Elisha ben Abuyah, or Acher (“the Other”), as he came to be known by his colleagues, was a Mishnaic sage turned heretic. Born into a prestigious Jerusalem family,1 Elisha was described by the Talmud as an extraordinary scholar who delved deep into the secrets of the Torah. Ultimately, though, Elisha threw off his Torah observance and committed terrible sins.

Let us explore the story of this elusive, almost infamous sage.

Who Was Elisha?

Elisha, son of Abuyah, a wealthy Jerusalemite, was one of the great sages of the Mishnah (called tanna’im). He is quoted by name in a mishnah in Tractate Avot, and his ruling regarding mourning rites is cited in Tractate Megillah.2 He was a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, and the teacher of Rabbi Meir, one of the greatest and most prolific contributors to the Mishnah, as we will discuss.

How Elisha Was Disillusioned

Once, he saw a pig dragging in its mouth the tongue of the famous sage Rabbi Yehudah. He became so disturbed at the sight that he exclaimed, “From this tongue, pearls of purest light used to come forth all his days. Is this Torah, and is this its reward?”

Another time, he saw a person ascend a tree and take the mother bird together with her eggs, an act prohibited by the Torah (which requires that one first send away the mother bird before taking her eggs). The next day, he saw another person climb a tree, send away the mother bird and take the eggs. On the way down, a snake bit him and the man died. Elishah thought to himself, “The Torah promises that one who sends away the mother bird will live long. Yet the man who acted in accordance with G‑d's commandment had his life cut short, whereas the sinner was unharmed.”

Thus, he stopped believing in Torah.3

Four Entered the Pardes

Another incident is recorded in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Chagigah,4 as follows:

Four men entered into “Pardes” (literally “orchard”; this refers to the study of the loftiest secrets of Torah). Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher and Rabbi Akiva . . . Acḥer chopped down the orchard’s growths [i.e., he became a heretic]. What led him to heresy? He saw [the ministering angel] Mitatron sitting and writing the merits of Israel. He said: “There is a tradition that in the world above that there is no sitting, no competition, no turning one’s back before Him, and no lethargy.” [Seeing that someone other than G‑d was seated above, he questioned:] “Perhaps, there are two authorities [ and there is another source of power in control of the world in addition to G‑d]!”

The Whiff of Impurity

Additionally, when confronted by his student, Rabbi Meir, Elisha explained that although his father had dedicated him to the study of Torah, his intentions were not purely for the sake of heaven. Therefore, his Torah did not last. He further related that once when his mother was pregnant with him, she passed a place of idol worship, smelled the food cooking there, and partook of it. That negatively affected her son many years later and made him susceptible to stumbling.5

His Heresy and Sins

Once, Elisha desecrated the holy day of Yom Kippur by riding a horse in front of the Holy of Holies. As he was passing, he heard a heavenly voice emerge from the Holy of Holies and declare, “Return My sons—except for Elisha ben Abuyah, for he knew My power and yet rebelled against Me.”6

Some traditions record that when Elisha heard the voice, he thought, “Since I have been banished from that world [i.e., the World to Come], let me go out and enjoy this world.”7

He went and solicited a prostitute. Horrified, she exclaimed, “Are you not Elisha ben Abuyah? Shall a person of your stature perform such an act?” That day was Shabbat, and Elisha uprooted a radish (an act forbidden on Shabbat) , demonstrating that he no longer observed the Torah. The prostitute said, “He is acher” (literally “other,” i.e., not Elisha ben Abuyah but another person).8

Additionally, the Talmud recounts that Acher was often heard singing Greek songs, and that when he would stand up after learning in the study hall, many heretical scrolls would fall from within his robes. 9

His Relationship with Rabbi Meir

One of the most fascinating elements of the Acher saga was his unique relationship with his disciple, Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Meir was among the greatest of all the tanna’im, and it is said about him that the other sages could not comprehend the depth of his wisdom. In fact, Rabbi Meir’s rulings were so widely accepted and held in such high esteem that his opinions are often quoted without any attribution, presented simply as the law. Even after Acher went astray, Rabbi Meir continued to learn from him. The other sages said of him that “Rabbi Meir ate a half-ripe date and threw the peel away.” In other words, he was able to extract the kernel of truth and wisdom from Acher’s words, and discard the excess.

His End

According to some, Acher repented before he died. On his deathbed, Rabbi Meir visited him and inspired him to repent.10

But according to others, Acher died a sinner,11 and when his soul ascended, the Heavenly Court deemed him unfit for both Heaven and Hell. He could not be sentenced to Hell, as his Torah learning protected him, but he could not be sent to Heaven either since he was a sinner. Therefore, he was placed in an uncomfortable in-between state, and his soul could find no respite.

Rabbi Meir understood what had happened and said, “When I die, I will petition to have Acher sentenced to Hell, for it is better that he be judged and pay the price for his misdeeds, and then ultimately be forgiven and sent to Heaven.” Sure enough, after Rabbi Meir died, smoke began to rise from Acher’s grave.

When another sage, Rabbi Yochanan, heard this, he was upset. “Is it a mighty deed to burn one’s teacher?” he asked. “When I die, I will petition to have Acher released from Hell and brought to Heaven.” And when Rabbi Yochanan died, the rising smoke from Acher’s grave ceased.

What the Story of Acher Means for Us

A person, no matter how brilliant, needs to recognize the limits of human intelligence, otherwise, he can fall into a spiritual abyss. The greater one’s abilities and intelligence and potential for greatness, the lower he falls if he is corrupted. In that sense, the story of Acher is a cautionary tale of what happens to one who places too much stock in his own intellectual prowess.

Yet, there is also a thread of grace that runs through the story. Even Acher was brought back (either during his lifetime or after) because no matter how low we fall, the Divine soul that we each have will find its way back to its source, deep within G‑d.