The name of the great Sage Rabbi Elazar, the son of Azariah, is familiar to Jewish boys long before they begin to study the Talmud. For this great Tanna (teacher of the Mishnah) is mentioned in the Haggadah, and he is known as "the young man who became gray overnight, and looked like seventy." He was indeed a very remarkable man in many respects, so let us learn something more about him.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah lived and taught in the years following the destruction of the (second) Beth Hamikdosh by the Romans. After Jerusalem was destroyed, it is not out of place to mention the Destruction of the Beth-Hamikdosh on the Seder night, for we are to remember Jerusalem above all our joys. Strangely, but significantly, the first day of Pesach is always the same day of the week on which Tishah b'Av will occur later in the year. Thus the first Seder-night coincides with the saddest night, the night of Tishah b'Av. An indication of thus has been found in the words of the Torah: "With Matzah and bitter herbs you shall eat it (the Pesach Sacrifice)," in which Matzah would indicate the first day of Pesach, when the eating of Matzah is a must, while bitter herbs would indicate Tishah b'Av (as tamrurim - bitterness - is found also in Echah).)

Yavneh became the spiritual center of the vanquished Jews. You will remember that the great Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai succeeded in saving the city, and establishing there a great Torah Academy. For many years after the destruction he headed the Yeshivah, and after his death Rabban Gamliel (the "Second") became the head, or "Nassi" (prince), which office he held for close to forty years. Rabbi Elazar was a young scholar in that Academy, under the leadership of Rabban Gamliel.

Young Rabbi Elazar came from a very prominent family; he was the tenth generation in direct line from the great Ezra the Scribe. In addition his family was very wealthy. But what made the young man most outstanding was his great wisdom and learning. Other great scholars and Sages of his time were Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Joshua ben Chananiah, who were older than he, and Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Tarfon, who were about his age. All these great and famous Tannaim are mentioned in the Haggadah, in connection with the story of the Seder which they celebrated all together in Benei Berak. As the Haggadah tells us, these Sages spent the whole night relating the wonders and lessons of the liberation from Egypt, until their students came and said to them, "Our teachers, the time has come for the reading of the morning Shema." Then Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah declared: "See, I am like one who is seventy years old, and I have never been privileged to hear the story of the outgoing from Egypt related during the nights, until Ben Zoma interpreted the words of the Torah: 'In order that thou shalt remember thy going forth from the land of Egypt all the days of thy life' - 'the days of thy life' indicates the days; 'all the days of thy life' indicates that the nights are also included."

We shall later return to this interpretation, but let us continue about Rabbi Elazar, and how he became gray all of a sudden, overnight, so that he looked like a venerable Sage of seventy.

The head of the Yeshivah, who was also the head of the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of seventy-one Sages) and the Prince of all the people, was, as we mentioned earlier, Rabban Gamliel, a descendant of the royal family of King David. Rabban Gamliel was a very great scholar, but he was very strict with his colleagues and students. It was the time immediately after the Destruction, and it was a hard time for the Jews. Rabban Gamliel thought it neccessary to keep a strict discipline in order to preserve the unity of the people through the authority of his office. In his strictness and search for the highest degree of sincerity and truth, he had kept many would-be students from the Yeshivah. A point was reached when the leading scholars of that time, despite their great respect for Rabban Gamliel, decided to depose him and elect another man in his place. Looking around for the most suitable candidate for the exalted office, the choice fell on Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. He was a great scholar; he came from a great family; he was a man of great wealth, and therefore could be quite independent of others, while, at the same time, it gave him additional prestige. He had every thing to qualify him for the highest office; everything except age. For Rabbi Elazar was then but eighteen years old (according to another source, he was only sixteen at that time). It was then that the miracle happened: overnight he grew a long beard, and he became gray, so that all the Sages saw in him a hoary and venerable Sage.

The day Rabbi Elazar took office was remarkable also in many other ways. It became known as "That Day." On "that day" the doors of the Academy in Yavneh, were thrown open, and four hundred new benches were added for new students who hastened to be admitted into the Academy. On "that day" many important decisions were made on matters of law which had been in doubt, etc.

Rabbi Elazar did not hold the office of President, or Nassi, very long. Rabban Gamliel took the punishment in good grace; he attended the Academy as just another student and humbly participated in the debates. Seeing how Rabban Gamliel was so humble and obviously had learnt his lesson, he was soon reinstated, but on condition that Rabbi Elazar share in the, office and preside over the Academy one week in the month.

Many are the teachings of Rabbi Elazar ben Azriah which are found all over the Talmud. Some of his wise sayings are. very familiar. He is the author of the saying (in Pirke-Aboth 3:17): "Where there is no bread, there is no study of the Torah; where there is no study of the Torah, there is no bread." This may also be understood to mean that the students of the Torah must be fed and given an opportunity to study, for it is for their sake that other people have bread and are blessed with wealth, in order that they might support the students of the Torah and thus have a share in it.

Another famous saying of his is in connection with Yom-Kippur. He interpreted the words of the Torah: "Of all your sins before G‑d ye shall cleanse yourselves" - to mean, that only for sins committed by failing to do one's duties to G‑d, can one expect forgiveness on the Day of Atonement, provided one feels sorry and resolves to improve; but sins committed against fellowman will not be forgiven until the injured party is appeased and compensated.

We have already mentioned that the Jews lived in very difficult circumstances at that time, for the Romans oppressed them and interfered with their freedom to study the Torah and observe the Mitzvoth. On one occasion, Rabbi Elazar was sent to Rome, with a delegation which included also Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiba, to plead with the Roman emperor to case the plight of the Jews.

It is easy to understand that at such a time, the joy of celebrating the Festival of Freedom was somewhat dampened. The Jews lived in a "nightmare," and many were wondering how Pesach could be celebrated with joy at such a time. But Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah was full of faith, and thought that at such a time, it was even more necessary than ever to celebrate Pesach and be inspired by the wonderful miracles of that great deliverance, and be filled with faith that once again G‑d will redeem our people and free them from all oppression and exile. That is why he was so happy with the interpretation that the Liberation from Egypt should be celebrated also during the dark "nights" of exile and suffering.

How greatly esteemed Rabbi Elazar was can be seen from the fact that he was considered the "father" of his generation and Rabbi Joshua said to him: "The generation in which Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah lives cannot be considered an orphan."