Lesson from the Talmud

    April 2009 Passover Edition            
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Rabbi Eliezer


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The Character of Rabbi Eliezer

By Avi Lazerson

Rabbi Eliezer was one of the greatest students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was one of the greatest sages who lived during the period of the destruction of the Temple. He pleaded with the zealots to make peace with the Romans. When he saw that they refused and that Jerusalem was doomed, he was smuggled out of Jerusalem in a casket just prior to the destruction of the city. He settled in Yavneh where he set up his learning center. Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkonus was one of his greatest students. (For more on Rabbi Eliezer see http://www.jewishmag.com/106mag/rabbieliezer/rabbieliezer.htm).

One of the more interesting discussions in the Talmud concerning Rabbi Eliezer is in the tractate Succah (folio 27b) when he went to visit the son of one of his students, Yochanan, the son of Rabbi Eloi (no relation to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai). He was sitting in the succah with Yochanan when the sun began shining very strongly on the succah. The Talmud tells us that it was not during the holiday of Succoth, but rather it was on a hot Shabbat during the summer. They went out to the succah because it was airy and comfortable. As the sun began to rise Yochanan asked Rabbi Eliezer if it were permissible to put a covering on the succah. He thought perhaps it was forbidden to add on to a temporary structure; perhaps it was considered building which is forbidden to do on the Shabbat. Yochanan knew that as the sun rose higher in the sky it would make the succah very warm and uncomfortable but a sheet spread on the top as a covering would deflect the sun's rays from the succah and keep it pleasant and cool inside.

Since Yochanan did not know the ruling in such a case, he asked Rabbi Eliezer, who at that time was considered one of the greatest and most capable teachers in that generation. He asked him, "May I put a cover on the succah?"

Rabbi Eliezer responded in a very strange manner saying, "Each and every tribe of the Jewish people gave the Jews at least one leader." This of course did not provide Yochanan with any information about whether he may or may not place a cover over the succah roof. It was obvious that Rabbi Eliezer attempted to divert Yochanan's attention from this question.

The day progressed and the sun continued to rise. The sun's rays were getting closer and closer to them and the heat was building up. Finally Yochanan asked Rabbi Eliezer the very same question, "May I put a cover on the succah roof?"

Rabbi Eliezer again dodged his question and began to speak on an unrelated topic, "Each of the twelve tribes gave the Jewish people a prophet."

Finally the sun's hot rays penetrated the succah and the heat made it very uncomfortable. Yochanan, after unsuccessfully asking Rabbi Eliezer what the ruling was concerning putting a cover on the succah took the matter in his own hands. He placed a sheet over the succah. When he did this, Rabbi Eliezer stormed out of the succah in a manner showing his displeasure.

The Talmud relates that the reason that Rabbi Eliezer did not answer him was not because he did not know the ruling, but rather because he would never say anything unless he had heard it from his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.

Yet we find this action on his part very puzzling.

If he felt that the placing of a cover on the succah was wrong – since he did leave the succah when it was covered – why did he remain quiet on this ruling thereby permitting Yochanan to interpret his silence as perhaps not objecting? If Rabbi Eliezer felt that this was wrong, somehow he should have indicated to him that he should not do this. In addition, Rabbi Eliezer was one of the greatest sages of his time; a halachic ruling (a ruling in a Torah matter) was asked of him. A Rabbi is not permitted to refuse to give an answer; a rabbi's job is to show the proper manner in which to live according to the Torah laws. Why did he not give an answer that would prevent Yochanan from doing an action that could have been a sin?

The Talmud continues the story by quoting a teaching of Rabbi Eliezer and then proposing an answer from this teaching. The Talmud quotes a Mishna that is recorded in the tractate of Shabbat.

    "A flat board for (covering) a wall opening: Rabbi Eliezer says if it is connected and suspended from the wall, then it may be inserted into the opening; if not, it may not be inserted. The Rabbis disagree and say whether or not it is connected and suspended, it may be inserted."

The Talmud feels that from this teaching of Rabbi Eliezer we can see that he could have answered Yochanan. If board (which has not been designated and set aside for this purpose) can not be inserted to fill up the open space in the wall, so too, a sheet (which was not set aside for this purpose) should not be able to be used to cover a succah. Why did not Rabbi Eliezer not say this known teaching which certainly reflects both his and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai's position on this halachic matter?

But the Talmud pushes off this Mishna as a possible answer to Yochanan's question by saying that Rabbi Eliezer reasoned that a board that is inserted in the open space becomes part of the wall, yet a sheet that is spread on the roof of a succah is not really part of the succah as every one knows the sheet is quite separate and will soon be removed. Therefore he was not certain of the ruling and therefore did not say anything.

Still the question of why then if Rabbi Eliezer felt that this sheet should not have put on the succah, why did he not indicate to Yochanan his disapproval?

The answer is that Rabbi Eliezer knew that the other sages disagreed with him. For himself, he kept the halachic ruling exactly as his teacher Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai had told him. But for others, since the other rabbis of the Talmud disagreed with him, he could let Yocahanan place the sheet on the succah roof as per the ruling of the sages who opposed him, yet he himself would follow the ruling of his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, that is why he left the succah without giving a ruling to Yochanan.

But yet one more question needs to be answered: Why did Rabbi Eliezer behave in such an extreme manner. He was a rabbi, a sage, a leader of that generation why did he insist on only saying what his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai had said and nothing else?

The Talmud goes on to relate another incident that when Rabbi Eliezer visited the upper Galilee, he was asked some thirty questions dealing with Succoth but only answered half of them. Again, not because he did not know, but rather because he refused to say anything which he did not hear from his famed teacher to the point where the people there asked him openly, "is it true that you never say anything unless you heard it from your teacher?"

To which Rabbi Eliezer replied, "You are causing me to say something which I never heard from my teacher!"

Rabbi Eliezer continued, "No one ever entered the study hall before me, I never slept in the study hall, neither a deep sleep nor a light nap, never did I leave the study hall when there was another person still there. (He was first to enter and last to leave.) I never spoke anything unrelated to study, and I never said anything that I never heard from my teacher."

To understand this piece of Talmud we must understand that Rabbi Eliezer did not view himself as what we understand as a Rav or a Rabbi. Although he was certainly capable, he did not see himself being just to give out rulings in Jewish law. Rabbi Eliezer viewed himself as a 'tape-recorder'. He saw himself as a link in the most important part of Jewish tradition, the giving over of the Oral Law. Recall that in those times there was no printing press or books as we know them. Our books are copies of original plates which are stored; in their times the recording was in the heads of the sages. What was of ultimate importance in this link that connected the generations to come with the teachings that were heard and transferred from Moses at Mount Sinai were the accuracy of those sages who continually gave over only exactly what they heard from their teachers, who in turn gave over exactly what they heard from their teachers.

He lived in a most terrible time. Wars were being fought in Israel; Jews were killed, tortured and enslaved. Learning was at low ebb. Both Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and Rabbi Eliezer knew that the Oral Tradition had to be preserved so that the next generations would get authentic teachings as brought down from rabbi to student extending from the time of Moses.

Rabbi Eliezer did not bring forth new teachings, new explanations or new insights. Rather he connected us to Moses and to the tradition of the Oral Torah which was given down from rabbi to student in a very exacting manner.

Yet we can learn from Rabbi Eliezer a very important lesson: that exactness in learning is of paramount importance and that continuing the tradition must be preserved. Rabbi Eliezer let Yochanan place the sheet on the succah for he knew that the other sages permitted it; therefore it could not be a sin. Although Rabbi Eliezer did not hear this from his teacher, he knew that he could rely on the opposing ruling which contradicted his own rulings.

He may have been strict with himself, but he did not extend that strictness to others. This is indeed another very important lesson for us to learn. It may be that we act and accept that halacha is one way, but we must know that there are many times opposing opinions. If others choose to act in an opposing manner which is much more lenient, we must respect their decision. If we only learn this, we have learnt much.


from the April 2009 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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