Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah - a Star of the Seder

Passover is here once again. We will soon open our Haggadahs and find the familiar prologue stories to the Maggid section of the Seder. And soon we all will wonder, Who was Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah?

Maggid is literally the "telling" of the story of the Exodus from Egypt, the event that we celebrate in our evening of dramatic activity. My teacher Rabbi Soloveitchik always underscored that this is not a mere retelling of a story. The Maggid is an archetypal session of rabbinic Torah study. The major section that we read is a classic rabbinic midrash that expounds upon a few condensed biblical verses. This is the exodus story as told by the rabbis, not by the Torah of Moses. To make the point unmistakably clear, the rabbis go so far as to omit the mention of Moses altogether in the Haggadah.

The rabbis do mention several of their own rabbis by name and top among them is my favorite, Eleazar ben Azariah. He was a second century rabbi in Israel who also held the highest political position in his community.

He teaches (in the name of Ben Zoma, another rabbi) that we recite at the Seder because it provides us with the license for our gathering at home at night to perform all of our Seder rituals. Otherwise, we might still be celebrating our Seder during the day in accord with the practice of the anonymous Sages.
We mention the exodus from Egypt at night.
Said R. Eleazar ben Azariah, ``I am now like a seventy year old and was not worthy [of understanding] that the exodus from Egypt be said at night, until Ben Zoma expounded it:
``As it is stated: `So that you may remember the day on which you left Egypt all the days of your life (Deut. 16:3).'
`` `The days of your life' [would have implied only] the days. `All the days of your life' [includes] the nights.''
 And the sages say, `` `The days of your life' [would have included only] this world. `All the days of your life' [includes] the days of the messiah.''
[M. Ber. 1:5; Sifré, ed. Finkelstein, p. 188; Tos. Zer., Lieberman, p. 4, ls. 40-46 (Mekhilta, Horowitz-Rabin, p. 60 omits attribution to Eleazar)]
Later rabbis delve into the meaning of the cryptic phrase, "I am now like a seventy year old." Some take it to mean that a young Eleazar turned grey overnight to help him gain respect as the new political leader of the Jewish nation, to facilitate his ascent in Israel.

In the narrative of the deposition of Rabban Gamaliel from his position as Patriarch which led to Eleazar's elevation to the post, we have two variants on this element -- the quasi-miracle that Eleazar's hair turned grey.
Yerushalmi Berakhot 4:1 says:

They went and appointed (mynw) R. Eleazar b. Azariah to the academy (yšybh).
He was sixteen years old and all his hair turned grey (ntml' kl r'šw sybyt).

Bavli Berakhot 27b-28a informs us that Eleazar's wife had observed his deficiency:

She said to him, ``You have no white hair.''
On that day he was eighteen years old. A miracle befell him and eighteen rows of his hair turned white.
All this is discussed -- in the context of the exciting agenda of critical and analytical questions that we were asking of our rabbinic sources at the time -- in my doctoral thesis from 1977, which you can now purchase for your Kindle, "Eleazar: Rabbi, Priest, Patriarch" .

Yes, I did my thesis on Eleazar ben Azariah (at a time before I had any white hair). And each year at the Seder I bring a copy of my book on Eleazar to the table and hold it up - to add a personal touch at the outset of our annual Seder dissertation. /reposted/

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