I thought I would share a supplementary reading that I used at my Passover Seders.
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Maaseh b’Rabbi Eliezer ...
The traditional Haggadah “interrupts” the story of the telling of the Exodus with this tale.
There is a story about five Rabbis: Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar son of Azariah, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarfon, who where reclining [at a Passover Seder] in Bnei Brak. And ther were discussing the story of the Exodus from Egypt all that night, until there students came and said to them: "The time has come for the morning Shma prayer."
Why is this story here?
What are the Rabbi’s talking about ALL NIGHT LONG?
On the one hand the story is inserted in the Haggadah to teach us that we should spend all night – or at least a significant amount of time – retelling the story of the Exodus and discussing its significance.
On the other hand it is here to make the story of the Exodus relevant to the period in which the haggadah was composed, and by extension to every period. It is well known that these five Rabbis were leaders of during the period leading up to the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome. (A revolt, by the way, that resulted in one of the biggest disasters to befall the Jewish people.) Most modern commentary explicitly states that they are discussing the revolt against Rome, using the story of the redemption from Egypt as an inspiration and a template, and that their students reference to the Shema is a coded reference to ‘the Romans are coming’.
But is that so? And why these five particular Rabbis named in the story?
Rabbi Eliezer is the eldest of the group. He came from a very rich and very Hellenized family and went to study Torah over the objections of his father and siblings. He is often called Eliezer ben Hycanus. He was the head of the academy at Lydda (Lod.) He was conservative in his rulings or at least not enamoured of the new-fangled rulings of the Rabbinic majority after the destruction of the Temple. He was considered close to Beit Shammai, the opponent of Beit Hillel, the dominant and innovative branch of Rabbinic thought. Once in a bitter dispute about the ability to kasher a certain type of oven for Passover (he ruled that it was permissible and the majority ruled that its was not) he refused to yield to the majority opinion. He was temporarily excommunicated, and all Rabbis ordered that all the utensils that Rabbi Eliezer ever ruled kosher be smashed, all the food he ruled kosher be burned, and that all his students immediately stop studying with him. (Later they recanted somewhat, though he never regained his position on the Sanhedrein.) There are stories where he appears to have been sympathetic to the early Christians and in fact the Keraits, a Mongolian tribe of Nestorian Christians, recognise Eliezer ben Hurcanus as one of the Apostles along with Luke. He died before the revolt actually broke out, and his position on it is not recorded.
Rabbi Joshua, was also quite old by the time of this story. He was a prominent supporter of Beit Hillel and clashed often with Rabbi Eliezer. He was quite poor. His day job is alternately said to have been a tailor or a charcoal maker. He is known for having a kind and mild disposition. He opposed the inclusion of both the Book of Maccabees and the Book of Esther in the Bible. He also was fierce polemicists against the early Judeo Christians. He famously travelled to Rome (along with other Rabbis including a young Rabbi Akiva) to negotiate with the Emperor, and the Talmud has many tales of his disputations with Hadrian. He opposed revolt against Rome and the Midrash tells of how he once talked an angry Jewish mob against revolting by quoting the fable of the lion and the crane. He died shortly before the Bar Kochba revolt broke out, and the Talmud records the saying "Since Rabbi Joshua died, good counsel has ceased in Israel"
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is the youngest of the group. He was also very wealthy and traced his lineage back to Ezra the scribe. He is said to have been incredibly learned in Torah, and opposed the often fanciful and interpretive methods of his contemporary Rabbi Akivah. He held a middle position between the conservative and more innovative camps among the Mishna rabbis. He also travelled with Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akivah on their trip to Rome. Initially he supported the revolt against Rome, but when it was obvious that it was not going to succeeed he urged his followers to stop the fight.
Rabbi Akiva was a student of both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Joshua, but rejected their conservative approach to the Law and became a great innovator both in his interpretive methods and in his rulings. He had very poor and humble beginnings (some say was descended from Sisra a Biblical enemy of the Jews whose descendants later converted) but he rose to become the head of the Academy at Bnei Brak (where the meeting in our story takes place.) He was the teacher of virtually the entire next generation of leading Mishna rabbis, and hence his great influence and reputation. He was the most prominent supporter of the Bar Kochba revolt, having dubbed bar Kochba “The King, The Messiah”. He developed a theory glorifying and extolling the virtue of martyrdom. He urged his students to fight to the death. And most of them did. It is written that 30,000 [sic] of his students were killed by the Romans in the period between Passover and Shavuot. He himself was martyred for demonstratively teaching Torah in the public square after its teaching anywhere at all had been banned by the Romans. His last words, as he was being tortured to death were of thanks: thanks that he had been allowed to fulfil the commandment to “Love Your God With All Your Soul.”
Rabbi Tarfon was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva. He came from a priestly family, and is said to have served in the Temple as a boy. He was militantly anti the Judeo-Christians going so far as to allow the burning of their scriptures. He famously disputed with Akivah over which is more important, deeds or learning. Akiva sided with learning, Tarfon with deeds. Though he lived through the period of the revolt, and survived it, it is unclear if he actively supported it. His most famous sayings are: "The day is short, the labour vast, the toilers are idle, and the Master’s call is urgent" - perhaps a pro revolt point of view - and "You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to evade it" - perhaps an anti-revolt point of view.
Five very different Rabbis!
So we see, that while it is possible that the Rabbis in the story where indeed plotting the revolt, it is also possible they were still debating its merits. In any case the story brings together a very diverse collection of opinions, perhaps deliberately so, and has them discussing oppression, redemption, freedom, servitude, good and evil, in a period where these where central political concerns, but where the proper course of action was not at all clear. What is clear is that after the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt, Judaism accepted that Jewish sovereignty was not coming back anytime soon, and set about to build a religion and way of life that did not require it.