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Our student rabbi on placement, Iris Ferreira, is reflecting each week on a chapter of Ethics of the Fathers, which is traditionally read between the Jewish festivals of Pesach and Shavuot.


The second chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) describes the five students of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkay,[1] the founder of the first rabbinic academy in Yavneh. They were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkanos, Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania, Rabbi Yose ha-Cohen, Rabbi Simeon ben Netanel and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh.

Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkay compares Eleazar ben Arakh to an overflowing spring, which seems to refer to his capacity for innovation. Rabbi Eliezer ben Horcanos is compared to ‘a plastered cistern which does not lose a drop’, which indicates that he was blessed with an excellent memory. [2]

It is said that Rabbi Eliezer was greater than all the Sages together; according to another version, Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh was greater than all the Sages together, Rabbi Eliezer included.[3] These statements seem contradictory. But maybe are they actually referring to different skills. Rabbi Eliezer was the best in committing teachings to memory, whereas Rabbi Eleazar was the most talented in discovering new interpretations of Scripture. Perhaps nobody is greater than other people in all respects; rather, each person has their own specific skills, which are complementary to those of others.

However, the capacities of Eleazar ben Arakh were the most valued by Rabban Yochanan. Indeed, when he asked his students a question, the answer of Eleazar ben Arakh was the one he found the most convincing.[4] The difference between Rabbi Eleazar and his colleagues in their approach is most apparent in Avot deRabbi Nathan:[5]

When the son of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkay died, his students tried to comfort him. Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Yose and Rabbi Simeon reminded him of biblical characters who had undergone a similar loss. As these characters had been comforted despite their children’s death, Rabban Yochanan should also be comforted. But instead of appeasing him, such words added to his grief by reminding him of the pain of other people.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh did not use an example in Scripture similar to his master’s case, in order to convince him that he should be comforted. Rather, he compared the life of his master’s son to a deposit that a king (the Eternal) had entrusted him until he would fetch it. Eleazar stressed how difficult it was for a mere human being (Yochanan ben Zakkay) to keep such a precious deposit unblemished until the king would fetch it. Rabban Yochanan had succeeded in this task, as his son died full of merit and without sin.

Because Eleazar ben Arakh invented personal words for his master, and did not apply to him sayings that he had learnt by heart, he succeeded in comforting him.

Therefore we see that Eleazar ben Arakh seems to have favoured innovation to tradition; he preferred to deal with new situations thanks to his own understanding, rather than comparing it to similar cases in Scripture.

However, there is a danger in being too innovative without enough anchorage in teachings of the past. While Eleazar ben Arakh’s colleagues went to Yavneh to study Torah, he preferred to go to a place of good waters.[6] The different paths that Eleazar and his colleagues took may reflect two different attitudes towards Torah: Eliezer, Joshua, Yose and Simeon favoured the learning of past traditions; Eleazar ben Arakh preferred to focus on innovation, without an in-depth study of former teachings. Consequently, despite his outstanding abilities, Rabbi Eleazar ben Arakh decreased his knowledge of Torah and became less prominent than his colleagues – who were maybe less talented, but more committed to study.

The Babylonian Talmud[7] teaches that finally, Eleazar ben Arakh tried to resume his Torah study. But when he wanted to read again, instead of ‘This month for you’, he read: ‘Was their heart deaf?’

This misspelling seems to show that, not only did Eleazar ben Arakh forget how to read properly, but he regretted no longer learning Torah – he acknowledged that, even though innovative skills are important to discover new teachings, they cannot stand alone, but need to be nurtured in former traditions.

His colleagues prayed for him, and he recovered his knowledge. According to some rabbis, he became Rabbi Nehorai, who enlightened the eyes of the Sages in legal matters.

This story shows that when we approach new situations in our congregations, we need to use both a good knowledge of past traditions and our innovative skills so as to adapt to a specific context. If we focus only on teachings from the past, we will not be able to face new situations efficiently; but if we only seek new understandings without anchoring them in former teachings, our insights will not be solid enough for the long term. Thus, our challenge is to find a good balance between knowledge and innovation.

[1] From Mishna 8 to Mishna 14 (or: from Mishna 10 to Mishna 19 according to another division of the text.)

[2] Pirkei Avot 2: 11 (or 2: 8 according to another division of the text).

[3] Pirkei Avot 2: 12 (or 2: 8).

[4] Pirkei Avot 2: 13-14 (or 2: 9).

[5] Avot de Rabbi Nathan version A, 14: 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Shabbat 147b.