|Acher – The Story of Elisha ben Abuyah
Palestinian Talmud – Hagigah 2:1 / Babylonian Talmud – Hagigah 14b-15b
Acher - Introduction
Four entered into the pardes – Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma, Acher and R. Akiva. One looked and died. One looked and was stricken. One looked and trampled the shoots and one went up in peace and came down in peace.
Ben Azzai looked and died – regarding him the verse says “Grievous in God’s eyes are the death of his faithful ones.” (Psalms 116:15)
Ben Zoma looked and was stricken - regarding him the verse says “Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it.” (Proverbs 25:16)
Acher looked and trampled the shoots - regarding him the verse says “Suffer not your mouth to bring your flesh into guilt, neither say before the messenger, that it was an error; why should God be angry at your voice, and destroy the work of your hands?” (Kohelet 5:5)
R. Akiva entered in peace and went out in peace – regarding him the verse says “Draw me, we will run after thee; the king hath brought me into his chambers…” (SoS 1:4)
Acher’s Origin - Palestinian
Who is Acher? Elisha ben Abuyah, who killed Torah scholars. They said, ‘All students that he would see excelling in Torah study, he would kill.
And not only this, but he would go to the schoolhouse, and when he saw students in the presence of their teacher, he would say, “What are these doing here? This one should be a mason. This one should be a carpenter. This one should be a hunter. This one should be a tailor”. And when they would hear him, they would leave and go.
And even in the time of persecution (the Romans) made (the Jews) carry burdens and they would carry two of them, the burden of one because of “two who do the work of one.” (Elisha) said “Make them carry individually.” They went and carried individually and intended to place the burdens down in a karmelit so that they would not take from the private domain into the public domain. (Elisha) said “Make them carry bottles.” They went and made them carry bottles.
Acher’s Origin - Babylonian
Acher trampled the shoots. Regarding him Scripture says: “Do not allow your mouth to cause your flesh to sin”. What does it refer to? — He saw that permission was granted to Metatron to sit and write down the merits of Israel. He said: It is taught as a tradition that on high there is no sitting and no competition, and no back, and no weariness. Perhaps, — God forfend! — there are two divinities! Thereupon they led Metatron forth, and punished him with sixty fiery lashes, saying to him: Why didn’t you stand up when you saw him? Permission was (then) given to him to strike out the merits of Acher. A voice from Heaven went forth and said: “Return, backsliding children (Jer 3:14) — except Acher”.
Thereupon he said: Since I have been driven forth from that world, let me go forth and enjoy this world. So he gave himself to evil ways. He went and found a prostitute and propositioned her. She said to him: Are you not Elisha ben Abuyah? He tore a radish out of its bed on the Sabbath and gave it to her. She said: It is “Acher”.
Elisha and Rabbi Meir discuss the Bible
Rabbi Meir was studying in the schoolhouse at Tiberias when his teacher Elisha passed by, riding a horse on the Sabbath. He was told that his teacher was outside, so he stopped his study and went out to meet him.
“What were you studying today?” Elisha asked.
He replied: “The Lord blessed Job’s later days more than his earlier ones (Job 42:12)”
“And how did you interpret the verse?”
“I understood it as referring to the preceding verse, The Lord doubled all that Job had (42:10), meaning that he doubled his wealth.”
“Woe to those who cannot find what they’ve lost! Your teacher Akiba did not interpret it that way. What he said was this: The Lord blessed Job’s later days on account of his earlier ones; in other words, the blessing Job enjoyed in his later days was through the merit of the good deeds he had done and the commandments he had obeyed in his earlier ones.”
He went on: “What else were you studying?”
“The end of an affair is better than its beginning (Ecclesiastes 7:8).”
“And how did you interpret the verse?”
“Imagine a man,” said Rabbi Meir, “who had children in his youth and they died; then he had children in his old age, and they survived. That is a case of the end of an affair being better than its beginning. Imagine, again, a man who did business in his youth, and he lost his money; he did business in his old age, and he got rich. That is another case of the end of an affair being better than its beginning. Or imagine a man who learned Torah in his youth and forgot it, then learned Torah in his old age and practiced it. Once again, the end of an affair is better than its beginning.”
Elisha responded: “Woe to those who cannot find what they’ve lost! Your teacher Akiba did not interpret it that way. What he said was this: The end of an affair is good on account of its beginning: it can end soundly only if it began soundly. And my own life bears out his interpretation.
“My father, Abuyah, was one of the notables of Jerusalem. When I was circumcised, he invited all the notables to the celebration. They sat in one room, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua in another.
“After the people had finished eating and drinking, they began to clap their hands and to dance. Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Joshua: ‘While they’re busying themselves in their way, let’s busy ourselves in ours.’ So they sat studying the Torah, linking the Torah to the Prophets and the Prophets to the Writings. Fire came down from heaven and surrounded them.
“‘Gentlemen!’ said Abuyah. ‘Are you trying to burn my house down?’
“‘God forbid,’ they answered. ‘But we were sitting and going over words of Torah, linking the Torah to the Prophets and the Prophets to the Writings. Those words of Torah were as happy as the day they were revealed at Sinai, and fire licked them, just as it licked them at Sinai. For fire was the essence of their revelation at Sinai: The mountain was ablaze with fire, to the heart of heaven (Deuteronomy 4:11).’
“‘Gentlemen,’ said Abuyah, ‘if Torah has that kind of power, I vow that if this son of mine lives I am going to dedicate him to the Torah.’
“Because his intention was not purely for the sake of God, therefore it was not fulfilled in me.”
Elisha went on: “What else were you studying?”
“Gold and glass cannot equal it (Job 28:17).”
“And how did you interpret the verse?”
He said, “The verse teaches that words of Torah are as hard to acquire as golden vessels, yet as easy to break as glass vessels.” “That was not what your teacher Akiba said! He explained the verse to mean that, just as golden and glass vessels can be repaired if they are broken, so a scholar who has gone bad is able to reform himself.”
“That’s enough, Meir,” he said. “We have now reached the Sabbath limit.” “How do you know?” “I calculated from the paces of my horse that we have gone 2000 cubits.”
“You have all this wisdom,” said Meir, “and yet you do not repent?”
“I can’t.” “Why not?” “Once I was riding my horse in front of the Holy of Holies, on the Day of Atonement, which happened to fall on a Sabbath. I heard the divine voice issue from the Holy of Holies: ‘Repent, you backsliding children (Jeremiah 3:14) - except for Elisha ben Abuyah, who knew my power and rebelled against me.’“
Rabbi Meir took Elisha, and brought him into a schoolhouse. He asked a certain child: “Tell me what verse you’ve learned.”
The child answered: “There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked (Isaiah 48:22).”
So he took him to another synagogue. He asked a child there: “Tell me what verse you’ve learned.” “You may scrub yourself with nitrum; you may use as much soap as you please. Your iniquity is indelibly stained before me, says the Lord God (Jeremiah 2:22).”
He took him to yet another synagogue, and he repeated his request. The child answered: “What will you do, you ruined creature? Will you dress yourself in scarlet? Will you wear golden jewelry? Will you enlarge your eyes with paint? All in vain do you beautify yourself ... (Jeremiah 4:30).”
And so he took him to thirteen synagogues, one after another, and each time he received a reply of this sort. He finally said to one child, “Tell me what verse you’ve learned”; and the child answered: “But to the wicked God says: What business have you reciting my laws or speaking about my covenant? (Psalm 50:16).”
Now, the child had a speech defect. When he said v’larasha, “to the wicked,” it came out sounding like v’le’elisha, “to Elisha”: But to Elisha God says: What business have you reciting my laws? ...
Some say that he had a knife with him, and that he cut the child into pieces and sent those pieces to the thirteen synagogues.
Why did all this happen to him? Once Elisha was sitting and studying in the plain of Gennesaret, and he saw a young man climb to the top of a palm tree, take a mother bird with her young, and descend safely. The following day he saw another man climb to the top of a palm tree; he took the young birds but released the mother. When he descended a snake bit him and he died. Elisha thought, “It is written, You shall send the mother away, and the young you shall take to yourself; that it may go well with you, and that you may live long (Deut. 22:7). Where is the welfare of this man, and where his length of days?” He did not know that R. Ya’akov had explained it before him: “That it may go well with you” in the world-to-come, which is wholly good, “And that you may live long,” in the time which is wholly long.
And some say because he saw the tongue of Rabbi Yehuda the Baker, dripping blood in the mouth of a dog. He said, “This is the Torah, and this its reward! This is the tongue that was bringing forth the words of Torah as befits them! This is the tongue that labored in Torah all its days! This is the Torah and this is its reward! It seems as though there is no reward and no resurrection of the dead.”
Elisha’s Death (Palestinian version)
Some time later, Elisha fell ill. They told Rabbi Meir: “Your teacher is sick.” He went to visit him, and found that he was indeed sick.
“Aren’t you going to repent?” he asked him.
“Is a sickbed repentance acceptable, do you suppose?”
“The Bible says,” he replied, “You turn a person into powder, and you say, Return, you children of men (Psalm 90:2). Until the very moment the soul is turned to powder, repentance will be accepted.”
Elisha burst out crying, and died. Rabbi Meir was well pleased, thinking that his teacher had died repentant.
After Elisha was buried, fire came down from heaven and burned his grave. They told Rabbi Meir: “Your teacher’s grave is on fire.” Rabbi Meir went to visit it, and found it ablaze.
What did Rabbi Meir do? He took off his cloak and spread it over the grave. He recited the verse: Spend the night here. When morning comes, if the Good One wants to redeem you -- let him redeem you. And if he doesn’t want to redeem you -- then, by God, I will redeem you (Ruth 3:13).
Which he understood as follows:
Spend the night here -- this refers to the present world, which is dark as night.
When morning comes -- this refers to the future world, which is all one long morning --
If the Good One -- this is God, who is good, of whom the Bible says that he is good to all, and has mercy on all his creation (Psalm 145:9) --
If he wants to redeem you -- let him redeem you.
And if he doesn’t want to redeem you -- then, by God, I (Rabbi Meir) will redeem you!
The flames died down.
People said to Rabbi Meir: “If they were to give you the choice, whom would you go to visit in the next world -- your father, or your teacher?”
“I’d go to see my teacher first of all, and afterwards my father.”
“And do you think they would listen to you?”
He said to them: “Is it not a principle of ours that a case containing a holy book is to be rescued, along with the book itself? That a tefillin-case is to be rescued along with the tefillin themselves? Just so, Elisha Acher will be rescued by virtue of his Torah.”
Elisha’s Death (Babylonian version)
When Acher died, it was ruled (in heaven) that he was not to be punished, but was not to be allowed into the next world. He would not be punished, because he had busied himself with Torah. But he would not be allowed into the next world, because he was a sinner.
Rabbi Meir said: “He’d be better off being punished, and then allowed into the next world. When I die, I will make smoke rise from his grave.”
When Rabbi Meir died, smoke rose from Acher’s grave.
A hundred years or so later, smoke was still rising from his grave. Rabbi Yochanan said: “That was a fine trick of Meir’s, to roast his teacher! The man was right here among us, and we couldn’t save him. But if I were to take him by the hand and bring him with me to Paradise, who is there who could snatch him away from me?” He added: “When I die, I will make the smoke stop rising from his grave.”
When Rabbi Yochanan died, smoke stopped rising from Acher’s grave.
The speaker at Rabbi Yochanan’s funeral began his eulogy: “Even the gatekeeper of hell could not stand up to you, our teacher.”
Epilogue (Palestinian version)
Long afterward, Elisha’s daughters came to Rabbi Judah the Patriarch to request that they be sustained from communal charity. Rabbi Judah ruled: Let no one show him any kindness. Let no one have pity on his orphans (Psalm 109:12).
“Rabbi,” they said, “do not consider his deeds. Consider instead his Torah.”
Rabbi Judah burst into tears, and ruled that they be given communal support. “Here was a man,” he said, “who immersed himself in Torah for reasons that were not particularly godly, and look what he produced! If someone immerses himself in Torah for its own sake, think how much more he can accomplish!”
Epilogue (Babylonian version)
The daughter of Acher came before Rabbi. She said to him, “Master, support me”. He said to her, “My daughter, whose daughter are you?” She said to him, “The daughter of Acher”. He said, “Is there still his seed in the world?” He shall have neither son nor son's son among his people, nor any remaining in his dwellings. (Job 18:19) She said to him, “Master, remember his Torah and do not remember his deeds”. Fire came down from Heaven and tried to burn Rabbi. Rabbi wept and said “If this happens for those who dishonor Torah, how much more so for those who respect her?”