Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah
In his youth, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah already enjoyed great respect. He descended from a great and noble family of priests. Ezra, the High Priest and restorer of the Jewish nation after the Babylonian exile, was his ancestor, and in the person of Rabbi Elazar, Ezra’s tenth generation descendant blossomed. Rabbi Elazar was still a child when his father died, and his tutor raised him with the greatest care. During that time Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans, the holy Temple was destroyed, and the prince of Israel, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai, went to Yavneh with his disciples. There, after Rabban Yochanan’s death, Rabban Gamliel was chosen as prince and head of the academy. When later on Rabban Gamliel had serious disagreements with his colleague, Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania, these differences led to the ouster of Rabban Gamliel. Thus Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, though only 18 years old at the time, was chosen as prince and head of the academy. When later on Rabban Gamliel came to terms with Rabbi Joshua (and consequently was reinstated in his position), Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah still retained his position of prince in that he and Rabban Gamliel alternated as president.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah also assumed a large role in the political life of his people. He accompanied Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania, and Rabbi Akiva to Rome in order to oppose the sinister intentions of the Roman Emperor Domitian, who wanted to exterminate all Jews. Rabbi Elazar’s contemporaries called him a “spice box containing all sorts of spices” because of his great and extensive knowledge. His gentleness and goodwill, contrasting with the severity of Rabban Gamliel, were greatly valued. Rabban Gamliel closed the doors of knowledge to those whose purity of character he was not firmly convinced of. Yet Rabbi Elazar opened wide all the doors of the academy and permitted everyone to enter. He operated from the principle that higher levels of Torah knowledge would strengthen people’s character. Rabbi Elazar reached a very great age and worked long for the good of his people, however he did not live to see the terrible and catastrophic persecutions of Hadrian. It was concerning Rabbi Elazar that Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania once said, “The era in which we find a man such as Rabbi Elazar is not forsaken.”