Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer

Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer (PRE, Aramaic: פרקי דרבי אליעזר, or פרקים דרבי אליעזר, Chapters of Rabbi Eliezar) is an aggadic-midrashic work on the Torah containing exegesis and retellings of biblical stories. The composition enjoyed widespread circulation and recognition throughout Jewish history, and continues to do so in the present. Traditionally, PRE has been understood to be a tannaitic composition which originated with the tanna Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, - a disciple of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai and teacher of Rabbi Akiva - and his disciples.

Leopold Zunz has suggested that the book has had interpolations made to copies owned by private citizens in the 8th century.[1] Isaak Jost first noticed the inclusion of 8th century interpolations.

The name of the composition

The work is quoted by important Jewish scholars, and is referred to by various names, including:

Chapters one and two and the attribution to Rabbi Eliezer

The topic of chapters one and two of the composition is the beginnings of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus; it is due to them that medieval sages attributed the entire work to him. However, Zunz conclusively proved that this traditional ascription is not historically accurate. Based on an ancient list of works found in the Cairo Genizah scholars have posited that these chapters were transferred to PRE from Avot de-Rabbi Natan, version II, chapter 13, and that they were not originally part of the composition that we now call PRE. This is further proved by one manuscript which places the title “Pirkei R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanus” and begins the chapter numbering only after chapter two. Nevertheless, it is critical to note that both chapters are found in all full manuscripts of the composition, which increases the likelihood that they have always been part of the composition. Furthermore, examination of the language of these chapters also points to the fact that these chapters are properly considered part of the composition. PRE contains distinct literary phrases which appear and reappear throughout the entire work. Despite the fact that the core language of these two chapters is almost identical to that found in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, a unique phrase found in PRE, absent from the parallel in Avot de-Rabbi Natan, is present here as well.

The Problem of the Completeness of PRE

Digital edition of Pirkê De Rabbi Eliezer.

There is a complex problem about the completeness of the composition. Zunz detected two literary structures around which the author of PRE has organized his composition, but which are not complete in the composition as it is known to us today. A) At the beginning of chapter fourteen there is a list of ten times that God descended into the world. These “descents” are expounded upon in various places throughout the work. However, the last descent to appear is the eighth; the final two are missing. B) From chapter twenty-six and onwards, several chapters conclude with a blessing from the Shemoneh Esreh prayer, but the last blessing mentioned is “who heals the sick.” Both of these phenomena may indicate that the work was never actually completed by its author. Alongside this possibility, Zunz raised the possibility that the work was at one point complete, but that parts of it were lost in its early period. This suggestion has found widespread acceptance among scholars, who are in almost complete agreement that the composition as it is in our hands is missing pieces that were once in existence. Rabbi David Luria (1798-1855), the most important traditional commentator on PRE, and others scrutinized other rabbinic compositions to find chapters and quotes that were originally part of PRE and were lost in its later transmission. However, subsequent analysis by Treitl has usually demonstrated that the ascription of these pieces of other works to a more original PRE is without basis. As far as the claim that the structure of PRE shows signs that parts of the composition are missing, Treitl's examination demonstrates that when it comes to the conclusion of chapters with blessings from the Shemoneh Esreh, the structure is fundamentally defective and was at no point complete. No textual witness includes the blessing for forgiveness or redemption (and Zunz completed them based on his own conjecture), and the blessings over sanctity and health appear in only some textual witnesses. Chapter ten concludes with a reference to the blessing for converts, making it clearly out of place within the larger composition, which only begins referring to the blessings in chapter twenty-six. It seems therefore likely that the author of the work never succeeded in weaving all of the various blessings into the work in their correct order. This leads to a suggestion that rather than assuming the existence of chapters that were once part of the work and somehow disappeared, there is a greater likelihood that the author never successfully completed his work.

The passage that concludes the composition in all of the complete manuscripts may be interpreted as referring to this situation. In this passage the author praises Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, describing them as diligent workers who receive their wages after their work has been completed. In contrast, he describes the generation of their offspring as lazy workers who request their wages out of mercy, before they even complete their work (this passage as well as other passages at the end of the concluding chapter are missing from the editio princeps, because the manuscript upon which the editio princeps is based was missing the last page.) Treitl suggests that, by ending the work with this exegesis the author wished to hint that by laying down his pen before his work is truly completed he too is one of these “lazy” offspring.

Dating and place

The text itself attributes the authorship of the text to Tannaim Rabbis (ex Eliezer, Simeon ben Jochai, Jehudah).[2] This would place the original text, minus any interpolations or additions, within the first to third century.

Jost was the first to point out that in the 30th chapter, in which at the end the author distinctly alludes to the three stages of the Muslim conquest, that of Arabia (משא בערב), of Spain (איי הים), and of Rome (830 C.E.; כרך גדול רומי), the names of Fatima and Ayesha occur beside that of Ishmael, leading to the conclusion that the book originated in a time when Islam was predominant in Asia Minor. As in ch. xxxvi. two brothers reigning simultaneously are mentioned, after whose reign the Messiah shall come, the work might be ascribed to the beginning of the 9th century, for about that time the two sons of Harun al-Rashid, El-Amin and El-Mamun, were ruling over the Islamic realm. If a statement in ch. xxviii. did not point to an even earlier date, approximately the same date might be inferred from the enumeration of the four powerful kingdoms and the substitution of Ishmael for one of the four which are enumerated in the Talmud and the Mekilta. However, the interpolation may have no effect upon the contested connection between this text and the Qur'an (The lowing bovine idol - chapter XXI, Surah Taha 80-98), which receives two separate 1st century attributions within the text, within a 100 word span.[2]

The author seems to have been a rabbi of the Land of Israel; this appears not only from the fact that some of the customs to which he refers (in ch. xiii. and xx.) are known only as customs of the Land of Israel, but also from the fact that nearly all the authorities he quotes are from the Land of Israel, the exceptions being Rav Mesharshia and Rav Shemaiah, who are from Babylonia. The work is ascribed to R. Eliezer (80-118 C.E.), although he was a tanna, while the book itself the Pirḳe Abot is quoted. Late Talmudic authorities belonging to the 3rd century C.E., like Shemaiah (ch. xxiii.), Ze'era (ch. xxi., xxix.), and Shila (ch. xlii., xliv.), are also quoted, indicating that the work was edited or additions were made to it after the time of R. Eliezar.

The Text

Text from Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer in Hebrew.

There are over one hundred known manuscripts of the work. All surviving manuscripts contain some of the same common errors, whose origins lie in a proto-tradition from which all existent manuscripts ultimately stem. Despite the antiquity of this proto-tradition it is still not identical with the composition as it was created by the author.

The textual witnesses can be divided into three groupings. Along with the complete and lengthy manuscripts, a number of partial manuscripts and genizah fragments have survived. Most of these can be classified as belonging to one of the main textual groupings.

Customs Mentioned

Many ancient customs that are not found in other sources are described in this work.[3] The following customs and halachot of the Jews are referred to in the Pirḳe de-Rabbi Eliezer:

The following chapters close with benedictions from the Shemoneh Esreh:

Chapters xvii., xxx., xxxi., xlvi., li., lii., liv. also remind one of the Amidah.

The Tekufot

Title page of a Sabbioneta edition of Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer.

Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer comprises exegesis, legends and folklore, as well as astronomical discussions related to the story of the Creation. The author dwells longest on the description of the second day of Creation, in which the "Ma'aseh Merkabah" (Ezek. i.) is described in various forms, and although this passage recalls Donnolo and the Alphabet of R. Akiba, it is evidently much older, since it does not mention the "Hekalot." This description is connected with that of the creation of the seven planets and the twelve signs of the zodiac, the reference to the "maḥzors" and the "teḳufot," and the discussion of the intercalation. In the series of years (3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, 19 in the cycle of 19) in which the intercalation takes place the author substitutes the fifth year for the sixth. His cycle of the moon, furthermore, covers 21 years, at the end of which period the moon again occupies the same position in the week as at the beginning, but this can happen only once in 689,472 years, according to the common computation.

On the connection of the Pirḳe de-Rabbi Eliezer with the Baraita of Samuel, see S. Sachs in Monatsschrift i. 277. Manuscripts of the Pirḳe are found at Parma (No. 541), in the Vatican (No. 303; dated 1509), and in the Halberstam library. The following editions are known: Constantinople, 1518; Venice, 1548; Sabbioneta, 1568; Amsterdam, 1712; Wilna, 1837; Lemberg, 1864. A commentary upon it, by David Luria, is included in the Wilna edition, and another, by Abraham Broydé, in the Lemberg edition.

Complete contents of the collection

The work is divided into 54 chapters, which may be divided into seven groups, as follows:

  1. Ch. i., ii.: Introduction to the entire work, dealing with the youth of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, his thirst for knowledge, and his settlement at Jerusalem.
  2. Ch. iii.-xi. (corresponding to Gen. i.-ii.): The six days of the Creation.
    1. On the first day occurred the creation of four kinds of angels and of the 47 clouds.
    2. The second day: the creation of heaven, other angels, the fire in mankind (impulse), and the fire of Gehenna.
    3. The third day: the division of the waters, fruit-trees, herbs, and grass.
    4. The fourth day: creation of the lights; astronomy and the determination of the intercalation.
    5. The leap-year reckoning is imparted to Adam, Enoch, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
    6. The fifth day: birds and fishes; enumeration of the kinds which may be eaten. Also, the story of Jonah, which is said to belong to the fifth day.
    7. The sixth day: God's conference with the Torah in regard to the way in which man should be created. Since God is the first king of the world, all the great rulers are enumerated in order to refer to God as the first one.
  3. Ch. xii.-xxiii. (= Gen. ii.-viii., xxiv., xxix., 1.): The time from Adam to Noah.
    1. The placing of man in the Garden of Eden and the creation of Eve.
    2. Description of the three evil qualities which shorten the life of man—envy, lust, and ambition.
    3. Identification of the serpent with Samael.
    4. Announcement of the ten appearances of God upon earth ("eser yeridot").
    5. First appearance of God in the Garden of Eden, and the punishment of the first pair.
    6. The two ways, the good and the evil, are pointed out to Adam, who enters upon his penitence. (The story is interrupted here, to be continued in ch. xx.)
    7. Detailed discussion of the three pillars of the world—the Torah, the Abodah, and the Gemilut Hasadim (see Avot 1:2).
    8. God's kindness toward Adam, that of the Hananites toward Jacob, and the consideration to be shown to those in mourning.
    9. The literary quarrel between the Shammaites and the Hillelites as to whether heaven or earth was created first.
    10. The ten things which were created on Friday evening.
    11. Exegesis of Psalm viii., which Adam sang in the Garden of Eden.
    12. Discussion of the Habdalah blessing of the Sabbath evening and the completion of Adam's penitence.
    13. Cain and Abel; Cain's penitence.
    14. Birth of Seth; the sinful generation.
    15. Story of Noah.
  4. Ch. xxiv.-xxv. (= Gen. ix., x., xi., xviii., xix.): The sinful generation.
    1. Nimrod.
    2. God's second appearance.
    3. The confusion of tongues and the Dispersion.
    4. Nimrod is killed by Esau, who takes his garments, which Jacob then puts on in order to secure the blessing.
  5. Ch. xxvi.-xxxix. (= Gen. xl., l.): From Abraham to the death of Jacob.
    1. The ten temptations of Abraham.
    2. Lot's imprisonment and Abraham's pursuit of the kings.
    3. God's covenant with Abraham.
    4. The circumcision, and the appearance of the angels.
    5. Identification of Hagar with Keturah, and the story of Ishmael.
    6. The sacrifice of Isaac.
    7. Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Esau.
    8. Proofs given by Elijah, Elisha, and Shallum ben Tikvah that the dead are resurrected through the liberality of the living.
    9. Those that will be found worthy to be resurrected.
    10. From the sale of the birthright to the time when Jacob left Beer-sheba.
    11. From Jacob at the well to his flight from Laban's house.
    12. Repetition of the three preceding chapters.
    13. Story of Dinah and of the sale of Joseph.
    14. God's fourth appearance—in the vision of Jacob while on his way to Egypt.
    15. Joseph and Potiphar.
    16. Joseph in prison; interpretation of the dream; the sale of the grain.
    17. Jacob's blessing and death.
  6. Ch. xl.-xlvi. (= Ex. ii.-iv., xiv.-xx., xxxii.-xxxiv.): From the appearance of Moses to the time when God revealed Himself to him in the cleft of the rock.
    1. Fifth appearance of God—to Moses, from the burning bush.
    2. The miracles performed by Moses before Pharaoh.
    3. God's sixth appearance—on Sinai.
    4. Pharaoh's persecution.
    5. The value of penitence; Pharaoh is not destroyed, but becomes King of Nineveh.
    6. Amalek's pursuit in the desert; Saul and Amalek; Amalek and Sennacherib.
    7. The golden calf; Moses' descent from the mountain; his prayer because of Israel's sin.
    8. Moses on Sinai; his descent, and the destruction of the golden calf.
    9. Seventh appearance of God—to Moses.
  7. Ch. xlvii.-liv. (= Ex. xv.; Num. ii., v., xi.-xiii., xxv., xxvi.; in these chapters the sequence thus far observed is broken): The sin committed at Baal-peor.
    1. The courage of Phinehas.
    2. The priestly office conferred upon him for life as a recompense.
    3. Computation of the time Israel spent in servitude down to the exodus from Egypt.
    4. Continuation of the story of Amalek.
    5. The passing over to Nebuchadnezzar and Haman.
    6. Story of Esther.
    7. Holiness of the months and of Israel.
    8. Enumeration of the seven miracles:
      1. Abraham in the furnace
      2. Jacob's birth
      3. Abraham's attainment of manhood (comp. Sanh. 107b)
      4. Jacob sneezes and does not die
      5. the sun and moon remain immovable at the command of Joshua
      6. King Hezekiah becomes ill, but recovers
      7. Daniel in the lion's den.
    9. Moses is slandered by Aaron and Miriam.
    10. Absalom and his death.
    11. God's eighth appearance—in punishment of Miriam.



  1. Zunz, Leopold (1892). Die Gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden: Historisch Entwickelt. Frankfurt: Verlag von J. Kauffmann:. p. 289.
  2. 1 2 Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer. New York: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd. 1916.
  3. Birnbaum, Philip (1975). A Book of Jewish Concepts. New York: Hebrew Publishing Company. p. 516. ISBN 9780884828761.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Joseph Jacobs and Schulim Ochser (1901–1906). "Pirke De-Rabbi Eliezer". In Singer, Isidore; et al. Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. 

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