Eliezer ben Hurcanus

Eliezer ben Hurcanus

Eliezer ben HurcanusFact|date=June 2007 ( _he. אליעזר בן הורקנוס) was one of the most prominent tannaim of the 1st and 2nd centuries, disciple of R. Johanan ben Zakkai ("Avoth" ii. 8; "Avot of Rabbi Natan" vi. 3, xiv. 5) and colleague of Gamaliel II, whose sister he married (see Imma Shalom), and of Joshua ben Hananiah ("Avoth", l.c.; "Avot of Rabbi Natan", l.c.; "Bava Batra" 10b).

Introduction to Torah

His earlier years are wrapped in myths, but from these latter it may be inferred that he was somewhat advanced in life when a desire for learning first seized him, and impelled him, contrary to the wishes of his father, to desert his regular occupation and to repair to Jerusalem to devote himself to the study of the Torah. Here he entered Johanan's academy and for years studied diligently, notwithstanding the fact that he had to cope with great privations. It is said that sometimes many days elapsed during which he did not have a single meal. Johanan, recognizing Eliezer's receptive and retentive mind, styled him "a cemented cistern that loses not a drop" ("Avoth", l.c.). These endowments were so pronounced in him that in later years he could declare, "I have never taught anything which I had not learned from my masters" ("Sukkah", 28a).

His father in the meantime determined to disinherit him, and with that purpose in view went to Jerusalem, there to declare his will before Johanan ben Zakkai. The great teacher, having heard of Hyrcanus' arrival and of the object of his visit, instructed the usher to reserve for the expected visitor a seat among those to be occupied by the elite of the city, and appointed Eliezer lecturer for that day. At first the latter hesitated to venture on Johanan's place, but, pressed by the master and encouraged by his friends, delivered a discourse, gradually displaying wonderful knowledge. Hyrcanus having recognized in the lecturer his truant son, and hearing the encomiums which Johanan showered on him, now desired to transfer all his earthly possessions to Eliezer, but the scholar, overjoyed at the reconciliation, declined to take advantage of his brothers, and requested to be allowed to have only his proportionate share ("Avot of Rabbi Natan", vi. 3; "Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer", i. et seq.). He continued his attendance at Johanan's college until near the close of the siege of Jerusalem, when he and Joshua assisted in smuggling their master out of the city and into the Roman camp.

Subsequently Eliezer proceeded to Jabneh ("Avot of Rabbi Natan", iv. 5; "Gittin", 56), where he later became a member of the Sanhedrin under the presidency of Gamaliel II ("Avot of Rabbi Natan", xiv. 6; "Sanhedrin", 17b), though he had established, and for many years afterward conducted, his own academy at Lydda (Sanhedrin 36b). His fame as a great scholar had in the meantime spread, R. Johanan himself declaring that Eliezer was unequaled as an expositor of traditional law ("Avot of Rabbi Natan", vi. 3); and many promising students, among them Akiba (ibid; "Yerushalmi Pesahim", vi. 33b), attached themselves to his school.

Eliezer became known as "Eliezer ha-Gadol" ("the Great"; Tosefta, "Orlah", 8; "Berakhot", 6a, 32a; "Sotah", 13b, 48b, 49a; generally, however, he is styled simply "R. Eliezer"), and with reference to his legal acumen and judicial impartiality, the Scriptural saying "That which is altogether just [literally "Justice, justice"] shalt thou follow," ("Deuteronomy", xvi. 20) was thus explained: "Seek a reliable court: go after R. Eliezer to Lydda, or after Johanan ben Zakkai to Beror Hel," etc. ("Sanhedrin", 32b). Once he accompanied Gamaliel and Joshua on an embassy to Rome ("Yerushalmi Sanhedrin", vii. 25d; Deut. R., ii. 24).

Eliezer's conservatism

Rabbi Eliezer was very severe and somewhat domineering with his pupils and colleagues (see Sifra, Shemini, i. 33; "Eruvin", 68a; "Hagigah", 3b; "Megillah", 25b), a characteristic which led occasionally to unpleasant encounters. The main feature of his teaching was a strict devotion to tradition: he objected to allowing the Midrash or the paraphrastic interpretation to pass as authority for religious practice. In this respect he sympathized with the conservative school of Shammai, which was also opposed to giving too much scope to the interpretation. Hence the assertion that he was a Shammaite, though he was a disciple of Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, who was one of Hillel's most prominent pupils. This brought Eliezer into conflict with his colleagues and contemporaries, who realized that such conservatism must be fatal to a proper development of the oral law. It was also felt that the new circumstances, such as the destruction of the Temple and the disappearance of the national independence, required a strong religious central authority, to which individual opinion must yield.

At last the rupture came. The Sanhedrin deliberated on the susceptibility to Levitical uncleanness of an 'aknai-oven (an oven consisting of tiles separated from one another by sand, but externally plastered over with cement). The majority decided that such an oven was capable of becoming unclean, but Eliezer dissented. As he thus acted in direct opposition to the decision of the majority (though, according to the Talmud, God, a tree, a nearby stream, and the walls of the house of study all agreed with Eliezer's interpretation), it was deemed necessary to make an example of him, and he was excommunicated. Still, even under these circumstances great respect was manifested toward him, and the sentence was communicated to him in a very considerate manner. Akiba, dressed in mourning, appeared before him and, seated at some distance from him, respectfully addressed him with "My master, it appears to me that thy colleagues keep aloof from thee." Eliezer readily took in the situation and submitted to the sentence. According to the Talmud, because Akiba broke the news gently, Eliezer (who had the power to destroy the world) annihilated no more than one-third of crops worldwide and burned only those things that were within his field of view; the tsunami that Eliezer raised that day was easily calmed by Rabbi Gamaliel. ("Bava Metzia", 59b; "Yerushalmi Mo'ed Katan", iii. 81a et seq.). Thenceforth Eliezer lived in retirement, removed from the center of Jewish learning, though occasionally some of his disciples visited him and informed him of the transactions of the Sanhedrin ("Yadayim", iv. 3).

Relations with Christianity

Karaylar recognise Eliezer ben Hurcanus as one of the Havariun like Luke mentioned in their Qeryana. During the persecutions of the Jewish Christians in Palestine, Eliezer was charged with being a member of that sect, and was summoned before the penal tribunal. Being asked by the governor, "How can a great man like thee engage in such idle things?" he simply replied, "The judge is right." The judge, understanding thereby Eliezer's denial of all connection with Christianity, released him, while Rabbi Eliezer understood by "judge" God, justifying the judgment of God which had brought this trial upon him. That he should be suspected of apostasy grieved him sorely, and though some of his pupils tried to comfort him, he remained for some time inconsolable. At last he remembered that once, while at Sepphoris, he had met a sectary who communicated to him a singular halakah in the name of Ben Pandera, that he had approved of the halakah and had really enjoyed hearing it, and, he added, "Thereby I transgressed the injunction ("Proverbs", v. 8), 'Remove thy way far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house,' which the Rabbis apply to sectarianism as well as to heresy" ("Avodah Zarah", 16b; Eccl. R. i. 8). The suspicion of apostasy and the summons before the dreaded tribunal came, therefore, as just punishment. This event in his life may have suggested to him the ethical rule, "Keep away from what is indecent and from that which appears to be indecent" (Tosefta, "Hullin", ii. 24). It is suggested that his sayings, "Instructing a woman in the Law is like teaching her blasphemy" ("Sotah", iii. 4), "Let the Law be burned rather than entrusted to a woman" (ib.), and "A woman's wisdom is limited to the handling of the distaff" ("Yoma", 66b), also date from that time, he having noticed that women were easily swayed in matters of faith.


Separated from his colleagues and excluded from the deliberations of the Sanhedrin, Eliezer passed his last years of life unnoticed and in comparative solitude. It is probably from this melancholy period that his aphorism dates ("Avoth", ii. 10; "Avot of Rabbi Natan", xv. 1):

When asked how one can determine the one day before his death, he answered: "So much the more must one repent daily, lest he die tomorrow; and it follows that he must spend all his days in piety" ("Avot of Rabbi Natan", l.c. 4; "Shabbat", 153a).

His death

When his former colleagues heard of his approaching dissolution, the most prominent of them hastened to his bedside at Cæsarea. When they appeared before him he began to complain about his long isolation. They tried to mollify him by professing great and unabated respect for him, and by averring that it was only the lack of opportunity that had kept them away. He felt that they might have profited by his teaching. Thereupon they besought him to communicate to them traditions concerning certain moot points, particularly touching Levitical purity and impurity. He consented, and answered question after question until all breath left him. The last word he uttered was "tahor" ("pure"), and this the sages considered as an auspicious omen of his purity, whereupon they all rent their garments in token of mourning, and R. Joshua revoked the sentence of excommunication.

Eliezer died on a Friday, and after the following Sabbath his remains were solemnly conveyed to Lydda, where he had formerly conducted his academy, and there he was buried. Many and earnest were the eulogies pronounced over his bier. R. Joshua is said to have kissed the stone on which Eliezer used to sit while instructing his pupils, and to have remarked, "This stone represents Sinai [whence the Law was revealed] , and he who sat on it represented the Ark of the Covenant" (Cant. R. i. 3). R. Akiba applied to Eliezer the terms which Elisha had applied to Elijah (II Kings ii. 12), and which Joash subsequently applied to Elisha himself (ib. xiii. 14), "O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof" (Avot of Rabbi Natan xxv. 3).

Though excommunicated, Eliezer is quoted in the Mishnah, the Baraita, and the Talmudim more frequently than any one of his colleagues. He is also the putative author of "Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer", or Baraita of Rabbi Eliezer, though internal evidence conclusively proves the late origin of the work.


* [http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=215&letter=E ELIEZER (LIEZER) BEN HYRCANUS] at jewishenyclopedia.com

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Nehunya ben ha-Kanah — Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Nehunya ben ha Kanah (Hebrew: נחוניה בן הקנה) was a Tanna of the 1st and 2nd centuries. It appears from B. B. 10b that Neḥunya was a contemporary, but not a pupil, of …   Wikipedia

  • Hanina ben Dosa — Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Hanina ben Dosa (1st century, CE) (Hebrew: חנינא בן דוסא‎) was a scholar and miracle worker, and the pupil of Johanan ben Zakkai (Berakhot, 34b). He is buried in the… …   Wikipedia

  • Akabia ben Mahalalel — Akavia redirects here. For the Israeli writer and translator, see Miriam Akavia. Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Akabia ben Mahalalel (Hebrew: עקביא בן מהללאל‎), was a Jewish religious teacher,… …   Wikipedia

  • Matteya ben Heresh — Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Matteya ben Heresh or Mattithiah (Hebrew: מתיא בן חרש) was a Roman tanna of the 2nd century. He was born in Judea, probably a pupil of R. Ishmael, and certainly a… …   Wikipedia

  • Haninah ben Teradion — Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion or Hananiah ben Teradion (Hebrew: חנניה בן תרדיון) was a teacher in the third Tannaitic generation (2nd century). He was a contemporary of… …   Wikipedia

  • Hanina ben Hakinai — Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Hanina ben Hakinai or Hanania ben Hakinai (Hebrew: חנינא בן חכינאי) was a Tanna of the 2nd century; contemporary of Ben Azzai and Simon the Temanite (Tosef., Ber. iv …   Wikipedia

  • Dosa ben Harkinas — Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Dosa ben Harkinas (Hebrew: רבי דוסא בן הרכינס‎) was of the first generation of the Jewish Tanna sages, proceeding the era of the Zugot. Contemporary to Yochanan ben… …   Wikipedia

  • Rabbi Meir — a historical photo of Rabbi Meir s tomb in Tiberias …   Wikipedia

  • Onkelos — Rabbinical Eras Chazal Zugot Tannaim Amoraim Savoraim Geonim Rishonim Acharonim Onkelos (אונקלוס) is the name of a famous convert to Judaism in Tannaic times (c.35 120 CE). He is considered to be the author of the famous Targum Onkelos (c.110 CE) …   Wikipedia

  • Judah the Prince — Traditional burial place of Judah the Price at Beit She arim National Park, Israel. Rebbi redirects here. For the title, see Honorifics in Judaism. For other people named Judah, see Judah (disambiguation). Judah the Prince, (Hebrew: יהודה הנשיא‎ …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.