Acher: The Sage Turned Apostate
Our Rabbis taught (Chagigah 14b): Four men entered the ‘orchard’ (pardes, a metaphor for Heaven), namely, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher, and Rabbi Akiva. The Talmud informs us of their fate. Ben Azzai gazed and died … Ben Zoma gazed and became demented … Acher mutilated his shoots (became a heretic)… only Rabbi Akiva departed in peace.
Acher, which means “the other,” refers to Elisha ben Abuya. There is much speculation about Acher’s life, for details in the Talmud are sparse. We do know, however, that Elisha was once considered a great and pious scholar. This can be seen by that fact that his teachings were not completely stricken from the Talmud. Most famously, he is quoted in Ethics of the Fathers.*
One explanation for his apostasy, presented in Chagiga 15b, quotes Ecclesiastes 5:5: “Do not let your mouth make your flesh sin.” The text then notes how Acher saw the archangel Metatron sitting in heaven. Since he had been taught that no celestial being other than God may sit, Acher declared “‘Perhaps there are two supreme powers.’… Then a heavenly voice was heard: ‘Repent, O backsliding children! except for Acher.’”
Apparently, Acher’s faith was shaken by a sight he didn’t understand (Metatron ), and he then felt cut off from the path of repentance. Acher said: “Since I have been driven forth from yonder world, let me go forth and enjoy this world. So Acher followed evil ways. He went, found a harlot and propositioned her. She said to him: ‘Aren’t you Elisha ben Abuyah?’ He then tore a radish out of its bed on Shabbat and gave it to her, where upon she said: ‘He is another [Acher]’” (Chagigah 15a).
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For more on Elisha ben Abuya:
Read about his loyal student, Rabbi Meir.
Read more about the Pardes.
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