Elisha ben Abuya V
We now turn to the version of the story as it is recorded by the Babylonian Talmud. Much of this may appear repetitive, as many of the traditions recorded here are also to be found in other sources at which we have already looked. Nonetheless, this story is more developed than the others and it behoves us to look at it in its own right. The translation throughout is my own.
אחר קיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתוב אומר אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך מאי היא חזא מיטטרון דאתיהבא ליה רשותא למיתב למיכתב זכוותא דישראל אמר גמירא דלמעלה לא הוי לא ישיבה ולא תחרות ולא עורף ולא עיפוי שמא חס ושלום ב' רשויות הן אפקוהו למיטטרון ומחיוהו שיתין פולסי דנורא א"ל מ"ט כי חזיתיה לא קמת מקמיה איתיהיבא ליה רשותא למימחק זכוותא דאחר יצתה בת קול ואמרה שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר
[The Talmud begins by quoting the Tosefta:]
"Akher cut the seedlings". It is concerning him that the verse 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).
What did he see? Metatron, to whom was given permission to sit and write the merits of Israel.
He said, "It is taught that on high there is no sitting and no rivalry and no division and no weariness. Perhaps, God forbid, there are two powers?"
They took Metatron away and lashed him with sixty discs of fire. He asked them, "What is the reason [for this]?"
"When you saw him, you did not stand up before him!"
He was then given permission to burn the merits of Akher.
A heavenly voice came forth and said, "Return, rebellious children (Jer 3:22): except for Akher!"
Here we see the extended version of the narratives indicated in the Tosefta, the Mishna and the baraita. Once more, we are told that Akher "cut the seedlings", and once more we are given the verse from Ecclesiastes. This verse is somewhat more applicable in this narrative for, just as Ecclesiastes had warned, Akher's mouth led him into sin (by suggesting that there may be more than one god) and God also set about destroying the work of his hands (ie: his every merit). The proclamation at the end may also align with the verse's admonition not to declare the statement an error: a possible suggestion that repentance may be disallowed.
What exactly was it that encouraged Akher to consider the existence of two gods? We had occasion to mention Metatron at the end of the preface, noting that he was considered by various traditions to have been the post-mortem manifestation of the ante-diluvian Enoch. We also had occasion to consider the sectarian nature of the Enochic tradition, one that had been thoroughly rejected by Rabbinic Judaism. It is no accident that the instrument of Akher's demise in this passage is none other than Enoch himself (aka Metatron). It is also no accident that Metatron serves no real function in this narrative other than to be severely beaten.
אמר הואיל ואטריד ההוא גברא מההוא עלמא ליפוק ליתהני בהאי עלמא נפק אחר לתרבות רעה נפק אשכח זונה תבעה אמרה ליה ולאו אלישע בן אבויה את עקר פוגלא ממישרא בשבת ויהב לה אמרה אחר הוא
He said, "Since that man [ie: I] has been banished from that world [ie: the world to come], I shall enjoy myself in this world!"
Akher went out: he went out to a wicked lifestyle. He found a prostitute [and] propositioned her. She said to him, "Are you not Elisha ben Abuya!?" He uprooted a radish from the ground (it was on Shabbat) and he gave it to her. She said, "He is someone else."
Here we learn, not only Akher's real name, but the reason for the pseudonym. Having been prohibited from repentance (and having had all of his deeds erased), EbA decides to enjoy himself in this world without any fear of further reprisals in the world to come. The word employed for 'lifestyle' (תרבות) literally means 'growth'. There is a particular irony affected here, as EbA has thus far proven himself to be one who cuts things down, rather than allows them to grow. When we are first introduced to him it is to be told that he "cut the seedlings". Soon afterwards we are informed of the fact that all his deeds in life have been destroyed. In a moment we are also to be told that he desecrated the Sabbath by uprooting something. The only thing that is actually allowed to grow in EbA's life is wickedness.
It is of no small importance to our profile of EbA that the prostitute is depicted as knowing his name. As we have already seen, EbA was one of the greatest sages of his time, and it is likely that after his death, the eponym Akher was also widespread. The origin of the name, as given here, may be fanciful. Nonetheless, it adequately reflects the message that the name conveys.
שאל אחר את ר"מ לאחר שיצא לתרבות רעה א"ל מאי דכתיב גם את זה לעומת זה עשה האלהים אמר לו כל מה שברא הקב"ה ברא כנגדו ברא הרים ברא גבעות ברא ימים ברא נהרות אמר לו ר"ע רבך לא אמר כך אלא ברא צדיקים ברא רשעים ברא גן עדן ברא גיהנם כל אחד ואחד יש לו ב' חלקים אחד בגן עדן ואחד בגיהנם זכה צדיק נטל חלקו וחלק חברו בגן עדן נתחייב רשע נטל חלקו וחלק חברו בגיהנם אמר רב משרשיא מאי קראה גבי צדיקים כתיב לכן בארצם משנה יירשו גבי רשעים כתיב ומשנה שברון שברם
After having turned to a wicked lifestyle, Akher asked Rabbi Meir, "What does it mean when it says, '[So in a time of good fortune enjoy the good fortune; and in a time of misfortune, reflect:] The one no less than the other was God's doing (Ecc 7:14a, acc. to JPS)'."
He said to him, "Everything that God created, He also created its opposite. He created mountains, He created hills; He created seas, He created rivers".
He said to him, "Your master, Rabbi Akiva, did not say this! Rather, He created righteous people, He created wicked people; He created heaven, He created hell. Everybody has two portions: one in heaven and one in hell. Should a righteous man merit it, he shall take his portion and the portion of his companion in heaven. Should a wicked man deserve it, he shall take his portion and the portion of his companion in hell".
Rav Mesharshia said, "What is the verse concerning righteous people? It is written, 'They shall have a double portion in their land' (Is 61:7). Concerning wicked people it is written, 'Shatter them with double destruction' (Jer 17:18)".
Here we have the first of our recorded conversations between EbA and Rabbi Meir. We are not informed of EbA's status relative to Rabbi Meir until the end of the narrative, so it is harder to perceive here the respect in which he is being held. As with the Palestinian version, however, EbA is intent on disagreeing with Rabbi Meir's opinion, citing the opinion of Rabbi Meir's late teacher. In this case, Rav Mesharshia comments at the end of the discussion, ratifying the validity of EbA's opinion over that of Rabbi Meir. While it appears possible that Rabbi Meir is avoiding the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, due to its possibly offensive nature, such is unlikely given the version of the story presented by the Palestinian Talmud.
In this instance, Rabbi Meir's interpretation of the verse is remarkably simplistic. The breaking of clauses in EbA's interpretation is enough to indicate that the breaking of clauses is the same in Rabbi Meir's. In other words, Rabbi Meir perceives mountains and hills as being opposites, as well as oceans and rivers. Not only does this appear to be an almost child-like appraisal of the natural order, his interpretation of the verse lacks any form of ethical clarification.
שאל אחר את ר"מ לאחר שיצא לתרבות רעה מאי דכתיב לא יערכנה זהב וזכוכית ותמורתה כלי פז אמר לו אלו דברי תורה שקשין לקנותן ככלי זהב וכלי פז ונוחין לאבדן ככלי זכוכית אמר לו ר"ע רבך לא אמר כך אלא מה כלי זהב וכלי זכוכית אע"פ שנשברו יש להם תקנה אף ת"ח אע"פ שסרח יש לו תקנה אמר לו אף אתה חזור בך אמר לו כבר שמעתי מאחורי הפרגוד שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר
After having turned to a wicked lifestyle, Akher asked Rabbi Meir, "What does it mean when it says, 'Gold or glass cannot match its value, nor vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it' (Job 28:17, acc. to JPS)?"
He said to him, "These are words of Torah which are as difficult to acquire as are vessels of gold and vessels of fine gold, but as easy to lose as are vessels of glass".
He said to him, "Your master, Rabbi Akiva, did not say this! Rather, just as vessels of gold and of glass have a means of being repaired when they have been broken, so too does a sage have a means of being repaired even though he has sinned".
He said to him, "So you too should repent!"
He said to him, "I have already heard from the other side of the curtain, 'Return, rebellious children: except for Akher'!"
In this instance it is Rabbi Meir who provides an interpretation which may be critical of EbA but, yet again, it proves too simplistic. A sign of its simplicity is in the fact that it disregards the natural parallelism of the biblical verse, which contrasts vessels of gold and glass with vessels of fine gold, by grouping vessels of gold and fine gold together in a contrast with vessels of glass. EbA's interpetation, which protects the parallel structure, is again a clever interpretation. Interestingly, it opens up the possibility of his own repentance, and we are reminded of the divine decree that forbade this act.
The exposition presented here is an interesting one, for it is only here that we see it presented in such a manner: Rabbi Meir delivers the first part and EbA corrects him with the second. In the Palestinian version (pHag 77b), we saw how the entirety was credited to Rabbi Meir; in the later Babylonian tractate (bARN 24:5), we saw how the entirety was credited to EbA himself. We suggested before that it is possible that the entirety was, indeed, EbA's exposition, and that Rabbi Meir's presentation of it in pHag 77b may have been the reason that EbA, in that instance, did not correct him. While that may be the case in relation to the Palestinian Talmud, it is unlikely to be the case here where Rabbi Meir only delivers a part and the rest is credited to Rabbi Akiva. Of greater likelihood is that the editors of the Talmud conflated the tradition.
ת"ר מעשה באחר שהיה רוכב על הסוס בשבת והיה רבי מאיר מהלך אחריו ללמוד תורה מפיו אמר לו מאיר חזור לאחריך שכבר שיערתי בעקבי סוסי עד כאן תחום שבת א"ל אף אתה חזור בך א"ל ולא כבר אמרתי לך כבר שמעתי מאחורי הפרגוד שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר
Our Rabbis taught that Akher was once riding on his horse [lit. 'the horse'] on Shabbat while Rabbi Meir was walking beside him in order to learn Torah from his mouth. He said to him, "Meir. Go back, for I have already measured out the footsteps of my horse: the Shabbat boundary is thus far."
He said to him, "So you too should return!"
He said to him, "Have I not already told you? I have already heard from the other side of the curtain, 'Return, rebellious children: except for Akher'!"
In the Palestinian Talmud, all three discussions take place while EbA is riding his horse on the Sabbath; in the Babylonian Talmud, this occurrence appears to be at a separate time. It is our first indication of EbA's stature: that, despite his flagrant violation of the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir is still intent on learning Torah "from his mouth". A certain poetic justice is affected here for, a moment ago, Rabbi Meir is recorded as having suggested that words of Torah may be easily lost. Despite EbA's lifestyle, we see here that he is still in full possession of his knowledge. Not only is he wise, but he is able to measure out the distance to the Shabbat boundary while in the act of teaching Rabbi Meir about something else (something that Rabbi Meir, even as a passive recipient, was incapable of doing).
Another major difference between this story and the one in pHag 77b is that this one is presented in the form of a baraita. This would imply that it is a particularly old tradition that the two Talmuds were quoting. Being an earlier source, it is reasonable to suppose that the version in the Palestinian Talmud may have been more accurate. In the Palestinian version, reference was made to having heard God's voice from the Holy of Holies, and we noted the anachronistic nature of this assertion. In our case, reference is made to the "curtain" which, while most probably a reference to the partition within the Holy of Holies, may also be a more chronologically viable reference to the partition between the Torah and the congregation of a synagogue.
תקפיה עייליה לבי מדרשא א"ל לינוקא פסוק לי פסוקך אמר לו אין שלום אמר ה' לרשעים עייליה לבי כנישתא אחריתי א"ל לינוקא פסוק לי פסוקך אמר לו כי אם תכבסי בנתר ותרבי לך בורית נכתם עונך לפני עייליה לבי כנישתא אחריתי א"ל לינוקא פסוק לי פסוקך א"ל ואת שדוד מה תעשי כי תלבשי שני כי תעדי עדי זהב כי תקרעי בפוך עיניך לשוא תתיפי
He took hold of him and he brought him to a study house. He said to a youth, "Recite your verse [ie: a verse that you are studying] to me".
He said to him, "There is no peace, said the Lord, for the wicked" (Isa 48:22).
He brought him to another synagogue. He said to a youth, "Recite your verse to me".
He said, "Though you wash with natron and use much lye, your guilt is ingrained before me [- declares the Lord God]" (Jer 2:22, acc. to JPS).
He brought him to another synagogue. He said to a youth, "Recite your verse to me".
He said, "And you, who are doomed to ruin, what do you accomplish by wearing crimson, by decking yourself in jewels of gold, by enlarging your eyes with kohl? You beautify yourself in vain. [Lovers despise you, they seek your life!]" (Jer 4:30, acc. to JPS).
Here we see Rabbi Meir actively attempting to convince EbA to repent his sins. He is brought to one synagogue/study hall after another and, in each of them, a child is encouraged to recite a verse. Each time, the verse happens to be one which prophecies ruin to one who sins. The third verse is difficult, however, to understand. Addressed to Jerusalem, it likens the city to a woman who beseeches her lovers (ie: allies) yet finds herself betrayed. It may be that the relevance of this verse to EbA lies in his 'beautification' of himself with Torah knowledge: all in vain if he fails to maintain the Torah's teachings. Alternatively, we may be forced to suggest that this is a very personal accusation made against EbA who may have been in the Hellenistic habit of beautifying himself literally.
עייליה לבי כנישתא אחריתי עד דעייליה לתליסר בי כנישתא כולהו פסקו ליה כי האי גוונא לבתרא א"ל פסוק לי פסוקך א"ל ולרשע אמר אלהים מה לך לספר חקי ההוא ינוקא הוה מגמגם בלישניה אשתמע כמה דאמר ליה ולאלישע אמר אלהים איכא דאמרי סכינא הוה בהדיה וקרעיה ושדריה לתליסר בי כנישתי ואיכה דאמרי אמר אי הואי בידי סכינא הוה קרענא ליה
He brought him to another synagogue until he had brought him to thirteen synagogues. They all [ie: the youths within each synagogue] recited for him in a similar manner. At the final one, he said to him, "Recite your verse to me."
He said to him, "And to the wicked, God said: Who are you to recite my laws [and mouth the terms of my covenant]?" (Ps 50:16)
Now, that youth stuttered with his tongue. It sounded as though he said to him, "And to Elisha, God said: [Who are you to recite my laws, etc.]".
Some say that he [ie: EbA] had a knife with him and he cut him up and sent him to thirteen synagogues. Others say that he said, "If I had a knife with me, I would cut him up".
It is in this final story that we see the strongest indication of divine control over the events. Not only has each of the children recited a verse pertinent to EbA, the final child accidentally mentions EbA by name. The climax of this story is, from an historical perspective, patently absurd. Not only is it unlikely that EbA had ever murdered a child, but it is ridiculous to assume that, had he ever done so, there would be disagreement as to whether he had gone through with so heinous an act or had merely spoken of it. What is more, the similarity of this story and the story of the concubine at Gibeah who was cut into twelve pieces (Jud 19:29) is enough to suggest that this part of the story is designed to bring the Babylonian account into line with the Palestinian.