Rabbi Eliezer, the Great
By Larry Fine
Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkonus was one of the great teachers of the period of the Mishna. He was known in the Talmud simply as Rabbi Eliezer although there are references to him as Rabbi Eliezer the great. He was one of the teachers of Rabbi Akiva and lived during the last period of the Second Temple.
It is worth knowing about the humble beginning of Rabbi Eliezer which is documented in the book, "Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer". It is also documented with small changes in "Teaching of Rabbi Natan" and in the Midrash Rabbah. Yet all accounts agree on the basic beginning of this great luminary. The following is adapted from "Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer", chapters one and two.
Horkonus, the father of Eliezer, was a respected land owner. He had several fields that needed to be plowed. Some of the land was soft earth and some was hard. It is related that Horkonus came out and saw his son Eliezer crying. He assumed that it was because he had been given the task of plowing in the hard section of his father's land.
Horkonus told him to plow in the soft fields instead. When he returned he saw that Eliezer was again crying. "Are you crying because I gave you the easy land to plow?" he asked his son.
"No, that is not the reason" was the reply.
"Then why do you cry?"
"I desire to learn Torah."
"What? You are twenty-eight years old and you want to learn Torah? Take yourself instead a wife, have children and then you can take them to school to learn Torah."
For two weeks Eliezer fasted and prayed for help. At the end of the two weeks Elijah the Prophet (who lived many generations before) appeared to him and said, "ben Horkonus, why do you cry?"
"I desire to learn Torah" he replied.
"If you desire to learn Torah, go up to Jerusalem, to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai." (Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was the greatest scholar in his time.)
Immediately he stood up and went to Rabbi Yochanan. When Rabbi Yochanan saw him, he asked him, "Why do you cry?"
"I desire to learn Torah" he replied.
Rabbi Yochanan asked him, "Who is your father?" But Eliezer refused to tell him. "Can it be that you have never learned the Shema or how to pray or to recite the prayers after eating bread?"
"I have never learned," he replied.
"Stand and I shall teach you."
Eliezer sat down and cried. Again Rabbi Yochanan asked him why he is crying.
"Because I want to learn Torah" was the reply.
Rabbi Yochanan began teaching him two halachic teaching each day. Eliezer would review them until they became part of him. For eight days straight he did not eat until finally the odor from his mouth was so foul that Rabbi Yochanan noticed it. He had Eliezer come before him. Eliezer sensing something negative sat down and cried.
"Why are you crying now?"
"Because you have set me before you as if I were a person afflicted with boils."
"My son," Rabbi Yochanan blessed him, "Just as the odor from your mouth comes up to me, so too will your Torah go up from your mouth to the heavens.
"My son, tell me who is your father?"
"I am the son of Horkonus."
"You are the son of a distinguished person and you refused to tell me? Today you must dine with me!"
"I have already dined today with my host."
"And who might that be?"
"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah and Rabbi Yossi the Priest."
Rabbi Yochanan sent a messenger to them asking if indeed Eliezer ate with them on this day. The reply was negative; he hadn't eaten in eight days. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah and Rabbi Yossi the Priest came in person to Rabbi Yochanan to tell him this.
Meanwhile back at the farm, the sons of Horkonus convinced their father to go to Jerusalem and cut Eliezer off from any inheritance. Horkonus decided that if Eliezer was not going to work his share preferring to run away to study Torah, he should not have any part in his lands with his other sons.
When he arrived at Rabbi Yochanan house in Jerusalem, he found Rabbi Yochanan engaged in a celebration to commemorate the completion of a study course. All of the great Rabbis were in attendance together with Jerusalem's most prominent citizens. Among them were Ben Titzit Hakeset, Nakdimon ben Gurion and Kalbah Sabuah. Kalbah Sabuah later became the father-in-law of Rabbi Akiva. It was these three men who later figured prominently in supplying the besieged Jerusalem with provisions to sustain themselves against the Roman attackers during the period that led up to the Temple's destruction.
Rabbi Yochanan was informed that the father of the now Rabbi Eliezer had come to see him. He had a seat prepared for Horkonus next to him that he may join in the festivities with comfort and dignity. Next he fixed his eyes on Rabbi Eliezer. "Please tell us something from your Torah," he requested.
"Rebbi, I will explain to what this is like. I am similar to a water storage cistern that can not give out but what has been put in. I can not say any Torah of my own, only that which I have been taught by you."
Rabbi Yochanan objected. "Let me tell you to what this is like. It is like a spring whose waters continually come out and gives out much more that the mere volume of its depth. So too with you, you can tell us more than that which was made known to us by Moses at Mount Sinai. But perhaps you are embarrassed. I will stand next to you."
Rabbi Yochanan stood and then exited (so that Rabbi Eliezer would not be embarrassed). Rabbi Eliezer then sat and began to expound. As he spoke, his face began to radiate and beams of light were emitted from him similar that which had occurred to Moses when he descended from Mount Sinai. Those present were so enraptured that they were not aware if it were night or day.
Finally Rabbi Yochanan entered. He stood behind Rabbi Eliezer and kissed him on his head and began to speak in front of all the assembled. "Happy today are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob from whom you are descendent."
Horkonus asked him, "To whom are you referring?"
"I am speaking of your son, Eliezer."
"Then you should say, 'happy is Horkonus who has a son like this'".
Eliezer continued to expound on the Torah and his father stood up as a student. When Eliezer saw his father standing as was the custom of a student in those times, he became shaken up.
"Please father, sit. I can not continue with my Torah while you are standing."
Horkonus answered him, "My son, I came to disinherit you from my properties. Now that I see you and all that you have accomplished, I will disinherit your brothers and they can work for you."
"I am not equal to them," Rabbi Eliezer said. "Had I requested land from G-d, He would have given it to me, as it is said, 'to G-d is the land and all that resides upon it'. Had I requested from G-d silver and gold, He would have given it to me, as it says, 'to Me is the silver, to Me is the gold, says the Eternal G-d'. Rather I only requested from G-d to learn Torah."
Thus ends the first two chapters from the ancient text of "Chapter of Rabbi Eliezer". From this story, and from the similar story of Hillel and Rabbi Akiva we see that G-d help those who seek Him and His Torah with sincerity and dedication. The suffering that they were willing to endure took these people from their simple life and made them great. For certain, it was not their intention to attain "greatness" but rather just to learn Torah.
Magical things happen when you push yourself to learn Torah. Your life changes, it improves; life seems to be worth more and the material acquisitions lose their importance. It is dependent on you, and it does not require you to have started when you were young, both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva started late in life. Now is the time for you to begin.
from the September 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine