ELISHA BEN AVUYAH was the third member of the group of four who penetrated the Pardes of knowledge. Because of his unusual ideas regarding Judaism, which were held to be harmful to the faith, he came to be called “Acher”—the one who is different—and it was said that his delving into the mysteries of the faith confused him to such a degree that he finally came to oppose it. In the idiom of that day it was said that he “cut down the plants.”
When Elisha was still a student at the academy, everyone believed that he had no other interests outside of the Torah, but he read many Greek poems and books of philosophy filled his pockets. Years later, when the Roman government sought to suppress the Torah and forced the Jews to break its commandments, Elisha advised the enemy and pointed out to the Romans which labors a Jew may perform on the Sabbath without incurring a sin.
The “unclean” books which Elisha read are referred to in the Talmud as “books of the erroneous” and “books of the heretics.” Because of the severe persecutions, the faith of many became weakened and they turned to these sects. It would seem that Elisha hovered between the two, but the spark of Judaism continued to bum within him. He had absorbed too much of the Torah to be able to break away from it entirely.
It is difficult at this day to define the teachings of the Gnostics. They pondered the mysteries of the Godhead and employed both rationalism as well as mysticism in their attempt to solve the problem. An important question for them was the determination of the material from which God created the world. Recognizing that the world was motivated by various forces, they concluded that God in heaven had no control over events on earth. At first they believed that the world was created out of a definite material which they could not describe and they also believed that there existed forces which were not subject to the control of God and that the angels participated in the government of the world. Later they altogether denied the existence of a God who rules the world.
These doubters were considered harmful to the Jewish faith and they were persecuted and expelled from Jewish society. They then joined other sects, but they were also expelled from there. These confused spculations brought Elisha to a state of extreme pessimism and depression and he was haunted by a voice from heaven which seemed to announce: “Repent, all lost children, except Acher, for whom there is no repenance.”
Elisha believed that people suffer for the sins of their parents and he declared that when he was still a child his father sinned in vowing to make a scholar out of his son, not in order to fulfill the commandment of studying the Torah but out of pride. He was also oppressed by the weight of the sin of his mother who happened to pass by a house of idol worshiping when she was pregnant and inhaled the odors of the unclean sacrifices.
Concerning his origin Elisha told that his father was one of the wealthiest men in Jerusalem. On the day of Elisha’s circumcision, his father prepared a great feast and invited all the prominent men of the city among whom were the two greatest scholars of the day, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanos and Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah. When the guests turned to idle conversation after the feast, Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Joshua, “Let them speak of that which interests them while we will go to another room and discuss matters of the Torah.” When they began to discuss the Torah, a cloud of fire descended from heaven and enveloped them. Seeing this Avuyah said to them, “Do you wish to bum my house?” But they replied, “God forbid! We do not play with fire but are only discussing the Torah.” Avuyah then said, “If the power of the Torah is so great, then I vow that if my son will live to reach manhood I will consecrate him to the Torah.”
The Talmud relates that the name “Acher” by which Elisha was called was not given to him by the scholars but by a harlot. It is told that a decision was adopted in heaven that since Elisha embraced an “evil culture” and lost his share in the world to come, he was to be allowed to enjoy the pleasures of this world to the full. Elisha once encountered a harlot on the street and asked her to go with him but she said, “Are you not Elisha ben Avuyah whose name is renowned throughout the world?” He tried to prove that he was another person and, it being a Sabbath day, he pulled out a radish from a field and offered it to her. The woman then remarked, “If you do so, you must be someone else.” (Acher —a different one.) Since that time the name “Acher” clung to Elisha.
But despite Elisha’s heresies, he did not cease to study the Torah. Some even claim that he revered it to his dying day and praised those who fulfilled its commandments. Some of his sayings have become immortalized but it seems probable that the scholars refrained from acknowledging his authorship in many instances and even refused to quote them as having been stated by “Acher”. His statements generally dealt with secular and human problems. In only one instance is his name mentioned in connection with a regulation regarding mourning.1)מועד קטן כ׳ א׳.
Elisha was the teacher of Rabbi Meir, who was also a disciple of Rabbi Akiba and who was held in great esteem by his colleagues. The name of Rabbi Meir is frequently mentioned as the author of many opinions; but whenever it was suspected that Rabbi Meir’s statements were based on the opinions of his teacher Elisha, such statement were referred to as “others say” (אחרים אומרים).
Legends surround all of Elisha’s accomplishments from his childhood till the day of his death. Thus it was told that he sought to uproot the Torah and went from one academy to another driving out the pupils and handing over the teachers to be executed by the government. He then used to say, “Why waste the time of innocent children with such things? Would it not be better if they were taught to be masons or carpenters, hunters or tailors?”
Another legend tells that when Elisha entered “Pardes”, he saw the angel Metateron whose duty it is to write down all the good deeds of the Jews once every day and he asked: “How is it that we have learned that none ever sit down in heaven for no weariness exists there but I saw the angel sitting when he recorded the deeds of the Jews. Is it possible that there are two kinds of forces which guide the world?”
The angel was then scourged with sixty fiery lashes to prove to Elisha that he had no more rights than the others. It was then asked, “Why should the angel have been punished?” The answer was given that the angel should have risen when he saw Elisha. But despite the punishment the angel was given the privilege of erasing all the good deeds of Elisha from the book of records.
It is probable that Elisha headed an academy before he was overcome by doubts and of his pupils Rabbi Meir attained prominence. Rabbi Meir said that he considered Elisha as one does a pomegranate—he ate the heart of the fruit and threw away the skin. Rabbi Meir sought every opportunity to listen to Elisha in an attempt to learn something new from him. Once on a Sabbath, Rabbi Meir was sitting with his pupils in the academy when he was informed that Elisha was riding by. Rabbi Meir went out to hear what Elisha had to say, but Elisha continued riding on his horse and Rabbi Meir followed him. When they approached the limit which one is allowed to walk on the Sabbath, Elisha said, “Turn back Meir for you may go no farther. By the walk of my horse I recognize that we have reached the limit of the distance one may walk on the Sabbath.”
Rabbi Meir then said, “Will you not return also?”, but Elisha answered, “I have told you long ago that I heard a voice from behind the scenes that all strayed children may repent except ‘Acher’.” Rabbi Meir insisted that they return to the academy. The first boy whom they met, Elisha asked what he had learned on that day and the boy replied, “There is no peace for the wicked, says God.” (Isaiah, 48:22) They then approached another academy and Elisha again asked the first boy whom they met what he had learned and the boy answered, “Even though you wash in much chalk and use much soap the stain of your sin will remain.” (Jeremiah, 2:22) They thus made the rounds of thirteen academies and in every instance the children recited verses which were bad omens. Finally they approached the thirteenth academy and the boy said that he had learned the verse, “To the wicked God says, why do you speak of my laws?” (Psalms, 50:16) The boy stammered while reciting and it seemed to Elisha that the boy said אלישע instead of רשע (wicked). Elisha became very angry and some say that he drew a dagger and killed the boy while others claim that he merely said, “If I had a dagger I would now kill you.”
Another time Elisha is said to have asked Rabbi Meir for his interpretation of the verse, “One against another God made them”. (Eccles. 7:14) Rabbi Meir said that whatever God created, He also created its opposite; He created high mountains and low hills; He created the seas and the rivers. Elisha then remarked, “Rabbi Akiba explained this verse otherwise. He said that God created just men and wicked men; He created a Paradise and a Gehenna. Every Jew may therefore choose between two shares, one in Paradise and one in Gehenna. If he is a just man he takes his own and his neighbor’s share in Paradise; if he is a wicked man he takes his own and his neighbor’s share in Gehenna.
Elisha also asked Rabbi Meir’s explanation of the verse, “She may not be valued in gold or in glass and vessels of pure gold are not her equal.” (Job, 28:17.) Rabbi Meir declared that the verse refers to the Torah which can not be valued in gold but is broken as easily as glass. Elisha said, “Not so did your teacher Rabbi Akiba say. He said that just as golden and glass vessels may be mended after they are broken, even so may a sinful scholar be made whole again.”
“Will you not repent now?” Rabbi Meir said. But Elisha answered, “I am lost for I heard a voice that all may repent except Acher.”
The Talmud further relates that when Elisha died it was said in heaven that he can neither be judged nor can he have a share in the world to come. He could not be judged because he devoted himself to the Torah and he lost his share in the world to come because of his sins. Rabbi Meir said that it was better that he be judged that he may afterward regain his share in the world to come. “When I die,” Rabbi Meir said, “you will see smoke coming out of Elisha’s grave for I will certainly bring him to judgment because of his knowledge of the Torah.” Afterward Rabbi Meir also told that when Elisha was nearing death he wept because of his sins and it seemed that he repented in his heart.
After Elisha’s death his daughter (the Jerusalem Talmud says his daughters) came to Rabbi Jehuda the Nasi to ask for bread. Rabbi Jehuda asked her who she was and she said, “I am the daughter of Elisha.” Rabbi Jehuda wondered that such a wicked man had children who remained Jews but the daughter pleaded, “Remember his Torah and overlook his deeds.” Fire then descended from heaven and enveloped Rabbi Jehuda. Rabbi Jehuda wept and said, “If this happens to those who dishonor the Torah, how much more can happen to those who glory in it?”
Some historians maintain that one of the reasons for Elisha’s abandonment of Judaism was his great envy of Rabbi Akiba. Elisha felt humiliated that a man of unknown origin who began his studies in his later years should be elevated to such a high position by the people. He then said, “He who learns when a youth may be compared to one writing with ink on new paper, but when one begins his studies after he is old it may be compared to writing on erased paper.”2)אבות פרק ד׳ משנה י״ט. This is more exactly expressed in Aboth d’Rabbi Nathan: “He who studies in his youth absorbs the words of the Torah into his blood and they come clearly out of his mouth; but he who studies when he is old does not absorb the words of the Torah into his blood and they come out of his mouth indistinct.”
From Rabbi Akiba’s statements we may conclude that he was an enemy of Elisha. Rabbi Akiba opposed Greek philosophy and said that whoever studies it loses his share in the world to come. Since Elisha devoted himself to Greek writings we may assume that Rabbi Akiba’s words were directed at him.
Elisha seems to have had no sympathy with the movement of rebellion against Rome. When the Roman government began to persecute the students of the Torah, Elisha maintained, as did many other scholars, that one must not endanger his life for it.
A Talmudic legend traces the beginning of Elisha’s doubts to his having seen a man climb a tree to remove a nest containing both fledglings and the mother bird. Although this was against the commandment of the Torah, nothing happened to the man. The following day he saw another man removing a nest with fledglings but the man sent the mother bird away, as the Torah commanded. Although the fulfillment of this commandment is to be rewarded by long life, the man was bitten by a snake when he descended from the tree and he immediately died. Elisha then asked, “Where is the long life that was promised to the man?” Others said that he began to doubt when he saw the tongue of Rabbi Jeduha the Baker (or of Rabbi Hutzpith the Interpreter) dragged around by dogs. Elisha then came to the conclusion that there was no reward for just men and he also lost his belief in the resurrection of the dead.
We have already remarked that there probably exist numerous opinions of Elisha whose authorship is not acknowledged. But Aboth d’Rabbi Nathan contains a chapter devoted to Elisha’s sayings and to his opinions regarding men of great learning who also commit good deeds and men who only possess great learning. Elisha there says that a man of learning and of good deeds may be compared to a structure built on a foundation of stone while the walls are made of bricks; even the greatest flood cannot undermine such a structure. But a man who possesses much learning but no good deeds may be compared to a structure with a foundation of bricks and walls of stone. Such a structure is easily undermined.
Another statement of Elisha in the same book well characterizes the man. He said: “A man may study for twenty years and forget all his knowledge in two years so that he would not know to differentiate between the clean and the unclean and he would confuse the opinions of one scholar with those of another until he finally would have to remain silent.”
It thus becomes obvious that Elisha was a man of contradictions. At times he honored the Torah and was a friend of the scholars. On other occasions he was an enemy of the Torah and aided the Roman government in persecuting the scholars. He was always full of regrets and contemplated repentance but he was deeply convinced that he was beyond repentance because of his many sins.
Elisha’s greatest crime was his treason to his people and his aiding the enemy at a time of persecution against the Jews. His intentions might not have been treasonable and it is possible that he honestly believed that bowing to the will of the Romans was the best policy. But history has proved this opinion to be false and the attempts to placate the Romans have ended in catastrophe. It is therefore no wonder that Elisha was condemned.