Sukkah 27b tells the story of R. Eliezer chastising his student R. Ilai for visiting his mentor on the holiday. R. Eliezer was of the view that part of the Biblical mitzvah of enjoying the holiday is remaining in one’s house. He said, “I praise the lazy who do not leave their houses on the holiday.”
R. Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, in his glosses to Sanhedrin 32b, asks that if that is the case, why does the Haggadahtell of a time during which R. Eliezer spent the Passover seder in Bnei Brak with R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar, R. Akiva and R. Tarfon? Should he not have felt obligated to remain in his house in Lod?
R. Yehiel Mikhel Epstein, the author of the Arukh Ha-Shulhan, asks this question in his commentary to the Haggadah and points to the Gemara at the very end of Makkos (24a-b). That passage describes how a number of those sages were distraught over the destruction of the Temple and R. Akiva found ways to encourage and inspire them by reminding them of the inevitable redemption. This communal seder, R. Epstein suggests, was a continuation of that discussion in which the sages discussed the future redemption in the context of the Passover story. Perhaps one could call it a group session of mutual encouragement (yes, I am taking liberties in how I portray R. Epstein’s answer). This, R. Epstein suggests, particularly noting the thanks that was due to R. Akiva, overrode the obligation to remain in one’s house.
R. Reuven Margoliyos, in his Margoliyos Ha-Yam (Sanhedrin 32b:18), offers an historical explanation. The Gemara (Sukkah 23a) tells of a time when Rabban Gamliel and R. Akiva had to build a sukkah on a boat. Later (41b), the Gemara tells of a time when Rabban Gamliel, R. Yehoshua, R. Elazar ben Azariah and R. Akiva were on a boat and had only one set of four species for Sukkos. Similarly, the Mishnah (Ma’aser Sheni 5:9) tells of a time when Rabban Gamliel had to take tithe from produce by stating, from a boat, that the part belonging to Levites belonged to R. Yehoshua and the part belonging to the poor belonged to R. Akiva. It is important to note that the Rambam explains that this happened right before Passover, the zeman ha-bi’ur for ma’asros.
R. Yitzhak Halevi (Doros Ha-Rishonim, part 3 volume 5 ch. 19 = volume 4 pp. 275-278) explains that when the Roman emperor Domitian was killed, the elderly and sickly senator Nerva succeeded him as emperor. His ascension to the throne happened on September 18th, 96 CE. Nerva was known as being sympathetic to Jews. When the sages of the Mishnah learned of the change of regime in Rome, and that the new emperor was extremely ill, they immediately traveled to Rome. Given the time of the year of Nerva’s crowning, it is understandable why they were on a boat during the holiday of Sukkos. Their haste, due to Nerva’s poor health, explains why they were not fully prepared for the holiday and had only one set of four species that they had bought at an extravagant price. (Their haste was well-advised, as Nerva died a mere 14 months after taking the throne, less than a year after the rabbis returned home.)
Evidently, their eventful stay in Rome, which is mentioned in many places throughout rabbinic literature, lasted around six months and they returned immediately prior to Passover. Perhaps, R. Margoliyos suggests, they arrived at the port in Jaffa right before the onset of the holiday and quickly went to R. Akiva’s nearby home in Bnei Brak to spend the holiday. R. Eliezer, therefore, was not home for the holiday due to circumstances beyond his control. (Rabban Gamliel might have been absent from the communal seder in Bnei Brak because of his duties as Nasi or in order to allow his colleagues to recline, which they would not be permitted to do if he were in attendance.)
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