Eleazar ben Azariah

Eleazar ben Azariah (Hebrew: אלעזר בן עזריה‎) was a 1st-century CE Jewish tanna, i.e. Mishnaic sage. He was of the second generation and a junior contemporary of Gamaliel II, Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, Joshua b. Hananiah, and Akiva.[1]

He was a kohen and traced his pedigree for ten generations back to Ezra,[2] and was very wealthy.[3] These circumstances, added to his erudition, gained for him great popularity. When Gamaliel II was temporarily deposed from the patriarchate due to his provoking demeanor, Eleazar, though still very young, was elevated to that office by the deliberate choice of his colleagues. He did not, however, occupy it for any length of time, for the Sanhedrin reinstated Gamaliel. Nevertheless he was retained as vice-president ("ab bet din"), and it was arranged that Gamaliel should lecture three (some say two) Sabbaths, and Eleazar every fourth (or third) Sabbath.[4]

He once journeyed to Rome along with Gamaliel II, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva.[5] Neither the object of the journey nor the result of the mission is stated, but that affairs important as pressing were involved is apparent from the season at which the journey was undertaken: they celebrated Sukkot aboard the ship.[6] With the same companions Eleazar once visited the ruins of the Temple at Jerusalem.[7] On a visit to the aged Dosa b. Harkinas the latter joyfully exclaimed, "In him I see the fulfillment of the Scriptural saying:[8] 'I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread'",[9] The latter was amassed by dealing in wine, oil,[10] and cattle.[11] Subsequent generations entertained the belief that dreaming of Eleazar b. Azariah presaged the acquisition of wealth.

While he lived he enjoyed the glowing praise of his famous colleagues, who said, "That generation in which Eleazar b. Azariah flourishes can not be termed orphan".[12] When he died, the learned said, "With the death of R. Eleazar b. Azariah was removed the crown of the sages".[13]

With Eleazar's accession to the patriarchate, the gates of the academy were opened to all who sought admittance. It is said that three hundred benches had to be added for the accommodation of the eager throngs which pressed into the halls of learning. Under his presidency, too, a review of undecided points of law was undertaken.

Rabbinic homiletics owes to Eleazar the introduction of the rule called semuchin (סמוכין = "contiguous"), by which one Scriptural passage is explained or supplemented by another immediately preceding or succeeding it. Thus, Eleazar declares that the slanderer and the listener and the false witness deserve to be thrown to the dogs. He derives this idea from the juxtaposition of the expression,[14] "Ye shall cast it to the dogs," and[15] the prohibition against raising false reports, bearing false witness, and associating with the false witness.[16]

In his homilies he generally aims to bring out some ethical or practical lesson.

Eleazar was independent in his Biblical interpretations. He often rejected Akiva's opinions, remarking, "Even if thou persist the whole day in extending and limiting (see Hermeneutics), I shall not harken to thee",[22][23] or, "Turn from the Aggadah and betake thee to the laws affecting leprosy and the defilement of tents" (ואהלות נגעים;).[24][25] Above all, he strove to be methodical. When one applied to him for information on a Biblical topic, he furnished that; was he called upon to explain a mishnah, a halakah, or an aggadah, he explained each point. Eleazar was opposed to frequent sentences of capital punishment. In his opinion a court that averages more than one execution in the course of seventy years is a murderous court.[26]

The following few sentences summarize Eleazar's practical philosophy:[27]

According to a form-critical analysis performed by modern scholar Tzvee Zahavy, while Eleazar's rulings as recorded in the Mishnah and Tosefta fit the context of the chapters in which they appear, nevertheless Eleazar is not represented as a central authority in the formulation of the larger conceptions which underlie the law, nor do his traditions set the agenda of the law. Zahavy concludes that, "What we know of Eleazar thus is limited to the data that a few editors chose to preserve for the direct needs of their compilations. We have only brief glimpses of the whole tradition and the man. The thought and life of Eleazar remains... for the most part unknowable."[30]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). . The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.