Eliezer ben Hurkanis – Part II
When Yochonon ben Zakai asked Vespatian for “Yavne ve
Chachemecha”, it represented a paradigm shift from the world of the Bais
Hamikdosh to the world of the Chachomim.
Ever since Har Sinai, the Jewish people relied on a direct connection to
First there was revelation at
Har Sinai, and then there was also Navua and Ruach Hakodesh.
But when the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed,
all this stopped and there was a Homat of Barzel, a wall of iron, separating us
The Gemorah says that Yochonon ben Zakai saw this transition
coming, even before the
the Bais Hamikdosh, and that he was ‘mesapek’ - ‘awaiting it’.
This loshon implies that he was ready for the
transition to get underway. I can’t overemphasis how major this paradigm shift
For over a thousand years, the Jews
based their understanding of Halachah on communication with Shamayim through
revelation, navuah, and ruach hakodesh – it was top to down communication – and
that was about to end.
Navuah itself had ended towards the beginning of the second Temple, there was
still Ruach Hakodesh during the Second Bais Hamikdosh. Yochanon ben Zakai
understood that the task of the Chochomim at Yavneh was to create a new
paradigm – a bottom to top Judaism, where they would use the 13 Hermenuetical
principals – given to Moshe at Har Sinai - to re-create Halachah in a post-Bais
Eliezer ben Hurkanis had spent his life committing to memory
the Mesorah, and as the Mishnah says, he was like a cistern that didn’t lose a
Because he could remember all of
Halachah, he felt that this transition was not necessary at this point. The
Chochomim could just come to him, and ask him what the Halachah was, since he
could remember it from the Mesorah that had been passed down from generation to
Pirkei Avos tells us exactly
through whom the Mesorah had been passed down, and Eliezer felt we should
continue using just the Mesorah since he remembered it all. Remember that
Pirkei Avos says, before it’s challenged by Abba Shaul, that on a scale Eliezer
would outweigh the other four top students of Yochanon ben Zakai.
The Mishnah in Yadaim deals with Tumah and Taharah.
One of the Mishnahs tells us that one of the
Chochomim, Reb Yossi of Damascus, was going to Lud where Eliezer ben Hurkanis
One version says that they met in
Eliezer’s house, the other says that they met in the bakery.
Eliezer asked, “What Chidushim have you been
coming up with in Yavne.”
It was a trick
question, one might even say a cynical question.
But Reb Yossi fell for it and said, “We were
discussing whether the Jewish farmers in Moav have to give Maaser Rishon,
Maaser Shayni, and Maaser Ani as those do in Eretz Yisroel.
We discussed this subject, and voted that
they do have to give the Maaser.”
is what we now call Jordan, and after the Churban Jews moved to Jordan, Bavel,
and beyond, and various questions had arisen. By the way, some Jews had also remained
in Yerushalayim, and though the Bais Hamikdosh had been destroyed, the Mizbeach
itself had not been destroyed, and they had continued to offer the Korben
Pesach every year, and possibly other Korbonos.
So the Chomamim of Yavne had voted, had been involved with parliamentary
Eliezer replied, “Give up
with your hands and cry your eyes out, because those who know (meaning himself)
know that the answer you came up with is correct.”
In other words, why go through discussions
and votes, when I actually have the correct Mesorah.
The Gemorah in Chagigah, which is the Gemorah
on Yadaim, because Yadaim itself doesn’t doesn’t have its own Gemorah, says
that Reb Yossi did what Eliezer told him to do – he cried his eyes out until he
became temporarily blind – but his eyesight came back.
Eliezer didn’t agree with what they were doing in
Why discuss and vote, when he
knows the Mesorah – they could just ask him.
The famous Gemorah in Baba Matsia describes when this came
to a head.
In Yavne they were discussing
whether a certain oven can be Tomay or not.
It was a Tanur that is made from coils of clay, it’s called a ‘snake
tanur’ because it resembled coils of a snake.
Eliezer claimed that such a tanur should be considered attached to the
ground, and so could not mekabel Tumah.
was Makel, which is important to emphasize since we associate Bais Shamai – who
Eliezer had been moving towards – as
The Chochomim said
that this oven cannot be considered as attached to the ground, and was Cheres,
earthenware, and therefore was not only Tomay, but could not become Tahar and
had to be destroyed.
They took a vote,
and the Chochomim won, saying that all such ovens were tomay.
Eliezer said, “But I know that I am right – I know the
If I am right, led the Carob
tree become uprooted and fly 100 feet, some say 400 feet.”
The Carob tree actually became uprooted, and
traveled through the air.
were not impressed – it’s a nice trick, but we don’t paskin by Carob trees.
Eliezer then said, “If I’m right, let the stream outside flow upstream, in its
It did, but the
Chochomim said that we don’t paskin by streams.
Then it became more personal.
Eliezer said, “If I’m right, let the walls of the Bais Medresh
The walls started tilting in,
moving close to collapsing.
This was the
main Bais Medresh in Yavne, and this is where they were learning and discussing
– and Eliezer was in effect saying let your Bais Medresh be destroyed.
Reb Yehoshua then got up.
Reb Yoshua was another of Yochonon ben Zakai’s main main talmidim.
Reb Yohushua spoke to the walls, and said,
stop, don’t cave in, we need this Bais Medresh.
The Gemorah says that the walls stopped caving in for the coved of Reb
Yehoshua, but they remained slanted out of the coved of Eliezer. Eliezer then
said, “If I am right, let a Bas Kol come and say so”, and a Bas Kol said that
Eliezer was right.
But the Chomomim
said, we don’t paskin by Bas Kols, Torah Lo be Shamayim He, the Torah is not in
The Gemorah then says that based
on their vote, on that day the Chomomim destroyed all the ovens that Eliezer
had paskined had been Tahir.
The Gemorah then says that one of Chochomim met Eliyahu and
asked what Hashem was doing during this episode.
Eliyahu said, Hashem was laughing, and said,
“My children have bested me, My children have bested me.”
In other words, even Hashem agreed that
Eliezer had been right, but that he is ready to change the Halachah in
accordance with the Chachamim.
because Hashem understood that without the Bais Hamikdosh and without Ruach
Hakodesh, the rules had to change, and Halachah had to be decided and recreated
by the 13 Hermeneutical principles, and then by voting.
The Chochomim then decided that Eliezer had gone too far,
and they voted to put him in Cherem.
then the question was, who would tell him.
Rabbi Akiva volunteered to go.
When Rabbi Akiva told him, Rabbi Eliezer said, “But I know the Halachah,
I know the Mesorah.”
After Eliezer was
told, the Gemorra says that the earth started shaking.
Rabbi Shimon Gamliel happened to be a sea,
and a storm arose threatening to capsize the boat.
So Rabbi Shimon Gamliel stood on the boat,
and said that the storm should calm down, and it did.
So we see that Eliezer’s powers extended beyond
just threatening the walls of the Bais Medresh of Yavne.
Another Gemorah, that we mentioned previously, describes how
Rabbi Akiva and other students of Eliezer came to Eliezer when he was
I want to emphasize Eliezer had
been Rabbi Akiva’s Rebbe, that Rabbi Akiva had learned under Eliezer for 13
years and had taught him so much of what he knew.
Rabbi Akiva sat four amos away because
Eliezer was still in Cherem.
asked, why didn’t you come before?
answered, we didn’t had the time.
This was not a good answer.
This reminds me of when I was in Rabbi Sheinberg’s Yeshiva as a bochur,
and I was engaged and preparing for my wedding.
Some of the preparation meant taking time off, sometimes even a day away
from the Yeshiva.
Rabbi Sheinberg’s seat
was at the entrance, and when you entered you had to pass his table.
One time after I had taken a day off, I tried
to come in quickly, and felt a strong arm pulling me back.
Rabbi Sheinberg asked, Where were you
I said, I had something to
This was not a good answer.
He replied, “You mean you only come to
Yeshiva when you have nothing to do?”
Rabbi Eliezer told the Chochomim who had come to visit him
as he was dying, that they would all die horrible deaths.
And Rabbi Akiva asked, what about me, and
Eliezer said that his death would be the worst.
This all came true, and the Gemorah is implying that it’s because of
what Eliezer said.
Eliezer said, “I know
300 ways to make a pin Tahar, and you didn’t ask me.” The Gemorah then says
that as Eliezer was about to die, Rabbi Akiva took his arms and placed them
over his heart, like winding up and closing a Sefer Torah.
An important Gemorah in Nidah 7 says that after Eliezer was
Nifter, Rabbi Yehoshua decided that the Halachah could now be changed in accord
After all, he had been
But they couldn’t make the
Halachah in accord with him while he was alive, because it was more important to
follow a system that had to be used now that direct connection to Shamayam was
This was even more important than
actually being right, it was a higher form of being right.
These are not my Chidushim.
This is all said by Rabbi Tzodok in different places, unless someone has
put them together and put them in one place.
We were entering a period of Golus – of Golus and more Golus
– periods of pogroms and holocausts.
we couldn’t just rely on people who had memorized the Mesorah, because they
would die out.
We had to rely on a
system of recreating and rediscovering the Halacah through the 13
Heremeneutical principles, and then voting.
As I said, this was even more important than being right.
We even see that Hashem was willing to change
the Halacahah in accordance with this system.
Because in a period of Golus, post Bais Hamikdosh and post Navuah and
Ruach Hakodesh, there was no alternative to having this system.
And even though the top-down Kedushah of the
Bais Hamikdosh gives us more Kedushah – and that is what we pray for every day
to be restored – the bottom up Kedushah that we generate ourselves through
Limad Hatorah, in a certain sense, is a higher level of Kedushah.