Elisha ben Abuya III
The Palestinian Talmud (pHag 77b-c) commences its narrative concerning EbA by quoting the Tosefta. There are a few differences in their version of the Tosefta but, as these are limited to the choice of verbs and the order of the sages involved, I shall only reproduce it here from the point where it begins by speaking of EbA himself.
Throughout this entire section, the translation presented is that of Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 82-86. Rubenstein's scriptural quotations are all taken from JPS. Emphasis and parentheses are his.
אחר הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות מני אחר אלישע בן אבויה שהיה הורג רבי תורה אמרין כל תלמיד דהוה חמי ליה משכח באוריתא הוה קטיל ליה
Aher gazed and cut the shoots (=tHag 2:3).
Who is Aher? Elisha ben Abuya, who would kill the young students of Torah. They said: He would kill every student whom he saw distinguish himself in Torah.
It is clear that 'cutting the seedlings / shoots' in the Palestinian tradition is a reference to murdering students of the Torah. As we shall see, there is a great deal of animosity in the Palestinian Talmud directed towards EbA, although it goes without saying that there is no basis to any of the vicious claims made against him, as evidenced both by their extreme nature and by their absence elsewhere.
ולא עוד אלא דהוה עליל לבית וועדא והוה חמי טלייא קומי ספרא והוה אמר מה אילין יתבין עבדין הכא אומנותיה דהן בנאי אומנותיה דהן נגר אומנותיה דהן צייד אומנותיה דהן חייט וכיון דהוון שמעין כן הוון שבקין ליה ואזלין לון עליו הכתוב אומר אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך שחיבל מעשה ידיו של אותו האיש
Not only that, but he would go to the meeting-place and see children in front of their teacher, and he would say, "What are these sitting and doing here? This one's profession is a builder. That one's profession is a carpenter. This one's profession is a hunter. That one's profession is a tailor." When they heard this they would leave him and go away.
About him scripture says, "Let not your mouth lead you into sin, [and do not say before the messenger that it was an error, else God may be angered by your talk and destroy the work of your hands (ma'ase yadekha)] (Qoh 5:5)." (=tHag 2:3) For he destroyed the works (ma'asei yadav) of that man (i.e., himself).
It may be that this discouragement of Torah scholarship (albeit almost certainly not having happened in so simplistic a manner) is the true origin of the Talmud's accusation that he murdered young scholars.
אוף בשעה שומדא הוון מטענין לון מטולין והוון מתכוונין מיטעון תרי חד מטול משום שנאמר שעשו מלאכה אחת אמר אטעוננון יחידאין אזלין ואטעונינון יחידיין והוון מתכוונין מיפרוק בכרמלית שלא להוציא מרה"י לרשות הרבים אמר אטעונינון צלוחיין אזלין ואטעונינון צלוחיין ר' עקיבה נכנס בשלום ויצא בשלום עליו הכתוב אומר משכני אחריך נרוצה
Also, when there was a persecution, they made them (Jews) carry burdens, but they (Jews) arranged to have two carry one burden, on account of [the rule that] two who perform one labor [on the Sabbath are not culpable]. He (Elisha) said, "Make them carry individually." They went and made them carry individually, but they arranged to set [the burdens] down in a karmelit in order that they not carry out from a private domain to a public domain. He said, "Make them carry flasks." They went and carried flasks (which could not be set down, for they would break).
Rabbi Akiba entered in peace and went out in peace. About him scripture says, "Draw me after you." (=tHag 2:4)
The most interesting feature of this description, in my opinion, is the fact that the author has EbA completely separated from the Jews of his time. Not only does he not appear to be facing the same penalties as other Jews (under, presumably, the persecutions of Hadrian after the failed bar Kosiba rebellion), but his suggestions to the Romans are being obeyed to the letter. The fact that the Tosefta's description of Rabbi Akiva is appended to the end of this narrative would possibly indicate that this severing of his connection to the Jewish people is precisely the manner in which he was harmed by his experiences in the 'orchard'. Without intending to read too far into the story, this may be an alternative explanation for the enigmatic 'Akher cut the seedlings'.
From an historical perspective, however, the reference to Rabbi Akiva in this passage is also somewhat chilling. After the failed insurrection, of which Rabbi Akiva was a very vocal part, the Romans subjected the Jewish population to several torments. One of these was the execution of various religious leaders, Rabbi Akiva included. The Talmud contains some very confronting descriptions of Rabbi Akiva's torment, making this reference to him (at a time when we realise that he would be already dead) a very effective means of contrasting his pious mortality with EbA's sinful longevity.
ר"מ הוה יתיב דרש בבית מדרשא דטיבריה עבר אלישע רביה רכיב על סוסייא ביום שובתא אתון ואמרון ליה הא רבך לבר פסק ליה מן דרשה ונפק לגביה
Rabbi Meir was sitting and expounding in the academy in Tiberias. His master Elisha passed by riding a horse on the Sabbath. They came and said to R. Meir, "Behold your master is outside." He ceased his homily and went out to him.
This is the first indication that we have so far been given (within a narrative) that EbA was a great scholar. Not only does Rabbi Meir cease his teaching in order to greet his master, but he does so regardless of the fact that his master is in the act of violating the Sabbath. The tremendous esteem with which he was held is a further indication that the stories regarding his murdering of children are unfounded. What follows next is the extended discussion held between the two of them.
א"ל מה הויתה דרש יומא דין א"ל ויי' ברך את אחרית א"ל ומה פתחת ביה א"ל ויוסף יי' את כל אשר לאיוב למשנה שכפל לו את כל ממנו אמר ווי דמובדין ולא משכחין עקיבה רבך לא הוה דרש כן אלא ויי' ברך את אחרית איוב מראשיתו בזכות מצות ומעשים טובים שהיה בידו מראשיתו
He (Elisha) said to him, "What were you expounding today?" He said, "The Lord blessed the latter days of Job's life more than the beginning (Job 42:12)." He said to him, "And how did you begin it?" He said to him, "The Lord gave Job twice what he had before (Job 42:10) - that he doubled his money." He said, "Alas for things lost and not found. Akiba your master did not expound it like that. Rather, The Lord blessed the latter days of Job's life more than the beginning (Job 42:12) - on account of the mitsvot and good deeds that he had done from the beginning."
The expression that EbA employs here for the deeds done by Job literally translates to the deeds which were "in his hand" (שהיה בידו). There is a powerful allusion here to the notion of God having destroyed the work of EbA's hands (as alluded to in the Tosefta, and as will be explored later in more depth), and the commentary that EbA is providing in the name of Akiva appears deeply personal. Just as the latter days of Job's life were blessed on account of the deeds done in the beginning, so too should the latter days of EbA's life be blessed, despite his present apostasy.
The difference between EbA (/Akiva)'s exposition and that of Rabbi Meir's is an interesting one. While Rabbi Meir is actually providing an interpretation of the verse, EbA is merely providing a reason for it. In other words, Rabbi Meir explains what the verse is discussing, while EbA seems to take that discussion for granted and explain why it is that such a thing should have occurred. As we shall see in a moment, this is the way in which EbA appears to be intent on interpreting things.
The curious exclamation, "Alas for things lost and not found" is presumably a reference to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva himself. As we have noted, Rabbi Akiva had already been brutally murdered by the Romans, and all of his vast learning had been lost. That Rabbi Meir, his former pupil, does not appear to recall it is a cause of concern for EbA. As we shall see shortly, theodicy in general (the concern over how God functions in a world where bad things happen to righteous people) is a matter with which EbA appears to struggle. For that reason, it is especially interesting that the present topic of departure happened to be a verse taken from Job: the theodical Biblical text par excellence.
א"ל ומה הויתה דריש תובן א"ל טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו א"ל ומה פתחת ביה א"ל לאדם שהוליד בנים בנערותו ומתו ובזקנותו ונקיימו הוי טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו לאדם שעשה סחורה בילדותו והפסיד ובזקנותו ונשתכר הוי טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו לאדם שלמד תורה בנערותו ושכחה ובזקנותו וקיימה הוי טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו אמר ווי דמובדין ולא משכחין עקיבה רבך לא הוה דרש כן אלא טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו בזמן שהוא טוב מראשיתו
He (Elisha) said to him, "What else were you expounding?" He (Meir) said to him, "The end of a thing is better than its beginning (Qoh 7:8)." He said to him, "And how did you begin it?"
(a) He said to him, "[By comparing it] to a man who had children in his youth who died, and in his old age who lived. Behold, 'The end of a thing is better than its beginning.'"
(b) "[By comparing it] to a man who did business in his youth and lost money, and in his old age and earned. Behold, 'The end of a thing is better than its beginning.'"
(c) "[By comparing it] to a man who learned Torah in his youth and forgot it, and in his old age and fulfilled it. Behold, 'The end of a thing is better than its beginning.'"
He (Elisha) said, "Alas for things lost and not found. Akiba your master did not expound it like that. Rather, The end of a thing is better than its beginning (Qoh 7:8) - when it is good from the beginning.
[Note: my version of the text concludes the first of Rabbi Meir's three expositions with the verb ונקרימו. I have understood that to be an editorial error for ונקיימו]
Once again we can see the marked difference between Rabbi Meir's interpretative explanation and EbA (/Akiva)'s stipulatory explanation. While Rabbi Meir is concerned with providing examples that indicate exactly what sorts of situations the relevant verse discusses, EbA is more concerned with explaining when such examples would come into effect. In other words, EbA's explanation of this (and the former passage) is not at odds with the explanation of his student, and the only way to understand EbA's dissatisfaction with Rabbi Meir is in terms of his steadfast devotion to his deceased colleague. As Rabbi Akiva expressed an opinion concerning this verse, that is the opinion which should be maintained. While possibly heartwarming in its commitment to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, EbA's understanding of Torah is presented as stagnant and academic: fixated on the works of a particular scholar yet out of touch with the living component.
וכי היה המעשה אבויה אבא מגדולי ירושלם היה ביום שבא למוהליני קרא לכל גדולי ירושלם והושיבן בבית אחד ולרבי אליעזר ולרבי יהושע בבית אחר מן דאכלין ושתון שרון מטפחין ומרקדקין א"ר ליעזר לרבי יהושע עד דאינון עסוקין בדידון נעסוק אנן בדידן וישבו ונתעסקו בדברי תורה מן תורה לנביאים ומן הנביאים לכתובים וירדה אש מן השמים והקיפה אותם אמר להן אבויה רבותיי מה באתם לשרוף את ביתי עלי אמרו לו חס ושלום אלא יושבין היינו וחוזרין בדברי תורה מן התורה לנביאים ומן הנביאים לכתובים והיו הדברים שמיחים כנתינתן מסיני והיתה האש מלחכת אותן כלחיכתן מסיני ועיקרו נתינתן מסיני לא ניתנו אלא באש וההר בוער באש עד לב השמים אמר להן אבויה אבא רבותיי אם כך היא כוחה של תורה אם נתקיים לי בן הזה לתורה אני מפרישו לפי שלא היתה כוונתו לשם שמים לפיכך לא נתקיימו באותו האיש
And this matter happened to me: Abuya my father was one of the notables of Jerusalem. On the day he was to circumcise me he invited all the notables of Jerusalem and seated them in one room. [He invited] R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua [and seated them] in a separate room. When they were eating and drinking and singing and clapping and dancing, R. Eliezer said to R. Yehoshua, 'As long as they are busying themselves with their own [business], let us busy ourselves with ours.' They sat and busied themselves with words of Torah. From the Torah to the Prophets and from the Prophets to the Writings, and fire came down from the heavens and encircled them. Abuya said to them, 'My masters! Have you come to burn down my house upon me?' They said to him, 'God forbid. But we were sitting and turning (hozrin) words of Torah. From the Torah to the Prophets and from the Prophets to the Writings. And the words rejoiced as when they were given at Sinai. At Sinai they were given primarily in fire, And the mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies (Deut 4:11).' Abuya my father said to them, 'My masters: If that is the power of Torah, if this son of mine prospers (nitqayyem), I will dedicate him to Torah.' Since his intention was not for the sake of heaven, therefore it did not prosper (lo' nitqayyemu) for that man (= for me)."
This is the only extant narrative mentioning EbA's father, Abuya. The story appears to be serving an explanatory purpose, detailing the events that led inexorably to EbA's apostasy. While other, alternative, explanations are soon to be given, this one is especially interesting as it pins the blame squarely on the shoulders of somebody else. EbA, himself, was only eight days old when the events supposedly took place, but his father's inability (despite, himself, being one of the 'notables' of Jerusalem) to dedicate his son to Torah for the sake of heaven is enough to condemn his son to a life of sin.
This story is brought by EbA as an example of something, the end of which is only better than the beginning if its beginning were also good. Here, EbA's beginning is in the actions of his father and as they were bad, so too is EbA's future. This would appear to contradict other dicta concerning both free will, and the sins of the fathers not being visited upon the children, but such is not our concern. Of greater import here is simply the fact that EbA, himself, is decrying responsibility for his own actions. We shall see shortly how this is recorded as being something of a trend for EbA.
א"ל ומה הויתה דרש תובן א"ל לא יערכנה זהב וזכוכית א"ל ומה פתחת ביה א"ל דברי תורה קשין לקנות ככלי זהב ונוחין לאבד ככלי זכוכית ומה כלי זהב וכלי זכוכית אם נשתברו יכול הוא לחזור ולעשותן כלים כמו שהיו אף תלמיד חכם ששכח תלמודו יכול הוא לחזור וללמדו כתחילה: א"ל דייך מאיר עד כאן תחום שבת א"ל מן הן את ידע א"ל מן טלפי דסוסיי דהוינא מני והולך אלפיים אמה א"ל וכל הדא חכמתא אית בך ולית את חזר בך א"ל לית אנא יכיל אמר ליה למה א"ל שפעם אחת הייתי עובר לפני בית קודש הקדשים רוכב על סוסי ביום הכפורים שחל להיות בשבת ושמעתי בת קול יוצאת מבית קודש הקדשים ואומרת שובו בנים חוץ מאלישע בן אבויה שידע כחי ומרד בי
He (Elisha) said to him, "What else were you expounding?" He said to him, "Gold or glass cannot match its value (Job 28:17)." He said to him, "And how did you begin it?" He said, "The words of Torah are as difficult to acquire as vessels of gold and as easy to lose as vessels of glass. But just as if vessels of gold and vessels of glass are broken one can return (lahazor) and make them vessels as they were, so a sage who forgets his Torah can return (lahazor) and learn it as at the beginning."
He said to him, "Enough, Meir, the Sabbath limit is up to this point." He said to him, "How do you know this?" He said to him, "From the steps of my horse which I have been counting. And he has walked two thousand cubits." He said to him, "You have all this wisdom yet you will not repent (hazar)?" He said to him, "I cannot." He said to him, "Why?" He said to him, "Once I was passing by the Holy of Holies, riding my horse on Yom Kippur that fell on a Sabbath. I heard a heavenly voice come out of the Holy of Holies and say, 'Return, rebellious children (Jer 3:22) - except Elisha ben Abuya, for he knew my power and rebelled against me.'"
There is much about this final part of EbA's conversation with Rabbi Meir that is deserving of mention. Firstly, we have already had occasion to note that Rabbi Meir's present exposition is the same as EbA's exposition in bARN 24:5. Without trying to read too far into a text that often conflates the opinions of its protagonists, it is possible that Rabbi Meir is deliberately utilising EbA's own famous opinion. Such may also be indicated in EbA's failure to correct Rabbi Meir as he has done in the previous examples.
Another reason for EbA's silence may be the pertinence of this particular homily to EbA's own personal situation. Rabbi Meir, by commenting upon the verse in such a manner, is effectively asking EbA to repent. The word for repent is the same as the word for return, hence the efficacy of the exposition. This bivalency is also reflected, poetically, in the manner in which EbA changes the subject. Telling Rabbi Meir that he should "return", for they have reached the maximum distance to which it is permissable to walk on the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir responds by asking for EbA's "return" (ie: repentance) as well. EbA refuses.
The reason given for the refusal is strange. When we read the Babylonian Talmud's version of the story, this reason will take on greater depth, but it appears as something of a tangent within the Palestinian tradition. Claiming that a divine voice issued an imperative for all rebellious children (according to the rest of the quoted verse) to return to God, but then stipulating that EbA himself is forbidden, we are left wondering why such should have been the case. As will become evident later in the story, EbA's repentance is considered desirable before God. The only reason given here, 'for he knew my power and rebelled against me', flatly contradicts EbA's prior explanation as to why he apostasied - ie: that his father failed in his service, but not he.
Another reason as to why this story is strange is in its mention of the Holy of Holies, which had been destroyed by the Romans some sixty or seventy years before EbA's conversation with Rabbi Meir. It is inherently ridiculous to assume that EbA could have been old enough to have ridden a horse past the Temple at such a time. Seeing as EbA's apostasy is also connected with the Tosefta's story, we know that his fate was bound up with that of Rabbi Akiva, whose journey to the orchard took place some years after the Temple's destruction.
How are we to understand this anachronism? Is it, perhaps, a reference to the place where the Holy of Holies once stood? The Babylonian Talmud (to which we will soon turn) makes specific mention of the curtain, indicating that such could not be the case. Of greater likelihood is the possibility that this statement is a further indication of EbA's inability to let go of the past. Just as he insists on clinging to the statements made by the late Rabbi Akiva, so too does he seem intent on reinventing himself during the time of the Second Temple. EbA's personality is again portrayed as stagnant and academic, seeking to blame others for faults of his own, whilst justifying his own apostasy with a patently ridiculous excuse. Before looking at the Babylonian version of the story, the Palestinian Talmud continues by offering other reasons for EbA's life of sin. It is to those that we will turn next.