The Talmud: Selections, by H. Polano, , at sacred-texts.com
Elishah ben Abuyah.
Elishah ben Abuyah, a most learned man, became in after-life an apostate. Rabbi Meir had been one of his pupils, and he never failed in the great love which he bore for his teacher.
It happened upon one occasion when Rabbi Meir was lecturing in the college, that some students entered and said to him:
"Thy teacher, Elishah, is riding by on horseback on this holy Sabbath day."
Rabbi Meir left the college, and overtaking Elishah walked along by his horse's side. The latter saluted him, and asked:
"What passage of Scripture hast thou been expounding?"
"From the book of Job," replied Rabbi Meir. "'The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than the beginning.'"
"And how didst thou explain the verse?" said Elishah.
"That the Lord increased his wealth twofold."
"But thy teacher, Akiba, said not so," returned Elishah.
"He said that the Lord blessed the latter days of Job with twofold of penitence and good deeds."
"How," inquired Rabbi Meir, "wouldst thou explain the verse, 'Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof.' If a man buys merchandise in his youth and meets with losses, is it likely that he will recover his substance in old age? Or, if a person studies God's law in his youth and forgets it, is it probable that it will return to his memory in his latter days?"
"Thy teacher, Akiba, said not so," replied Elishah; "he explained the verse, 'Better is the end of a thing when the beginning was good My own life proves the soundness of
this explanation. On the day when I was admitted into the covenant of Abraham, my father made a great feast. Some of his visitors sang, some of them danced, but the Rabbis conversed upon God's wisdom and His laws. This latter pleased my father, Abuyah, and he said, 'When my son grows up ye shall teach him and he shall become like ye; he did not cause me to study for God's sake but only to make his name famous through me.' Therefore, in my latter days have I become wicked and an apostate; and now, return home."
"Because, on the Sabbath day, thou art allowed to go so far and no farther, and I have reckoned the distance thou hast travelled with me by the footsteps of my horse."
"If thou art so wise," said Rabbi Meir, "as to reckon the distance I may travel by the footsteps of thy horse, and so particular for my sake, why not return to God and repent of thy apostacy?"
"It is not in my power. I rode upon horseback once on the Day of Atonement; yea, when it fell upon the Sabbath, and when I passed the synagogue I heard a voice crying, 'Return, oh backsliding children, return to me and I will return to ye; except Elishah, the son of Abuyah, he knew his Master and yet rebelled against Him.'"
What caused such a learned man as Elishah to turn to evil ways?
It is reported that once while studying the law in the vale of Genusan, he saw a man climbing a tree. The man found a bird's-nest in the tree, and taking the mother with the young ones he still departed in peace. He saw another man who finding a bird's-nest followed the Bible's command and took the young only, allowing the mother to fly away; and
yet a serpent stung him as he descended and he died. "Now," thought he, "where is the Bible's truth and promises? Is it not written, 'And the young thou mayest take to thyself, but the mother thou shalt surely let go, that it may he well with thee and that thou mayest live many days.' Now, where is the long life to this man who followed the precept, while the one who transgressed it is unhurt?"
He had not heard how Rabbi Akiba expounded this verse, that the days would be long in the future world where all is happiness.
There is also another reason given as the cause for Elishah's backsliding and apostacy.
During the fearful period of religious persecution, the learned Rabbi Judah, whose life had been passed in the study of the law and the practice of God's precepts, was delivered into the power of the cruel torturer. His tongue was placed in a dog's mouth and the dog bit it off.
So Elishah said, "If a tongue which uttered naught but truth be so used, and a learned, wise man be so treated, of what use is it to avoid having a lying tongue and being ignorant. Lo, if these things are allowed, there is surely no reward for the righteous, and no resurrection for the dead."
When Elishah waxed old he was taken sick, and Rabbi Meir, learning of the illness of his aged teacher, called upon him.
"Oh return, return unto thy God," entreated Rabbi Meir.
"What!" exclaimed Elishah, "return! and could He receive my penitence, the penitence of an apostate who has so rebelled against Him?"
"Is it not written," said Meir, "'Thou turnest man to contrition?' (Psalm 90: 3). No matter how the soul of man may be crushed, he can still turn to his God and find relief."
Elishah listened to these words, wept bitterly and died. Not many years after his death his daughters came, poverty stricken, asking relief from the colleges. "Remember," said they, "the merit of our father's learning, not his conduct."
The colleges listened to the appeal and supported the daughters of Elishah.