Elisha ben Avuya 1


I am trying to get a true understanding of what happened to "Acher." The Gemoro
(Kiddushin 39b) gives two alternatives as to what caused Acher to sin. Either he
saw a child fall from the tree while fulfilling the mitzvos of honoring his father
and sending away a mother bird or he was overwhelmed by tzaddik vera lo (when
he saw the tongue of Chutzpis the spokesperson of Torah being dragged by a pig).
However, in Chagiga 14b, the Gemoro describes him as entering the Pardes (i.e.,
entering Heaven alive) and "cutting down the saplings." Apparently he saw things
in the Pardes that caused him to become a heretic and choose a non-observant lifestyle.
Which of the two was the cause of his turn away from a Torah way of life?


Elisha Ben Avuya (Acher) is mentioned in numerous places. Tosfos (Chagiga
15a) seems to put the whole picture together. I will try to present the information
in an organized fashion.

Tosfos quotes the Yerushalmi (Chagiga 9b) as saying that when Elisha's mother
was pregnant with Elisha she passed a place of idol worship and smelled the aroma
of tasty food prepared as an offering. (The Midrosh indicates that she eventually
ate the food.) This had a profound impact on Elisha's interest in turning away from
Hashem years later when he reached adulthood.[1]

Tosfos also mentions another contributing factor. Avuya was a wealthy man and
invited talmidei chachomim and dignitaries to Elisha's bris. The Midrosh
Rabboh (Rus 6:4) notes that this narrative was offered by Elisha himself in explanation
of his behavior.[2]
After they ate, Rabbi Eliezer suggested to Rabbi Yehoshua that they study Torah.
They started with Chumash and proceeded to Nevi'im and then Kesuvim, and things
became as exciting as when the Torah was given. A fire surrounded them. Avuya said,
"If this is the power of Torah, I will dedicate my son to Torah." Elisha told Rabbi
Meir that since his father's intentions had not been pure, the Torah did not stay
with him.

The Midrosh offers the story of the boy who died while performing both kibbud
and shiluach haken as the turning point in Elisha's life.[3]
Perhaps, however, it was a theological turning point but he continued to practice
the religion.[4]
He may have had serious questions about the fundamentals of the religion but did
not abandon its observance.

It is unclear to me when he went to the Pardes, but it may have been after the
boy's death or the incident with the tongue of the teacher of Torah that you mentioned
in your question. If so, he was an observant Torah giant who had doubts about one's
accountability for one's actions. He misinterpreted events in the Pardes and came
out with bigger theological questions (see Chagiga 15a). Afterwards he seems to
have decided to give up his observant lifestyle.[5]
The Gemoro (Chagiga) states that after leaving the Pardes he heard a voice saying
that everyone can do teshuva except him. The Midrosh (Rus) describes this incident
in greater detail: Rabbi Meir once tried to convince his rebbi to do teshuva, and
Elisha explained that it would be impossible, since once, while riding a horse behind
a shul on a Yom Kippur that fell on Shabbos, he had heard a voice saying that everyone
could do teshuva except him. According to the Gemoro, when he heard he was not a
candidate for teshuva, he decided that he might as well enjoy this world. Shortly
afterwards (possibly even the same day), he went to a prostitute on Shabbos and
did a melocho de'oraisa of chillul Shabbos right in front of her so
that she would not realize that he was Elisha.

At this point in his life (immediately after leaving the Pardes), he was teaching
Torah, informing Rabbi Meir about techum Shabbos so that Rabbi Meir would
not violate Shabbos, even though Acher himself was doing so.[6]
He wanted to avoid chillul Hashem, not letting a prostitute think Elisha
would visit her. But apparently things got progressively worse.

The Yerushalmi relates how he belittled Torah study. He went into a yeshiva and
said to one boy, "Why are you wasting your time studying here? You'll never succeed
in Torah; you'll be a tailor." The boy left his studies. He told another boy that
he was destined to be a good carpenter, and a third that he would be a builder.
The Yerushalmi writes that Elisha advised the gentiles to modify their evil decrees
so that the Jews could not avoid doing a melocho de'oraisa. When they
were told to carry on Shabbos, the Jews would try to place the object in a karmalis
or to do the melocho together, since if two people do the melocho
of one it is only a rabbinic violation instead of a Torah violation. Elisha told
the gentiles how to make the melocho a Torah violation.

Despite this regression from Torah giant to skeptic to heretic to enemy of Torah
observance, he is remembered as a teacher of Torah and a Torah giant.

In Avos (4:20), Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi (who outlived Acher[7])
quotes Elisha ben Avuya as teaching that learning Torah when one is very young makes
an impression that will last a lifetime.[8]
The fact that Rabbi Yehuda quotes him in regard to the power of learning as a youngster
indicates that he realized that Acher was at least noteworthy in this respect. Rabbi
Yehuda Hanassi told Elisha's daughter that Hashem apparently has a soft spot for
anyone who toils in Torah, no matter how he leads his life.[9]
A midrosh on Rus raises the possibility that Acher actually did teshuva
on his deathbed. Rabbi Meir, who had constantly urged his teacher to return to the
Torah way of life, heard that Acher was sick. He visited him and again begged him
to do teshuva, saying that it would be accepted. Elisha cried and died. Rabbi Meir
was happy, believing that Elisha had done teshuva.

According to the Gemoro (Chagiga), after Elisha died the heavenly court decided
that he deserved Gehinom but his Torah learning would protect him and he
would not go to Gehinom or Gan Eden.[10]
Rabbi Meir davened on his own deathbed that Elisha be punished for his aveiros
so that he could eventually enter Gan Eden. From the smoke that rose from
Elisha's grave after Rabbi Meir died, it was understood that his prayer had been

Many elements in Elisha's life seem to have converged to make him particularly
susceptible to abandoning Judaism. It started as early as when he was a fetus. When
he was nourished by food of avoda zoro he developed a proclivity towards
perceiving Judaism in the wrong way. The fact that his father directed him towards
Torah study for the wrong reasons played a role in his abandonment of a Torah way
of life. The injustice he saw in this world and inconsistency with the assurances
mentioned in the Torah contributed to his disaffection with a Torah way of life.

The final straw, however, was what he saw in the Pardes. At that point his questions
became convictions and he stopped being a practicing Jew. He continued to estrange
himself from Jews and began supporting the gentiles in their persecution of the
Jews. Rabbi Meir, however, never gave up on him and was instrumental in helping
him do teshuva on his deathbed and merit olam habo.

This description is an attempt to organize the events of Elisha's life and suggest
some general landmarks in his biography where major changes took place. Assuming
I am correct, we can now begin delving into the hidden messages Chazal wish to teach
us with these anecdotes so as to become better Jews.

BookID: 2 Chapter: 81, 240


Hagohas Ashri (Avoda Zoro 2:6) cites the incident of Acher's mother, who
apparently ate the food of Avoda Zoro, as proof that a nursing Jewish
woman should not eat non-kosher food (even if she has a valid halachic leniency–[see
Taz, Shach and Pri Chodosh at the end of Siman 89 in Y.D.]), since it might
adversely affect the infant. The Hagohas Ashri's source, the Or Zarua, may
have found the source of this account in Rus Rabboh (6:4), which specifically
states that after she smelled the food a priest gave her some to eat.


The entire episode is repeated in Koheles Rabboh 7:8, the Yerushalmi (Chagiga),
Yalkut Shimoni (Koheles 974) and elsewhere.


This is also found in the Talmud Bavli at the end of Chulin and in Kiddushin


What the Gemoro (Kiddushin 39b and Chulin 142a) says is that if Acher had
understood that the Torah was referring to a reward of long life in olam
(not this world), he would not have sinned. It does not use the
strong phrase yotzo letarbus ro'oh. I suggest that the term
("would not have sinned") means that this was a crucial turning
point in his life. It set the stage for him to abandon his observant lifestyle


Chagiga says quite explicitly that after coming out of the Pardes he went
letarbus ro'oh. It describes him visiting a prostitute, who recognized
him and said, "What are you doing here?" He then pulled out a radish from
the ground even though it was Shabbos, and she said it must be someone else
(acher). The name Acher stuck.


The Midrosh Rabbah relates that Rabbi Meir, while teaching Torah in Teveria,
was told that his teacher Elisha was riding a horse in the market. Rabbi
Meir chased him and they engaged in Torah study. At one point Elisha stopped
Rabbi Meir and said, "You cannot continue past this point, since it is the
techum for Shabbos." The Gemoro (Chagiga) explains that Rabbi Meir
was mature enough to eat the fruit of the pomegranate and discard the peel.
Still, we see how understanding and cooperative Elisha was, preventing a
Jew from sinning.


According to Chagiga 15b, Acher's daughter approached Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi
asking for sustenance, and Rabbi Yehuda expressed shock that Acher had any
offspring left in the world. She replied that his Torah was great even if
his actions had not been. At that point a fire licked at Rabbi Yehuda's
chair as a warning not to make negative remarks about Elisha. He commented
that if those who disgrace themselves but have toiled in Torah are to be
revered, how much more so those who dignify themselves and study Torah should
be. Apparently he developed respect for Elisha due to the Torah he knew
and taught. Otherwise it would be strange to have attributed this teaching
about learning when young to Elisha.

רבינו יונה שם הלומד ילד דומה לדיו על נייר חדש כי אין הכתיבה יכולה להמחק
כך תורה שבילדותו לא תשכח מלבו עכ''ד.


See Maharsho on Chagiga 15b.


ז''ל הגמרא לא מידן לידייניה משום דעסק באורייתא ע''כ. ובמדרש איתא מצילין
תיק הספר עם הספר מצילין אלישע בזכות תורתו. ובחגיגה כז: ת''ח אין אור של גיהנם
שולט בהם, ות''ח שסרח אין תורתו נמאסת. ובזהר יתרו פ''ג: אמר ר''י אמאי אתיהב
אוריתא באשא וחשוכא כו' מאן דישתדל באורייתא אשתזיב מאשא אחרא בגיהנם ומחשוכא
דמחשכין כל שאר עמין לישראל כו' עכ''ד.

ועיין נה''ח ש''ד פי''ז שמביא הגמרא
בחגיגה כז: תלמידי חכמים אין אור של גיהנם שולט בהם, ות''ח שסרח אין תורתו
נמאסת. ובקהלת רבה סימן ז' מבואר דכמו שמצילין תיק עם הספר כך מצילין לאלישע
בזכות תורתו.

ובזהר יתרו פג: אמר ר''י אמאי אתיהב
אוריתא באשא וחשוכא כו' דכל מאן דישתדל באוריתא אשתזיב מאשא אחרא בגיהנם ומחשוכא
דמחשכין כל שאר עמין לישראל כו' עכ''ל. וכן הרבה מדרשים וזהר המורים על רעיון
זה, ע''ש בנה''ח.

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