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Pirke Avote chapter four, verse twenty-five

This week we have a saying from Elisha ben Abuyeh. We have met him before, in a historical novel called As a Driven Leaf and on a trip to Paradise in Avot 4:1 a few months ago. I’ll quote my version of the story for those that missed it the first time.

There were four who entered Paradise. Ben Azzai was one, Ben Zoma the second, another was the third, and the fourth was Rabbi Akiba. Rabbi Akiba said to the others, he said, When ye arrive at the stones of pure marble, don’t cry out ‘water, water!’ says he, for he that telleth lies shall not tarry in my sight, that is, the presence of the Divine.

Ben Azzai took one look and died.

Ben Zoma took one look and went mad.

The other one became a heretic (which is why we don’t mention his name in the story, not to speak ill, although for a hint, his first initial is E and the second letter is lisha Ben Abuyah).

Rabbi Akiba departed unhurt.

That’s the whole of the story, which is written in the tractate Hagigah, page 14b. It is clearly a strange and unsatisfactory story.

So, before we even get to the verse, we have to ask: why are we including the saying of the heretical Other? Sure, he was a great and pius scholar in his youth before he entered Paradise, but surely his example is one to be avoided and shunned. Or, at least, taken as a warning. Now, let’s see what he says, in Irving M. Bunim’s translation:

Elisha b. Avuyah said: If one learns as a child, to what is it like?—like ink written on fresh paper. If one learns as an old man, to what it is like?—like ink written on erased paper.

On the face of it, this is just saying that it is easier to learn when you are young, and that when you are old, you have much to unlearn (or erase) before you can learn anything. It’s a warning not to put off your studies, and not to put off your children’s studies. This is good advice, of course.

On the other hand, Elisha ben Abuyeh himself was a great scholar as a youth, knowledge written on him like blank paper, and when he was an old man, he had erased it all. Is that what he is talking about? Was this a saying of his youth, when he was guessing at the difficulty of learning in your old age? That isn’t much of a wise saying, then. Or was it a saying of his heretical age, when he had learned and unlearned and learned and unlearned until his wisdom was full of holes?

I also wonder about this: was the audience of the time, the Rabbis of Late Antiquity, let’s say, who put this book together, all so familiar with writing on fresh and erased paper? Back in Chapter One, I wondered about the transmission of Wisdom via the Book rather than the Telling, the insistence within its pages of its authority. So perhaps this really is something that has powerful connotations for his audience. I’m certainly not an expert on the history of The Book. But I wonder… if, as I suspect from the little I know, fresh paper was not a readily available resource in the provinces of the Empire circa 100 CE, the distinction between new paper and old may have been one of value. New paper was expensive and difficult to obtain. Old paper was cheap(er) and easier to get hold of. You would never write a first draft on new paper—Roman edicts, I am told, were still written on wax first and then transferred to vellum.

Perhaps, then, we could interpret the sentiment like this: when teaching children, teach them the traditions as they were transmitted; that is not the place for experiments or advances. But when the old go to learn, rather than being bound by the tried and true, a certain amount of experimentation and searching is appropriate.

That, in fact, when the old go to learn, it is like a first draft: sloppy, new and… well, heretical, yes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,