Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Saga of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos

[The new Haveil Havalim is here!]

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos is on my mind today, thanks to a class I taught about him yesterday.

Among many interesting facts:
Rabbi Eliezer underwent severe deprivation and bucked his family in order to study Torah (see below).
He was ex-communicated by the sages, and lived with it for the rest of his life (see Bava Metzia 59b).
A voice from heaven declared that he is always right (see Bava Metzia 59b).
And more than anyone else, Rabbi Eliezer was the sage he molded Rabbi Akiva (see Sanhedrin 68, for example).

Here are his origins, from Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:3 -

What was the beginning for Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkenos?

He was 22 years old and he had not studied Torah. Once, he said, ‘I will go learn Torah before Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai.’ His father Hurkenos told him, ‘You will not taste food until you plow a full measure.’ He woke early and plowed a full measure.

They say that this day was Friday, and he went to eat at his father-in-law; alternatively, he ate nothing from midday Friday until midday on Sunday. When he was traveling he saw a stone, hallucinated, picked it up and put it in his mouth. Alternatively, it was cattle dung.

He stayed at a host, and went to sit before Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai in Yerushalayim until a bad smell came from his mouth. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him, ‘Eliezer, my son, didn’t you eat today?’ He was silent.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai called the host and asked, ‘Did Eliezer eat with you at all today?’ They said, ‘We thought he was eating with Rebbe.’ He said, ‘And I thought he ate with you! Between us, we lost R’ Eliezer in the middle!’

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said to him: Just as a bad smell went forth from your mouth, so a good name in Torah should go forth for you.

His father Hurkenos heard that he was learning Torah with Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai; he said, ‘I will vow that my son Eliezer not benefit from my property!’

They say, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was teaching in Yerushalayim that day, with all of the leaders of Israel sitting before him. He heard that Hurkenos had come, and he set up guards and instructed them not to allow Hurkenos to sit before him.

Hurkenos came to sit, and the guards would not permit it. He skipped upward until he reached Ben Tzitzit haKeset and Nakdimon ben Gurion and Ben Kalba Savua; he sat among them, trembling [due to the elite company among whom he sat].

They say that on that day, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai set his eyes on R’ Eliezer and told him, ‘Begin and teach!’ He said, ‘I cannot begin.’ Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai pressed him, as did the students, and he began and taught things no ear had ever heard. With every utterance that came from his mouth, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai stood and kissed his head and said, ‘Rabbi Eliezer, my rebbe, you have taught me truth!’

Before the time came for him to depart, his father Hurkenos stood and declared, ‘My masters, I came only to vow that my son Eliezer not benefit from my property; now, all of my property is given to my son Eliezer, and all of his brothers have no share at all.’

Of particular interest to me and the parallels between his story, and that of his student Rabbi Akiva, including:

1) Both started to learn relatively late in life;

2) Both were disowned, Rabbi Akiva through his father-in-law and Rabbi Eliezer through his father (although for opposite reasons – Rabbi Akiva for his ignorance, Rabbi Eliezer for his desire to learn), and both were re-claimed when they excelled in their studies;

3) Both studied Torah despite great deprivation;

4) Both were men of great humility; Rabbi Akiva studies with his young son (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 6:2) and Rabbi Eliezer refuses to teach until he is forced to do so.

Just something on my mind today.

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