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Jewish History

The Great Rabbis

Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua

Question: Can you tell me about Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua. When he was alive? What is he known for? Basically about his life. Thank you.

Answer: Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua lived around 3920, or 160 C.E., about 90 years after the destruction of the Second Temple (A. Carmell, Aids to Talmud Study and Rashi Tractate Avoda Zara 8b). He was also a student of the famed Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva, after losing all of his students in a deadly plague, for which we observe laws of mourning during the days between the holidays of Pesach and Shavuos, entrusted five scholars with the Torah he received from his own teachers: Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua, who subsequently became his new students (Tractate Yevamoth 62b). The transmission of Torah to these five was a crucial link in the chain of the Mesorah; without them we would have lost the tradition of the Oral Torah. Rabbi Elazar was among these same five when they received Semicha ordination from Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava. Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava was then brutally executed by the government for doing so (Tractate Sanhedrin 14a).

Whenever the name Rabbi Elazar is mentioned in the Mishna and Beraisos (earlier sources cited in Talmud) it is referring to Rabbi Elazar Ben Shamua (Rashi, Tractate Shabbos 19b). He was the teacher of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the codifier of the Mishna. His students in general were known to be particularly knowledgeable (Yevamos 84a) and it is said that these students crowded six of themselves into one square amma (at most 2 feet) to hear his precious teachings.

He was a Cohain and lived a long life. He attributed his longevity to respect for the synagogue, respect for his students, and for always saying the prescribed blessing when he did the Cohain’s service (Tractate Megilla 27b). He is actually known for saying, “The respect for your students should be as precious to you as your own respect…(Pirkei Avos, 4:12 and in some editions 4:15).” The Talmud in Eruvin 53a says he had a heart as big as the entrance hall to the Holy Temple. Also see Medrash Koheles 11:2 for a fascinating story of how he saved the Jewish People with his care for a non-Jewish refugee.

Best Wishes,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler

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