Spotlight on the Talmudic Sages: Eliezer ben Hyrcanus
By Nahum Gordon
Yehuda HaNasi: With Yehoshua ben Chananyah, you smuggled your teacher, Yochanan ben Zakkai, out of a besieged Jerusalem in a coffin. He proceeded to create the yeshivah at Yavneh and the rabbis who would defy Rome. You helped to save the Jewish people from extinction. You established your own academy and Akiva ben Yosef was one of your students. You are the sixth most mentioned rabbi in the Mishnah. Finally, tradition attributes the midrashic work, Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, to you. Is it any wonder that you, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, have been dubbed Eliezer HaGadol, Eliezer the Great? So, why did your colleagues in the Sanhedrin excommunicate you and never reinstate you?
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus: We were discussing whether an earthenware oven was kosher (Bava Metzia 59b). I said it was tahor – pure. My adversaries said it was tumah – impure. We interpreted Vayikra 11:33 differently. I was so sure of my position that I ordered a carob tree to uproot itself and move elsewhere, the water in a stream to reverse direction, the walls of the yeshiva to lean inwards and a bat kol – a heavenly voice – to confirm my ruling.
Yehuda: And everything happened as you had specified?
Eliezer: Like clockwork. But my critics said miracles did not constitute halachic proof. My most intractable opponent, R. Yehoshua ben Chananya, even defied God by quoting from Devarim 30:12: Lo BaShamayim hi – it is not in heaven. He said we could not go up to Heaven for the answer. The solution could only be found by humanity. After Mount Sinai, the Torah became ours to interpret and implement.
Yehuda: I understand that the coup de grace was delivered by another rabbi?
Eliezer: Yes. He inferred from Shemot 23:2 – ‘you shall not follow the majority for evil’ that all members of the Sanhedrin had to follow the majority for good.
Yehuda: And the assembly concluded that you had refused to accept the will of the majority?
Eliezer: Ostensibly, they had to make an example of me to prevent anarchy in the ranks. However, I suspect that Yehoshua and Akiva conspired to remove me, and my ego blinded me to the reality. I fell into their trap.
Yehuda: What was their motivation?
Eliezer: They preferred a more liberal approach to halacha, and I was perceived as a cantankerous, conservative traditionalist.
Yehuda: What did you learn from this traumatic experience?
Eliezer: “Let the honour of your friend (fellow Rabbi?) be as dear to you as your own. Do not be easily provoked to anger. Repent one day before your death (i.e. every day). Warm yourself by the fire of the Sages but be careful of their glowing coals (pay them due respect) lest you be burned, for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a serpent, and all of their words are like fiery coals.” [Pirkei Avot 2:15]
Nahum is a founder of Kol Nefesh Masorti and an informal Jewish educator.