RABBI ELAZAR BEN PEDATH occupied a prominent place among those who came to Palestine from Babylonia during the second and third generations of the “Amoraim”. He is very seldom referred to by his patronymic and nothing is known of the position of his father in Jewish life.
Although he was not ordained, when he arrived in Palestine, he was then well versed in learning.1)כתובות קי״ב א׳. While still in Babylonia he was a pupil of Rav (Aba Arecha), whose legal opinions he later quoted.2)שבת קנ״ג א׳, ערובין ס״ה ב׳, ירושלמי פּסחים פרק ד׳ הלכה ג׳. Later he was a disciple of Rabbi Chanina bar Chama and scores of statements in the Talmud begin with the words: “Rabbi Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Chanina.”
Rabbi Elazar always named the authors of the opinions which he quoted even when these were commonly known as in the case of the statement which declared that: “He who repeats a word in the name of its authors brings redemption to the world.”3)מגלה ט״ו א׳. It is therefore incomprehensible that Rabbi Jochanan complained about Rabbi Elazar that he appropriated statements of others.4)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ב׳ הלכה א׳. This attitude of reverence toward authorship also caused a dispute between Rabbi Elazar and Resh Lakish, when he heard the latter state a law which he had previously heard from Rabbi Jochanan.5)מכות ה׳ בי. In the popular mind Rabbi Elazar was considered to be a disciple of Rabbi Jochanan, although he denied it, and when a colleague of his referred to “your master R. Jochanan” he remarked: “not my master nor our master.” We also find an instance in the Talmud that Rabbi Jochanan complained against Rabbi Elazar for not greeting him.6)ירושלמי שקלים פרק ב׳ הלכה ה׳.
We may assume that a personal misunderstanding existed between Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Jochanan, although no specific mention of it is made anywhere in the Talmud. But we do find reference to an attempt by Rabbi Jochanan to discuss the “mysteries of the chariot” with Rabbi Elazar which the latter turned down on the grounds of being “too young to discuss this matter.”7)חגיגה י״ג א׳. Another time Rabbi Jochanan exclaimed: “It is a pleasure to observe Ben Pedath while lecturing. It seems as if Moses is expounding that which he heard from the mouth of God.” But to this Resh Lakish remarked: “He does not speak his own words. He merely repeats what he read in a Boraitha.”8)יבמות ע״ב ב׳.
Rabbi Elazar earned his livelihood from testing coins.9)בבא קמא ק׳ א׳. This occupation provided him with an insufficient income and he lived in great want. Once, after he bled himself and there was not a crust of bread in his house, he ate a piece of garlic for want of something better and fainted. While swooning he asked God how much longer he would have to suffer want, but God replied: “Would you have me upset the world in order that you might be born in a more lucky hour?”10)ברכות ט״ז ב׳.
From the original statements of Rabbi Elazar in the Talmud we gather that he was gifted with noble qualities. Thus he declared that “humility adds to one’s life.”11)סנהדרין י״ד א׳. In his personal life he was always humble and he never prided himself on his learning before others.12)בבא בתרא קכ״ח ב׳. His love for the Torah was indescribable13)ערובין נ״ד ב׳. and he often said: “Just as a child must be nursed by its mother every hour during the day even so should every man devote each hour of the day to the Torah.”14)ירושלמי ברכות פרק ט׳ הלכה ה׳.
The great poverty of Rabbi Elazar was well known to the Nasi who sometimes sent him gifts to alleviate his need, but Rabbi Elazar always refused to accept these. When he was invited to attend a feast at the house of the Nasi he also refused to attend.15)מגלה כ״ה א׳.
“Charity,” Rabbi Elazar said, “atones for all sins and is more important than sacrifices.”15a)15א) סוכה מ״ט ב׳. “It may be compared to armor; just as armor is made up of small pieces, in charity one adds penny to penny until there is formed a considerable sum.”16)בבא בתרא ט׳ ב׳.
Great trust was therefore placed in Rabbi Elazar and he was entrusted with the feeding of the poor.17)כתובות ס״ח א׳, ירושלמי פּאה פרק ה׳ הלכה ח׳. It was then observed that in distributing charity, he sought to make the recipients feel as if they were not receiving charity. When Rabbi Elazar was made head of the distribution of charity he also had to collect taxes from the Jews. He then asked Rabbi Jochanan whether taxes should be levied according to wealth or according to the number of persons in a family. Rabbi Jochanan replied that taxes should be levied according to one’s wealth.18)בבא בתרא ז׳ ב׳.
His hatred of charity was so great that Rabbi Elazar said: “When Noah sent out a dove to see whether the waters of the flood had receded, it returned with an olive leaf in its beak. By this it implied that food bitter as an olive leaf obtained from the hand of God, is to be preferred to food sweet as honey which is obtained at the hand of man.”19)סנהדרין ק״ח ב׳.
Rabbi Elazar was not the only needy scholar at that time. Due to the difficult economic circumstances there were many such. Among these was also Rabbi Simeon bar Aba. It was related that Rabbi Elazar once lost a ducat which was found by Rabbi Simeon, but he refused to take it back declaring that he had already given up the search for it.20)ירושלמי בבא מציעא פרק ב׳ הלכה ג׳.
Following the death of Rabbi Jochanan, Rabbi Elazar was elected representative of the academy and since that time the Babylonians began to call him “The lord of the Land of Israel.”21)יומא ב׳ ב׳, גטין י״ט ב׳, נדה כ׳ ב׳.
We have previously mentioned that the Babylonians were not held in high repute in Palestine and they therefore prided themselves on their countryman Rabbi Elazar. Since he was everywhere recognized as an authority, they appealed to him in all matters and he instructed them in all problems of things which are prohibited or permissible and also in money matters.22)ביצה ד׳ ב׳, גטין ע״ג א׳, ירושלמי קדושין פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳.
In his teachings Rabbi Elazar followed logical reason in his attempts to find the correct interpretations and to explain apparent contradictions. He did not fear to differ from the interpretations of others and his opinions were at times even contrary to the obvious meaning of the Mishna.23)ירושלמי תרומות פרק א׳ הלכה בי, שקלים פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳. When he sought to establish the original intentions of various laws, he set up rules which were later accepted by other scholars. These rules included the following: “One must not add to a biblical decree or to its structure.”24)ירושלמי שביעית פרק ב׳ הלכה ו׳. “One may not declare an unclean thing to be clean nor a clean object to be unclean.”25)ירושלמי תרומות פרק ה׳ הלכה ג׳. “Everything which derives its importance from certain circumstances loses its importance when these circumstances cease to exist.”26)ירושלמי יבמות פרק א׳ הלכה א׳.
As soon as Rabbi Elazar came to Palestine, he established close relations with the scholars of that time. He particularly respected Rabbi Chiya whose opinions served as his guide,27)ירושלמי יבמות פרק ב׳ הלכה ג׳. and it was accepted that the opinions of the two would always coincide.28)ירושלמי קדושין פרק א׳ הלכה ד׳.
Rabbi Elazar expressed his love for Palestine in the following statements: “He who lives in Palestine, is without sin,”29)סנהדרין ל״ב א׳. and “Happy are they who live in Palestine, for they have no sins either in life or in death.”30)מדרש משלי פּרשה י״ז.
Rabbi Elazar ben Pedath instructed the Babylonian Jews to observe strictly all holidays for the duration of two days, as it was the law at the Diaspora.31)ביצה ד׳ ב׳. The problem of the second day of a holiday was then an important matter for the Jews of Babylonia. This custom of celebrating an extra day was introduced during the time when messengers of the Palestine High Court could not be sent to inform the Babylonians of the beginning of a new month. Although the Babylonian Jews could have determined the new months themselves, because they also followed the lunar calendar, the Exilarch nevertheless added an extra day to all holidays for fear that his calculations might differ from those of the High Court in Palestine. But at times the Romans relaxed their vigilance and the messengers were free to announce the findings of the High Court, at such times the Babylonian Jews would ignore the extra added day. It was for this reason that Rabbi Elazar instructed all Jews who lived outside of Palestine to observe the second day of the holidays.
On another occasion he sent the following message to Babylonia: “Attend to the cleanliness of your bodies; strive to study in company and be careful in your treatment of poor children, for only from them the Torah will issue.”32)נדרים פּ״א א׳.
Little is known of the achievements of Rabbi Elazar as head of the academy at Tiberias. We do know that, aside from the few Halachoth in the formulation of which he participated, he was one of the outstanding exponents of Hagada. His Hagadic statements were of such deep significance that their value remained permanent and it was also unimportant what biblical text he based them on, for he used the texts merely to bring out his ideas.
Thus he declared that one who returns from a journey must rest for three days before he can keep his mind on his prayers. He proved this by the fact that when Ezra came to the river Ahavah, on the way to Palestine, he rested for three days before he declared a fast and prayed to God to guide his steps. When he arrived in Jerusalem he also waited for three days before he commenced his work.33)ערובין ס״ה א׳.
The statement of Hannah to Eli (Sam. I., 1:16), “Esteem not thy handmaid as a daughter of Belial,” he compared to the “Bnei Belial” mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, and he concluded that “the prayer of a drunken man may be compared to idol worshipping”34)ברכות ל״א א׳. Another example of his method of interpretation is found in his declaration that there can be no other punishment for a man who lifts his hand against neighbor except being buried. This he based on the verse that the earth belonged to men of strong arms.35)סנהדרין נ״ח ב׳.
Of charity Rabbi Elazar said: “As long as the Temple existed, a man could give a shekel for a sacrifice and his sins were forgiven; but now that the Temple is destroyed, it is best that one should give for charity, for if he will not give charity to Jews, pagans will take his possessions by force.”36)בבא בתרא ט׳ א׳. On another occasion he similarly declared that “if a poor man requires aid, it should be given to him even on the Sabbath.”37)כתובות ה׳ א׳.
Of those who sought to obtain charity when they did not need it, Rabbi Elazar said: “We should be thankful to these, for were it not for these swindlers, any man who refused to give charity when asked, would be punished at once. As it is, such a person can claim that he suspected the applicant for charity of being a swindler.”38)ירושלמי פּאה פרק ח׳ הלכה ט׳.
“Why did God create human fingers in their present shape?” Rabbi Elazar asked. “It was done in order that a man might plug his ears when he hears improper words,” Rabbi Elazar himself explained.39)כתובות ה׳ ב׳.
Speaking of God’s consideration for human weaknesses, Rabbi Elazar said: “If a man insults his neighbor and later wishes to conciliate him, the insulted man may demand a retraction in the presence of those people who witnessed the insult. But when a man sins against God in public, he may repent in private.”40)יומא פּ״ו ב׳.
At times Rabbi Elazar discussed the evil nature of man and he said: “He who ridicules others will be punished with suffering,”41)עבודה זרה י״ח ב׳. and “he who is arrogant toward others, deserves to be cut down like a tree, for he causes the Shechinah to sorrow and in the end he will be as low as dust.”42)סוטה ה׳ א׳.
More than arrogance Rabbi Elazar despised flattery and he said: “A flatterer brings down the anger of God upon the world. Even children in their mother’s womb curse him and he is doomed to Gehenna. He who flatters a wicked man, will be delivered into his hand, if he escapes his hand, he is sure to be delivered into the hands of the children or the grandchildren of the wicked man.”43)סוטה מ״א ב׳. “If a whole congregation is afflicted with flattery,” he added, “it may be compared to an unclean woman and in the end it will be exiled.”44)סוטה מ״ב א׳.
“He who departs from his word is like an idol worshipper,”45)סנהדרין צ״ו א׳. and “one who deceives with words, is worse than one who deceives with money.”46)בבא מציעא נ״ח א׳.
“A man who owns no land may not be considered a man, for the Bible said, ‘The earth He gave to the people.’” All artisans will in the end return to the soil despite the fact that there is no ruder work than tilling the soil. But although tilling the soil is of great importance, the position of the merchants is much more favorable.47)יבמות ס״ג א׳.
“Working for one’s livelihood,” Rabbi Elazar said, “may be compared to working for the redemption. Just as redemption will be achieved through miracles, even so does one gain his livelihood miraculously, and just as one has to earn his livelihood daily, even so may he expect redemption daily.”48)בראשית רבה פּרשה ב׳ פּיסקא כ״ב.
Rabbi Elazar had a high opinion of married life and he said: “One who is not married may not be considered a man. Thus we find that God named man after He had created both male and female.”49)יבמות ס״ג א׳.
Speaking of human intelligence he said: “A man without intelligence deserves no pity, and he who gives his bread to a fool will suffer in the end and will be driven out of his home.”50)סנהדרין צ״ב א׳.