Unsong is a work of online serial fiction by Scott Alexander which is based heavily on Judaism. (I highly recommend it to Jews and Gentiles alike.) In this chapter of Unsong, the archangel Uriel tells the Talmudic story of the heretic Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah, commonly referred to as Acher or the other one:

Elisha ben Abuyah was a great Rabbi of ancient Israel. A brilliant kabbalist. A mighty miracle worker. A true saint. One day he was walking along a path when he saw a little boy climb a tree. The boy found a bird’s nest. He took the eggs to eat, and he also killed the mother bird. But this is in defiance of Deuteronomy 22:6, which says ‘He who shall hurt the little wren, will never be beloved by men.’ ... The little boy killed the mother bird, then climbed back down the tree and wandered off. ... A few months later, he was walking along the same path when he saw another little boy climb a tree looking for eggs to eat. This boy found a nest, took the eggs, but left the mother bird in peace, in accordance with the Law. On his way back down the tree, he stumbled, fell, broke his neck, and died. So Elisha ben Abuyah swore eternal vengeance against God.... The one boy did a wicked deed and was not punished. The other boy did a virtuous deed and was punished with death. Elisha ben Abuyah saw this and declared that whatever power in the Universe meted out judgment, he was in rebellion against it....

Elisha was very angry. One by one, he broke all of the laws. He was a great Rabbi, so he knew every law and which ones most offended God when broken, and he devoted himself to the task with fearsome dedication. He lit fires on the Sabbath. He ate pork. He even boiled a goat in its mother’s milk. Which by the way is why there is no longer a city of Pompeii. But these were not enough for him. He swore to break the most important law of all.... The unity of God. Elisha ascended to Heaven, as one does, and he pointed at the archangel Metatron, the regent of the Divine in the finite world. And he declared ‘That guy there, he is also a God. There are two Gods. T-W-O G-O-D-S. Deal with it.’ The Rabbis decreed that his name must never be spoken. And all who heard of it said ‘Surely the great Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah would never do such a thing. It must be some other one.’ and so from that day on, he was called ‘the other one’....

God refused to forgive him.... It is said that each year on the day of atonement, a great voice would ring forth from the holy places, saying ‘Repent, O children of Israel, for the Lord your God is merciful and shall forgive you. Except you, Elisha ben Abuyah.' ... The Babylonian Talmud says that he was too great a Rabbi to go to Hell, but too evil to go to Heaven.

I'm interested in the part in bold. My question is, what was the ultimate fate of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah?

Is it true that the Babylonian Talmud says that "he was too great a rabbi to go to Hell, but too evil to go to Heaven"? And if so, what happened to him? Was his soul cursed to eternally wander the Earth, or what?

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya and thanks for bringing your question here. I haven't an answer (what happened to Acher), but, based on what little I recall from that passage in the Talmud, Unsong changes it drastically. (And changes Deuteronomy, too.) Just so you know.
    – msh210
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 17:47
  • @msh210 Yeah, it doesn't surprise me that Unsong takes creative license. By the way, if you click on the full chapter you'll see that the Deuteronomy thing is an inside joke; Uriel is being playful and is quoting a poem by William Blake rather than the actual Deuteronomy verse. Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 20:56
  • The talmud yold that somepne prau for him after her death... And the end was good
    – kouty
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 21:58
  • I was surprised to see that in Avot D'Rabbi Natan, there is a list of about 10 important sayings related to Torah stidy and the beauty of Torah all said by Elisha ben Avuya. I'd hav eto research when he said these statements, but, I assume it was before he became heretical.
    – DanF
    Commented Oct 5, 2016 at 1:32

1 Answer 1


The story is brought down in Chagiga 15b:

When Acher died, they said, "We cannot judge him to punishment [in Gehinnom], but we cannot enter him into the World to Come. We cannot judge him to punishment, because he toiled in Torah; we cannot enter him into the World to Come, because he sinned." Rabbi Meir said, "It is better that they sentence him [so as to purge him of his sins], and he should go to the World to Come [afterwards]. When I die, I will raise smoke from his grave." When Rabbi Meir passed away, smoke came out from the grave of Acher. Rabbi Yochanan said, "Is it a feat to burn one's teacher!? There was one between us [Torah scholars]; can we not save him? If I took him in the hand [and lead him out of Gehinnom], who would stop me?" He said, "When I die, I will douse the smoke from his grave." When Rabbi Yochanan passed away, the smoke ceased from the grave of Acher. A eulogizer opened [his remarks] upon him, "Even the entrance guard [of Gehinnom] did not stand in front of you, our Master."

Basically, when R' Meir died he [Acher] went to Gehenom and later R' Yochanan brought him to Heaven.

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