Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

May 25, 2006

Elisha ben Abuya II

תניא מעשה ומת אביו של רבי צדוק בגינזק והודיעוהו לאחר שלש שנים ובא ושאל את אלישע בן אבויה וזקנים שעמו ואמרו נהוג שבעה ושלשים וכשמת בנו של רבי אחייה בגולה ישב עליו שבעה ושלשים
baraita, bMo'ed 20a

My translation:
It is taught: It once happened that Rabbi Tzadoq's father died in Ginzaq and they informed him [of the fact] after three years. He came and he asked Elisha ben Abuya and the sages who were with him and they said, "Observe thirty-seven days".
And when Rabbi Ahiah's son died in Babylonia [lit. 'in exile'], he sat over him for thirty-seven [days].

This is the sole attributed halakhic statement of EbA. While what he says may be of some import, of greater significance is the fact that the editors of the Talmud saw fit to include it - despite traditions to which we will soon turn.

אלישע בן אבויה אומר הלומד ילד למה הוא דומה לדיו כתובה על נייר חדש והלומד זקן למה הוא דומה לדיו כתובה על נייר מחוק רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה איש כפר הבבלי אומר הלומד מן־הקטנים למה הוא דומה לאוכל ענבים קהות ושותה יין מגתו והלומד מן־הזקנים למה הוא דומה לאוכל ענבים בשולות ושותה יין ישן רבי אומר אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה־שיש בו יש קנקן חדש מלא ישן וישן שאפילו חדש אין בו
mAbot 4:20

My translation:
Elisha ben Abuya says, "To what is a child who learns to be compared? To ink written on a fresh sheet; and to what is an old man who learns to be compared? To ink written on an erased sheet [ie: a used and re-used sheet]".
Rabbi Yosi, son of Rabbi Yehuda (from the Babylonian village [or, Kfar HaBabli]), says, "To what is one of the little ones who learns to be compared? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from the winepress [ie: which has not yet matured and is still sour-tasting]; and to what is one of the old people who learns to be compared? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine".
Rebbe says, "Don't focus on the vessels, but what is within it! There are new vessels full of old wine and old vessels that don't even have any new wine in them".

This is the sole attributed statement of EbA in the Mishna. Again, while what he says may be of some import, of greater significance is its inclusion. Let us look next at some of the later traditions for, as the narratives in the two Talmuds are the lengthiest and the most deserving of attention, they are better dealt with last.

The commentary on Pirqei Aboth known as Aboth deRebi Nathan features a chapter on EbA. It is not necessary for us to write the whole section out here, as the content is not of great importance. The chapter (chapter 24) consists of a variety of similes portraying the difference between those who learn Torah and do good deeds and those who do neither, followed by a lengthy description of the ease with which Torah can be forgotten. The exhortation that bridges these two sections is an interesting one, and I produce that short sentiment here:

הוא היה אומר קשין דברי תורה לקנותם ככלי זהבים ונוחין לאבדם ככלי זכוכית שנאמר לא יערכנה זהב וזכוכית מקיש זהב לזכוכית מה כלי זהב לאחר שנשבר יש לו תקנה וכל כלי זכוכית אין להם תקנה כשנשברו אלא א"כ חזרו לברייתן ומה אני מקיים ותמורתה כלי פז לומר לך כל העמל בהן ומקיימן פניו מצהיבות כפז וכל העמל בהם ואין מקיימן פניו משחירות כזכוכית
bARN 24:5

My translation:
He [ie: EbA] used to say, "Words of Torah are as difficult to acquire as vessels of gold, and as easy to lose as vessels of glass - as it says, 'Gold or glass cannot match its value [nor vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it]' (Job 28:17, acc. to JPS). Gold and glass are compared for, just as a vessel [lit. 'vessels', although the rest of the sentence is in the singular] of gold has a means of being prepared when it has been broken [so too, vessels of glass have a means of being prepared when they are broken] - only, vessels of glass have no means of being prepared when they are broken unless they are returned to their natural state. And what can I establish [from the juxtaposition of 'glass' with] 'vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it'? It is to tell you that all who labour over them [ie: study Torah laws] and fulfil them, their faces will shine like gold. But all who labour over them and do not fulfil them, their faces will darken like glass".

This section is of particular textual interest because, as we shall see in both Talmudic stories, the same exposition is related. In the Palestinian Talmud, Rabbi Meir (EbA's student) is credited with having said it and, in the Babylonian Talmud, he is credited with the first part to which EbA reacts and corrects him with the second. Of interest as well is the position of this chapter within Aboth deRebi Nathan. Chapters 23, 25 and 26 deal with statements made by ben Zoma, ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva respectively. The grouping together of these four sages indicates a degree of familiarity with the narrative from the Tosefta and the baraita (as discussed previously).

Before we are ready to read both of the Talmud's stories concerning EbA, there is one final source to look at. This is found within the Babylonian Talmud but, as will be especially clear when we have finished with the broader Babylonian Talmudic text, this section is a later addition.

אחר מאי זמר יווני לא פסק מפומיה אמרו עליו על אחר בשעה שהיה עומד מבית המדרש הרבה ספרי מינין נושרין מחיקו
bHag 15b

My translation:
[This passage continues on from a short discussion concerning two other men who had fallen from greatness to sin]
What about Akher [ie: what was it that he had done which had led him to apostasy]? Greek songs never ceased from his mouth.
It is said about him (about Akher) that whenever he would stand in the study hall, several heretical books would fall from his lap.


At 5:46 PM , Anonymous lisa aigen said...

Very interesting...gives a taste for more about this fascinating and difficult "ex-sage" More on his relationship with Rabbe Meir!!!


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