Wednesday, October 29, 2008

R. Eliezer's Deference

The Gemara in two places (Sukkah 27b-28a, Yoma 66b) has different stories about R. Eliezer (ben Hyrkanus) refusing to answer halakhic questions because he had not heard an answer to them from his teacher, presumably R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, and he never said something that he had not heard from his mentor. This is a very puzzling trait from someone who was an important and famous teacher.

I. Complete Deference

R. Aaron Hyman (Toledos Tanna'im Va-Amora'im, vol. 1 pp. 163-164) quotes two historians with whom he disagrees. The first was R. Zechariah Frankel, in his Darkhei Ha-Mishnah, who questioned how it is possible that the over 300 laws we have from R. Eliezer were all from his mentor. R. Yitzchak Weiss, in his Dor Dor Ve-Dorshav, suggests that R. Eliezer convinced himself that his conclusions were really those of his teachers. R. Hyman strongly disagrees, particularly with R. Weiss, and takes R. Eliezer's statement at face value -- that he only taught what he had learned from his mentor.

Click here to read moreII. Devoted Student

However, some traditional commentators had a more limited understanding of R. Eliezer's statement about himself. The Maharsha (Berakhos 27b) suggests that R. Eliezer was willing to say something original that he derived via logic. However, he would only quote a tradition from his mentor. I take this to mean that R. Eliezer would only say something original or quote his personal teacher, but he would not quote any other scholar. If he had not tradition from his mentor and no original insight then he would refrain from commenting. Presumably, he left it to students of other scholars to teach their opinions.

III. Advocate of Self-Pesak

R. Ya'akov Ettlinger (Arukh La-Ner, Sukkah 28a) suggests something that I find quite radical. In his view, R. Eliezer was saying that if we have an ancient tradition on something then we must follow it but otherwise everyone should render their own judgment and not listen to him. That is why he would only quote his mentor. If it wasn't a tradition, then the people asking him a question should draw their own conclusion. I find this a dangerous suggestion that can easily lead ignorant people to make incorrect halakhic judgments.

IV. Deference to the Living

The Sefas Emes (Yoma 66b) has a simple and elegant explanation. He says that R. Eliezer acted that way, only quoting his mentor and never offering his own opinion, only while his teacher was alive. Out of respect for his mentor, he always deferred to him or directed questioners to him. After his teacher passed away, then R. Eliezer had to rise to any challenges and offer his own rulings when necessary.

This could be challenged with Avos De-Rabbi Nassan (ch. 6), which tells a story of how R. Yochanan ben Zakkai pressured a reluctant R. Eliezer to speak in front of students and R. Eliezer said things "that no ear has ever heard". It seems that even in front of his mentor he would say original Torah insights. However, it could be that R. Eliezer was only concerned about issuing an original halakhic ruling, which is the subject of the stories in the Gemara, and would not hesitate to offer original explanations and insights.

V. Presumptuous Student

R. Chaim Shmuelevitz (Sichos Musar 5731, no. 23, quoted here) suggests that R. Eliezer would only issue new rulings if he was convinced that his mentor would have reached the same conclusion. I find that hard to reconcile with the wording of the Gemara that he did not saying something that he did not hear from his teacher.

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