A Lesson (Or Several) From Elijah the Prophet

Note: The following post is based on an insight from Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau on the Talmud, which was relayed to me this past Shabbat by my uncle. It goes without saying that any mistakes or misrepresentations are my own.

On the very second page of the Talmud (Tractate Brakhot 3a), we are told a fascinating story which Rabbi Yosei, the great student of Rabbi Akiva, and teacher of Rabbi Judah the Prince, used to tell about himself.

Rabbi Yosei tells us that he was once walking along the road when he went into a “hurva”, an old abandoned building from the ruins of Jerusalem, to pray. “I noticed” he says, “that Elijah (of blessed memory) came and guarded the entrance for me (and waited for me there) until I finished praying.”

When he finishes praying, they greet each other, and Elijah asks: “My son, why did you enter this hurva (ruin)?”

“To pray”, Rabbi Yosei answers.

“You should have prayed on the road.”

“I was afraid I might be interrupted by travelers (and would be unable to focus)”, Rabbi Yosei replied.

To this Elijah responds: “You should have recited an abbreviated prayer (so you would not need to focus as long).”

“At that time” Rabbi Yosei tells us, “I learned from (Elijah) three things. 1)I learned that one may not enter a ruin. 2) That one may pray along the road. 3) When one does pray along the road, he says an abbreviated prayer”

Rabbi Lau asks a very simple question on this last statement of Rabbi Yosei. It is indeed obvious where Rabbi Yosei learned that one may pray along the road, and that one should say an abbreviated prayer. Elijah has informed him as much. But how did he learn that one may not enter into a ruin? Elijah says nothing about this! Where is the third statement?

The answer, Rabbi Lau tells us, is that Rabbi Yosei learned not only from what Elijah said to him, but also from how he acted. Elijah, we may remember, waited at the entrance for Rabbi Yosei, but did not enter. Rabbi Yosei reasoned that Elijah did not go into the building because it is forbidden to do so. Thus, he understood that it is forbidden to go into a ruin according to Jewish law.

What then should we learn from this story?

  1. As Rabbi Yosei does, we must learn from the actions of our teachers, and not only from their words.
  1. From Rabbi Yosei’s statement that he learned 3 things “at that time”, we may learn that he continued to go over this story, looking for more that he could learn at other times. I believe this is a lesson as well, and in fact, I have just heard a deeper understanding of this particular story from Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who spoke in Raanana regarding this story (and the new Koren English edition Steinzaltz!) last thursday. Maybe I can post about that some other time, but I think that Rabbi Weinreb showed us that we may succeed in learning more than 3 things from this story.
  2. We may see that even a story in the Talmud serves to teach us how to act, just like the rest of the Talmud. Agaadatot are often defined as non-legal parts to the Talmud, but this definition is incorrect, as it implies that Aggadatot are without practical legal implications, something which is shown to be plainly wrong in Rabbi Yosei’s story. This and other stories in the Talmud may be seen as guidance from the Rabbis telling us how to act, and we should be conscious of practical and legal implications.

While many books can be (and have been) written on the practical nature of Aggadatot, we will satisfy ourselves (for now) with this short post. For a little more on the nature of Aggadatot, see Russ’ post, here (https://thinkjudaism.wordpress.com/2012/07/11/obama-aggadatahs-and-history/).

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