Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh was a disciple of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who led the rabbinic community after the destruction of the Temple. Mishnah Avot 2:8 describes Elazar as “an everflowing spring.” (Sotah 49b uses a similar image to describe Rabbi Akiba.) Talmud scholar Alon Goshen-Gottstein explains that the metaphor ascribes to both “the talent of innovation and creative ability in Torah study.” But while Rabbi Akiba is widely known for his creativity in interpretations and is heavily quoted throughout rabbinic literature, Rabbi Elazar is barely mentioned at all.
How come? In Avot d’Rabbi Natan 14:6, right after a story that recounts Rabbi Elazar’s extraordinary wisdom, another is told about him that is troubling. It seems that after making a shiva call to his teacher Rabban Yochanan with his colleagues, Rabbi Elazar offers some very peculiar departing words:
Rabbi Elazar said: I shall go to Diyomset, a beautiful place with delightful waters.
The other disciples of Rabban Yochanan said: We shall go to Yavne, where there are scholars in abundance who love the Torah.
Because Elazar went to a beautiful place with delightful waters, his name was made less in Torah. Because they went to Yavneh, where there are scholars who love Torah in abundance, their names were magnified in Torah.
It is interesting to note that it is water that distracts the scholar who is an everflowing stream from a life of Torah. This story may come to explain why Elazar Ben Arakh is not a major contributor to the talmudic conversation — he chose to settle in a beautiful place rather than spend his life in the rabbinic academy. Is this a critique? Perhaps, although it might just be a way of explaining his absence.
This same story appears on today’s daf as well; but, with a different ending. In this case, Rabbi Elazar’s departure does not follow a shiva call but instead a discussion about the attractiveness of the city’s bathhouses.
Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh happened to come to Diyomset and he was drawn to the place. When he returned, he stood to read from a Torah scroll. He was supposed to read: “This month shall be for you (hachodesh hazeh lakhem)…” (Exodus 12:2), but he made a mistake and read instead, “Their hearts were mute (hacheresh haya libbam).” The sages prayed, asking God to have mercy on him, and his learning was restored.
Here, Rabbi Elazar, bewitched by the beauty of a secular city, loses his Torah. The verse that he was to have read was well-known to the rabbis because it was considered the first law giving to the Israelites the Torah. His sloppy interchanges of similar letters radically changes the meaning in a way that highlights his own newly acquired blindness to Torah. It’s akin to singing the wrong lyrics to the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
Yet, a life without Torah was not to be Rabbi Elazar’s end. The rabbis pray on his behalf and his learning returns. The moral of the story is then shared — a quotation from Mishnah Avot 4:14:
Rabbi Nehorai says: Exile yourself to a place of Torah and do not say that it will follow you. If you are in a place of Torah, your colleagues will establish it in your hands; do not rely on your understanding alone.
In other words, a scholar must remain among colleagues so that they are not seduced away from Torah. Torah is learned and preserved in community.
It is then suggested that the true speaker of this quotation was none other than Rabbi Elazar himself:
It was taught: Rabbi Nehorai was not his name, but rather Rabbi Nehemya was his name; and some say that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh was his name. And why was he called Rabbi Nehorai? It was because he would illuminate (manhir) the eyes of the sages in halacha.
Not only did Elazar ben Arakh get his Torah back but, according to some, it is he who shares the lessons learned from his time away. This version of the story wants us to know that his teachings are indeed preserved in rabbinic literature, simply under a different name that resonates with his gifts as a Torah scholar. As Goshen-Gottstein suggests, the claim that Rabbi Nehorai is a pseudonym for Rabbi Elazar restores him to his community of peers and reincorporates his Torah into the rabbinic tradition.
As is often the case with rabbinic texts, there is little we can learn here about the historical Elazar ben Arakh. But there is a lot to be learned from the two versions of his story, the one found in Avot d’Rabbi Natan and the one found on today’s daf. The former explains Rabbi Elazar’s absence, the latter wants to let us know that he has been with us the entire time.