Elisha ben Avuyah
ELISHA BEN AVUYAH
ELISHA BEN AVUYAH , tanna, quoted once in the Mishnah as saying: "Learning in youth is like writing with ink on clean paper, but learning in old age is like writing with ink on blotted paper" (Avot 4:20). From the position of this saying toward the end of the fourth chapter (see: *Avot, Structure) – after R. Jacob and R. Shimon ben Eleazar and before R. Eleazar Hakapar – it would seem likely that he was one of the very last of the tannaim. In the talmudic tradition (tj, Ḥag. 2:1, 77b) he was identified with "Aḥer" ("the Other"), the third of the four companions who "entered the pardes." In the earliest form of this baraita (Tosef., Ḥag. 2:3, cod. Vienna), this third companion was named explicitly as "Elisha." Elisha is a relatively rare name among the tannaim, and this probably contributed to the identification of these two figures. From the story in Tosefta Ḥagigah, it seems clear that the Elisha mentioned there was a contemporary of R. Akiva. Beyond what is told in Avot and in Tosefta Ḥagigah, tannaitic sources provide no additional information on either of these two figures. Chapter 24 in Avot de-Rabbi Natan version A ascribes various statements to Elisha ben Avuyah. However, Avot de-Rabbi Natan in the forms in which we possess it is a post-talmudic work, and these specific traditions are variously ascribed to other Sages in other sources. They cannot, therefore, be viewed as reliable evidence for early traditions concerning Elisha.
Tosefta Ḥagigah tells us that Elisha "looked and destroyed the plants." "Destruction of plants" is a standard phrase in tannaitic sources for wanton destruction. It can refer either to damage caused to oneself or to damage caused to another (bk 8:6). In later sources it is used by extension to refer to the destructive consequences of sin (Gen. R. 19), and specifically to one who learns Torah but does not fulfill its precepts (Deut. R., ed. Lieberman, 109). In the Palestinian tradition two related interpretations of Elisha's "destruction of the plants" are suggested. According to one interpretation (tj, Ḥag. 2:1, 77b–c; Ruth R. 6; Eccles. R. 7), Elisha himself stopped learning Torah and gave up observing the Sabbath. In this tradition Elisha is viewed as a tragic figure, who has strayed from the ways of the Torah and is convinced that there is no way back. In response to R. Meir's repeated attempts to convince him to repent, Elisha states: "Once I was passing by the Holy of Holies riding on my horse on the Day of Atonement which fell on the Sabbath, and I heard a heavenly voice coming from the Holy of Holies, which said: 'Return, O children' – except for Elisha ben Avuyah." This interchange, which provides the thematic framework for this entire narrative tradition, reflects a literary reversal of R. Meir's own position in Tosefta Demai 2:9, where R. Meir states that a sage who has abandoned the ways of the ḥavurah "can never be accepted back" into the fold, while R. Shimon and R. Joshua ben Korḥah state that he can always be accepted back, as it is written (Jer. 3:14): "Return, O repentant children." This theme of the "sinful sage" (Rubenstein, 64–104; Goshen-Gottstein, 21–229), as developed in the Jerusalem Talmud and the parallel Midreshei aggadah, has no obvious connection to the story of the "four who entered the pardes." In response to the question of what led to Elisha's apostasy, this tradition provides a number of answers. Two of them relate to the impure nature of Elisha's conception and birth, and two to Elisha's crisis of faith concerning the suffering of the righteous (e.g., seeing the tongue of R. Judah ha-Nahtom in a dog's mouth, regarding which he commented: "Is this the Torah and this its reward?" (tj, Ḥag. ibid.), cf. the parallel description of the tongue of Ḥuẓpit the Meturgeman being dragged along by a pig in the Babylonian Talmud (Kid. 39c), concerning which Elisha exclaimed: "The mouth that uttered pearls licks the dust," and see below). Since none of these reasons seem to have any connection to what Elisha may have "seen" when he entered the pardes (however this is understood), the later Palestinian tradition (Song R. 1) omitted the word "looked" from the original text of the baraita, reading instead: "Elisha destroyed the plants." According to this tradition his experience in the pardes was not the cause of his apostasy. Rather the underlying causes of both his apostasy and of his negative experience in the pardes were the flaws in his character and the weakness of his faith.
Another early Palestinian interpretation of Elisha's "destruction of the plants" is also found in the Jerusalem Talmud (tj, Ḥag. 2:1, 77b) and echoed in Song R. 1. According to this understanding, Elisha did not merely bring damage upon himself by ceasing to learn Torah and to observe the Sabbath. He also inflicted damage upon others, by forcing them to desecrate the Sabbath, or by preventing children from learning Torah, or even – according to an extreme version of this tradition – killing children who learned Torah. Clearly this tradition does not portray Elisha as a tragic figure, but rather as an arch-villain, deserving no sympathy, but rather only contempt and hatred. It is therefore significant to note that only in this tradition does the Jerusalem Talmud use the term "Aḥer" to refer to Elisha, thus avoiding referring to him by name. R. Meir also does not appear in this tradition, nor is there any discussion of his repentance or his return to the fold (cf. Tosef., Yoma 4:11).
In the Babylonian Talmud (Ḥag. 15a–b) these two very different early aggadic traditions were combined into a single composite, but fairly continuous narrative. Elisha both sins against himself and commits crimes against others. He is simultaneously a sympathetic and tragic figure, accompanied by his still devoted disciple R. Meir, and given consideration by sages like R. Joḥanan, yet at the same time an arch-villain, never referred to by his own name, but rather only as "Aḥer" – "the Other" – and clearly despised by R. Judah ha-Nasi. As such, his complex and contradictory (or if you will: paradoxical) figure provides a profound challenge for literary critics. But the most important change in the Babylonian tradition is in fact a return, in part, to the earliest forms of the Elisha tradition, namely the connection between his apostasy and the experience of the pardes. No doubt basing itself on the original tradition of Tosefta Ḥagigah, the Babylonian Talmud assumes that Elisha's "destruction of the plants" was a direct result of what he saw when he entered the pardes ("Elisha looked and destroyed the plants"). Moreover, the Babylonian Talmud assumes (probably correctly) that the original story of the entry into the pardes as described in the Tosefta reflects a mystical journey, involving an ascension (physical or spiritual) into the heavens, and a vision of some aspect of divinity. The clarification of the precise nature of the tannaitic understanding of the mystical ascent to the divine, and of the dangers inherent in this ascent, are therefore crucial to any appreciation of the roots and development of the Elisha traditions. In their present form, the Babylonian Talmud's version of these traditions reflects a relatively late stage in the evolution of the Metatron traditions, and shows some degree of interdependence with the later strata of the heikhalot literature. For a powerful and profound study of these aspects of the Elisha traditions, see Liebes, The Sin of Elisha.
Given the composite character of the Elisha traditions, it is quite clear that any attempt to write a single consistent and coherent "biography" of this character will ultimately break down in contradiction. One extreme example of this phenomenon is reflected in the willingness of earlier scholars to accept on face value the identification of the tanna R. Jacob b. Korshai as Elisha's grandson. The textual basis of this pseudo-identification provides a good text-case both of the talmudic method of "creative historiography," and of the uncritical use of talmudic sources by some scholars. As mentioned above, one of the reasons given for Elisha's apostasy was his loss of faith in divine reward and punishment. The Jerusalem Talmud (Ḥag. 2:1, 77b) tells that Elisha once saw a man ascend to the top of a date palm, take the young birds without sending off the mother, and came down safely, despite the fact that he had transgressed the law of the Torah (cf. Deut. 22:7). The next day, Elisha saw another man ascend to the top of a date palm, send off the mother and then take the young birds, thus fulfilling the law of the Torah. When he came down, he was bitten by a poisonous snake and died. Elisha was distressed because the Torah explicitly promises that one who fulfills this commandment will be given "goodness and length of days," and so he lost his faith. To this the Jerusalem Talmud adds that Elisha lost his faith only because he was unaware of R. Jacob's interpretation of the verse: "'you shall receive goodness' – in the world to come, which is all good; 'you shall receive length of days' – in the future world, which is 'long' [i.e., unending]." This dictum is brought in the name of R. Jacob (b. Korshai) in Tosefta Ḥullin 10:16, a text which also includes a story about a man who ascended a tree, etc. Given the similarity between the story told by R. Jacob in the Tosefta and the story told by the Jerusalem Talmud in the name of Elisha, there can hardly be any doubt the entire passage in the Jerusalem Talmud is a free reworking and elaboration of R. Jacob's original story in the Tosefta in order to suggest an additional reason for Elisha's apostasy. In the context of the Babylonian Talmud's discussion of R. Jacob's position (Kid. 39b; Ḥul. 142a), it brings a dictum of Rav Joseph, which states: "If Aḥer had only interpreted this verse like R. Jacob the son of his daughter, he would not have sinned." This is the only evidence for any family connection between Elisha and R. Jacob. Attempts like this to provide detailed family connections between characters in aggadic narratives are very common in the Babylonian Talmud. For example, both Abba Hilkiah and Ḥanan ha-Neḥba are described in Ta'an. 23a–b as grandsons of Ḥoni Hameagel – the former as the "son of his son" and the latter as the "son of his daughter." In fact, the only substantial connection between them is that they were all miraculous rainmakers. Even the precise phrase "Jacob the son of his daughter" occurs elsewhere in the Babylonian Talmud (Sot. 49a) with regard to Rav Aha bar Jacob. "Evidence" like this is inherently weak. However in our case, the very notion that Elisha was R. Jacob's grandfather is totally implausible. R. Jacob b. Korshai's was one of R. Judah ha-Nasi's teachers. In tb Ḥag. 15b when Elisha's daughter appeared before R. Judah ha-Nasi to ask for charity, he asked her: "Whose daughter are you." She replied: "I am the daughter of Aḥer." To this he exclaimed: "Does he have any offspring still remaining in the world?" If his own teacher was the son of Aḥer's daughter, how could he be unaware that Aḥer had offspring? Moreover, how could R. Jacob b. Korshai be Aḥer's daughter's son, and still be old enough to have been R. Judah ha-Nasi's teacher? These are the sort of problems one is bound to encounter when one takes what is in effect a minor literary embellishment ("the son of his daughter") as an assertion of historical "fact."
The various legends of Elisha, who forsook Judaism to seek new paths, influenced the Jewish writers of the Haskalah period, many of whom had passed through a similar crisis. He is the central character of several historical novels and poems of that period, and is the subject of various studies, including those of M.J. Berdyczewski, Y. Liebes, J. Rubenstein, and A. Goshen-Gottstein. M. *Letteris' Hebrew adaptation of the first part of Goethe's Faust is called Ben Avuyah. Elisha b. Avuyah is also the subject of Milton *Steinberg's novel As a Driven Leaf (1940).
H. Graetz, Gnostizismus und Judenthum (1846), 62–71; M.D. Hoffmann, Toledot Elisha b. Avuyah (1880); S. Back, Elisha ben Abuya-Acher (Ger., 1891); Bacher, Tann, 1 (19032), 430–4; Weiss, Dor, 2 (19044), 113, 126ff.; Hyman, Toledot, 155–7; Bin Gorion, in: Ha-Goren, 8 (1912), 76–83; Buechler, in: mgwj, 76 (1932), 412–56; Yalon, ibid., 79 (1935), 238–40; idem, in: Leshonenu, 29 (1965), 213–7; G. Scholem, Jewish Gnosticism (19652), 14–19; Y. Liebes, The Sinof Elisha (Hebrew; 1990); J. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories (1999); A. Goshen-Gottstein, The Sinner and the Amnesiac (2000).
[Stephen G. Wald (2nd ed.)]
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