Thursday, May 4, 2017

Top of the Class

Among the scholars quoted in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers, are clusters of sages who are interconnected whether due to being from the same city, are part of the same generation or share the same teacher. Such was the case of Rabbis Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Joshua ben Chanania, Jossie the Kohain, Simon ben Netanel and Elazar ben Arach, who were all students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (Pirkei Avot 2:10).

Discussions in the Talmud do not usually involve ranking the sages, but in each of Pirkei Avot’s discussions of these five scholars (and there are several), Rabbi Elazar is singled out for praise.

1) Rabbi Yochanan comments on each scholar: He compared Rabbi Eliezer to a cistern that never loses water. About Rabbi Joshua, he said “praiseworthy is the woman who bore him.” He called Rabbi Jossie scrupulously pious and noted that Rabbi Simon feared sin. Rabbi Elazar, however, was compared to a spring that flows stronger and stronger” (Pirkei Avot 2:11).

2) In the next Mishna, Rabbi Yochanan stated that if Rabbi Elazar were set on a scale opposite all the greatest sages of Israel, Rabbi Elazar would outweigh them all (2:12).

3) When Rabbi Yochanan asked his five students to discern the proper path in life, Rabbi Elazar said “A good heart.” Rabbi Yochanan prefered this answer because it encompassed all of the other answers: a good eye, a good friend, a good neighbor and “one who considers the outcome of a deed.” (The Mishna that follows is the opposite, explaining what is an evil path.) (Pirkei Avot 2:13-14).

4) This section of the Mishna concludes with five separate Mishnayot, one for each of Rabbi Yochanan’s disciples quoting three of their teachings: “Rabbi Elazar says: Be diligent in the study of Torah and know what to answer a heretic, know before Whom you toil and know that your Employer can be relied upon to pay you the wage of your labor” (2:19).

As great as Elazar’s scholarship was, other inferences in the Talmud teach us that without his companions, Rabbi Elazar was unable to maintain his high level of scholarship. When the rest of the scholars moved to Yavne, he moved to Emmaus, and his learning declined (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:7).              

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