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Pirke Avot chapter two, verses ten, eleven and twelve

The next bit in Pirke Avot is about Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai’s disciples. I’ll take them in a bunch, continuing to use the numbering in Hertz, which makes this verse ten:

Rabban Yochanan, the son of Zakkai, had five disciples; and these are they, Rabbi Eliezer, the son of Hyrcanus, Rabbi Joshua, the son of Chananya, Rabbi Jose, the Priest, Rabbi Simeon, the son of Nathaniel, and Rabbi Elazar, the son of Arach.

Numbering being different, one translation to another, which makes reference interesting and fun, some people do not count this as a verse in itself, but combine it with the next one or even two, and some people count both this and the next two as part of the previous one. But we’re going to call that ten, and this eleven:

He used thus to recount their praise: Eliezer, the son of Hyrcanus, is a cemented cistern, which loses not a drop; Joshua, the son of Chananya—happy is she that bare him; Jose, the Priest, is a pious man; Simeon, the son of Nathaniel, is a fearer of sin; Elazar, the son of Arach, is like a spring flowing with ever-sustained vigour.

… and this is twelve:

He used to say, If all the sages of Israel were in one scale of the balance, and Eliezer, the son of Hyrcanus, in the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Saul said in his name, If all the sages of Israel, together with Eliezer, the son of Hyrcanus, were in one scale of the balance, and Elazar, the son of Arach, in the other scale, he would outweigh them all.

Is the prodigious memory of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus supposed to be better than the sin-fearing of Simeon ben Nathaniel, or is it some other aspect of his character that outweighs all the Sages? And is Elazar ben Arach, the ever-flowing spring, really to be commended above all the rest put together, or is that second-hand information to be discounted somewhat?

It turns out that Elazar ben Arach, the ever-flowing spring, dried up, or the water ran foul; instead of going to Javneh with Rabban Jochanan ben Zakkai, he chose to go to Emmaus, where is wife’s family was from, and there he was cut off from the sages, where he forgot all his Torah. He turns up in the Talmud only here and as a warning not to separate yourself from the community (one f’r’ex for that fairly frequent warning), and only a handful of other places. Yet at the time, before the Destruction, he was famous.

Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, on the other hand, was one of the most prominent rabbis of the Javneh period, and became known as Eliezer the Great. He is the single most quoted rabbi in the Talmud, Mishnah and Baraita; if Elezar ben Arach descends into obscurity following the removal from Jerusalem, Eleizer ben Hyrcanus ascends into dominance. Until… are you ready for this story? It’s one of my favorites. It’s in Baba Metzia, 59b. I’ll tell it in my own words, though.

So. The rabbis are arguing a point of kashrut. A utensil can be made unkosher through contact with unkosher items, but is an oven a utensil? And there are many different kinds of ovens; what about this kind, and what about that kind, and so on and so forth, and—you understand, all this is actually important, because you can’t eat food that’s been cooked in an unkosher oven, and people make ovens for a living and need to know what the rules are. So, there’s Rabbi Eliezer, the Great, and he is arguing that this particular kind of oven is kosher, and Rabbi Joshua is saying no it isn’t, and Rabbi Eliezer is losing. Right? And he is arguing this, and he’s arguing that, and nobody is buying it.

So he says Come over to the window. Come on, I want to show you something. Look at that tree, there. And Joseph says The carob tree? and Eliezer says If I am right about the application of the law to this particular kind of oven, then the carob tree will prove it. And the tree rips itself out of the ground, roots and all, and flies through the air for a hundred and fifty feet. Some of the rabbis say it was five hundred feet, but that’s clearly ridiculous; let’s be reasonable and say a hundred and fifty feet, or even just a hundred feet. Which is pretty impressive, you must admit. But the rabbis do not change their minds on the law: A carob tree is not proof, they say. There’s admissible evidence, and then there are flying carob trees.

Eliezer says again Come over to the window. I want you to look at that river. If the oven is kosher, the river will flow backwards. And so it does. But does this impress them? Well, yes, it does impress them, but they still think the oven’s no good. Joseph points out that an argument, really, is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition, whilst miracle-working is based on a simple appeal to authority and has no logical structure or consequence.

Now that pisses Eliezer off. So this time he says the walls of this building will prove my point for me. And the walls start to shake and tremble and then tilt inward until the whole building is about to collapse. But Joshua says to the walls, Walls he says, Walls, are you learned in the law? Are you rabbis or are you walls? Because we’re talking about an interpretation of the law, here, and if you don’t have something in the law to back it up, then stay out of it. And the walls stop. They don’t go back to upright, you understand, but they stay kinda tilted like that, as if they don’t know if they are coming or going.

Well, now Eliezer is taking it personal. So he says Fine, he says, You don’t like the testimony of trees and streams and walls? You want more? How about the Voice of Heaven itself? You like that? If I am right, let the Voice of Heaven be my proof! And there’s a hush, you know, from the rabbis, because some things you keep quiet for. And yes, the Voice of Heaven cries out, saying Why are you giving my man Eliezer a hard time, guys? This is my boy! He’s never wrong about the law!

Well, and Joseph stands up, and— let me just stop here for a minute and ask you, Gentle Reader, do you think he’s going to give in? Is Rabbi Joseph going to say, Oh, well, then clearly the oven is no good, seeing that the Divine spoke from Heaven itself to support you. What would you do, Gentle Reader?

Here’s what Rabbi Joseph does: he says that the Divine simply doesn’t have the authority to overrule a vote by the majority of rabbis, disputing Torah together. In fact, he says lo bashamayim hi, it is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 30:12); the law, given at Sinai, is for us to interpret, not for the Divine, for surely if the Voice of Heaven wanted to put something in about this particular kind of oven, the chance was there at Sinai. It’s too late now to go interfering in our discussions; once we allow that, the council loses all independence and credibility.

And you know, he’s right. In fact, when R. Nathan met Elijah (The prophet Elijah visits everywhere, you know, although most of us don’t recognize him) he asked how the Divine reacted to being overruled, and Elijah reported that the Divine chortled with joy, saying My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me.

That’s where my version of the story always ended. I had never gone into the text to see what happened next, but come with me, because it’s interesting.

Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, called the Great, stormed out of the council session. The rabbis voted, and the majority ruled against his understanding of the law, and called in all the ovens of that kind to be destroyed. Not only did they do that, but (presumably because of his attempt to improperly influence the Sages on a matter of law with such unfair things as miracles and wonders and the Voice of Heaven) they excommunicated the great Sage. That, however, left them with a difficulty: how do you tell Eliezer that he has been excommunicated, when he clearly has the Divine imprimatur? Well Rabbi Akiba volunteers for the task or else, he says, or else somebody will screw it up and thus destroy the entire world.

Akiba put on mourning clothes, and goes to Eliezer. He sits himself down a good way off, and sighs. What’s up? says Eliezer. Master, says Akiba, Master, I am in mourning because you have been excommunicated. And then Eliezer tore his clothes (a ritual sign of mourning) and sat on the ground and cried. And a third of all the crops in the world, the olives and the wheat and the barley, were all smitten, and withered, and died. And there were tidal waves and fires and destruction everywhere. So that went well.

And off went Eliezer, to live in excommunication for the rest of his life, eventually settling in Caesarea. He was accused of supporting the Christians in his exile, although he denied it, and he wasn’t convicted. And at the end of his life, the rabbis came to him, and on his deathbed he settled various matters of ritual impurity. His last word, in fact, was pure. Rabbi Joshua ben Chananya (happy was she who gave birth to him!) raised the ban on him, posthumously, although it’s not clear what good that did.

The End

So those are the disciples of Jochanan ben Zakkai; the star pupils cut off by stubbornness and inflexibility, and one of the lesser lights winds up heading everything, becoming friends with the Emperor, and generally being the star. And presumably, what with those stories being well-known, that’s what these verses are about.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


What a great story!!!

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