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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Rabbi Eliezer vs. Rabbi Akiva: Two Models of Torah

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on April 23, 2010)
Topics: Machshava/Jewish Thought, Nezikin, Sanhedrin, Talmud, Torah and Mesorah

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The seventh chapter of Sanhedrin ends with a powerful aggadata:

When R. Eliezer fell sick, R. Akiva and his companions went to visit him…

The Sages, seeing that his mind was clear, entered his chamber and sat down at a distance of four cubits.

‘Why have ye come?’ said he to them.
‘To study the Torah’, they replied;
‘And why did ye not come before
now’, he asked?
They answered, ‘We had no time’…

He then put his two arms over his heart, and bewailed them, saying, ‘Woe to you, two arms of mine, that have been like two Scrolls of the Law that are wrapped up. Much Torah have I studied, and much have I taught. Much Torah have I learnt, yet have I but skimmed from (lit., made lacking from) the knowledge of my teachers as much as a dog lapping from the sea. Much Torah have I taught, yet my disciples have only drawn from me (lit., made lacking from me) as much as a painting stick from its tube.

Moreover, I have studied three hundred laws on the subject of a deep bright spot of tzara’at, yet no man has ever asked me about them. Moreover, I have studied three hundred (or, as others state, three thousand) laws about the planting of cucumbers [by magic] and no man, excepting Akiva b. Joseph, ever questioned me thereon…”

His visitors then asked him, ‘What is the law of a ball, a shoemaker’s form , an amulet, a leather bag containing pearls, and a small weight?’ He replied, ‘They can become impure, and if impure, they are restored to their purity in their current state.’ Then they asked him, ‘What of a shoe that is on the form?’ He replied, ‘It is pure;’ and his soul departed in purity.

Then R. Joshua arose and exclaimed, ‘The vow is annulled, the vow is annulled!’

On the conclusion of the Sabbath R. Akiva met his bier being carried from Caesarea to Lydda. [In his grief] he beat his flesh until the blood flowed down upon the earth – Then R. Akiva commenced his funeral address, the mourners being lined up about the coffin, and said: “‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen’ I have many coins, but no moneychanger to inspect them.”

This aggadata tells the story of R. Eliezer’s death and is the companion piece to the story of R. Eliezer and the oven of Aknai in Baba Metzia 59b. In that well-known story, R. Eliezer declared that such an oven was pure – i.e., not susceptible to impurity – the other rabbis disagreed, and – refusing to be swayed by the majority, called upon the walls of the beit midrash to bend in, the river to run backwards, and finally a heavenly voice to demonstrate that he was correct. The rabbis, however, overruled all of these, declaring “It is not in heaven” (Deut 30:12) and that once given to humans, Torah and halakha are to be decided based on majority vote. Because R. Eliezer refused to accept the majority rule, they impurified everything that he had declared pure, and they put him in nidduy (a minor form of excommunication).

Our story picks up many years later, with his students – including R. Akiva – visiting him on his death bed. They could not sit within 4 amot of him, since he was still in nidduy, and it was only after his death that they removed the nidduy and were able to participate in his funeral. It seems that the Torah they asked him about on his death bed, was specifically chosen, because – just like the oven of Aknai – it was an issue of tumah vi’taharah, of purity and impurity, and it was an issue that the majority of rabbis had disagreed with him. They wanted to see if he had changed his ways, and if he would submit to the opinion of the majority. R. Eliezer, however, stood by his position, and reiterated his previous rulings. Although they could thus not remove the nidduy in his life, after his death, they were able to reframe it, stating “his sole departed in purity” – a play on words, indicating that he died with the word “pure” on his lips – declaring the shoe under discussion to be pure – but also with a purity of spirit, not willing to compromise his halakhic position and his intellectual integrity because of the ruling of the majority. After his death, when he was not longer a threat to the rabbinic consensus and its authority, a positive aspect of his approach could be subtly acknowledged and the nidduy could be removed.

So, at one level, what is going on here is the conflict of personal intellectual integrity, on the one side, and submission to the majority rule and rabbinic authority on the other. But there is another conflict present here as well, and it is one of two different approaches to Torah she’b’al Peh, to the Oral Torah. Rebbe Eliezer is praised in Pirkei Avot as a “plastered well which does not lose a drop.” (Avot 2:8), and he is known for never rendering an opinion on a matter that he did not here a ruling on from his teachers (Negaim 9:10; 11:7, Yoma 66b). Rebbe Eliezer ‘s approach to Torah she’b’al Peh was that of mesorah, tradition – it was the retaining (without losing a drop!) of all the teachings of the previous generation and the passing it on to the next. It was not about creativity or new discoveries, it was about retention and transmission.

In contrast, Rabbi Akiva is known to have derived “piles and piles of laws from every title and jot of each letter of the Torah” (Menachot 29b). And when Moshe Rabbenu was allowed to sit in R. Akiva’s beit midrash, he was distressed that he couldn’t understand what R. Akiva was teaching, until his mind was put to rest when R. Akiva declared that his source for his ruling was a “halakha li’Moshe mi’Sinai“, a law given to Moshe at Sinai” (ibid.). This is a quite different from of Torah she’b’al Peh – it is one of creativity and derivation, of discovery and application, it is one that can begin with the Torah given to Moshe at Sinai, but develop to a series of laws that even Moshe was not able to understand. Even the phrase “halakha li’Moshe mi’Sinai,” which is the classic phrase for a law that was directly issued and directly handed down, is here given new meaning.

A passage from Avot DiRebbe Natan illustrates these different approaches (Chapter 6, version A):

He (R. Akiva) learned the aleph bet. He learned Torat Kohanim. He continued learning until he had learned the entire Torah. He went and he sat before R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua, and he said to them, “My masters, explain for me the reason of the mishna.” When they told him one law, he went and sat by himself and said, “Why is this aleph written? Why is this bet written? Why was this thing said? He went and asked them and he established for them the matter.

R. Shimon ben Elazar said: I will give you a parable.

It is like a person who was hewing a mountain. One day, he took his hammer, and was at the mountain, chopping little rocks, and people came and said: “What are you doing?” He said: “I am going to uproot the mountain and cast it into the Jordan River.” They said to him: “You can’t uproot an entire mountain!”

He continued hewing until he reached a large rock, he entered into the underneath it, destroyed it and removed it, and through it into the Jordan, and he said, “this is not your place, but that is.”

So Rabbi Akiva did to R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua.

R. Tarfon said to him, “Akiva, regarding you the verse states: “He dams up the sources of the springs so that hidden things may be brought to
light.” (Iyyov 28:11).

For R. Akiva, nothing is to be taken for granted. Nothing is just a fact to pass down. Everything, even the aleph and the bet, must be questioned, and when he goes to R. Eliezer (and R. Yehoshua) to ask for a reason, they can only teach him another law. He had to remove himself from them, and sit by himself, to do the questioning and analysis that he needed to do, and then it was he who became their teacher. He was the one who understood that learning is not just facts, it is a deeper understanding that leads to the reorganization of the facts, and that brings hidden things to light.

This was R. Akiva, but this was not R. Eliezer, for whom Torah was what was passed down straight from Sinai. For him, human involvement could only sully the message. We now understand why R. Eliezer refused to submit to the majority rule. He knew that he had the facts as they were given at Sinai. No majority could change that reality. Torah was an absolute truth that would bend to nothing and to no one. The Torah would not bend to the world. Quite the opposite – it was the world that must bend to the Torah. Let the walls of the beit midrash bend to the truth. Let the truth reverse the course of the river. “Let the truth pierce through the mountain.” (a statement attributed in Tosefta Sanhedrin 1:3 and in Sanhedrin 6b to R. Eliezer ben R. Yossi, but in Yevamot 92a to our R. Eliezer [ben Hurkonus]!) This was the approach of R. Eliezer. It was an approach that could not accept “It is not in heaven” – that the Torah that was given by God should be decided by a majority vote of human beings. There were not 70 faces to the Torah – there was only 1 Torah, and everything else must give way.

R. Eliezer had to be put in nidduy. This type of a Torah could not exist in the real world, could not exist in a community. Torah had to be interpreted by human beings and in the context of the real world and of society.

When R. Akiva and the other rabbis came to visit him on his death bed, and he asked them why they had not come earlier to learn Torah, they replied, “We have been busy.” This was not a lie. Although R. Eliezer was in nidduy, it would have been permissible to learn Torah from him (Moed Katan 15a, Shulkhan Arukh YD 334:12), as they did at this sitting. But they had been busy – busy doing what rabbis do – learning Torah – but a different Torah than R. Eliezer had to teach. They were learning the Torah of R. Akiva, the Torah of analysis and discovery, and they did not have time for a learning that was just the receiving of a myriad of facts.

Consider how R. Eliezer describes the Torah he has to give – 300 laws regarding one spot of leprosy, 300 (or 3,000!) laws about the magical planting of cucumbers. R. Akiva and his colleagues had no interest in learning all these facts – “no one ever asked me about them.” If they needed to determine something regarding leprosy – a field that R. Akiva was known for – they would have derived the laws they needed to know. They did not need to spend their time amassing millions of obscure and esoteric details.

When R. Eliezer describes how he learned from his masters and how his students learned from him, he uses the metaphor of giving and taking water – the transfer of a static quantity of stuff. And he states that “I did not take away from them (my teachers) except a like a dog laps from a sea,” and uses the same verb – “take away” in describing what his students received from him. Maharasha (and Soncino in the translation above) take away the bite of this word and translate it as “only skimmed from them,” or “only narrowed the gap between me and them,” but the simple reading is “take away,” suggesting that the teacher lost in the process. Now, this is in not how we think of teaching – we identify with the statement – “And from my students I have learned more than from anyone.” But if teaching is just passing down of facts, and learning is just receiving of facts, then a teacher cannot learn from his student – but – if any facts are forgotten because of the effort of teaching – he can, perhaps, lose in the process. This is the Torah of the water contained in a perfect container, the plastered pit that holds water, and transferred from one to the other.

Thus R. Eliezer ‘s arms are like Torah scrolls that have not been opened. He has much Torah to teach, but it is static text, it is essentially a form of Torah shebikhtav, the written Torah; it is not the dynamic, living Torah she’b’al Peh.

On the death of R. Eliezer, R. Akiva was distraught over the loss of such a great master of Torah. But R. Akiva understood what R. Eliezer had to offer differently than R. Eliezer. R. Akiva said, “I have many coins” – he had much Torah, even without all of the myriad of facts that R. Eliezer had to teach. The facts that he did not know, he would derive: “But I have no money-changer to check them with.” One needs to check one’s coins with someone who has much experience looking at coins and can tell a good one from a bad one. Laws that are derived based on the human intellect – analysis, derivation, inference, analogy, and abstraction – need to be tested against the other laws to see if they are consistent, to see if they are good. That is the value of R. Eliezer ‘s Torah. The live, vibrant, creative process of talmud Torah is that of R. Akiva. But such a process would lead to error and could go outside the bounds of acceptable halakha and Torah if not tested against the received mesorah which is the Torah of R. Eliezer.

In the end, R. Akiva’s approach – checked by R. Eliezer ‘s – is the live, vibrant Torah she’b’al Peh that is our talmud Torah. R. Eliezer ‘s approach not only eliminated the human component of and investment in Torah she’b’al Peh, but it also led to a rigidity – to a Torah that cannot exist in this world, that must make the world bend to it, that cannot abide by “It is not in heaven.” R. Eliezer died “in purity,” – he was not of this world, his approach to Torah was to keep the Torah pure, and unsullied by the realities of the world, and he died as he lived, without compromising this purity. We, however, live by a Torat Chayim, a Torah of Life, a Torah of this world, and because it is of this world, it is a Torah that gives life to us and to the world.