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Rabbi Eliezer

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן הוֹרְקְנוֹס) is a Tanna of the third generation who lived in the late first and early second centuries BCE in Eretz Yisrael, at the time of the Churban (destruction of the Second Beit ha-Mikdash) and after it, in Yavneh and Lod (Lydda). He is usually referred to as simply Rabbi Eliezer and sometimes as Rabbi Eliezer ha-Gadol (“the Great”). He was a student of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, and the teacher of Rabbi Akiva. His teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, described him, as recorded in Pirkei Avot 2:8, as “a plastered cistern which loses not a drop” (בּוֹר סוּד שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְאַבֵּד טִפָּה).1 Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai also says here of his student, “If all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the other scale, he would outweigh them all” (אִם יִהְיוּ כָל חַכְמֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכַף מֹאזְנַיִם, וֶאֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן הוֹרְקְנוֹס בְּכַף שְׁנִיָּה, מַכְרִיעַ אֶת כֻּלָּם). Rabbi Eliezer is also the subject of the midrash Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer; the story of his death is told in the Zohar 1:98a.

Stories about Rabbi Eliezer are scattered in many places throughout the Talmud, but perhaps the most impactful is that of the Oven of Achnai (תנור של עכנאי) told in Bava Metzia 59b. In this story, Rabbi Eliezer’s independence of thought, traditional conservatism, and mastery of the Oral Torah is on full display: finding himself alone in his position on whether a certain type of oven is susceptible to ritual impurity, Rabbi Eliezer calls on the heavens to prove him correct, which they do in miraculous and definitive ways. Nevertheless, the sages conclude that even a Bat Kol, a heavenly voice which declares the correctness of Rabbi Eliezer’s position, cannot determine halacha. This event led to the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer, and he was separated from the scholarly community which he helped to build and from his students, even the leading ones. However, after the death of Rabbi Eliezer, his excommunication was considered as if annulled, and his halacha continued to be taught with great reverence.

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Notes

  1. This Mishna in Avot is the source of two competing versions of a Talmud Chacham, a scholar of Torah, both of them commendable. One type is the “plastered cistern” who retains all that they have learned; the other is “a spring that [ever] gathers force,” as said of the Tanna Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, denoting a scholar who constantly innovates new Torah.

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