ELISHA BEN ABUYAH (called also by the Rabbis Aḥer, "the other")
By: Louis Ginzberg
Born in Jerusalem before 70; flourished in Palestine at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second. At one time the Rabbis were proud to recognize him as of their number; but later their opposition to him grew so intense that they even refrained from pronouncing his name, and referred to him in terms used to designate some vile object ("dabar aḥer," lit. "another thing"). For this reason it is almost impossible to derive from rabbinical sources a clear picture of his personality, and modern historians have differed greatly in their estimate of him. According to Grätz, he was a Karpotian Gnostic; according to Siegfried, a follower of Philo; according to Dubsch, a Christian; according to Smolenskin and Weiss, a victim of the inquisitor Akiba.Youth and Activity.
Of Elisha's youth and of his activity as a teacher of the Law very little is known. He was the son of an esteemed and rich citizen of Jerusalem, and was trained for the career of a scholar. His praise of this method of education is the only saying that the Mishnah has found worth perpetuating. According to Abot iv. 25, his favorite saying was, "Learning in youth is like writing upon new paper, but learning in old age is like writing upon paper which has already been used." Elisha was a student of Greek; as the Talmud expresses it, "Aḥer's tongue was never tired of singing Greek songs" (Yer. Meg. i. 9), which, according to some, caused his apostasy (Ḥag. 16b, below). Bacher has very properly remarked that the similes which Elisha is reported to have used (Ab. R. N. xxiv.) show that he was a man of the world, acquainted with wine, horses, and architecture. He must have acquired a reputation as an authority in questions of religious practise, since in Mo'ed Ḳaṭan 20a one of his halakic decisions is recorded—the only one in his name, though there may be others under the names of different teachers. The Babylonian Talmud asserts that Elisha, while a teacher in the bet ha-midrash, kept forbidden books ("sifre minim") hidden in his clothes. This statement is not found in the Jerusalem Talmud, and if at all historical, may possibly mean that he also studied the writings of the Sadducees, who, owing to changes made by the censors, are sometimes called "minim."
The oldest and most striking reference to the views of Elisha is found in the following baraita (Ḥag. 14b; Yer. ii. 1):
The Four Who Entered Paradise.
"Four [sages] entered paradise—Ben 'Azzai, Ben Zoma, Aḥer, and Akiba. Ben 'Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma went mad; Aḥer destroyed the plants; Akiba alone came out unhurt."
There can be no doubt that the journey of the "four" to paradise, like the ascension of Enoch (in the pre-Christian books of Enoch) and of so many other pious men, is to be taken literally and not allegorically. This conception of the baraita is supported by the use of the phrase ("entered paradise"), since ("entered the Garden of Eden" = paradise) was a common expression (Derek Ereẓ Zuṭa i.; Ab. R. N. xxv.). It means that Elisha, like Paul, in a moment of ecstasy beheld the interior of heaven—in the former's case, however, with the effect that he destroyed the plants of the heavenly garden.
The Talmud gives two different interpretations of this last phrase. The Babylonian Talmud says:
The Talmudic Explanation.
"What is the meaning of 'Aḥer destroyed the plants'? Scripture refers to him (Eccl. v. 5 [A. V. 6]) when it says: 'Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin.' What does this signify? In heaven Aḥer saw Meṭaṭron seated while he wrote down the merits of Israel. Whereupon Aḥer said: 'We have been taught to believe that no one sits in heaven, . . . or are there perhaps two supreme powers?' Then a heavenly voice was heard: 'Turn, O backsliding children (Jer. iii. 14), with the exception of Aḥer.'"
The dualism with which the Talmud charges him has led some scholars to see here Persian, Gnostic, or even Philonian dualism. They forget that the reference here to Meṭaṭron—a specifically Babylonian idea, which would probably be unknown to Palestinian rabbis even five hundred years after Elisha—robs the passage of all historical worth. The story is of late origin, as is seen from the introductory words, which stand in no connection with the context, as they do in the parallel passage in the Jerusalem Talmud. This latter makes no mention of Elisha's dualism; but it relates that in the critical period following the rebellion of Bar Kokba, Elisha visited the schools and attempted to entice the students from the study of the Torah, in order to direct their energies to some more practical occupation; and it is to him, therefore, that the verse "Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin "(Eccl. v. 5) is to be applied. In connection with this the Biblical quotation is quiteintelligible, as according to another haggadah (Shab. 34b; Eccl. R. v. 5) "flesh" here means children—spiritual children, pupils—whom Elisha killed with his mouth by luring them from the study of the Torah. The Babylonia amoraim must have known this story, from which they took the concluding part and attached it to another legend. The Jerusalem Talmud is also the authority for the statement that Elisha played the part of an informer during the Hadrianic persecutions, when the Jews were ordered to violate the laws of the Torah. As evidence of this it is related that when the Jews were ordered to do work on the Sabbath, they tried to perform it in a way which could be considered as not profaning the Sabbath. But Elisha betrayed the Pharisees to the Roman authorities. Thus it is probable that the antipathy of Elisha was not directed against Judaism in general, but only against Pharisaism. The reason given for his apostasy is also characteristic. He saw how one man had lost his life while fulfilling a law for the observance of which the Torah promised a long life (Deut. xxii. 7), whereas another man who broke the same law was not hurt in the least. This practical demonstration, as well as the frightful sufferings of the martyrs during the Hadrianic persecutions, strengthened his conviction that there was no reward for virtue in this life or the next. These statements of the Jerusalem Talmud are no doubt based on reliable tradition, as they are also confirmed by the Babylonian Talmud (Ḳid. 39b). Bearing in mind what is said about Elisha, there can be little doubt that he was a Sadducee.Elisha an "Epicurean"
The harsh treatment he received from the Pharisees was due to his having deserted their ranks at such a critical time. Quite in harmony with this supposition are the other sins laid to his charge; namely, that he rode in an ostentatious manner through the streets of Jerusalem on a Day of Atonement which fell upon a Sabbath, and that he was bold enough to overstep the "teḥum" (the limits of the Sabbath-day journey). Both the Jerusalem and the Babylonian Talmuds agree here, and cite this as proof that Elisha turned from Pharisaism to heresy. It was just such non-observance of customs that excited the anger of Akiba (Soṭah 27b). The mention of the "Holy of Holies" in this passage is not an anachronism, as Grätz thinks. For while it is true that Eliezer and Joshua were present as the geonim par excellence at Elisha's circumcision—which must, therefore, have occurred after the death of Johanan ben Zakkai (80
The same passage from the Jerusalem Talmud refers to Elisha as being alive when his pupil R. Meïr had become a renowned teacher. According to the assumption made above, he must have reached his seventieth year at that time. If Elisha were a Sadducee, the friendship constantly shown him by R. Meïr could be understood. This friendship would have been impossible had Elisha been an apostate or a man of loose morals, as has been asserted. Sadducees and Pharisees, however, lived in friendly intercourse with one another (for example, Rabban Gamaliel with Sadducees; 'Er. 77b). For legends concerning Elisha see Johanan ben Nappaḥa; Meïr; compare also Gnosticism.
- Grätz, Gnosticismus und Judenthum, pp. 56-71;
- P. Smolenski, Sämmtliche Werke, ii. 267-278;
- A. Jellinek, Elischa b. Abuja, Leipsic, 1847;
- I. H. Weiss, Dor, ii. 140-143;
- M. Dubsch, in He-Ḥaluẓ, v. 66-72;
- Siegfried, Philo von Alexandrien, pp. 285-287;
- Bacher, Ag. Tan. i. 432-436;
- Hoffmann, Toledot Elischa b. Abuja, Vienna, 1880;
- S. Rubin, Yalk., Shelomoh, pp. 17-28, Cracow, 1896;
- M. Friedländer, Vorchristlich. Jüd. Gnosticismus, 1898, pp. 100 et seq.;
- Bäck, Elischa b. Abuja-Acher, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1891. Compare also M. Letteris' Hebrew drama Ben Abuja, an adaptation of Goethe's Faust, Vienna, 1865;
- B. Kaplan, in Open Court, Aug., 1902.