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Jewish Commentators — Their Lives and Works


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Eleazar ben Azariah
Hebrew Name(s): אלעזר בן עזריה‎
Other Names: Eleazar ben Azaryah
Period: Tannaim — 1st–2nd Century
Location: Palestine
Dates: c.70–140

Eleazar ben Azariah was a Second Generation scholar; a junior contemporary of Gamaliel II, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah and a senior to Rabbi Akiva (Sifre, Deut. 32; Sanh. 101a). He belonged to a wealthy family which traced its geneology back to Ezra. As a young man was for a short time installed as president of the academy at Yavneh during a period when Gamaliel II was temporarily deposed from the patriarchate. Although very young he was reputed to have grown in wisdom overnight. His remark, "I am like a seventy year old" (Ber. 28a) is recorded in the Passover Haggadah.
After Gamaliel's reinstatement, Eleazar ben Azariah continued to play a role in civil and communal affairs. He was retained as vice-president (Av Bet Din) of the Sanhedrin and lectured, in turn with Gamaliel, on Sabbaths (BT., Ber. 27b et seq.; PT., Ber. 4. 7c et seq.; PT., Ta‘an. 4. 67d), and travelled to Rome with Gamaliel II, Akiva and Joshua ben Hananiah.
During his time as nasi of the Sanhedrin Eleazar introduced some significant changes. He effected a decision to allow admittance to the study house to all who wished to study rather than a select few; many outstanding halakhic questions at the time were settled, and the Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim) and Ecclesiastes became part of the biblical canon (Yad. 3. 5).
Rabbinic homiletics owes the introduction of the "contiguous" rule to Eleazar ben Azariah. This hermeneutic invites the exegesis that scriptural passages are explained or supplemented by another immediately following or preceding them. For example, according to Sheshet, Eleazer ben Azariah declared: "He who despises the Festivals is as though he engaged in idolatry, for it is said, You shall make yourself no molten gods" (Ex. 34:17), which is followed by, "The feast of unleavened bread shall you keep" (Ex. 34:17) and "Whoever relates slander, and whoever accepts slander, and whoever gives false testimony against his neighbour (Ex. 23:1), deserves to be cast to dogs, for it is said, you shall cast to the dogs (Ex. 22:30)". The verse "You shall cast it to the dogs" is juxtaposed with the prohibition against slander and false witness in Exodus 23:1 (see Pes. 118a; Mal. 23a).
Eleazar ben Azariah was a halakhist and emphasized the plain sense (peshat) of the text saying, "The words of the Torah are written in the language of the people" (Kid. 17b). Eleazar ben Azariah also emphasized the importance and value of work as well as study. "If there is no Torah there is no proper conduct and if there is no proper conduct there is no Torah … if there is no bread there is no Torah and if there is no Torah there is no bread" (Avot, 3:17). He is credited with some outstanding maxims that teach a practical ethics: "Saving a life takes precedence over the Sabbath" (Shab. 132a); "The Day of Atonement does not atone for sins against one's fellow man until the person sinned against has been appeased" (PT., Yoma, 8. 9; Sifra, Ahare Mot, 8. 2).
Such was the esteem in which Eleazar ben Azariah was held by his colleagues that it was declared: "With the death of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah was removed the crown of the sages" (Sotah, 49b).


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