Eleazar ben Azariah (Hebrew: אלעזר בן עזריה) was a 1st-century CE Jewish tanna, i.e. Mishnaic sage. He was of the second generation and a junior contemporary of Gamaliel II, Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, Joshua b. Hananiah, and Akiva.[1]


He was a kohen and traced his pedigree for ten generations back to Ezra,[2] and was very wealthy.[3] These circumstances, added to his erudition, gained for him great popularity. When Gamaliel II was temporarily deposed from the patriarchate due to his provoking demeanor, Eleazar, though still very young, was elevated to that office by the deliberate choice of his colleagues. He did not, however, occupy it for any length of time, for the Sanhedrin reinstated Gamaliel. Nevertheless he was retained as vice-president ("ab bet din"), and it was arranged that Gamaliel should lecture three (some say two) Sabbaths, and Eleazar every fourth (or third) Sabbath.[4]

He once journeyed to Rome along with Gamaliel II, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva.[5] Neither the object of the journey nor the result of the mission is stated, but that affairs important as pressing were involved is apparent from the season at which the journey was undertaken: they celebrated Sukkot aboard the ship.[6] With the same companions Eleazar once visited the ruins of the Temple at Jerusalem.[7] On a visit to the aged Dosa b. Harkinas the latter joyfully exclaimed, "In him I see the fulfillment of the Scriptural saying:[8] 'I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor his seed begging bread'",[9] The latter was amassed by dealing in wine, oil,[10] and cattle.[11] Subsequent generations entertained the belief that dreaming of Eleazar b. Azariah presaged the acquisition of wealth.

While he lived he enjoyed the glowing praise of his famous colleagues, who said, "That generation in which Eleazar b. Azariah flourishes can not be termed orphan".[12] When he died, the learned said, "With the death of R. Eleazar b. Azariah was removed the crown of the sages".[13]


Grave of Eleazar ben Azariah, Galilee, Israel.

With Eleazar's accession to the patriarchate, the gates of the academy were opened to all who sought admittance. It is said that three hundred benches had to be added for the accommodation of the eager throngs which pressed into the halls of learning. Under his presidency, too, a review of undecided points of law was undertaken.

Rabbinic homiletics owes to Eleazar the introduction of the rule called semuchin (סמוכין = "contiguous"), by which one Scriptural passage is explained or supplemented by another immediately preceding or succeeding it. Thus, Eleazar declares that the slanderer and the listener and the false witness deserve to be thrown to the dogs. He derives this idea from the juxtaposition of the expression,[14] "Ye shall cast it to the dogs," and[15] the prohibition against raising false reports, bearing false witness, and associating with the false witness.[16]

In his homilies he generally aims to bring out some ethical or practical lesson.

Biblical interpretations

Eleazar was independent in his Biblical interpretations. He often rejected Akiva's opinions, remarking, "Even if thou persist the whole day in extending and limiting (see Hermeneutics), I shall not harken to thee",[22][23] or, "Turn from the Aggadah and betake thee to the laws affecting leprosy and the defilement of tents" (ואהלות נגעים;).[24][25] Above all, he strove to be methodical. When one applied to him for information on a Biblical topic, he furnished that; was he called upon to explain a mishnah, a halakah, or an aggadah, he explained each point. Eleazar was opposed to frequent sentences of capital punishment. In his opinion a court that averages more than one execution in the course of seventy years is a murderous court.[26]


The following few sentences summarize Eleazar's practical philosophy:[27]

Modern critical study

According to a form-critical analysis performed by modern scholar Tzvee Zahavy, while Eleazar's rulings as recorded in the Mishnah and Tosefta fit the context of the chapters in which they appear, nevertheless Eleazar is not represented as a central authority in the formulation of the larger conceptions which underlie the law, nor do his traditions set the agenda of the law. Zahavy concludes that, "What we know of Eleazar thus is limited to the data that a few editors chose to preserve for the direct needs of their compilations. We have only brief glimpses of the whole tradition and the man. The thought and life of Eleazar remains... for the most part unknowable."[30]

However, see Eleazar ben Azariah's far-reaching comments preserved for later generations at B.T., Hagigah 3b, which explicitly present an underlying rationale and agenda for the entirety of the Oral Torah discussions of the Talmudic and later Sages. He says there that those that argue that something is impure and those that say it is pure, those who prohibit something and those who permit it, those who disqualify and those who declare (the same thing) fit, all are right in their way, "as is written, 'And God spoke all these words.'" That is, if one has a "discerning heart" one can grasp how both yea and nay can faithfully transmit HaShem's will and be true. The key thing is therefore for the Sage to sincerely work through his own understanding of a given question, thinking it out as fully as possible, and then to present it to the other Sages for them to evaluate, change, add to, or reject: it is not for the sake of being right or to dominate, but for the sake of Heaven just to clarify the issues, and then to trust to the other Sages to deliver a final assestment on behalf of Torah from Sinai. In this way the consensus of the Sages expresses God's will (also see the overlapping text in 3a to 3b).

See also


  1. ^ Sifre to Deuteronomy 32; Sanhedrin 101a; Berakhot 27b
  2. ^ Berakhot 27b; Jerusalem Talmud Yebamot 1:3b
  3. ^ Shabbat 54b; Beitzah 23a, cf. Kiddushin 49b
  4. ^ Berakhot 27b+; Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 4:7c+; Jerusalem Talmud Ta'anit 4:67d
  5. ^ Kallah Rabbati 7; Derekh Eretz Rabbah 5
  6. ^ Sifra, Emor 16:2; Sukkah 41b
  7. ^ Sifre to Deuteronomy 43
  8. ^ Psalms 37:25
  9. ^ Yebamot 16a; Jerusalem Talmud Yebamot 1:3a+
  10. ^ Tosefta Abodah Zarah 5:1; Baba Batra 91a
  11. ^ Shabbat 54b; Beitzah 23a
  12. ^ Hagigah 3b; Mekhilta, Bo:16
  13. ^ Tosefta Sotah 15:3; Sotah 49b; Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 9:24c
  14. ^ Exodus 22:31
  15. ^ Exodus 23:1
  16. ^ Pesahim 118a; Makkot 23a
  17. ^ Leviticus 16:30
  18. ^ Yoma 8:9; Sifra Akharei Mot 8:2
  19. ^ Deuteronomy 23:7
  20. ^ Sifre to Deuteronomy 252; cf. Berakhot 63b
  21. ^ Sifra, Vayikra (Khoba) 12:13; Sifre to Deuteronomy 18:3
  22. ^ Sifra, Tzaw:11:6
  23. ^ Menahot 89a
  24. ^ Hagigah 14a
  25. ^ Sanhedrin 38b
  26. ^ Makkot 1:10
  27. ^ Pirkei Abot 3:17; Abot de-Rabbi Natan 22:1
  28. ^ Jeremiah 17:6
  29. ^ Jeremiah 17:8
  30. ^ Tzvee Zahavy, The Traditions of Eleazar Ben Azariah, Scholars Press for Brown University Judaic Studies, 1977

Jewish Encyclopedia bibliography

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "Eleazar b. Azariah". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.