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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works

 

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Eliezer ben Hyrcanus
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Hebrew Name(s): אליעזר בן הורקנוס‎
Other Names: Eliezer ben Hurcanus, Rabbi Eliezer, Eliezer HaGadol, Eliezer the Great
Period: Tannaim — 1st Century
Location: Palestine
Dates: c. 40–120

Biography:
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was a Palestinian Tanna of the Second Generation. He was a pupil of Johanan ben Zakkai (a Tanna of the First Generation,) a brother-in-law and colleague of Gamaliel II (Eliezer married Imma Shalom who is reputed to be the sister of Rabban Gamaliel. e.g. BT., Babba Metzia 59b,) and a teacher of Rabbi Akiva.
 
It is recounted that Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who began as an illiterate was accepted at a student of Johanan ben Zakkai in Jerusalem somewhere around the age of 21–28 years of age. He proved an able student and gained great respect. His teacher Johanan ben Zakkai said of him, "If all the sages of Israel were in one scale of the balance and Eliezer ben Hyrcanus in the other scale, he would outweigh them all" (Mishnah, Avot 2:8).
 
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus' memorial in the ancient
Jewish cemetery in Tiberius carries the epitaph,
"He said, 'Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own'" (Avot 2:10).

Memorial to Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, Tiberius
 
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is quoted in the Mishnah, the Baraita, and the Talmud and was the reputed author of the Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (which has since been shown to be a later work). Over 300 of his halakhot are recorded in the Mishnah and an equal number in the Baraita and Tosefta.
 
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is said to be one of the sages who removed, with Johanan ben Zakkai, from the Jerusalem to set up activities in Yavneh. He later established an academy of his own at Lydda.
 
Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was noted for his attention to the tradition said of himself that he and never taught anything but that which he heard from his teachers (Sukkah 28a). His retentive memory was such that his teacher Johanan ben Zakkai noted,  "Eliezer ben Hyrcanus is a plastered cistern which loses not a drop" (Avot 2:8). However, his strictness with regard to interpretative addition to the religious law and his rejection of development together with his advocacy of the teachings of Shammai caused conflict which resulted in his excommunication by the patriarch Gamaliel II when he could not accede to the majority opinion of the Sanhedrin (BT., Babba Metzia 59b; the matter which precipitated his excommunication was a discussion regarding the susceptibility to unclean-ness of an 'aknai oven). Such was the esteem with which Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was held by his contemporaries that legend spread about him.
 
It is reported that on the day of his excommunication his pupil Rabbi Akiva determined to deliver the news to him, "least an unsuitable person go and inform him and thus destroy the whole world" (Babba Metzia 59b). The Talmud reports that a great calamity visited the world on the day of Eliezer ben Hyrcanus' excommunication so that a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat and a third of the barley crop where smitten, the dough in women's hands swelled up and Rabban Gamaliel was nearly drowned at sea (Babba Metzia 59b). The excommunication ban on Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was not lifted before his death. However, 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 religious law (BT., San. 68a, 101a; PT., Sab. II 6; Avot de R. Natan 25:3). Rabbi Akiva in his eulogy stated, "Since the death of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, the Book of the Law is concealed" (Sotah 49b).
 
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus' memorial in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Tiberius carries the epitaph, "He said, 'Let the honor of your fellow be as dear to you as your own'" (Avot 2:10).

 

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