Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus

It is written, “Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai had five [outstanding] disciples. … He used to enumeration their praiseworthy qualities: ‘Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus – a cemented cistern which does not lose a drop’ ” (Perkei Avoth 2:9).

In the Holy Land, rainwater is collected during the rainy season in well-cemented basins called cisterns. This is done in order to conserve the water and have it ready for all needs during the dry season, when sources of water dry up. The teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, compared his student to such a cistern, into which water from the sky falls, and which doesn’t lose one drop that it receives of the source of life. All the Torah and knowledge that Rabbi Eliezer had received from his teacher was well retained by him and never lost.

It was not that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai wanted to praise the great and faultless memory of his disciple. There are people who possess a great memory and accumulate a great deal of useless information, and on the other hand there are people whose memory is not particularly good, but through a love of knowledge they know how to greatly increase it. It was in this way that the contemporaries of the Chatam Sofer, who was known throughout the world for his immense knowledge, said concerning him that he had “a worked-on memory,” which means that he increased and reinforced his memory with the help of his infinite willpower.

It is in a similar way that we should understand the praise that Rabban Yochanan bestowed upon Rabbi Eliezer. Because Rabbi Eliezer greatly loved wisdom, and because Torah was more precious to him than riches, he accepted with the greatest love everything that he received from his teachers. This is also why he learned not only that which pleased them and himself, but that he did everything, everything with the greatest attention. And all that he learned in this way made a great impression on him and definitely stayed in his memory. As it is written, “Your testimonies are wonders, therefore my soul has guarded them” (Psalms 119:129). The one who sees a miracle with his own eyes will never forget it. It is precisely in this way that every word, every Halachah makes an indelible impression.

This explanation thus explains why Rabban Yochanan said, “A cemented cistern which does not $"!/ a drop,” when we would have expected him to say, “A cemented cistern which does not $"&! a drop.” This is because the term $"!/ implies a loss by utter destruction, whereas $"&! can refer to a loss by simple misplacement. If we think about it on a superficial level, memory may seem like a faculty that does not depend on our will. One person has a good memory, another has a bad memory; one person retains what he has learned well, another forgets it soon afterwards. However there are things that make such an impression on an individual that, even one with a bad memory will never forget them. If one loves Torah with a fervent and infinite love, each of its sayings will make an impression on him and remain. Those who learn and forget Torah demonstrate by this that they do not embrace Torah with the love that it is due. They believe that they have mistakenly lost small drops of holy wisdom from their memory, whereas in fact they have, so to speak, destroyed them one by one.

We could also say that the addition of the words “which does not lose a drop” is superfluous, since this fact is already understood from the words “a cemented cistern.” All the same, we should mention that stagnant water, gathered in a cistern, has many disadvantages to it. It easily becomes turbid and acquires the taste with which the cistern is sealed. This is why Rabban Yochanan adds the words “which does not lose a drop.” It is only in this respect that Rabbi Eliezer is like a cemented cistern: Not only does he not lose a drop, but the water that is drawn from the well of his wisdom is clear, pure and good tasting.

This idea is specifically mentioned in a passage in the Talmud. Once during Rosh Chodesh Rabbi Eliezer came to see his teacher, Rabban Yochanan, who told him, “You, a well filled with water purified of all bad things, why do you need Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai?”





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