[Notes marked JE: are taken from the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Ben Azzai]
[This is my drasha for the siyum on Horios, Erev Pesach 5769 at the Yavneh Minyan of Flatbush]
In learning Tr. Horios in the Yerushalmi, to finish IY”H before Pesach and give a siyum, I’ve come across Ben Azzai not only as a tanna, but as an idiom. He is the archetype of the “talmid hara’ui lehora’ah”, the student worthy of ordination, which implies that he never actually obtained the degree of rabbinic ordination, or perhaps, in modern terms, he was Yoreh Yoreh, the lower, standard rabbinic degree, attained by most communal, teaching and pulpit rabbis, but not Yadin Yadin, the higher rabbinic degree that allows one to function on a rabbinical court.
But more than that, throughout the first chapter, whenever someone wants to refer to someone who would undoubtedly know the correct law, they use the term “Ben Azzai” as an idiom to represent that, whether to describe a civilian or a sitting judge who should know better than to follow a mistaken judgment. In fact, some Amoraim claimed great authority by calling themselves “Ben Azzais.” (JE: Yer. Bik. ii. 65a; Yer. Peah vi. 19c). So the use of Ben Azzai as an idiom extends throughout the Yerushalmi.
Rabbi Akiva apparently looked down on him for not having bothered to take the rabbinic degree, and for not being married – he felt that Ben Azzai’s soul was not sufficiently settled, not having married. Of course, some of that may have been personal. Ben Azzai was betrothed to R’ Akiva’s daughter for years, but never actually married her (JE: Keth. 63a-b). And yet, Ben Azzai and Akiva are often paired and compared: as opponents, as teacher and student, as equals in the industriousness of their study, and later in the Pardes experience.
Ben Azzai is also known, in M. Sotah 3:4, for recommending that people teach their daughters Torah. Unfortunately, that idea was not taken up immediately, rather Rabbi Eliezer’s recommendation against became the generally-followed rule until the last century.
There is also a story, in Chagigah 14b, about the intensity of Ben Azzai’s learning. In the middle of a series of stories about the intensity of teaching mysticism – that flames shoot out of the heads of those who teach it correctly – we have a story where Ben Azzai is teaching, and flames surround his little group. When asked if he was teaching mysticism, he responded that no, he was just tying together psukim from Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim. In other words, his big strength was Biblical interpretation.
Ben Azzai’s “Great Principle”, according to the JE, which opposes Rebbi Akiva’s principle of “what is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbor”, is “This is the book of the generations of Adam… In the day when God created Adam… Man was created in God’s image.” In a sense, then, Akiva’s great principle is outer-directed, while Ben Azzai’s is inner-directed, towards the perfection of the intellect and attachment to the Torah, such that the Torah would saturate him. This devotion to Torah kept him from marrying.
And yet, even though he did not consider himself a mystic, his death is part of the Pardes narrative.
I quote from a series of lectures by Idel on Maimonides’ and others' creative understanding of the Pardes:
The Core of the "Pardes" Tradition: Tosefta Hagigah 2:3-4
Four entered the Orchard (Pardes): Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Akher and Rabbi Aqiva. One peeked and died; one peeked and was smitten; one peeked and cut down the shoots; one ascended safely and descended safely.
Ben Azzai peeked and died. Concerning him Scripture says: "Precious in the eyes of he Lord is the death of His loyal ones" (Ps. 16. 15).
Ben Zoma peeked and was smitten. Concerning him Scripture says: "If you have found honey, eat only your fill lest you become filled with it and vomit" (Prov. 25:16).
Akher peeked and cut down the shoots. Concerning him Scripture says: "Do not let your mouth bring your flesh to sin, and do not say before the angel that it is an error; why should God become angry at your voice, and ruin your handiwork" (Eccl. 5:5).
Rabbi Aqiva ascended safely and descended safely. Concerning him Scripture says: "Draw me, let us run after you, the King has brought me into His chambers" (Song I:4).
Idel brings a (medieval? Unknown author) manuscript expanding on Ben Azzai’s experience:
In the Hekhaloth texts, too, the idea of Light is paramount. Pardes is described as full of the radiance of Light. There is a manuscript text by an unknown author - one which I needed some 60 pages to analyze, so we can only deal witha small part of it here. There are some ten lines in it about Ben Azzai (who did not return). "Ben Azzai peeked and died. He gazed at the radiance of the Divine Presence like a man with weak eyes who gazes at the full light of the sun and becomes blinded by the intensity of the light that overwhelms him... He did not wish to be separated, he remained hidden in it, his soul was covered and adorned ... he remained where he had cleaved, in the Light to which no one may cling and yet live."
Ben Azzai ascends to perceive the Light of the Divine Glory (a major aspect of Heichalot and early medieval mysticism; see Wolfson’s book, Through a Speculum that Shines).
a) overwhelms him;
b) he wishes to unite with it;
c) he is hidden in it, his soul is covered and adorned.” (really, go look at the linked lecture, Idel analyzes the text expansively).
This idea comes down to us today, in the Chasidic (emphasized in Chabad) of bitul ha-yesh, nullification of existence. The soul is a candle flame which is nullified before the infinite Divine Light, which is an understanding of “ki ner mitzvah vetorah or”, a mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light – the mitzvoth that we do feed the flame of our souls, but that flame is nullified beside the Light expressed by Him who gave us the Torah. It is the Chassidic “lower unity”, recognizing that existence is nullified, has no real existence, beside God.
And yet, and yet, even though today such an idea drives whole systems of Torah, if we look at it in context of Ben Azzai’s life, and the ideas he espouses, perhaps it’s not the ideal life of the Torah scholar, of the Tanna.
Who was Ben Azzai, ultimately? From what I can see, a genius, but too self-centered to survive the ultimate test. The Maharal, using the “three things on which the world stands” passage as a paradigm for interpreting the three-fold statements throughout Pirkei Avot, sees the ideal personality as balanced between Torah (intellect, personal growth), Divine Service (attachment to God), and Service to Others (attachment to the community).
Ben Azzai was not so well balanced. He was a genius of the intellect - he was devoted to Torah. He strove for greatness in Avodah - he delved into the mysteries, but ultimately failed. Why did he fail? Because, as Rebbi Akiva said, he was insufficiently attached to others. He did not marry, so was not grounded in the basic interpersonal relationship, and he did not take semicha, to take his proper place on the Sanhedrin - to fulfill his duty to his community, to all of Israel. He was unbalanced - too heavy in the intellect (self-directed), insufficently outer-directed, he strove to reach Up, and never came back Down.
Ben Azzai became an idiom, because of his intellect, but he did not become a major halachic figure, because he was too driven by self-interest, insufficiently driven by duty to klal Israel. We should all strive to be balanced persons, to live our lives for ourselves, for God and for others, so that we too, may fulfill our highest aspirations and yet be whole.
P.S. In learning the Yerushalmi, I used two terrific aids:
1) the audio shiurim on Daf Yomi Yerushalmi by Rabbi Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer; and
2) the running commentary of Yedid Nefesh.