Elisha ben-Avuyah

(2nd century)
   Tanna and apostate. Elisha, a leading sage, was influenced by reading heretical works. He turned apostate, and was accused of helping the Romans to suppress Jewish laws and customs. There are many stories told to explain Elisha’s conversion. For instance, one day while he was sitting studying, he noticed someone climbing a tree to reach a bird’s nest. After heeding the biblical command about letting the mother bird fly away before taking her eggs, the climber was nevertheless bitten by a snake and died. Elisha refused to accept his fellow sages’ explanation that this was a reference to the world to come, and so became an apostate. His defection caused deep distress to his fellow rabbis, most of all to his pupil Rabbi MEIR, later renowned as a great Mishnah authority. Meir continued to revere Elisha, and never missed a chance to try to get him to repent. On Elisha’s deathbed, Meir made a last attempt and told him that repentance was possible even with a person’s last breath. Elisha wept as he died, and Meir took this as a sign that he had repented. It is related that when Elisha was buried, fire came down and burned on his grave. Meir threw his cloak over the fire and cried out that if God would not accept Elisha, he would redeem him himself. Meir transmitted Elisha’s teachings under the name of Acher (‘The Other One’). Elisha’s tragic life became the theme for writers and poets of the Haskalah period, and M.J.BERDYCZEWSKI’S Hebrew adaption of the first part of Goethe’s Faust is called Ben-Avuya.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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