Talmud pages

Bava Metzia 59

My children have defeated me.

Certain pages of Talmud are rightfully iconic, today’s among them. For several pages, the rabbis have been exploring the importance of not oppressing others with words. On today’s daf, we have a story to illustrate that principle — and a whole lot more.

It begins with an argument about the purity of Akhnai’s oven, an earthenware construction that has been sliced up and reassembled with sand between the sections. Rabbi Eliezer holds that the oven is no longer subject to impurity, but the other sages disagree. Akhnai was probably the name of the oven’s owner, but the word also means snake and may foreshadow the “coiled” arguments that were used against Rabbi Eliezer by his colleagues. Nonetheless, he stood firm.

The sages taught: On that day, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the rabbis did not accept his explanations.

When logical argument failed to convince his colleagues, Rabbi Eliezer called on heaven to show, through miracles, that he was right:

Rabbi Eliezer said to them: “If the halakhah is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it.” The carob tree was uprooted from its place 100 cubits, and some say 400 cubits. The rabbis said to him: “One does not cite halakhic proof from a carob tree.”

My teacher, Rabbi Judith Abrams of blessed memory, noted that the word for carob, haruv, is an anagram of the word haver, friend or colleague. Rabbi Eliezer’s carob tree feat, she explained, signals the beginning of his painful ostracism from his colleagues. 

Undaunted by their rejection of his miracle, Rabbi Eliezer performs more miracles: He makes a stream flow backward and then the walls of the beit midrash fall inward to signal that he is right. But Rabbi Yehoshua rebukes the teetering walls, preventing them from caving in completely. Out of respect to both great rabbis, that Talmud tells us, “the walls continue inclining to this day” — neither upright nor fallen. As Jeffrey Rubenstein, one of the great modern interpreters of rabbinic narrative, points out, the walls are more inclined to compromise than some of the sages. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer pulls his trump card:

If the halakhah is with me, let a heavenly voice prove it.

Sure enough, a bat kol speaks, siding with Rabbi Eliezer and declaring that his opinion is not only correct in this matter, but in all others. Yet, his colleagues still resist: 

Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: “It is not in heaven.” (Deuteronomy 30:12) What does “It is not in heaven” mean? Rabbi Yirmeya explains: “Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a bat kol, as you already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: ‘After a majority to incline.’” (Exodus 23:2)

Both biblical prooftexts are taken completely out of context. In Deuteronomy, “Not in heaven,” clearly means that the Torah is accessible, and not that it is mutable. And the full verse from Exodus — ”You shall neither side with the majority to do wrong…” — says that the opposite of what Rabbi Yirmeya claims: One must not incline after a majority if they are misled.

Is God angry at this supreme rabbinic chutzpah? Not a bit. Fast forward to a later date when Rabbi Natan will meet the immortal Elijah the prophet and ask him about what God thought of all this:

What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time? 

Elijah said to him: “He smiled and said: ‘My children have defeated Me; My children have defeated Me.’”

Far from being displeased by the rabbinic rebellion, God is delighted, like a proud papa whose child has beat him at a game of chess.

This would be a heart-warming ending, but the story continues — and takes a dark turn. The next day, the sages excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer and burn the objects he declared pure. His student Rabbi Akiva is sent to break the terrible news. When Rabbi Eliezer hears that his colleagues have ostracized him, his subsequent prayers and tears cause the crops to fail and even bring about the death of Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin.

On the one hand, Akhnai’s Oven is a quintessential talmudic story affirming rabbinic authority to make halakhah and the principle of majority rule. But it’s also a story about the extreme danger of wounding others with our words. As Jeffrey Rubenstein explains: “God accepts principles such as ‘It is not in heaven’ and ‘Incline after the majority,’ yet he will not accept these principles as justification for verbal wronging and causing pain. The sages must negotiate this tension so as to preserve the integrity of the law while treating each other with respect and consideration.”

Read all of Bava Metzia 59 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 27th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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