The Real Story About Rabbi Eleazar
Written by Gil Student
Abodah Zarah 17a. States that there is not a whore in the world that the Talmudic sage Rabbi Eleazar has not had sex with.
By concisely summarizing the story told by the Talmud and slightly modifying the name, the accusation has changed a moving story about one man's return to G-d into a tale about a Talmud sage's sexual impropriety. We will present the whole story which has a very different message.
There are two things that are important to note. First, as is obvious, the story begins with Eleazar ben Durdia as patronizing prostitutes but concludes with his sorrowful repentance and acceptance into the world-to-come. Also, in most manuscripts he is not called Rabbi until the very end of the story, after his repentance. Clearly, he was not a scholar at all but merely an average (or below average) man who had a spiritual awakening that can be a lesson to us all about the power to change oneself.
Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a
They said about Eleazar ben Durdia that there was no prostitute in the world with whom he did not have intercourse at least once. He heard that there was one particular prostitute in a town near the sea who would receive a purse full of dinars for her services. He took a purse full of dinars and went to her, crossing over seven rivers. During intercourse she passed gas. She said: Just like this gas will never return to its place so too Eleazar ben Durdia will never have his repentance accepted (literally - will never return).
He went and sat between two mountains and hills. He said: Mountains and hills, request mercy for me. They said: Before we request mercy for you we have to request mercy for ourselves, at is says (Isaiah 54:10) "For the mountains will be moved and the hills will falter..."
He said: Heavens and earth, request mercy for me. They said: Before we request mercy for you we have to request mercy for ourselves, at is says (Isaiah 51:6) "For the heavens will dissipate like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment..."
He said: Sun and moon, request mercy for me. They said: Before we request mercy for you we have to request mercy for ourselves, at is says (Isaiah 24:23) "The moon will be humiliated and the sun will be shamed..."
He said: Stars and constellations, request mercy for me. They said: Before we request mercy for you we have to request mercy for ourselves, at is says (Isaiah 34:4) "All the host of the heavens will dissolve..."
He said: This matter depends solely on me. He put his head between his knees and began to tremble from crying until he died. A heavenly voice declared: R. Eleazar ben Durdia is ready for the world-to-come.
While the Talmud has certainly taken liberties with the details of the story, mountains and stars do not talk (see Tosafot ad. loc.), the message is clear. A prostitute made a snide remark to Eleazar about how far gone he was from his religion and, as a believing albeit unobservant man, he wished for divine mercy. He went around looking for ways to find mercy or, as some read it, looking for scapegoats on whom to blame his behavior (see R. Yonatan Eyebeshitz, Ye'arot Devash, sermon 3 p. 56a). His conclusion, however, was that he alone was to blame for his behavior and his deep-felt remorse led to his tearful death. This repentance was sufficient for him to earn a place in the world-to-come (see R. Shlomo Eidels, Chiddushei Maharsha, ad. loc.).
An honest reading of the full talmudic passage shows that the accusation was totally misleading and unfounded.
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