Elisha ben Avuya and Greek Music

October 22, 2009 6 min read


Over a decade ago, as I sat in yeshiva, I found myself deep in a conversation about non-Jewish music with some friends. One of my friends – a mentor, really – mentioned a gemara that said that non-Jewish music was the reason that Elisha ben Avuyah, the famous Tana and teacher of Rabbi Meir, became a heretic. That shocked me quite a bit. I understood that impure music could have a detrimental effect on the soul, but this seemed a bit excessive! I tracked down the gemara, which is found in Tractate Chagiga, page 15b, and I began to do a bit of research. I was surprised to see that most of the commentaries don’t touch the subject. (Then I realized that most commentaries don’t touch Aggada in general.) But over time, I found myself compiling questions, ideas and threads of thoughts, until I came upon a particularly illuminating concept which clarified just about everything.

Elisha ben Avuya, otherwise known as “Acheir”, “The Other”, is one of the most enigmatic characters in Jewish history. Much of the Talmud bears his stamp to some degree, as he taught Rabbi Meir, and an open Mishna is Rabbi Meir’s. He was a colleague of Rabbi Akiva’s, and he joined him in ascending to heavenly heights through the mystical experience known as “Pardes”. That excursion ended in tragedy – Ben Azzai died, Ben Zoma went crazy, and Acheir became a heretic. Only Rabbi Akiva “entered in peace and left in peace.”

After recounting this story, the gemara proceeds to tell us more stories of the sage who became a heretic. Many reasons and anecdotes are given as to why he went off the path. But the gemara focuses itself and, strangely enough, in the middle of the discussion, asks, “Acheir, mai? Zemer yevani lo pasak mipumei.”* Why did he go off? Greek music never left his lips. As for the other reasons, they are left as strands in other parts of the story; but here, it seems that the Talmud is telling us that Greek music is the reason for the fall. Come, now! That seems ridiculous. Look at the other reasons: His mother was affected by nonkosher food when she was pregnant with him; he saw Biblical verses seemingly contradicted before his eyes; he experienced a mystical sight of the Angel Metatron and he thought G-d has His equal (G-d forbid); and he frequently read Greek philosophy. Couldn’t one of those reasons have been a better reason? Greek music?!

Rashi says simply, “He should have left it alone (vehaya lo lehani’ach) because of the destruction of the Temple, as the verse says, (Yeshaya 24:9) Do not drink wine with song.” Well, the destruction of the Temple certainly caused the Sages to limit the type of music one was allowed to sing (Gittin 7a). But is that it? By violating a Rabbinic enactment, Elisha became a heretic? And why does Rashi use the term “should have left it alone”? Would it be okay to listen to Greek music if the Temple stood? And why is the emphasis on “Greek” music, and not any other non-Jewish music?

The Maharsha explains that the music he was listening to contained Greek lyrics and messages that were heretical. But that still seems excessive, considering that a) Elisha was one of the great sages of his time, and one would think that he’d have the ability to censure immoral messages, and b) when one considers the incredible fall that Elisha had. Elisha became a vicious person; for example, wickedly using his knowledge of halacha to inform Roman soldiers exactly how to make sure to force Jewish slaves to violate the Shabbat Biblically. Jews tried to get out of Biblical transgressions by violating mere Rabbinic infractions, but there was Elisha telling the soldiers, “Make them carry that board single-handedly in a public domain. Make sure those two Jews don’t carry it together in a side street.” But that wasn’t the worst of it all. He would convince children with potential to become great sages that they were destined to be nothing, destroying their will to study Torah. He also committed acts of immorality and witchcraft, and more. Where did this viciousness come from?

The glosses of Rabbi Akiva Eiger point us to the sourcetext of Rashi – in Gittin 7a, which tells us of the source of the Rabbinic enactment. If we look there, we see their basis in Tanach (Hoshea, 9:1): “Rejoice not, Israel, like the exultation of the nations, for you have strayed from your G-d; you have loved a harlot’s fee on all the threshing floors of grain.” Rashi on site tells us, “Like the early nations who did not accept the Torah and did not come into My portion. You, however, strayed from Me, and you lost many good things.” Obviously, considering Acheir’s backstory, we can certainly appreciate how this particular verse applied to Acheir. Acheir ignored the Sages’ dictum to stay away from music at the time, and the very verse they used to base their dictum upon became true in a personal prophecy regarding Acheir.

This, however, does not fully answer our question – it only explains Rashi’s basic interpretation. But again, why the focus on Greek music? Let’s take what the Maharsha explains and bring it one step further. The gemara (Megilla 32a) tell us: “Rabbi Yochanan says: Anyone who reads without sweetness and studies without song, upon them the verse (Yechezkel 20:25) states: So I too gave them decrees that were not good etc.” So music and studying Torah are inextricably linked. But why? Tosfot explains that this has to do with the style of studying by heart. But isn’t there something deeper at work here?

In a talk about meditation during prayer (Sefer Hamaamarim 5684), Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, explains that singing is an integral component to meditation. He explains: Information is dry, but tangible. When you study something, you explore a concept. How do you give that information life? For that, you need a niggun. Music is an experience; it is intangible (known in the Chassidic lexicon as “Makif” – encompassing). While you can explain a concept, you can’t really explain a niggun. Take a concept, and while thinking about it, sing a niggun that fits the concept. That combination of experiential G-dliness with informational G-dliness is a powerful duo that allows you to make the concept truly part of yourself. It is now no longer dry; it is alive, as it excites you. It becomes YOUR concept and YOUR experience. Or, in Chassidic lingo, you are “mafnim”, you internalize the concept.

Drawing this back to Acheir – we know that he was a mystic. We know that he was a philosopher. And we know that he obviously loved music. But it was precisely when he combined all of the above – when he began studying Greek philosophy, and he started meditating on the concepts along with the Greek music that came naturally with it, THAT was the spiritual straw that broke his back. All the other reasons were certainly causes, and they all led down that path. But Acheir’s involvement in combining Greek music and Greek philosophy (and in the Gemara itself, the second reason in fact follows the other) and meditating on them, caused him to internalize the immorality to the point that he found himself spiritually destroyed. (This is particularly powerful when understood along with the point of R’ Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Maharan Vol. 1, 64:5 )- regarding the story of Acheir – where he points out that each intellectual doctrine has its own style of song; hence Acheir’s descent.)

(As a final note, it seems that Rashi’s opinion was that Acheir’s big mistake was that at the time, being so close to the destruction of the Temple, it was totally inappropriate to be involved in music. His light tone in his wording “he should have left it alone” (rather than “he should have stopped” or even “never started in the first place”) seems to indicate that there is a time and place for using music from non-Jewish sources. Indeed, over the years, Jewish songs have certainly been influenced indelibly by non-Jewish sources – everywhere from Chassidic dynasties and Rebbes “stealing” songs, to the songs we sing as “amcha” such as “Mishenichnas Adar” to the tune of “Pick a Bail of Cotton”. However, and this I want to stress, this is obviously not a simple matter, and should not be done without significant and well-informed Rabbinic advisory.)

*Rashi’s text has it read “Mibeito – never stopped from his house.” While this seems to change the actual story, it does not change Rashi’s opinion of what happened versus the Maharsha’s opinion. In fact, the difference in their opinions may well be based on this textual variance.