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"Woe is Me, My Master, For You Have Left the Entire Generation Orphaned"

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen

Translated by David Strauss


            I would like to examine the tragic story of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, as it appears in a number of sources in Chazal. As is well known, he refused to accept the ruling of the sages regarding the “oven of Akhnai,” and therefore was placed under the ban:

They said: That day they brought all the objects that Rabbi Eliezer had declared ritually pure and burned them in a fire, and they voted about him and they excommunicated him. And they said: "Who will go and inform him?" Rabbi Akiva said to them: "I will go, lest someone who is unsuitable will go and inform him, and as a result he will destroy the entire world."

What did Rabbi Akiva do? He dressed in black [garments] and wrapped himself in black, and sat before him at a distance of four cubits. Rabbi Eliezer said to him: "Akiva, what is the difference between today and any other day?"

He said to him: "Master, it seems to me that your colleagues are staying away from you."

He also rent his garments and took off his shoes, and he slipped down and sat on the ground. His eyes streamed with tears. The world was smitten: one-third of the olives, and one-third of the wheat, and one-third of the barley. And some say that even the dough in a woman's hands swelled. (Bava Metzi'a 59a)

We read elsewhere about his demise:

When Rabbi Eliezer became ill, that day was Friday. Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues went in to visit him; he was sleeping in his room and they were seated in his reception room. Hyrcanus his son went in to remove his tefillin, but he did not allow him [to do so], and he wept. Hyrcanus went out and said to the Sages: "My masters, it seems that my father's mind is confused."

He said to him: "My son, it is not my mind that is confused, but yours, for you ignored candle lighting, for which you have become liable for death at the hand of Heaven, and involved yourself in tefillin, for which you would only have been liable for the violation of a rabbinic prohibition."

When the Sages saw that his mind was clear, they went in and sat before him at a distance of four cubits… And they asked him about purities, impurities, and ritual baths.

They said to him: "Master, what is [the law regarding] this?" He said to them: "Impure." "What is [the law regarding] this?" "He said to them: "Pure." And he responded regarding the impure that it was impure, and regarding the pure that it was pure.

Rabbi Eliezer said to the Sages: "I wonder about the disciples of the generation, perhaps they will be punished with death at the hand of Heaven." They said to him: "Master, for what [offense]?"

He said to them: "Because they did not come and wait upon me."

Then he said to Akiva ben Yosef: "Akiva, why did you not come before me and wait upon me?"

He said to him: "Master, I did not have time."

He said to him: "I would be surprised if you die a natural death." And some say that he did not say anything to him, but since [R. Eliezer] spoke thus to his disciples, [R. Akiva’s] blood immediately melted within him.

Rabbi Akiva said to him: "Master, what manner of death will be mine?" He said to him: "Akiva, your [death] will be the most severe of all."

Rabbi Akiva went in and sat before him, and said to him: "Master, now teach me." He began and taught him three hundred laws about an intense bright [leprous] spot.

At that time Rabbi Eliezer raised his two arms and placed them on his chest, and said: "Woe to me for these two arms of mine, which are like two Torah scrolls departing from the world. For were all the seas ink, and all the reeds quills, and all the people scribes – they would not be able to write all that I have read and learned, and all my waiting upon the Sages in the academy. Yet I carried away from my teachers no more than does a man who dips his finger in the sea. And my disciples carried away from me no more than does a paintbrush from a tube. And furthermore, I teach three hundred laws regarding 'You shall not suffer a witch to live.' (And some say: Three thousand laws.) And no man ever asked me about them, except for Akiva ben Yosef…"

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said to him: "Master, the shoe that is on the shoemaker's last, what [is the law]?" He said to him: "It is pure."  And he responded regarding the impure that it was impure, and regarding the pure that it was pure, until his soul departed in purity.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya immediately rent his garments and wept. And he went out and said to the Sages: "My Masters, come and see that Rabbi Eliezer is pure for the world-to-come, for his soul departed in purity."

After Shabbat Rabbi Akiva came and [R. Eliezer’s body being borne] on the road between Caesaria and Lod. He immediately rent his garments and tore out his hair until blood flowed and fell to the ground. He cried out, wept, and said: "Woe is me, my Master, because of you; woe is me, my teacher, because of you; for you have left the entire generation orphaned."

In the mourners’ row he opened [his eulogy] and said: "‘My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and their horsemen!’ I have coins, but I have no moneychanger to change them." (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, ver. A, chap. 25, ed. Schechter, pp. 40-41)

            Rabbi Eliezer’s life was replete with tragedy, both in his early years and in his final days. These tragedies found two-fold expression: on the personal level, and on the level of the pain (as formulated by Hegel) stemming from the collision of two seemingly just values, each of which refuses to make room for the other.

            Rabbi Eliezer's personal tragedy is further highlighted when we examine his early years:

What were the beginnings of Rabbi Eliezer? He was twenty-two years old and had never studied Torah. Once day he said: "I shall go and study Torah with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai." His father Hyrcanus said: "You shall taste nothing until you plow a furrow's length." He got up early and plowed a furrow's length.

They said: That day was Friday. He went and ate at his father-in-law's [house]. And some say that he did not eat anything from the sixth hour on Friday until the sixth hour of Sunday. As he was walking along the road, he saw a stone, took it, and put it in his mouth. And some say that it was the excrement of cattle. He went and spent the night at his lodging house. He went and seated himself before Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai in Jerusalem until a foul smell went forth from his mouth… He said to him: "Just as a foul smell went forth from your mouth, so too will there go forth from you a good reputation in Torah." …

That day Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai set his eyes on Rabbi Eliezer and said to him: "Open [the lecture] and expound." He said to him: "I am unable to open." He pressed him and the disciples pressed him. He stood and opened [the lecture] expounding things that no ear had ever before heard. For every word that came out of his mouth, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai stood up and kissed him on his head. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, chap. 6)

            The same Rabbi Eliezer who had gone twenty-two years without ever having studied Torah became one of the greatest Torah authorities of his generation, about whom a heavenly voice issued forth and proclaimed: "What have you with Rabbi Eliezer, whose views the Halakha follows in all places"? But nevertheless…

            The Gemara in Nidda 7b testifies: "The halakha is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer in four matters." That is to say, in four matters, but no more.

            This is a dual tragedy. Rabbi Eliezer started out in conceptual isolation, stood up to the views of the Sages of Israel, and ended his life in personal isolation. The excommunication was directed not only against his ideas, but against him personally as well; it cut him off from society, from his disciples. "It seems to me that your colleagues are staying away from you."

            As he lies on his deathbed, Rabbi Eliezer cries out with a great and bitter cry: "Now you have come?" And his disciples cannot answer him, for they are terrified at his presence.

            Alongside his bitterness, a note of anger erupts from Rabbi Eliezer's words – anger about all his Torah going to waste. Surely, a great person engages in Torah study out of a desire to know and understand, but at the same time his heart harbors the wish to spread his teachings. Rabbi Eliezer is pained that the world of Torah does not allow itself to accept his teachings – three hundred laws about witchcraft alone, and some say three thousand.

            Rabbi Eliezer’s pain is due not only to the loss of Torah; it is also a personal pain: "More than the calf wishes to suckle, the cow wishes to nurse." Rabbi Eliezer wishes to transmit the Torah over which he had toiled for years, but nobody cares. Does there exist pain greater than this? This is physical pain, similar to the pain of a cow whose milk is trapped in its udder.

            The feeling of "who am I toiling for" slowly grows in a person's heart. It may be assumed that Rabbi Eliezer's disciples shared his pain. "Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya immediately rent his garments and wept … and said to the Sages: 'My Masters, come and see that Rabbi Eliezer is pure for the world-to-come.'" And Rabbi Akiva's blood flowed and fell to the ground, and he cried out in tears, and said: "Woe is me, my Master, because of you."

            Suddenly they realize they are bereft: "For you have left the entire generation orphaned." They are filled with regret, wondering why they had abandoned him while he was still alive.

            It is a common phenomenon that the relatives of the deceased are suffused with regret and guilt. Why did we cause him distress, rather than demonstrating our respect? All the more so is this true when we are dealing with an injustice committed against a great person, an individual on the level of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya.

            Without diminishing the personal tragedy in the least, we can detect here a parallel tragedy: two worldviews clashed, ending with the excommunication of the greatest authority of the generation.

            At the beginning of the passage in Bava Metzi'a we hear about a halakhic dispute that arose between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. The dispute intensified, and Rabbi Eliezer summoned miraculous signs – and even a heavenly voice – for support.

            We see from the continuation of the passage that the dispute turned into a controversy on a matter of principle. It was no longer a specific debate regarding the ritual fitness of an oven of Akhnai, but rather a fundamental disagreement regarding the nature of Halakha and halakhic decision-making, with the initial issue regarding the oven pushed to the side.

            The discussion takes place on two related, but nonetheless distinct, levels. First, "It is not in Heaven" – the Torah was given over to the Sages of Israel, and they determine its shape. This is the Torah, and there is none other beside it.

            God, as it were, "concedes" this point: "My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me." What counts is the decision of the Sages of Israel, even if, according to "God's Torah," the law follows the view of Rabbi Eliezer. "Rabbi Yirmiya said: The Torah was already given on Mount Sinai, [and] we do not pay attention to a heavenly voice." Moreover, "after the majority to incline" (Shemot 23:2) – this is a great rule in halakhic decision-making.

            This epitomizes the fundamental disagreement between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. "And the Sages declare it ritually impure" – the majority of Sages disagree with Rabbi Eliezer. Even though Rabbi Eliezer was the leading Torah authority of his generation, his was a sole dissenting opinion, and he was forced to submit to the decision of the majority.

            From a conservative perspective, Rabbi Eliezer's courage appears instead as the undermining of existing institutions, the destruction of Torah society out of stubborn insistence upon the individual's right to stand up for his opinion. History is not lacking in such models. Socrates stood firm in his beliefs against his entire generation. In the case of Rabbi Eliezer the problem was sharpened even further: The leading authority of the generation was asked to defer to the opinion of the majority.

            The Ramban identifies the incident involving the oven of Akhnai with a particular Torah prohibition. Following his opinion that Rabbi Eliezer was not excommunicated (niddui, as argued by Rashi), but only placed under a ban (cherem), the Ramban writes: "Thus it appears to me – his tradition stood against their tradition, and had this occurred during the time of the Temple, he would have been regarded as a rebellious elder (zaken mamre)." According to the Ramban, we are dealing here with a frontal collision between the view of Rabbi Eliezer and the received tradition of the Sages.

            This itself is difficult: Was Rabbi Eliezer unaware of the law of a rebellious elder? The Gemara in Sanhedrin (88a) cites the view of Rabbi Eliezer that even if the rebellious elder speaks in the name of tradition, and they say that thus it appears to them, the rebellious elder is put to death.

            The Ramban cites the view of Rav Hai Gaon, that "if the one is superior to the two, we follow the party who offers sound reasoning for his position." The Ramban himself disagrees:

His position does not seem correct to me… [rather,] if a certain Sage is greater than all his colleagues, his words are not nullified. (Chiddushei ha-Ramban, Sanhedrin 32a, ed. Lifshitz, p. 27)

            The Ramban raises an objection against this position from the Gemara in Bava Metzi'a, where the view of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is rejected, despite the fact that he is the leading authority of his generation. He answers:

It may perhaps be suggested that Rabbi Eliezer was a sole dissenting opinion against the majority, and the words of one have no significance against the words of two. But [in a dispute of] many against many, we do not follow the majority; rather, if we wish, we may follow the [authorities possessing] greater wisdom.

            But a difficulty remains: If we say that in the incident involving the oven of Akhnai the Sages never put the matter to a vote, how could Rabbi Eliezer have been declared a rebellious elder?

            An examination of the laws governing a rebellious elder indicates that the elder was culpable only if he rebelled against the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, while it was sitting in its permanent seat. If, however, the court convened in Bet Pagi or any other place, the law of a rebellious elder no longer applied. The verse "from the place" teaches that the place where the Sanhedrin meets is halakhically significant.

            Here a question arises regarding the status of the Sanhedrin during the period of Rabbi Eliezer. The Rambam writes that the mitzva of sanctifying the months only applies when there is a Sanhedrin (Hilkhot Kiddush ha-Chodesh 5:1). The Ramban in his strictures to the Rambam's Sefer ha-Mitzvot raises an objection: Surely we find that the months were sanctified on the basis of a sighting of the new moon even after the destruction of the Temple!

            R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik tries to resolve the difficulty: the Sanhedrin has a dual aspect. One aspect depends on the Sanhedrin convening in its permanent seat, a necessary condition regarding various realms of Halakha. A second aspect relates not to the Sanhedrin's executive capabilities – its authority to actualize things – but rather to its function as the transmitters of the Jewish tradition. The first aspect is discussed in Rambam’s Hilkhot Sanhedrin, the second in Hilkhot Mamrim.

            Regarding sanctification of the months, the Sanhedrin's status as transmitter of the tradition suffices. Thus, they can sanctify the months even when they are not in their permanent seat.

            This leads us to the question of the rebellious elder. Is it indeed possible to impose the law of rebellious elder even in a court whose authority is based only on the transmission of the tradition? Perhaps the law only applies in a Sanhedrin that has practical coercive powers!

            Rabbi Eliezer maintained that once the Sanhedrin was exiled from its place, and the Sages no longer convened in Jerusalem, he was no longer obligated to accept their view. The Sages, on the other hand, maintained, "After the majority to incline" – even when the Sanhedrin is no longer sitting in the Chamber of Hewn Stone (Lishkat ha-Gazit) their traditions and rulings are binding.

            In the end, the view of the Sages was accepted; and since the law had been decided, Rabbi Eliezer became a rebellious elder who was liable for excommunication.

            Rabbi Eliezer never made peace with this decision, which left a residue of bitterness in his heart. Until his dying hour, he maintained his opposition to the Sages, with tragedy hovering over all his actions. (Unlike Hegel, he could not reach a synthetic truth that arises from two opposing ideas and includes both of them within it.)

            The collision of these two opinions created the painful rift that continued until Rabbi Eliezer's death. This explains the response of his disciples. Rabbi Akiva was utterly torn apart. On the one hand, he accepted that Rabbi Eliezer’s excommunication was binding and necessary, and therefore no longer went to learn Torah from him. On the other hand, he was filled with feelings of orphanhood when he no longer heard his master's teachings.

            The weeping of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya does not only reflect their grief and distress over their master's passing, but also expresses in acute fashion their deep participation in the tragedy that hovered over the life of Rabbi Eliezer, and also over his death. Their amazing sensitivity burst out, leading them to express the pain that had been pent up in their hearts during their teacher's lifetime. "Woe is me, my Master, for you have left the entire generation orphaned!"


(This shiur was delivered as part of Rav Lichtenstein’s series on Avot DeRabbi Natan, and appeared in Daf Kesher 123 [Adar 5748].)

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