Eliezer Ben Hurkanis
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
 
We’ve discussed the five talmidim of Yochonon ben Zakai.  The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos quotes a machlochet between the Tanna Kamma and Abba Shaul.  The Tanna Kamma says that Eliezer ben Hurkanis – who was like a cistern that never lost a drop of water – was the greatest talmid of Yochonon ben Zakai.  And Abba Shaul said that Elazer ben Aruch – who was like an ever flowing and regenerating spring – was the greatest of his talmidim.  It’s a question of which is the most important quality that the Jews will need in Golus – is it total recall of our immense mesorah, or is it creativity, the ability to mechadish and keep things new and fresh.
 
We will now focus on Eliezer ben Hurkanis.  Let’s read from the sefer Pirkei de Rebbe Eliezer, that describes how Eliezer ben Hurkanis started in the world of Torah. 
 
Eliezer ben Hurkanis’ father was a wealthy landowner who owned a lot of land around Yerushalayim.  He had some clean land, and other land that was full of rocks.  Hurkanis asked Eliezer, his son – who was at that time 28 years old – to plow the land that was full of rocks.  Eliezer cried.  His father said, if that makes you unhappy, I will let you plow the land that is cleaner.  Eliezer still cried.  His father asked why he was still crying.  Eliezer said, “I don’t want to be plowing land at all, I want to learn Torah.”  His father said, perhaps your children will learn Torah, but you are too old to start. 
 
Eliezer then left home without telling his father, without any money, and went to the Godol Hador, Yochonon ben Zakai, to the preeminent Yeshiva – the ‘Brisk’ of its day – and said, I want to learn Torah.  Yochonon ben Zakai asked him, who are you? He didn’t say, and he didn’t reveal who his father was.  Yochanon ben Zakai then asked, do you know how to daven and how to say brochas – if not, I will teach you that.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis cried – I guess he cried a lot.  He said, “I don’t want to learn davening and brochas – I came here to learn Torah”.
 
So he learn directly from Yochonon ben Zakai.  And he was like a cistern that didn’t lose a drop, so he remembered everything that he learned.  In time he gained a tremendous amount of knowledge, and became a Talmud Chachum.  But he had no money and no food. The other students didn’t want to be near him, because his breath was so bad, because his stomach was always empty.  
 
Meanwhile, the other sons of Hurkanis said to their father, we don’t know what became of our brother Eliezer – so we would like you to exclude him from your will, so that we will get a larger portion.  Hurkanis, not knowing where Eliezer was, agreed.
 
Yochonon ben Zakai had a celebration where he invited the wealthy people of Yerushalayim.  This included Hurkanis, who came.  At the celebration, Yochonon ben Zakai asked Eliezer, his star pupil, to speak.  Eliezer said, “What should I speak about?  I only know what you’ve taught me.  So instead of my repeating what you taught me, it would be better if you spoke.” Yochonon said, don’t just repeat what you’ve learned – say Chidushim of your own.  So Eliezer got up and said Chidushim of his own, and the audience was so enthralled, that they didn’t know how long they were there, and they lost track of whether it was night or day.  Eliezer was surrounded by a halo like the one that surrounded Moshe Rabenu when he came down from Sinai.
 
Hurkanis asked, “Who is this amazing Talmud Chachim?”, and found out it was his son Eliezer.  Hurkanis said to his Eliezer, I will give you my whole inheritance.  Eliezer said, I’ll take just my portion of the inheritance – I’ll be ‘one of the guys’ - so that I and my brothers will get an equal share, because I didn’t learn Torah to get money.
 
So as the years progressed, Eliezer ben Hurkanis learned more and more, and never forgot anything.  In the course of time, one can only imagine how much he knew.  I’ve always imagined what it would be to be with someone like that, who I could ask all my questions to. I would spend a few weeks and lay out all my questions, and have them all answered one by one.
 
Yochonon be Zakai was hoping that his two star pupils would carry the Mesorah on to the next generation.  But it turned out that neither was able to.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis, with his enormous memory, didn’t succeed – he ended up in Charem, and we don’t learn any Halachas from him..  And Elazer ben Arach, with his great creativity, went with his wife somewhere and forgot all his learning, even though with the help of davening of his friends, much of it did return.  So it seems that great memory or great creativity, by themselves, are not enough.
 
When Avraham Avinu first came to Eretz Yisroel, he visited Malke Zedek, the king of Shalem, which was Yerushalayim.  Malke Zedek had the Mesorah from Shem, and Avrohom was from Shem, and most of Eretz Yisroel was inhabited by the Canaanites.  So the Zohar describes this important and crucial meeting, and says that Avrahom asked Malke Zedek, how are we going to accomplish the great mission of Mekaraving the world, and telling the world about Hadodosh Boruch Hu.  Unfortunately, the Chumash and the Zohar don’t tell us about what Malke Zedek answered Avrohom, in one of the most important conversations in history.
 
The only thing that the Chumash says about Malke Zedek’s response is that he brought out to Avrohom bread and wine.  I believe it was Rav Nachman that said the following, though I’ve never found the exact source.  Bread and wine are in a sense opposites.  Bread needs to be fresh.  When it comes out of the oven, it tastes delicious. After a day, it becomes hard to eat. And after two days it becomes garbage.  Wine is just the opposite. When the juice is squeezed from the grapes, it isn’t even wine yet.  As it ages, it becomes wine, and the older it gets, the better the wine becomes. 
 
By bringing out the bread and wine to Avrahom, Malke Zedek was saying that there are two approached to teaching the world, and we need both of them.  The bread represents chidushim – the teaching must always be new and fresh, with new insights every day.  The wine represents the mesorah, the teachings that embody our tradition and knowledge from the past. We need both of these approaches – one focusing on the new, the other focusing on the old – and either one without the other doesn’t work. 
 
Eliezer ben Hurkanis with his tremendous memory represented the wine, with its emphasis on Mesorah.  Elazer ben Aruch represented the bread, with his fresh daily chidushim. If neither of them were able to carry the Jewish people into the next generation, who was able to do it? It was Rabbi Akiva who was able to combine both of these qualities.  And it was through Rabbi Akiva that the Torah as we know it – the Torah she bal pe - has been transmitted.  Rabbi Akiva had a tremendous memory – he learned from Eliezer ben Hurkanis and others.  But he also had a tremendous ability to Mechadish his learning.  He was full of spirit.  When the Romans enacted the Hadrian decrees, almost everyone was ready to give up.  But Rabbi Akiva was full of hope and ability, and built up a Yeshiva of 24,000 Talmidim.  And when those talmidim died, he started again with another Yeshiva.
 
Rabbi Akiva had many things in common with Eliezer ben Hurkanis.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis began learning at the age of 28, Rabbi Akiva started learning at the age of 40.  However, Rabbi Akiva was able to combine both the depth of Mesorah represented by the wine, and the freshness and energy of chidushim represented by the bread.
 
When Rabbi Akiva saw a hole in the rock that had been made by drops of water, his power of Chidushim helped him learn an important principle from it. He said, “If water that is soft can drill a hold into a rock that is hard, certainly Torah that is fire can penetrate my soul that is soft.”  But it’s done slowly, drop by drop, requiring patience and time.
 
Eliezer ben Hurkanis on the other had been a farmer on rocky soil.  When his plow came to a rock, he need to blast it to get rid of it, and this had to be done quickly.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis, with his tremendous ability to retain knowledge, focused more on Mesorah than Chidushim. This directed him more in the way of Bais Shamai, who was also focused on Mesorah, than Hillel, who was focused more on thinking things through anew. When the people needed to know whether or not to bring the Korban Pesach on Shabbos, they said let’s ask Hillel who learned from the great Yeshivas of Shmaya and Avtalyan, and he will remember.  They wanted Mesoroh.  But instead Hillel gave them seven ways of learning the answer – a Kal Vechomer, a Gezerah Shava, etc – and he showed them the answer through fresh learning rather than just Mesorah.
 
This is similar to when Moshe Rabenu died, the people were so distraught that they forgot 3000 Halachas that Moshe Rabenu had taught.  So they went to someone who was able to reconstruct those teachings.
 
It’s important to see that Eliezer ben Hurkanis – as seen from the story where he was saying Chidushim at the celebration attended by his father – was capable of Chidushim,  and Yochanon ben Zakai encouraged him in this direction..  But he didn’t say Chidushim because that wasn’t his Shitah.  Like Shamai, he was focused more on remembering and adhering to the Mesorah.  He took pride in saying, as quoted by the Gemorah, that he never said anything that he hadn’t learned from his teachers.
 
Another important difference between Shamai and Hillel was temperament.  Shamai was sharp and forceful, Hillel was gentle and patient, like the drops of water on a rock.  When people came to Shamai and asked stupid questions, he chased them away. And there are similar Gemoras showing that Eliezer ben Hurkanis also chased people away that asked asked stupid questions. But Hillel, and also Rabbi Akiva, attended to these kinds of people and questions patiently.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis tried to blast away the rocks that his plow came up against, while Rabbi Akiva had plenty of time and patience like the drops of water on the rock.
 
The Gemorah in Sanhendrin describes how, when Eliezer ben Hurkanis was dying, his Talmidim, including Rabbi Akvia, came to visit him.  Eliezer ben Hurkanis had been put in Cherim.  The phrase used by the Gemorah is that he was Shamaied – which has a double meaning - that he followed the derech of Shamai, and that he was put into Cherem.  When Eliezer was put in Cherem, it became usser for his Talmidim to learn from him. When Rabbi Akiva and the other Talmidim came to visit Eliezer on his death bed, they had to stay four amos away, because Eliezer was still in Cherem.  Eliezer asked, why haven’t you visited me before.  Instead of saying that they hadn’t because he was in Cherem, they said that they had been busy. 
 
Eliezer then said, “All of you will meet a terrible death.”  And this came true, all of them were part of the Asarah Harugeh Malkus, the ten sages that were killed by the Romans.  And then Eliezer said to Rabbi Akiva, “Your death will be the most horrible.”  And this turned out also to be true – Rabbi Akiva was killed with iron combs raking his flesh.  Like Shamai, Eliezer didn’t mince words. 
 
In Pirkei Avos, Eliezer ben Hurkanis says – and as Shimon Bar Yochai says, these sayings represent the person’s final teachings.  “Warm yourself by the fire of the sages, but beware of their glowing coal lest you be burnt – for their bite is the bite of a fox, their sting is the sting of a scorpion, their hiss is the hiss of a snake, and all their words are like fiery coals.”  This is very much in the fiery style of Shamai.
 
The Gemorah in Taanis 28 says the following.  It hadn’t rained, and all the people had assembled at the Bais Hamikdosh to pray to Hashem for rain, and after 13 fasts it still hadn’t rained.  We are concerned about a one day fast, and they had fasted for 13 different days.  The people were turning to go home, and Eliezer ben Hurkanis said, “Go home and dig your graves, because you will all die.”  These sharp words pierced their hearts, they did Tshuva, and it started raining.
 
The Gemorah goes on to describe that there was another time that it hadn’t rained. Rabbi Eliezer davened his 24 Bekashis, putting his all into it, but it still didn’t rain.  Rabbi Akiva got up, and said, “Avinu beShamayim, please have mercy on your people”, and it started raining.  Rabbi Eliezer’s sharp tongue couldn’t penetrate Shamayim, but Rabbi Akiva’s warmth was able to.  This was because Rabbi Akiva had the ability to be Meaver al Medoso, to change his tendencies and midos. 
 
The Vilna Gaon says that if a person feels angry, and his anger has gone form his guts to his mind, and it has made its way to his throat, and then to his mouth, and then something that he shouldn’t say is on his lips, ready to be spoken – if at that point a person stops himself and squelches the words – at that point the person has the zchus to see an illumination from Shamayim that even the angles are not privileged to see.  Rabbi Akiva, with his power of chidushim and self renewal, was able to be Meaver al Medoso – and because of Midah keneged Midah – Shemayim was able to answer his prayers and be Meaver al Medoso also, and cause it to rain.