Ethics – Now & Then 26 – Avot 2:11-12

Avot 2:11-12  He used to enumerate their praises: Rabbi Eliezer ben
                       Hyrkanos is like a cemented cistern that loses not a drop;
                       Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, praiseworthy is she who
                       bore him; Rabbi Yosei the Kohen is a pious person; Rabbi
                       Shimon ben Netanel fears sin; and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach
                       is like a spring, flowing stronger and stronger.

                       He used to say: If all the sages of Israel were on one pan of
                       a balance-scale, and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos were on the
                       other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Shaul said in his
                       name: If all the sages of Israel, with even Rabbi Eliezer ben
                       Hyrkanos among them, were on one pan of the balance-
                       scale and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach were on the other, he
                       would outweigh them all.

He [Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai] used to enumerate their praises:

Yochanan ben Zakkai was known to appreciate and to encourage all his students and he praised his outstanding students according to the unique gifts he was able to discern in each of them. Interestingly, as we see in verse 12, he singled out one in particular, Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, whom he said would outshine all of the sages of Israel combined. And yet, Abba Shaul is recorded in the same verse as quoting Rabban ben Zakkai as saying that if Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos was placed together with the Sages on the one side of the scale, Rabbi Elazar ben Arach on his own would prove to be greater than them all.

The scholars and sages were highly esteemed for their merits and the brilliance of their knowledge and wisdom, as they are to this day, but this verse seems to be exaggerating the competition as to who would be the “top scholar of the day”; particularly if we remember Yochanan ben Zakkai’s counsel in verse 9 that one who has learned much Torah should not “pride yourself in it.” Perhaps more is under consideration than their personal expertise? We can bear that in mind as we examine verse 11.

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Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos is like a cemented cistern that loses not a drop…

Clearly, the predominant gift of Rabbi Eliezer was his great store of knowledge due to his outstanding memory. He retained all he learned to the last detail. He is compared to a plastered, cement water cistern that “loses not a drop.” As opposed, for example, to a water tank above ground wherein water eventually loses its freshness, an important feature of a cistern (Heb. – bor) is that an underground pit preserves the natural sweetness of the water. This indicates that not only did Rabbi Eliezer have a large store of Torah learning but he preserved its original freshness and depth of meaning. Fresh water stored in a bor still is considered ‘living water’ – mai’im chai’im.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, praiseworthy is she who bore him…

According to Maimonides, the great Medieval commentator, Rabbi Yehoshua’s sterling ethical qualities endeared him to all. [1] He was known as a man of moral and spiritual excellence and as a scholar of clear logic and wisdom in both spiritual and worldly matters.

Yochanan ben Zakkai makes specific reference, however, to the blessing of his mother. The Talmud records that during her pregnancy she would visit the Beit Midrash (Torah study hall) and ask the sages and scholars to pray that her unborn child would grow to be a wise scholar, learned in the Word and ways of God. Once her son was born, she would carry him in a cradle to the Beit Midrash so that, from his earliest days, he would hear the sweet chant of Torah study. [2]

Medical science today has proven that an unborn baby responds to sounds and can, for example, identify its father’s voice while still in the womb. When the voices that an unborn child hears carry tender words of prayer and the Word of God they convey blessing indeed.

Rabbi Yosei the Kohen is a pious person…

The Hebrew word translated ‘pious person’ is chasid, which shares the root letters of chesed – lovingkindness, one of the chief attributes of God. Any genuinely pious sage or kohen (priest) would be regarded as a chasid. The designation here must, therefore, indicate that Rabbi Yosei attained a particularly high standard of learning together with great piety and loving-kindness toward both God and his fellow man.

Rabbi Shimon ben Netanel fears sin…

To be described as “sin-fearing” denotes that Rabbi Shimon pursued goodness with great diligence and avoided even an appearance of evil. One can assume that he was an expert in halacha – the exposition of biblical principles and laws of godly living – and a proponent of making “a fence around the Torah” (Avot 1:1), that is, of setting safeguards in place to help one avoid the transgression of an explicit commandment of God, the doing of which would desecrate His Holy Name.

…and Rabbi Elazar ben Arach is like a spring, flowing stronger and stronger.

As opposed to a river, which is formed as a collection of waters from outside sources, a spring bubbles up from its own hidden source. In this regard, Rabbi Elazar might “outweigh” Rabbi Eliezer. The latter sage was more akin to a river, a valuable collection of the water of God’s Word and a means of conveying it to benefit others. Rabbi Elazar, however, had an additional intuitive and original welling up of insights and wisdom. It appears that this gift did not decrease with age as this scholar is described as one who continued to flow with renewed vigor. It is said, “The older he became, the more beautifully and prolifically his wisdom flowed.” [3] So may it be for all who love and bear forth the precious “living water” of the Word.

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5 Disciples – 5 Books of Torah

In an enlightening study of this verse with Rabbi Alan in Jerusalem, he made a very interesting comparison of Yochanan ben Zakkai’s five disciples and the five books of Torah. A few thoughts:

1. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, described as a plastered cistern, is compared with Genesis (B’reishit – In the Beginning). It is of great importance to retain, remember and to guard this Source of the Word, which establishes the beginning of all life and Creation as well as the truth and nature of the Creator Himself. Not a drop should be lost. His name Eli-ezer reminds us that God is our Help and He is with us in all our endeavors from beginning to end.

2. Yehoshua ben Chananyah’s name translates as ‘Salvation, son of God’s grace.’ He can be compared with the book of Exodus (Shemot – Names), which is the account of God’s salvation and redemption of His people Israel, who were ‘born’ through the waters of the Reed Sea and delivered from the constriction and darkness of Egypt into Light and Life. This parallels with the specific reference to Rabbi Yehoshua’s mother.

3. Yosei HaKohen, the pious Priest, fittingly corresponds with the book of Leviticus (Vayikra – And He Called), which describes the Levitical priesthood and the sacrificial system. Leviticus is the heart, the central book, of the Torah and it highlights the role of a priest as an intermediary between God and man. One who represents God to man and man to God.

Of the five disciples, Yosei HaKohen is not described as ben, the son, of anyone. This raises an association with Melchizedek “the priest of the most high God” (Gen.14:18), who had no earthly lineage (Heb.7:3); also with Yeshua, who had no earthly father and who has become a High Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek, whose Hebrew name Malki Tzedek translates as King of Righteousness (Heb. 6:20). With Yeshua as our High Priest and King, we all receive a royal and priestly calling in the Kingdom of God. May we, therefore, constantly aim to be ‘pious’ – filled with the wisdom of His Word and His Spirit of holy loving-kindness.

4. Shimon ben Netanel is linked with the book of Numbers (B’midbar – In the Wilderness). The journey of the redeemed Israelites through the wilderness can compare with the journey of our life in this world. The generation of the wilderness, dor ha’midbar, were given the Promised Land but at the critical point of entry they “missed the mark” and sinned by not believing God’s promise. Their faith wavered and they saw themselves as too small to take possession of what He had promised. They believed the bad report of the ten spies and could not say, “Not my will but Thine be done!”

The majority of the Israelites did not choose to follow God’s instructions and to go forward in faithful obedience in order to please Him but, rather, chose what their own fearful perception dictated. Their fear of man outweighed their fear of God and, thus, they sinned against Him. We, too, need to overcome our fear of failure and strengthen our fear of missing our Father’s mark. Only once we have done this, will be able to move forward and enjoy the freedom and blessing of becoming a “flowing spring of living water.”

5. Elazar ben Arach, “like a spring that ever flows,” is paired with the fifth and last book, Deuteronomy (Devarim – Words). Interestingly, this is the book of Torah most often quoted by Yeshua, who himself was the perfection of a spring of living water. As he dramatically proclaimed at the Water-pouring ceremony on the last day of the joyous Feast of Tabernacles, when the High Priest poured water collected from the Spring of Siloam upon the altar in the Temple,
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water'”
(Jn. 37:7-8).

This is not water stored and kept in a cistern but that which must, by nature as living water, mai’im chai’im, flow forth in order to bring about future fulfillment of what is promised. We can picture, in this connection, the river that springs forth from Ezekiel’s Temple and flows to the Dead Sea bringing restoration and life. “For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes” (Ez.47:9).

We are living in fear-filled times. In awe of Him and in fear of sin, may we choose to yield our wills to our Father, the Creator of all and, in faith, believe that our pious acts of loving-kindness now will count for the future and all eternity in accord with His timing and purposes. In Yeshua, fully trusting that El’Azar – God has provided Help, may our lives and words be as springs, flowing with His life, that bring refreshing and hope to all whom they reach.


1. L.Kravitz & Olitzky, Pirke Avot; 25
2. Talmud Yerushalmi, Yevamoth 1:16
3. Irving M. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 1; 173

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