If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from heaven,' whereupon a *bat kol cried out: 'Why do you dispute with Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halakhah agrees with him?' R. Joshua arose and said, 'It [i.e., halakhic decision] is not in heaven' [Deut. 30:12], we pay no attention to a bat kol, for it is written in the Torah at Mount Sinai: One must follow the majority' [Ex. 23:2]" (bm 59b). The aggadah continues that on that day all objects which Eliezer had declared ritually pure were brought and burned. A vote was then taken and they excommunicated him.

This severe step affected Eliezer's status and undermined his influence in halakhah. He was removed from the council, his associates and pupils held aloof from him, and even refrained from quoting his halakhot in the assembly of the scholars (Nid. 7b; Sif. Deut. 188). Of his violent reaction it is reported: "Great was the anger on that day, for everything at which he cast his eyes was burned. Rabban Gamaliel, too, was traveling in a ship when a huge wave arose to drown him. 'It appears to me,' he reflected, 'that this is on account of none other than Eliezer b. Hyrcanus.' He arose and said: 'Lord of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have acted neither for my honor nor for the honor of my father's house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel'" (bm 59b). Rabban Gamaliel excused his action on the grounds that excommunication was designed to establish unity in the sphere of halakhah and to establish the authority of the council as a determining and decisive institution in a fateful period in the life of the nation.

Attitudes toward the Jewish and Pagan Worlds

Eliezer's love for Israel and his country and his hatred of pagans knew no bounds. During the Roman War he was near in spirit to the *Zealots. He considered weapons to be an adornment, permitting them to be worn on the Sabbath in public (Shab. 6:4). He forbade chapter 16 of Ezekiel to be read as haftarah, and sharply censured anyone who transgressed this, because it included matters that offend the honor and ancestry of the Jews (Meg. 4:10, 25b). His adverse opinion of heathens is expressed in his saying: "All the charity and kindness done by the heathen is counted to them as sin, because they only do it to magnify themselves" (bb 10b). This adverse attitude served as the basis for several of his halakhot, such as his disqualification of sacrifice from heathens (Par. 2:1; Av. Zar. 23a), and he endeavored as far as possible to lessen social contact between them and Jews (Ḥul. 2:7; Git. 45b). This, too, is the cause of his reservations about accepting proselytes (Yev. 48b; bm 59b).

The Tosefta relates that Eliezer was once arrested by the government for uttering heretical opinions. Though he was liberated and exempted from punishment, he was greatly distressed that he had been wrongly suspected. Akiva, in an attempt to comfort him, said to him: "Perhaps you heard a heretical opinion and it appealed to you." Eliezer remembered that in Sepphoris he had heard a halakhah from Jacob of Kefar Sekhania in the name of Jesus b. Pandira, which had appealed to him, thus transgressing (Prov. 5:8), "Remove thy way from her," i.e., from heresy. This may be reflected in his statement: "Keep away not only from ugly deeds but from what appear such" (Tosef., Ḥul. 2:24; Av. Zar. 16b). His bitter experience is reflected in his saying: "Let the honor of thy friend be as dear to thee as thine own; and be not easily provoked to anger; and repent one day before thy death; and warm thyself before the fire of the wise, but beware of their glowing coals that thou be not singed, for their bite is the bite of a fox, and their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all their words are like coals of fire" (Avot 2:10).

Attitude toward his Colleagues in his Last Days

When Joshua, Eleazar b. Azariah, and Akiva came to visit him in his last illness, he expressed his severe indictment of the scholars for their withdrawal from him: "I shall be surprised if these [the scholars of the generation] die a natural death," he exclaimed bitterly; and in explanation he said, "Because they did not come to study under me." Eliezer then lifted both arms, placed them upon his breast, and said: "Woe for my two arms, that are like two scrolls of the Law and that are about to depart from the world. For were all the seas ink, and all the reeds quills, and all the people scribes they would not suffice to write all the Scripture and Mishnah I learned, and all the practice I was taught at the yeshivah … and my pupils have taken no more than the paint brush takes from the palette" (arn1 25, 80f.; Sanh. 68a).

Attitude toward Eliezer after his Death

The attitude of the scholars to Eliezer changed only after his death. "When his soul departed in purity, Joshua arose and said: 'The vow is annulled! The vow is annulled!' and he clung to him and kissed him and wept, saying, 'Rabbi! Rabbi!'" (ibid.; tj, Shab. 2:6, 5b). "Akiva rent his clothes and tore his hair until blood flowed and he fell to the ground and cried out: 'Woe is me for thee, Rabbi! Woe is me for thee, Rabbi! For thou hast left the whole generation orphaned. My father! My father! the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof [ii Kings 2:12]. I have many coins to change, but no one to accept them'"(ibid.). Everyone realized: "With the death of Eliezer, the scroll of the Law was hidden away" (Sot. 49b). His halakhot were restored to the bet midrash, many being cited in his name in the Mishnah and beraitot. When scholars wished to refute his words, Joshua said "You should not seek to refute the lion after he is dead" (Git. 83a). The halakhah was also decided in accordance with his views in a number of instances (e.g., Nid. 7b). Eliezer left a son Hyrcanus who, according to tradition, did not wish to occupy himself with study, whereupon Eliezer consecrated his property to heaven in order to compel him to occupy himself with Torah. The scholars later absolved him from his vow (She'iltot, Ex. 40; cf. Shab. 127b). The Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, as well as several other minor Midrashim, are ascribed to his authorship.

[Yitzhak Dov Gilat]

Toward a History of the Legend

When approaching the history of the legends surrounding a figure like R. Eliezer, it is virtually impossible to provide a simple, synthetic overview of his life, like that presented above. Each tradition has a history of its own, often beginning with some early traditional element related in tannaitic sources, and sometimes lacking any early literary foundation whatsoever. For example, in describing R. Eliezer's early life, it is natural to begin with the most detailed and colorful versions of the story – arn1 6, 31; arn2 13, 32; pdre 1; 2. But all these sources are post-talmudic, and reflect a highly romanticized version of events. Similarly in the case of the story of the "oven of Akhnai," it is tempting to begin with the "complete" version of events – including a full description of R. Eliezer's excommunication – as laid out in Babylonian Talmud bm 59b, and to set aside the fragments of information found in tannaitic sources, or the merely "partial" description found in the earlier Jerusalem Talmud. Yet what do the early sources have to tell us? Mishnah Kelim 5:10 reports a simple and unexceptional dispute between R. Eliezer and the Sages, over a certain kind of oven, called the "oven of Akhnai," which R. Eliezer considered pure (i.e., not susceptible to ritual impurity), while the Sages held that it was impure (i.e., susceptible to ritual impurity). In Mishnah Eduyyot 7:7, however, this tradition is transmitted in a somewhat different form: "They testified that an oven [of this sort] was impure, since R. Eliezer held that it was pure." From this source it sounds as if R. Eliezer's opinion about this oven had been the subject of a special debate, in which his view was dismissed as invalid. The Tosefta of Eduyyot (2:1) restates the more neutral formulation of Mishnah Kelim, but adds at the end: "and it was called the oven of Akhnai, about which there were many disputes in Israel." From this it might seem that the dispute over the oven of Akhnai did not end with the attempt of the Sages to suppress R. Eliezer's position, but rather resulted in further and more serious disputes and confrontations. The next stage in the development of this tradition is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (mk 3:1, 81d). After quoting Mishnah Kelim, it transmits the following description in the name of R. Jeremiah – a fourth generation Palestinian amora: "A great tribulation occurred on that day. Wherever R. Eliezer looked was stricken. Not only that, but even a single stalk of wheat was half stricken and remained half healthy, and the walls of the meeting hall began to weaken. R. Joshua said to them: 'If friends are having an altercation what concern is it of yours?' Then a heavenly voice declared: 'The halakhah is according to R. Eliezer, my son.' R. Joshua replied: 'It is not in heaven.'" R. Jeremiah's description contains nothing about any excommunication, and in fact this Palestinian tradition contains little more than a colorful elaboration of what could be gleaned from the tannaitic sources themselves. On the other hand, immediately prior to this discussion of Mishnah Kelim, the Jerusalem Talmud (mk 81c) brings two anonymous traditions beginning with the words "They attempted to excommunicate R. Meir," and "They attempted to excommunicate R. Eliezer." In the first case R. Meir objected, and it would seem that the excommunication was not put into effect. In the second case also, after R. Akiva went to inform R. Eliezer that his "friends" had excommunicated him, R. Eliezer objected, as the Jerusalem Talmud relates: "He took him and went outside, and said 'Carob, Carob! If the halakhah is as they say, uproot yourself!' But it did not uproot itself. 'If the halakhah is as I say, uproot yourself!' and it did uproot itself. 'If the halakhah is as they say, return!' But it did not return. 'If the halakhah is as I say, return!' and it did return." Here also there is no sign that the proposed excommunication was put into effect. But when all of these anonymous and attributed Palestinian amoraic traditions are brought in Babylonian Talmud bm 59b they are presented woven together into a single coherent and continuous narrative, appearing as a single tannaitic baraita (whose content was summarized in outline above). Does the Babylonian Talmud preserve here an early tannaitic tradition, which contains the full and authentic version of historical events as they occurred, or does the Babylonian Talmud's version represent, rather, the final stage – to use Neusner's phrase – in the "development of a legend"? Each individual case obviously needed to be analyzed and evaluated in its own right. Similar questions need to be raised and similar analyses provided with respect to the halakhic positions ascribed to R. Eliezer both in tannaitic and amoraic sources. Because of the highly technical nature of these discussions, however, we will pass over them here.

[Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]


B.Z. Bokser, Pharisaic Judaism in Transition (1935), biography; Schuerer, Gesch, index; Klausner, Bayit Sheni, index; Bacher, Tann, s.v.; Epstein, Tanna'im, 65–70; Halevy, Dorot, 1, pt. 5 (1923), 281ff.; H. Oppenheim, in: Beit Talmud, 4 (1885), 311–6, 332–8, 360–6; D. Luria, Kuntres ha-Hakdamot ve-ha-Mavo le-Sefer Pirkei R. Eliezer ha-Gadol (1884); G. Bader, Jewish Spiritual Heroes, 1 (1940), 212–25; Guttmann, in: Memorial Volume… I. Godziher, 2 (1958), 100–10 (English section); Y.D. Gilat, Mishnato shel R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus u-Mekomah be-Toledot ha-Halakhah (1968). add. bibliography: Y.D. Gilat, R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, A Scholar Outcast (1984); J. Neusner, Eliezer b. Hyrcanos: The Traditions and the Man (1973).