Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Skip to content

The Market and the Orchard

鈥淎baye said: Behold I am like Ben Azzai, [who would regularly expound on the Torah] in the markets of Tiberias.鈥 (Kiddushin 20a)

Ben Azzai鈥檚 intellectual prowess and his presence in the Tiberias markets had a large impact on the Amoraim. Abaye made this statement in a few places (Erechin 30b, Sotah 45a) and Rava said the same (Eruvin 29a). Who was Ben Azzai and what was so special about him?

Shimon ben Azzai is usually mentioned only by his father鈥檚 name but his first name appears occasionally in Shas (Horayot 2b) (Shimon was an extremely common name and he shared it with his contemporary Ben Zoma). Ben Azzai was a member of the third generation of Tannaim (late first – early second century CE) and he quotes Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah on a number of occasions so it seems that he was his main teacher. He was a contemporary (talmid chaver) of Rabbi Akiva and as we shall see, had great respect for him. His colleagues also included Ben Zoma and Elisha ben Abuya, otherwise known as Aher. The four of them are cited as participants in a mystical story that is a key part of Ben Azzai鈥檚 biography.

Ben Azzai never received rabbinic ordination, probably because he died young. However, he was considered to be a great scholar and in the long list of how the world declined after the destruction of the Temple, we hear this lamentation for him:

鈥渨hen Ben Azzai died, the diligent ceased;鈥 (Sotah 9:15)

Ben Azzai himself had a high opinion of his own knowledge and intellectual acumen. When he was asked to express an opinion on different approaches of the rabbis, he would only praise himself and one other 鈥 the bald one, explained by all commentaries to mean Rabbi Akiva. The language he used to denigrate the other rabbis is fascinating and we will explore it soon:

鈥淏en Azzai says: All the Sages of Israel appear to me as garlic peel, except for this bald one, [i.e., Rabbi Akiva].鈥 (Behorot 58a)

We don鈥檛 have too many statements from Ben Azzai but he does seem to have had expertise in halacha and enough of a reputation that people sought him out in the market to answer their questions. In Pirkei Avot he contributed his advice on how to conduct one鈥檚 life:

鈥淔or the reward for performing a commandment is another commandment and the reward for committing a transgression is a transgression.鈥 (Avot 4:2)

鈥渄o not despise any man, and do not discriminate against any thing, for there is no man that has not his hour, and there is no thing that has not its place.鈥 (Avot 4:3)

There are two unusual things that we know about Ben Azzai, one pertaining to his lifestyle and the other to his death. Ben Azzai never married, or perhaps he was married and separated from his wife. We know this because in the Gemara in Yevamot he speaks in favor of procreation. The other rabbis turn to him and basically say, you talk the talk but you don鈥檛 walk the walk 鈥 you aren鈥檛 married! Ben Azzai responds that this is true but:

鈥淲hat shall I do, as my soul yearns for Torah,. It is possible for the world to be maintained by others,鈥 (Yevamot 63b)

Tosafot asks an obvious question ; we know from a different source (Ketubot 63a) that Rabbi Akiva鈥檚 daughter was to marry Ben Azzai and support him so that he could learn Torah, just as her mother did for her father. So how can we say that he was not married? Tosafot answers that they were engaged but never married. A different source suggests that they were married and then separated from each other.

How can Ben Azzai鈥檚 behavior be considered legitimate? Procreation is a commandment and the rabbis encouraged and had a positive view of marriage, if only so that men would not sin. Maimonides in his code of law the Mishnah Torah states that if someone truly desires only to learn Torah and has no desire for sex, he is allowed to stay celibate and never marry (Hilchot Ishut 15:3). However, other commentaries do not agree and see Ben Azzai as an aberration. The Ben Yehoyada has a unique interpretation. He explains that since Torah study is exhausting and Ben Azzai studied constantly, he was too exhausted to desire women and have sexual relations. In that case, there was no point in him marrying since he would not have children anyway. However, in his Kabbalistic approach, the Ben Yehoyada explains that while Ben Azzai did not have physical offspring, he created the souls of converts through his Torah learning and thus can be considered to have procreated.

In a fascinating if perhaps unintentional connection, let鈥檚 remember how Ben Azzai described the other Sages. He said that they are like the peel of garlic compared to him. Garlic in rabbinic lore (and now proven in science) was considered both an aphrodisiac and a food that increased sperm. Because of that, Ezra the Scribe instituted that people should eat garlic on Friday nights, to encourage loving and fruitful relations. This became so widespread and well-known that Jews were known as 鈥済arlic eaters鈥 (Mishnah Nedarim 3:10). Is Ben Azzai implying that even though he is not a garlic eater and the other Sages are (a polite way of saying that he does not have sexual relations), he still knows more Torah than them?

Ivar Leidus, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The other unique thing about Ben Azzai鈥檚 biography is his death. In a famous passage in Hagigah (14b) we hear that four 鈥渆ntered the orchard,鈥 Rabbinic code for studying the higher levels of mysticism. Only one, Rabbi Akiva, emerged unscathed. Ben Zoma went crazy, Aher became a heretic and Ben Azzai died. His untimely demise meant that he was never ordained although he was very knowledgeable and sharp.

David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

And why was he teaching in the markets of Tiberias? Perhaps it fits with the other elements of his life 鈥 he was not a formal participant in the Bet Midrash because he did not receive ordination. He also was an outsider because of his social status, a single man among the married ones. Maybe his colleagues did not know what to do with him and so he was left outside, in the markets of Tiberias, where his brilliance was on display for all.

The Roman gate at the entrance to ancient Tiberias

Hanay, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
Scroll To Top