The biblical tale of friendship of five rabbis

True friendship: The rabbinical quintet of Bnei Brak

Five Rabbis: An etching by Mordechai Beck (photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
Five Rabbis: An etching by Mordechai Beck
(photo credit: MORDECHAI BECK)
There are few tales of friends per se in the Bible. Most of the relationships mentioned – when they are not dealing with the God of Israel – relate to husbands and wives, children and parents, leaders and subjects. The few exceptions – of David and Jonathan, for example – are special precisely because they are so rare. 
In the period of the Talmud (1st-5th centuries CE) instances of friendship are more common. Indeed, one of the ways sages were called was chaverim – friends – and it was not unknown for former students to grow into friends and colleagues of their teachers. 
One of the best known groups of sagacious friends appear in the Passover Haggadah, The five sages – Rabbi Eliezer (ben Horkanus), Rabbi Yehoshua (ben Hanania), Rabbi Elazar ben Azariya, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon – had gathered in the coastal town of Bnei Brak to discuss the Exodus from Egypt some 1,400 years after the event.
Before discussing the content of this encounter, it is interesting to point out that there is no reference to Passover in this short tale. The subject of their discussion is the exodus, it is true, but it could have taken place at any time. In fact the lack of family, students, or guests tends to suggest that this did not take place during Passover. 
It is sometimes claimed that this well-publicized meeting is merely a camouflage for a secret summit regarding the progress of the war against the Roman Empire, in around 132-135 CE. This would be fitting but deceitful, if only because some of the quintet of sages were no longer alive during the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt, when this tryst is meant to have happened. Moreover, the Haggadah, in which this text singularly appears states quite unambiguously that this sagacious quintet “were conversing about the Exodus from Egypt all night long.” 
Theirs is not an exercise in nostalgia. The times are hard. The Jewish people have lost their Temple some fifty years beforehand (in 70 CE). Murmuring and dissension against Imperial Rome had erupted into ferocious bouts of revolt. As both lay and religious leaders of the people, these sages craved perhaps an impossible combination – liberty and peace. 
Superficially, the inclusion of their tale in the Haggadah suggests that they were to act as a role model; just as these scholars could discuss the events from the Bible, so should all readers of the Haggadah be willing and able to do so throughout the generations to come. 
But the ambiance of this nocturnal discussion is unsettling. As we have observed, there is no mention of wives or children, an oddity for such a “family celebration.” Moreover, the discussions are seemingly endless; they terminate not at a specific hour but only when their students disturb their deliberations to remind them that it is time to recite early morning prayers. The absence of students from the proceedings also sounds a discordant note. If they are sages surely they would want their disciples to share their ruminations, and even to participate in them. We might think, too, that they, of all people, would be punctilious regarding the ritual prayers, and would not have to be reminded of their duties by their students.
The quintet of scholars is a motley group. It is composed of individuals who are wealthy: (Rabbis Eliezer, Elazer ben Azarya, and Rabbi Tarfon) and poor: ( Rabbi Yehoshua and Akiva); people who are well-connected: (Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah is a descendant of Ezra the Scribe, Rabbi Eliezer’s brother-in -law, Rabban Gamliel, is Head of the Sanhedrin – prior to the appointment of Rabbi Elazar to the post, while Rabbi Eliezer himself claims descent from Moses); others lack any familial credentials (Rabbi Akiva comes from converts; Rabbi Yehoshua is a blacksmith); some claim descent from the priestly class: (Rabbi Elazar ben Azariya and Rabbi Tarfon) or Levites (Rabbi Yehoshua), born into scholarly families: (Rabbi Elazar ben Azariya, Rabbi Yehoshua) or latecomers to Torah study: (Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Akiva).
Without doubt these are among the leading sages of their generation. Rabbi Eliezer’s sobriquet, for example, is “The Great,” a tribute to his standing among his rabbinical peers. References to these rabbis and their teachings are scattered throughout the Mishna and Talmud as scholars of authority. Moreover, the fact that this is not a casual group is made transparent by the appearance of the friends in a number of other anecdotes in sundry locations in the massive tomes of the Babylonian Talmud. 
Precisely what is discussed at Bnei Brak is not known, or at least the text does not make the reader privy to the conversations. However, at another time, and possibly in a different place, there is a very exact record of what the group discuss. 
In one such discussion of the rabbis (Tractate Baba Metzia 59b), for example, the issue under scrutiny is a special type of oven called an “achnai,” which might either be the name of the owner/inventor of such a piece of equipment, or a type of snake which, like this particular oven, curls around in spiral forms. The arguments turns on whether or not this particular oven is susceptible to impurity. Rabbi Eliezer finds himself at odds with the rest of the company and after trying to prove his point of view, a heavenly voice states the case for Rabbi Elazar “After all,” says the voice, “the law goes according to Rabbi Eliezer in all other points of religious law.”
One of the other participants, Rabbi Yehoshua, jumps to his feet and quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy (30:12): “It is not in the Heavens” To which outburst Rabbi Yirmiyahu explains “Since the Torah was given to us on Mount Sinai it is ours; we do not have to rely on heavenly voices.” 
This is an astounding statement, and reflects the rabbinical insistence on the autonomy of their judiciary powers over and against the received tradition. This approach leads here to immediate action. All items that had been declared “pure” according to Rabbi Eliezer were taken and burnt in a fire. So much for friendship when it clashes with a democratic decision- making process. To make the point perfectly clear, the scholars at the selfsame discussion decide to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer. This, too, is an amazing step to take, against both the most senior of the sages as well as a close friend and colleague, whose authority - according to the heavenly voice itself -- had never before been challenged. 
This decision was not taken lightly. The text gives us to understand that it was taken in Rabbi Eliezer’s absence, as though his colleagues were fully aware – and not a little apprehensive – of the consequences of their action.
“Who shall we send to transmit our decision?” they ask. 
“Let me go,” says Rabbi Akiva, afraid that someone ‘inappropriate’ would go and cause the older sage to ‘destroy the world’ in his anger at their response. This was no naive fear. A sage who could move trees, cause water to run back, or bend walls – was certainly capable of some more mischief, perhaps harmful. With Rabbi Eliezer you could never to be too sure. He was the grand master. Once (so it is recorded in the Tractate of Sanhedrin (68a) he took Akiva and Yehoshua on a journey during which Akiva asked him to demonstrate some magic. Pronouncing some words the teacher produced a field of zucchini! A further word and the field of zucchini disappeared. The student – Akiva – is incapable of understanding what he has seen, until Rabbi Yehoshua, a fellow student of the grand sage, explained it to him. But surely, asks the Talmud, dealing in witchcraft is expressly forbidden in the Torah. What is Rabbi Eliezer doing? Practicing witchcraft is forbidden, replies the Talmud to its own question, but teaching a worthy student how to do it is allowed, if only for the sake of pedagogy.
Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eliezer’s favorite student, thus finds himself before his master, Rabbi Eliezer, but at a distance of four amot (about six feet), as is befitting someone who is excommunicated, and is dressed in black as for a corpse. Rabbi Eliezer, who surely knew the reasons for these theatricals, plays the innocent. Why have you come today? he asks. “It appears,” says Akiva with great tact, “that your colleagues have distanced themselves from you.” Seeing how his favorite student showed such sensitivity, he, too, tears his garments, draws off his shoes and sits himself on the floor in the manner of mourners, and allows his tears to surface. The tension between friendship and truth had become unbearable. 
And the world? The Talmud records that year the world (maybe just the land of Israel) was ravaged by a plague that destroyed a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat harvest and a third of the year’s barley. The heavens were having their revenge, for the slight against their favored sage.
This is not the end of the story of the group. Other meetings between these scholarly friends are recorded throughout the Talmud’s folio pages.
Two stories are recorded of Rabbi Eliezer’s illness where he receives visitors undertaking the important commandment of visiting the sick. Even here, Rabbi Eliezer plays the role of master to his pupils. “The world is full of God’s anger,” he pronounces, by way of explaining how someone as elevated as himself could succumb to corporeal illness. The students who have gathered by their master’s bed begin weeping, all except for Akiva who laughs. Challenged to explain his apparently impious behavior, in front of a living embodiment of the Holy Scriptures, Akiva explains that for him, this illness is a sure sign that the learned Rabbi is undergoing all the punishment for whatever sins he might have committed, and that, when his time comes to expire, he will surely go straight to the World to Come. Rabbi Eliezer – perhaps out of concern that his illness will be misconstrued, asks Akiva how someone so learned in Torah could be prey to such bodily ailments. To which his student quotes the Book of Ecclesiastes : “There is no righteous in the world who does good without doing some transgression.” A good friend is always at hand to proffer a good word. This conforms, too, to the wise saying: “a word in its right time.”(Proverbs 15:23)
On another occasion, four of his elder students visit Rabbi Eliezer on his sick bed: Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariya and Rabbi Akiva. Each of the students proclaims how much greater a teacher is than either the rain, the cycle of the sun, or one’s parents; all of these are limited to this material world, while a teacher offers you both this world and the next. Rabbi Akiva declares “Delightful are chastisements” explaining that apparent infliction leads to true repentance, a line that Rabbi Eliezer accepts more than all the praises of his other colleagues and friends. (Sanhedrin 101a) 
A final tale finds Rabbi Eliezer on his death’s bed. Again the visitors (here called “Rabbi Akiva and his friends”), come to sit at a distance from their teacher – in fact outside the room in which he is lying – still in a state of excommunication from his fellow scholars. It is the eve of the Sabbath day and Eliezer’s son, Horkanus, comes in and attempts to remove his father’s phylacteries from him, since these were not worn on the Sabbath day. The father reacts in anger, and Horkanus takes this as a sign that his father has lost his sanity. But Rabbi Eliezer is concerned with another aspect of defying the laws of the oncoming day. Would it not be better, he asks, for the son to concern himself with lighting the candles that usher in the Sabbath day. He adds, in his own way, that he thinks that both his son and wife are crazy! 
Seeing that their teacher is articulate and awake, the scholar-friends enter his room. Why did you come, asks Rabbi Eliezer, as the group sit six feet away from him. “To study Torah,” they say. “So why did you not come earlier?” He asks. “We had no free time,” they say lamely. “I’d be surprised if any of you died natural deaths,” he says. “ Including me?” asks Akiva. “Yours will be worse than theirs,” Eliezer promises.
The students then ask their moribund teacher questions concerning the status of certain items, among them a shoe on a shoe-last. Can such a shoe be considered a whole item and thus subject to impurity. The question echoes that about the oven of achnai, which led to Rabbi Eliezer’s initial excommunication. Perhaps the reason for Rabbi Eliezer’s obstinacy then was tied to the very nature of this peculiar oven, made of different parts. Maybe the sage, reflecting on the spiritual dimension of this oven, saw in it something of himself – someone who had come to Torah late, and who however much he studied and learned could never consider himself ‘whole’; his past would always be incomplete. His students - foremost among them Rabbi Akiva – himself a famous late starter to the study and practice of the Torah – challenge his opinion. Whatever a person’s origins, he (or she) can still achieve wholeness. Similarly, a shoe on a last suggests something that is on its way to becoming whole and usable, but not yet. When Eliezer declares that this item is indeed pure, and expires on the word ‘pure’ his friend Rabbi Yehoshua declares that his excommunication has been annulled. 
In some way the roles had now been reversed; it is the younger scholars who are accompanying their master on his last journey, through the reversals of his former opinions, so that both arrive at a situation of purity and peace of mind. It is no wonder that Rabbi Akiva – who had not been present at his master’s demise – lacerates himself when he meets the bier being transported from Caesarea to Lod out of a sense of anguish and loss. In a final tribute to Rabbi Eleazer, he recalls the words of Elisha when he sees his master leave the world: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horseman thereof.”(II Kings 2:12). This is a true friendship, that lasts up to and beyond death. It links the material and the spiritual, it puts companionship on the level of life and death (another Talmudic saw has it: “Either companionship or death” – Taanit 23a) maybe this is a hint at why these friends gathered in Bnei Brak; it was not the content of their discussions that was so central as the fact of their encounter on this night. In reviewing the lessons of the exodus, their presence demonstrates that there can be no true liberation without true companionship.
This might help explain the absence of wives, children or students. All these categories of relationships are ones that speak of obligation, of commitment, of necessity. Friendship, true friendship, is completely voluntary, it is created in freedom, it is in a way the apex of liberty, it is the voluntary binding of ourselves to others. This is what the Bnei Brak tryst was about. Freedom from Egypt meant the freedom to chose our own companions, not from any ulterior motivation (sexual in the case of wives, relational in the case of children, honor and status in the case of students), but simply for its own sake. It was not binding, it could change, but it is a uniquely human institution and one that these great sages valued no less than the exodus of Egypt itself. 
It is not by chance that when asked by Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai – the teacher of the spiritual leadership of the post-Temple generation – what was the one thing they should most cleave to, Rabbi Eliezer, with his razor-sharp intellect said “ a good eye,” whereas Rabbi Yehoshua said “a good friend.” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). Rabbi Eliezer values intellect and honesty over all. Rabbi Yehoshua, physically ugly and perhaps even repellent, values friendship and emotional companionship that overcomes these impediments. 
Thus this cycle of stories has come full circle. These sages retain their friendship even in the most extreme situations. Moreover, in the light of these later stories, their appearance in the Haggadah becomes more comprehensible. 
What these sages were discussing at Bnei Brak is not known, other than in a general way, that they spoke about the exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Avraham Kook adds that the miracle they were talking about was not the redemption from slavery. We could after all have been redeemed and stayed in Egypt. Our salvation could have been the gaining of the rights of an immigrant community. But no, the fact was that we were taken out of Egypt, that cesspool of impurity and iniquity. The miracle was that we were taken to the land of Israel. Perhaps this is what the text wants to tell us. The content of the conversations was less important than the fact that these were close friends in the land of Israel, who had been, and would continue to be, intimate over many years, despite disagreements here and there. It is the friendship that gets people through difficult times, as well as providing a framework for their joys and celebrations. The insertion of this unique passage here, at the very outset of the Haggadah, suggests the lesson that they were offering, namely that without authentic friends and continuing companionship there can be no true liberty. The story in the Haggadah is a celebration of friendship – a friendship that is literally eternal – and that has the power, if we so will it, to takes us, the readers, annually out of Egypt.