Elisha ben Abuya
The following document is designed to serve as an analysis of Elisha ben Abuya (henceforth, EbA) and his role throughout the Rabbinic literature. While it is not strictly necessary for an appreciation of EbA's personality, I have provided a preface that deals with the antediluvian ("pre-flood") character, Enoch. We had occasion to note at the end of that preface that Enoch, in his afterlife, became an angel known as Metatron (מיטטרון). In our upcoming appraisal of the main EbA narrative, this association will have interesting connotations.
There are several texts that are relevant to an understanding of EbA and we shall endeavor to approach them in a chronological order. For the purpose of clarity, I shall list those texts here:
1. mHag 2:1 - m = Mishna
2. tHag 2:1-3 - t = Tosefta; Hag = Hagigah / חגיגה
3. baraita, bHag 14b - b = Babylonian Talmud
4. baraita, bMo'ed 20a - Mo'ed = Mo'ed Qatan / מועד קטן
5. mAbot 4:20 - Abot = Pirqei Aboth / פרקי אבות
6. pHag 77b-c - p = Palestinian Talmud
7. bHag 15a-15b
8. bHag 15b, additions
9. bARN 24 - ARN = Aboth deRebi Nathan / אבות דרבי נתן
There is some debate over which came first: the Tosefta or the Mishna (cf: Judith Hauptman, "The Tosefta as a Commentary on an Early Mishnah", JSIJ 3 (2004), 1-24), although the tradition assumes that the latter derived from a body that contained the former as well. As the Tosefta is somewhat more detailed than both the Mishna and the baraita in this instance, we shall use the former as a launching pad to discuss the latter two as well.
אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה אבל דורשין בשנים ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים אבל דורשין ביחיד ולא במרכבה ביחיד אא"כ היה חכם מבין מדעתו
The following is my translation:
One should not expound upon the [forbidden] sexual matters to three people, although one may do so to two; nor [may one expound upon] the work of creation to two people, although one may do so to a single person; nor [may one expound upon] the chariot [of Ezekiel's vision] to a single person - unless he is wise, discerning in his knowledge.
The Tosefta then goes on to relate an incident that led Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai to appreciate the stature of Rabbi El'azar ben Erekh and to agree to expound upon 'the chariot' in his presence. The correlating Mishna (mHag 2:1) is effectively identical, save for the the stipulation that the former two matters may be discussed at all. The Mishna is also lacking the concluding narrative.
כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאלו לא בא לעולם מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור
All who consider [these] four things, it is better for them had they not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before and what comes after.
[The Tosefta then continues by deducing this principle from Deut 4:32]
כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו ראוי לו שלא בא לעולם
The following is my translation:
All who consider [these] four things, it is better for them [some manuscripts, 'it would be a mercy to them': רתוי instead of ראוי] had they not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before and what comes after. And all who are not considerate regarding the honour of their creator, it is better for them [/ 'it would be a mercy for them'] had they not come into the world.
[This is the second half of mHag 2:1, following on from the section mentioned above]
This forthright ban on speculative thinking served as the crux of Charles' argument that apocalyptic writing died in the Jewish tradition and was replaced by the immutability of the Law (cf: R.H. Charles (ed.), The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Volume Two: Pseudepigrapha (Berkeley: The Apocryphile Press, 2004), ix). Whether or not Charles was correct, traditions such as those espoused by the authors of Daniel 7-12, Ezekiel 1 and Enoch (to name only a few) received their death-knell in mishnayot like mHag 2:1. Proceeding to the next source, we see where this idea is given narrative expression.
ארבעה נכנסו לפרדס בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבה אחד הציץ ומת אחד הציץ ונפגע אחד הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות ואחד עלה בשלום וירד בשלום בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע עליו הכתוב אומר דבש מצאת אכול דייך אלישע הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתוב אומר אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך רבי עקיבה עלה בשלום וירד בשלום עליו הכתוב אומר משכני אחריך נרוצה
Our Rabbis taught: Four people entered an/the orchard [without the vocalisation, it is impossible to tell whether this is לְפַרְדֵּס or לַפַּרְדֵּס. Tradition assumes the definite article]: ben Azzai and ben Zoma, Akher and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and was wounded; one looked and cut the saplings; and one ascended in peace and descended in peace. Ben Azzai looked and died. Concerning him, the passage says, "The death of His righteous ones is valuable in the Lord's eyes" (Ps 116:15). Ben Zoma looked and was wounded. Concerning him, the passage says, "If you found honey, eat [only] until you're full [lest you overly sate yourself and vomit it up]" (Pr 25:16). Elisha looked and cut the seedlings. Concerning him, the passage says, "Do not let your mouth cause your body to sin [and do not say before the angel that it was unintentional. Why allow God to be angry by your talk? For He will destroy the work of your hands]" (Ecc 5:5). Rabbi Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace. Concerning him, the passage says, "Draw me after you, let us run! [The king has brought me to his chambers]" (SoS 1:4, acc. to JPS).
[The Tosefta continues with two parables regarding the nature of the orchard, but they are not of relevance to our discussion.]
ת"ר ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא אמר להם ר"ע כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע ועליו הכתוב אומר דבש מצאת אכול דייך פן תשבענו והקאתו אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום
baraita, bHag 14b
Our Rabbis taught: Four people entered an/the orchard [as above, tradition assumes the definite article] and they were ben Azzai and ben Zoma, Akher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, "When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, 'Water! Water!' For it is said, "He who speaks lies will not stand before my eyes" (Ps 101:7). Ben Azzai looked and died. Concerning him, the passage says, "The death of His righteous ones is valuable in the Lord's eyes" (Ps 116:15). Ben Zoma looked and was wounded, and it is concerning him that the passage says, "If you found honey, eat [only] until you're full, lest you [overly] sate yourself and vomit it up" (Pr 25:16). Akher cut the seedlings, but Rabbi Akiva left in peace.
This is a fascinating passage and it merits closer examination. Who is Akher? What happened to each of the protagonists? Why was Rabbi Akiva not harmed? The question of what happened in relation to Akher (whose true name is divulged in the Tosefta's version of the story) is soon to be discussed at greater length by the Talmud. The other issues go unresolved.
Tradition states that פרדס, a Persian word meaning 'orchard', is actually an allusion to Torah. Many consider it an acronym for P'shat, Remez, Drosh, Sod: four modes (apparantly) of Torah study. P'shat ('straight, simple') refers to the basic meaning of the text. Remez ('hint, allusion') is a level deeper than the P'shat. Drosh ('scratching, searching') is a level deeper still, and one which is characterised by the so-called Midrashim. Finally, Sod ('secret') is the deepest level and one which is epitomised by the study of the Qabbalah. It is particularly in relation to the Qabbalah that this passage is commonly understood, with some even suggesting that the protagonists were practising an ancient form of meditation.
Whatever the case may be, it is apparant that this 'orchard' is a somewhat mystical place, as Rabbi Akiva's enigmatic warning would testify. The 'pure marble', which would appear to be at the highest point of their journey, is both a wonderful and a terrible place. So pure is this marble that one may even mistake it for water, yet so deadly that one may be destroyed for doing so. Such is the fate, it would seem, of two of Rabbi Akiva's fellows (as we will see, Akher's fate is somewhat more complex).
Ben Azzai and ben Zoma appear to be guilty of looking. We are not told if their looking by itself was a crime, or if it had been accompanied by something else. Perhaps, although we cannot be sure, they were guilt-free but simply incapable of containing that which they saw. Whatever it was, the verb utilised in both instances is הציץ, which is rare. In form, it is a hiph'il (ie: causative) of √צוצ, which means 'bloom' or 'sprout'. It is related to the noun ציצית, which are the fringes worn on the corners of garments. While it certainly means 'look', it may also be establishing a parallel structure with Akher's experience. The verb used in reference to him is קיצץ ('he cut'), which sounds similar to הציץ ('he looked'). Also, while the verb for looking used in relation to the other two also has connotations of sprouting, Akher is guilty of cutting that which has already sprouted: the seedlings.
Finally, there is the issue of Rabbi Akiva. The text states that Rabbi Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace, although it is difficult to know what this means. Presumably it means that the others did not enter in peace, and were perhaps not ready for what they were going to encounter. This unreadiness should not be mistaken for ignorance for, as we are about to see, Akher was one of the greatest scholars of his generation.