Painting by Zvi Ribak
Of more than one thousand Rabbis cited in the Talmud, only one became a heretic. His name? Elisha ben Abuya.
Elisha was, by all accounts, one of the outstanding Jewish sages of the Second Century, a contemporary of the great Rabbi Akiva and the teacher of Rabbi Meir, who became one of the leading scholars of his generation.
There are differing opinions as to the cause of Elisha ben Abuya’s apostasy (1). Some say he was attracted by Greek culture, others that he was tormented by the problem of theodicy, how to reconcile G-d’s essential goodness with a world in which the righteous suffer.
Elisha moved so far from Jewish tradition that his colleagues stopped referring to him by his name, but called him Acher, “the other”, the outcast, the renegade. Only his student Rabbi Meir remained loyal to the man who had once been his master, sought out his company and still believed that he might one day repent.
Against this backdrop we find one of the most moving scenes in rabbinic literature.
It is Shabbat, and Elisha ben Abuya is publicly desecrating the holy day by riding a horse (2). Walking alongside him is Rabbi Meir. Heretic teacher and faithful disciple travel together along the road arguing and debating Jewish law.
Suddenly the Talmudic narrative shifts to a new dimension of irony. Rabbi Meir, the pious Jew, has become so immersed in the conversation that he has not noticed they are nearing the city limits, beyond which one is forbidden to walk on Shabbat. “Acher”, the apostate, realizes this and says:
“Meir, turn back. I have measured the distance we have walked by the paces of my horse, and we have reached the Shabbat limit. Beyond here, you are forbidden to walk.”
Meir replied: “You too turn back.”
The invisible boundary is not just the border of the city. It is symbolic of the line between two worlds: faith and heresy, Judaism and disaffiliation. Elisha ben Abuya, momentarily more sensitive than his disciple to Shabbat’s sanctity, tells Meir that he must turn back. Meir, instantly seizes on the fact that his teacher has just revealed that Judaism has not yet deserted him, begs Elisha to turn back, and return to his heritage.
Elisha replies with a staggering acknowledgment of his personal tragedy:
“I cannot turn back,” says Elisha. “One day I was riding on my horse. It was Yom Kippur, which in that particular year fell on Shabbat. I was roaming behind the Holy of Holies, when I heard a heavenly voice saying (3): “Turn back to me, O lost children, except for Acher... (4)’”
Thus, Elisha concluded, G-d forgives all who repent, with one exception: Elisha ben Abuya. I, says Elisha, who was a Jewish leader, betrayed the Jewish community. I, who knew so much and yet sinned so much, caused great damage. For me, there is no way back.
This was his tragic fate. According to most accounts, he never repented (4).
What is the message of this story? Are we to understand that Elisha in fact heard and understood the heavenly voice correctly? Did the voice from heaven contradict one of the key concepts of Judaism and Jewish law, which states that the power of repentance is never taken away from us? (5).
Furthermore, if G-d did not want Elisha to repent, why did He communicate with him at all? And why did the heavenly voice begin with words of love and encouragement “Turn back to me, O lost children,” and end with the fearful decree “except for Acher”?
The key to the Talmudic narrative lies in understanding to whom the heavenly words were directed (6). How did G-d call the wayward sage? By Elisha ben Abuya, his real name, or by Acher, his pseudonym?
The answer is this: “Turn back to me, O lost children” was certainly directed to Elisha ben Abuya. The Divine Presence was pleading with him to return. The sharp "except for" was to Acher. G-d meant to challenge Elisha to cast off “Acher,” the Other One, the foreign personality, the false identity. What G-d was saying to him is that “You are not Acher.” The source of your conflict stems from the fact that you have identified your essence as “Acher.” Sure, the human is filled with contradictions; sometimes our faith goes through a crisis. That is the story of life in a difficult world. The tragedy is when we begin to identify the wrong we have done with our essence; when we replace our souls with the identity of “Acher.”
“Turn back to me, O lost children, except for Acher.” Meaning: Come to me O lost child, leave Acher behind! You are not Acher. You are my beloved child; stop thinking of yourself as “Acher” (7).
Sadly, Elisha made a mistake. He thought that he and Acher were one and the same, and consequently could never make peace with himself (8).
That same heavenly voice that spoke to Elisha ben Abuya on Yom Kippur calls to each Jew on Yom Kippur, saying: You are not held captive by the past; you can begin again. Return my child. G-d never gives up, never despairs. G-d has faith in us. It is that faith that makes Yom Kippur possible. There could be no concept of repentance, teshuvah, unless we believed that whatever wrong we have done, when we turn to G-d with a broken heart, G-d gives us another chance. Others may lose faith in us. We may lose faith in ourselves, as Acher did. But G-d never loses faith. However many times we stumble, G-d lifts us and lets us begin again.
Let us take this a step further. The Talmud is a work of remarkable depth and subtlety, so much so that we can easily miss some of its most profound intimations. There is a fine example of that in this narrative. It concerns the roots of Elisha’s rebellious actions. Ultimately, however, it is a glimpse into the very fabric of the Jewish soul, then and now.
Why did Acher specifically choose to ride his horse on the holiest place, the Holy of Holies, on the holiest day, Yom Kippur? Why not just go to the equivalent of a café in Tel Aviv?
Illumination is found from the following story.
There is a famed Talmudist and philosopher, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, who taught a Talmud class for professors at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One particular professor, for years, refused to come. One day the rabbi meets the professor and says to him,
“Why don’t you join the class? Your colleagues come; it’s in your building right down the hall.”
The professor responds, “Oh no, I don’t belong in the class. We have nothing in common.”
The rabbi says, “What do you mean we have nothing in common?”
“You don’t understand”, says the professor, “I eat pork on Shabbat.”
The rabbi says, “Only on Shabbat, not during the weekday?”
The professor says, “Specifically, spitefully on Shabbat!”
“Ah, in that case” says the rabbi, “You should come to the class. We do have something in common.”
The professor asks, “What do you mean?”
The rabbi says, “I celebrate Shabbat and you celebrate Shabbat. I do it in a traditional way. Your way is not so traditional.”
After the conversation the Professor began attending the Talmud class. He had re-discovered something about his Jewish identity.
This professor had survived the Holocaust as a young boy and saw Jewish life in Europe destroyed. When he arrived in Israel, he threw his Judaism away. He was angry with G-d and wanted to get back at Him. So he ate pork on Shabbat. Why specifically on Shabbat? He wanted to punish G-d in the most hurtful way. He figured that eating pork on Tuesday is one thing, but doing it on Shabbat was really bad -because Shabbat is a holy day.
Upon reflection, the professor realized that his rebellious act showed that he too believed in Torah and Judaism and that Shabbat was still a holy day for him. That is why he ate pork on Shabbat. Not because Shabbat is an ordinary day but because it’s the holy day.
This is expressed in the Talmudic narrative: Why did Acher specifically choose to ride his horse behind the Holy of Holies on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur? His actions disclosed that he still believed in G-d, so the heavenly voice was a call to his heart. Recognize your true self, Elisha, “Turn back to me, O lost child.”
We may reject G-d but G-d never rejects us. We may be his rebellious children, but he is our ever-accessible parent. Thus, in the Talmud, G-d’s call to Elisha ben Abuya becomes a majestic truth about the human condition. G-d never gives up on us, because He never ceases to believe that whatever bad we may have done, we can fix it and rise above it in the future. However lost, Hashem does not cease to believe that one day we will find our way back to Him. In that awareness, we find a strength greater than ourselves lifting us up when we stumble, inspiring us in the midst of depression, believing in our soul’s potential more than we believe ourselves.
The Israeli General and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was a secular Jew, and profoundly so. On June 8th 1967, during the Six Day War, the Western Wall was liberated. As Dayan approached the Kotel, tears came to his eyes. An Israeli newsman asked him, “General Dayan, Why are you crying? Are you a born again Jew? This wall means nothing to you.” Dayan responded, “Yesterday I was the most secular Jew in Israel. Tomorrow I will be the most secular Jew in Israel. But today I am as holy as the holiest Jew in Israel.”
On this Day of Days we too are holy. On this day, our soul is calling out to us, to nourish it, to empower it, to begin anew.
So let us make some changes, start with something, anything… pick a mitzvah, any one and determine now starting right here, this is where it will begin. Say to yourself, “This is where I am prepared to make a change in my life, a change for the better, a change for more spirituality, a change for more Yiddishkeit.”
Because on this Day of Days, if we truly listen, we will hear the heavenly voice, gently calling us to turn back, to come home.
1) See Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 39b, Chagigah 14b, 15b; Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:1; Kohelet Rabbah 7:8; Ruth Rabbah 6:4.
2) It is forbidden to ride a beast of burden on the Shabbat.
3) Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:1.
4) Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 15a.
5) Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva 1:3, 5:2. Also, the Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 49b rules “If a completely wicked man says, ‘Behold you are betrothed to me on condition that I am righteous,’ she is betrothed: he may have contemplated teshuvah” (beautifully commented upon in a letter by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, October 6, 1978 Likkutei Sichot, vol. 19, pp. 593-596 and is brilliantly treated in Likkutei Sichot, vol. 18, pp. 117-125). Also, see one of the essential prayers of the Days of Awe, Unetaneh Tokef. “Until the day of death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately.”
6) This idea is from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. For further analysis, see Chamesh Derashot, where Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the intent of the heavenly voice. It also can be found in the different readings of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud. The former records the exact words of the heavenly voice; the latter the words Elisha thought he heard.
7) This idea that although a person may externally engage in bad deeds, the true inner person does not, is succinctly expressed in a popular Yiddish saying. After person realizes they have done wrong, they ask: “Vu bin ich geven yemelt? – where was I then?” in other words, one is asking, where was my true “I” as if to say,” Someone else, “Acher” was engaged in this wrong deed.
8) According to the Babylonian Talmud Chagigah 15b he died a heretic. “When Acher died, they said: “We cannot judge him, nor can we bring him into Paradise.” But according to the Jerusalem Talmud Chagigah 2:1, it seems he did repent. “When Elisha fell ill, Rabbi Meir came to his bedside, where the following dialogue occurred: “Come back to us, repent, said Rabbi Meir. “Is it still possible?” asked Elisha, “After all I have done?” “As long as the soul vibrates,” answered Rabbi Meir. “Elisha wept and died,” Rabbi Meir declared: “My Master left this world repenting.”
Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of Chabad House at Stanford University and lectures regularly throughout the United States. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org