J-BOM: Elisha ben Abuya, Part 1

Our book of the month selection (J-BOM) this month is As a Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg. It is a page-turner and not a difficult book (as some of the others have been). The story is from the pages of the Mishnah and Talmud, about one of the Tannaim (TANN- uh – eem), or the generation of sages up till 200 CE. There are very few novelizations of stories from the Talmud, so it is a rare treat. I’m told it is also a phenom amongst younger Jews.

In July we will get a summer vacation in the Catskills with Chaim Potok’s The Promise. It too is an easy read and very pleasant.

Then in August we have a short, powerful selection (but I won’t kid you, one that takes more effort to understand) in Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just.

People have sent me a number of ideas for September on a high holidays theme. I am looking into a slim volume that I have here on teshuvah (repentance). I know we will get more readers if we have something short and accessible and I’d like to have wide involvement in September.

Never weary in studying and immersing yourself in Torah and Jewish life and history. J-BOM is an incentive for you to read with others, join a movement of MJ’s growing in education, and to find out what richness Jewish life offers. If you can’t read all the books, try for six a year or at least three.

Elisha ben Abuyah was a heretic, an apostate. Usually his name is not even referred to in Mishnah and Talmud. He is usually simple called Acher or the Other.

What does it mean that Elisha was an apostate? Did he become an atheist? The story of his loss of faith sounds like a journey into atheism. But people have speculated in other directions. Perhaps the two leading theories are that Elisha ben Abuya became a Sadducee or a Messianic Jew. Yes, that’s right, one possibility is that he became a Messianic Jew. The Sadducees were a dying group in his time as the Temple had been destroyed and the locus of their power was gone (but some scholars have suggested that they continued on for some time). As for Messianic Jews of that era (or as many would call them, even when they were Jewish, Christians), this was a growing movement at the time.

Louis Ginzberg wrote in the Jewish Enclyclopedia (and I found it on wikipedia):

it is almost impossible to derive from rabbinical sources a clear picture of his personality, and modern historians have differed greatly in their estimate of him. According to Grätz, he was a Karpotian Gnostic; according to Siegfried, a follower of Philo; according to Dubsch, a Christian; according to Smolenskin and Weiss, a victim of the inquisitor Akiba.

I’m not going to make a heavy case that Elisha became a Messianic Jew. I think it unlikely considering the story of his loss of faith. But I have to admit he does sound a lot like Yeshua in one of his better known sayings:

To whom may a man who has good deeds and has studied much Torah be compared? To a man who in building [lays] stones first [for a foundation] and then lays bricks [over them], so that however much water may collect at the side of the building, it will not wash away. Contrariwise, he who has no good deeds even though he has studied much Torah — to whom may he be compared? To a man who in building lays bricks first and then heaps stones over them, so that even if a little water collects, it at once undermines the structure.
Avot d’Rabbi Nathan (an expanded Pirkei Avot found in many sets of Talmud) 24.
The Book of Legends, p. 452

(Note: I really did see that quotation in the Book of Legends, but it is also in the wikipedia article — I’m just saying that sometimes you get as good of info from wikipedia as from printed books).

David Instone Brewer lists Elisha ben Abuya as a sage quoted only once in Mishnah (Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament, p 21). It is actually a saying in Pirkei Avot 4:20:

Learning Torah as a child is like writing on fresh paper, but learning Torah in old age is like writing on blotted paper.

Rashi and others explain that young minds are like fresh paper which easily hold ink. The older our minds get, the more we have blotted and sanded off the ink of older ideas, so that the paper becomes rough and hard to impress with new ink (don’t know about you, but I don’t write with a dip pen — so I was glad to have Rashi explain it).

In a famous story, Elisha ben Abuya was one of four sages who saw Paradise. Ben Azzai died from the sight and Ben Zoma went insane. Akiba alone saw and remained peaceful. But Elisha ben Abuya (the Other) destroyed the plants that he saw (Talmud Bavli Hagigah 14b; Yerushalmi Talmud Hagigah 2:1).

The idea of Elisha destroying some of the plants in Eden is a metaphor for his high level of learning (he was on the Sanhedrin) and influence, which was poisoned in later years by his teaching. He did damage to the kingdom, we might say, from the point of view of the sages.

In The Book of Legends, Bialik and Ravnitzky put together a long pastiche of stories about Elisha ben Abuya from both Talmuds and several midrashic texts (pp 243-5). I am not sure why they did not separate out all of the references, but chose to string the whole thing together.

It is a sad tale, truly poignant.

Elisha’s student was R. Meir, one of most highly regarded Tannaim. Meir loved his teacher to the end, even after he was regarded as a heretic. And according to these stories, Elisha wanted forgiveness and to be reconciled with God. But a decree from the Angel of the Lord (Metatron) was that Elisha would not be allowed to repent.

In Part 2, I will cover the sad story of a disciple who loved truly and an aging heretic who wanted to find God again. The story continued even after his death, with both Meir and Yohanan working on behalf of Elisha ben Abuya, to save him from Gehenna.


Some recent J-BOM posts by other bloggers:

Literally Messianic on The Lost and the importance of details in stories of the past.

Smooth Cookies on being careful not to read sad books in public places.

Messiah Connection on almost-missed opportunities in family history.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Talmud and Tradition and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to J-BOM: Elisha ben Abuya, Part 1

  1. Fascinating. I’ve often wondered about the four who supposedly entered Pardes and whether Elisha ben Abuya became a believer in Yeshua. The cutting down the plants could be a reference to the Disciples of Yeshua calling themselves the Netzerim, or Branches. That is, by encouraging others to become Branches, Elisha (in the view of the other rabbis) cut down the plants.

    I’m looking forward to Part 2.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s