“Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai had five dsciples and they were: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkinos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya, Rabbi Yose HaKohen, Rabbi Shimon ben Nesanel and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach. He used to enumerate their merits: Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkinos is a cemented cistern that does not lose a drop… Rabbi Elazar ben Arach iis like a spring which steadily increases its flow.
“He used to say: If all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Eliezer ben Horkinos was on the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his name: If all the Sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Elazar ben Arach was on the other, he would outweigh them all.” (Avos 2:8)
The dispute in this mishnah is difficult to ignore. If encyclopedic knowledge is the most important quality for a Jewish sage to have, then how can Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai change his mind and praise innovative thinking (according to Rambam)?
Two different approaches are used to reconcile the disagreement. According to Rabbeinu Yonah and the Bertinoro Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was noting two different things. When it came to encyclopedic knowledge, Rabbi Eliezer outweighed everyone. When it came to innovative creatitivity, Rabbi Elazar won out.
An alternative approach is suggested by the Tiferes Yisrael. According to the version of the tradition of the tanna kamma, Rabbi Yochanan believed Rabbi Eliezer’s strength to be the superior while Abba Shaul, who was also a tanna, had learned that he had favoured Rabbi Elazar.
But I believe there is a third approach to this dilemma that also resolves the conflict.
One must remember that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai lived at a tumultuous time in Jewish history. In the first part of his career, our Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) stood in all its glory in the midst of the bustling metropolis of Yerushalayim. As recounted in Gittin, in the second half of his career he was in Yavneh busily rebuilding Torah Judaism from the ashes of the destruction of the Temple and Yerushalayim. A contrast greater than that is difficult to imagine.
What happened to Judaism after the fall of Yerushalayim? Until that point, our worship had been mostly Temple-centered. Yes there were prayers and rituals that were performed in local areas but the bottom line was that Jewish worship centered around the sacrificial cult. If you had committed a sin, saying sorry wasn’t good enough in many cases. You had to bring a sacrifice. Three times a year you were expected to go up to the Temple to celebrate the holidays (those of us who go away on Pesach to nice hotels are attempting to keep that custom alive). If you had an opportunity to thank God, it wasn’t enough to make Kiddush in the local shul. You could go up to the Temple with a thanksgiving offering. And so on.
After the fall of the Temple, Judaism had to fundamentally change. Now the religion had to be made more portable. The danger was that without a dynamic centre, those on the periphery would drift away unless they were provided with a way to be Jewish that did not involve the constant presence of the Temple. It was this transition that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai managed. The Judaism he ended his life with was much different than the one he started it with but had he not done what he did, who knows where we would be today?
And perhaps this is the clue to understanding the mishnah. The tanna kamma is reported what Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai felt before the destruction of the Temple while Abba Shaul, a later tanna who lived after the destruction, is reporting Rabb Yochanan’s later attitude change.
To wit: before the destruction of the Temple, faithful transmission of the mesorah was key to running the religious life of the nation. We were in our land, we had a Temple, almost every single mitzvah was available for performance. It was therefore a great skill to be able to retain and recall all the rules for all the situations. In this kind of environment, Rabbi Eliezer excelled.
But with the destruction of the Temple, perfect knowledge suddenly wasn’t the priority. Let’s face it, without a Temple one third of the Talmud is theoretical. Without national sovereignty and a functioning court system, another third becomes limited in application. But what’s left now becomes very important as those observances that were still available to us needed to be adjusted to the new paradigm of Jewish life.
An imagination is a terrible thing for someone with encyclopedic knowledge. After all, if one is tasked with remember things with perfect precision, musing on the information, imagining the possibilities such information contains, can lead to unwanted distortion. Is what the person remembers what he was actually supposed to remember or rather his interpretation of the matter?
But when it comes to adjusting to new situations, innovation is crucial. Until the destruction of the Temple certain scenarios needed never to be considered. Now with the Jewish people scattered to the four winds of the Earth, new situations would arise all the time. Answers to questions that address novel concepts but that stayed firmly within the bounds of halacha needed to be written. And it was here that Rabbi Elazar shone.
Looking around at the Torah world of the last 150 years of so, it is quite clear that most major, influential gedolim come in one of the two flavours: the Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar ones. Some have worked to retain the achievements of their forebears without trying to add to them. For them, the faithful transmission of the mesorah was challenge enough. Others living in these changing times knew that innovation was important to help our people struggle through and make the most of the opportunities God provided us with.
The difference between the two is subtle – even the names of the two rabbonim are similar in sound and meaning. But both their contributions are vital for the survival of Torah observance and the spiritual vitality of klal Yisrael.
Sometimes we need a Rabbi Eliezer, sometimes Rabbi Elazar, but let no one say that only one or the other truly can be a gadol b’Yisrael.