“Four entered the orchard . . .” (Hagigah 14b): this very famous and enigmatic statement about Rabbi Akiva and some of his contemporaries has been discussed and dissected by many over the generations. It comes up here in Hagigah as we discuss mystical knowledge and its dangers. Rabbi Akiva was the only one to emerge unscathed from delving into the world of mysticism. Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went crazy. But the most intriguing victim is Aher, “the other,” AKA Elisha ben Avuyah. What happened to him and why?
Aher’s story has fascinated many. In fact an entire novel was written about him in 1939 by Milton Steinberg, called As A Driven Leaf. Steinberg, a scholar and Conservative rabbi whose life was cut tragically short at age 46, drew on the Rabbinic sources to write his story but added and fictionalized certain elements. While mysticism figures in his tale, he also emphasized the historical and political realities of the time, and I would like to go in that direction as well.
Rabbi Akiva and his contemporaries lived during an incredibly difficult time in Jewish history, perhaps more difficult than the one a generation before him, which saw the destruction of the Temple. The rabbis in Yavneh had worked on rehabilitating Torah life without a Temple and people were adjusting. Suddenly the Roman empire’s policies shifted. From an emphasis on sovereignty and taxes, they now turned to oppressing the Jews in their religion. This was an unusual move. We do not have a full picture of what happened but we have mentions of decrees against teaching Torah, keeping Shabbat, circumcision and others. The most harsh decree was not to ordain a new generation of rabbis. We have the powerful story of Rabbi Yehudah ben Bava who ordained five students and then was caught and murdered by Roman soldiers. These five, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua, become the conduit of tradition and Torah teaching for the next generation. Almost all of the previous generation had been destroyed.
Grave of R Yehuda ben Bava
Michael Yaakovson, Wikipedia
While Torah scholars like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava were being martyred, the Roman empire was becoming more and more powerful. They had wealth, honor, power and absolute control over everyday life. What did a Jew feel like walking on the opulent streets of Caesarea or Bet Shean, having to avoid the glance of haughty Roman soldiers and often having to hide the very trappings of his Judaism, like tefillin? Some, like Rabbi Akiva, were strong enough to defy the Romans. Others looked around and concluded that the Romans must be doing something right. This seems to be what happened to Elisha ben Avuyah.
Roman street in Bet Shean
Mark10:43, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
In the story related in Hagigah, Elisha’s acceptance of Rome’s power is told in mystical language:
“He saw the angel Mitatron, who was granted permission to sit and write the merits of Israel. He said: There is a tradition that in the world above there is no sitting; no competition; no turning one’s back before Him; and no lethargy. He said: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, there are two authorities,” (Hagigah 15a)
If an angel can sit before God, perhaps God is not the only power in the world. And if Israel, who believe in the one God, is so downtrodden, perhaps they are believing in the wrong system.
There is an extensive midrash in Ruth Rabba that details a conversation between Elisha and Rabbi Meir, his erstwhile student. It also tells us about the reasons for Aher’s apostasy. One suggestion is that he saw a young boy shooing away a mother bird, a commandment whose reward is long life. After fulfilling the commandment, the boy fell out of the tree and died. Another suggestion is that Elisha witnessed an act of Roman cruelty to a great rabbi:
“And some were saying because he saw the tongue of Rabbi Judah the baker given to the mouth of a dog. And Elisha said: “If the tongue which occupied itself every day in Torah [is treated] thus, how much more the tongue of the one who knows nothing and is not occupied in Torah!” and thus he said “If so then there is no reward for the righteous and no resurrection of the dead!”” (Ruth Rabba 6)
Elisha could not accept the injustices that he saw. If those who occupy themselves with Torah are not rewarded in this world, then there must be something wrong with the Torah beliefs. Rabbi Akiva, who was a great optimist and always took the long view, understood that there is something beyond this world:
“And he did not know that it had been interpreted by Rabbi Akiva in public: “that you may fare well (tov)” in the world that is entirely good and “have a long life (ha’arakhta)” that is in the length (‘arokh) of eternity”.” (Ruth Rabba 6)
Elisha ben Avuyah looked around, saw the power of Rome and believed that it had the right lifestyle. He was the normal one. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava were the outliers. To believe in a just and true God when everything around you says otherwise is an incredible act of faith. Rabbi Akiva and those like him are the ones who bequeathed us our heritage.
And what about Rabbi Meir? How did he continue to learn from Elisha after the latter’s apostasy? Our Gemara offers various metaphors about taking the good and leaving the bad behind, the most powerful of which is the one about the pomegranate:
“Rabba bar Sheila found Elijah. He said to Elijah: What is the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing? Elijah said to him: He is stating halakhot transmitted by all of the Sages, but in the name of Rabbi Meir He will not speak. He said to him: Why? He replied: Because he learned halakhot from the mouth of Aḥer. He said to him: Why should he be judged unfavorably for that? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate and ate its contents while throwing away its peel. He said to him: Indeed, your defense has been heard above. Now God is saying: My son, Meir, says” (Hagigah 15b)
Ivar Leidus, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Rabbi Meir and his wife Bruriah were from the generation of survivors. They escaped the slaughter of the Bar Kokhba Revolt and now, along with others like Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, they needed to rebuild the Torah world. In that context, Rabbi Meir understood that anyone who can teach Torah, especially the precious teachings of Rabbi Akiva, should be listened to, regardless of their status at this moment. That is why he is willing to walk behind Elisha’s horse on Shabbat, learning Torah from a man who is actively violating the law while he teaches. (cited in the same Ruth Rabba midrash)
But Rabbi Meir also tried to being Elisha back. Every conversation that we have between them includes words like return, sin, and repentance. While Elisha believes that the door to repentance has been closed to him, the Gemara and Rabbi Meir believe otherwise:
“After many days Elisha the son of Avuya became sick and they said to Rabbi Meir: “Elisha your teacher is sick.” He went to greet him and said “Repent again”. And Elisha responded: “After this they would accept me?” And Rabbi Meir said: “You return man to dust (Psalm 90:3)”; until the crushing of the soul”. As soon as he heard this Elisha son of Avuya wept and died. And Rabbi Meir was rejoicing and said: “my teacher was taken as he repented!”.” (Ruth Rabba 6)
Rabbi Meir’s grave in Tiberias
Eliyahu (Eli), CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons