The Story of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus

 

The Story of Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus:
Talmudic Sage and Nazarene
By
James Scott Trimm

Rabbi Eliezer Ben Hyrcanus was one of the most prominent tannaim of the first and second centuries and the sixth most frequently mentioned Rabbi in the Mishnah.

The Talmud says of his Beit Din:

Our Rabbis taught: Justice, justice shalt thou follow, means, Thou shalt follow an eminent Beth din, as for example, [follow] R. Eliezer [b. Hyrkanus] to Lydda. or R. Johanan b. Zakkai to Beror Hail.
(b.Sanhedrin 32b)

He was one of the greatest of the five students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who was a student of Hillel the Great (m.Avot 2:8).

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said of his student Rabbi Eliezer:

If all of the sages of Israel were on one side of the scale,
and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus were on the other,
he would outweigh them all.
(m.Avot 2:8)

So Rabbi Eliezer was one of the most important Rabbis in the Talmud, He was also a Nazarene!

The Talmud records that Rabbi Eliezer was arrested for “Minuth”:

Our Rabbis taught: When R. Eliezer was arrested because of Minuth they brought him up to the tribune to be judged. Said the governor to him, ‘How can a sage man like you occupy himself with those idle things?’ He replied, ‘I acknowledge the Judge as right.’ The governor thought that he referred to him — though he really referred to his Father in Heaven — and said, ‘Because thou hast acknowledged me as right, I pardon; thou art acquitted.’ When he came home, his disciples called on him to console him, but he would accept no consolation.
(b.Avodah Zarah 16b)

As the story continues:

Said R. Akiba to him, ‘Master, wilt thou permit me to say one thing of what thou hast taught me?’ He replied, ‘Say it.’ ‘Master,’ said he, ‘perhaps some of the teaching of the Minim had been transmitted to thee [17a] and thou didst approve of it and because of that thou wast arrested?’

He exclaimed: ‘Akiba thou hast reminded me.’ I was once walking in the upper-market of Sepphoris when I came across one [of the disciples of Yeshua the Nazarene] Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah by name, who said to me: It is written in your Torah, Thou shalt not bring the hire of a harlot . . . into the house of the Lord thy God. May such money be applied to the erection of a retiring place for the High Priest? To which I made no reply. Said he to me: Thus was I taught [by Yeshua the Nazarene], For of the hire of a harlot hath she gathered them and unto the hire of a harlot shall they return.’ (Micah 1:7) they came from a place of filth, let them go to a place of filth. Those words pleased me very much, and that is why I was arrested for apostasy; for thereby I transgressed the scriptural words, Remove thy way far from her — which refers to minuth — and come not nigh to the door of her house, — which refers to the ruling power.’
(b.Avodah Zarah 16b-17a)

(The same story appears with few differences in the Midrash Rabbah to Eccl.)

The account above attempts to imply that Rabbi Eliezer was not truly guilty, but had only repeated a halacha he had heard from one of the Minim. However the reality is that Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated from Rabbinic Judaism for his “heresy” and remained excommunicated until the day of his death.

 

Who were the “Minim”?  The Fourth Century “Church Father” Jerome writes:

Today there still exists among the Jews in all the synagogues of the East a heresy which is called that of the Minæans, and which is still condemned by the Pharisees; [its followers] are ordinarily called ‘Nazarenes’; they believe that Messiah, the son of God, was born of the Virgin Miriam, and they hold him to be the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate and ascended to heaven, and in whom we also believe.”
(Jerome; Letter 75 Jerome to Augustine)

Minæans was apparently a Latinized form of Hebrew MINIM (singular is MIN) a word which in modern Hebrew means “apostates” but was originally an acronym for a Hebrew phrase meaning “Believers in Yeshua the Nazarene”.  The Jacob of Kefar-Sekaniah whom influenced Eliezer was almost certainly either Yeshua’s talmid Ya’akov (Jacob/James) or Ya’akov HaTzadik (James the Just).

The conflict between Rabbi Eliezer and his Rabbinic colleagues came to a culmination when Rabbi Eliezer refused to recognize the authority of the Rabbinic Sanhedrin:

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.
(b.Baba Metzia 59b)

The account in the Talmud continues to recount Rabbi Eliezer’s excommunication:

R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’ It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him. Said they, ‘Who shall go and inform him?’ ‘I will go,’ answered R. Akiba, ‘lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.’ What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. ‘Akiba,’ said R. Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened to-day?’ ‘Master,’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee.’ Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up.

A Tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which R. Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. R. Gamaliel too was travelling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him. ‘It appears to me,’ he reflected, ‘that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus.’ Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honour, nor for the honour of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel! ‘At that the raging sea subsided.
(b.Baba Metzia 59b)

 

It was only after his death that his excommunication was reversed by Joshua ben Hananiah.

The fact that Eliezer was actually a Nazarene is also supported by a halacha which he teaches concerning vows:

R. Elieazar says: they open a vow for a man
by reference to the honor of his father or mother.
(m.Nedarim 9:1)

This clearly echoes the teaching of Yeshua:

3 But He answered them and said: And why do you transgress the commandments of Elohim–by means of your decrees?
4 Is it not written in your Torah from the mouth of Elohim, Honor your father and your mother? And moreover written, And he that curses his father and his mother will surely die?
5 But you say, Whoever says to father and mother, It is all an offering– whatever of mine might profit you,
6 And he honors not his father and his mother. Thus have you made void the commandments of Elohim, on account of your judgments.
(Matt. 15:3-6 HRV)

This parallel is especially significant when we realize that Rabbi Eliezer was also quoted as saying “I have never taught anything which I had not learned from my masters” (b. Sukkot 28a).

 

At the approach of his death it is reported that he was surrounded by his former companions and pupils who remained with him to the end discussing with him questions related to Torah (b.San. 68a, 101a). Rabbi Akiva in his eulogy stated, “Since the death of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the Book of the Torah is concealed” (Sotah 49b).

 

 

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