Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi

June 14, 2006

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, a colleague and friend of Rabbi Akiva, was one of the great Tannaim, who was entrusted at a very early age with a position of tremendous responsibility. When Rabban Gamliel the Second and Rabbi Yehoshua were feuding, the Rabbis temporarily demoted Rabban Gamliel and appointed Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah as “Nasi” (President of the “Sanhedrin” and of the People of Israel) in his stead.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah appears in the Pesach Haggadah in two memorable paragraphs. One recounts his participation with four of his great colleagues (Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon), during the Roman Wars, in a Pesach Seder in Bnei Berak. The Rabbis were discussing the miracles of the Exodus all night, until their students arrived to inform them that the time for “Kriat Shema” had arrived.

In the next paragraph, the Haggadah cites a comment by Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. First he alludes to a miracle that the Talmud recounts concerning his appointment as “Nasi.” He had said to his wife, “How can I take this job; my youth will make me look foolish.” But when he woke up the next day, he had grown the white hairs that gave him the distinguished look of age. Thus, he says, “Behold, I am like seventy years of age, and I had not yet found a Biblical source for the recitation of the ‘Kriat Shema,’ the Jew’s profession of faith in G-d, at night, in the dark times of Jewish History, when all seemed lost. Until Rabbi Shimon ben Zoma derived it from the following verse: ‘In order that you remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life’ – The expression ‘the days’ refers to the daytime; the expression ‘all the days’ refers to the nighttime. The Sages, however, say, ‘The days” refers to ‘This World;’ ‘all the days’ refers to the time of the “Mashiach;” meaning that great as the miracles will be at the time of the “Mashiach,” the history-altering miracles of the Exodus, also recounted in “Kriat Shema,” will not be forgotten.

In Pirkei Avot (3:8), the following theme of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, in defining the Torah personality, is recorded: “Where there is no Torah, there can be no proper behavior…” and conversely, “…where proper behavior does not exist, there can be no Torah.” In Masechet Sotah 49b, he was eulogized by his fellow Torah scholars, “With the death of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, the Crown of the Sages has been removed.”