The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit
Yeshivat Har Etzion
Shiur #20: Authority, Heavenly Voices and the
Interpretation of Torah
By Rav Yitzchak Blau
It was taught there: "If you cut it [an earthenware
oven] into sections and place sand between the sections, Rabbi Eliezer says it
is pure, and the sages say it is impure. And this is the oven of
Akhinai." What is 'Akhinai'? R. Yehuda said in the name of Shemuel:
"They surrounded him with words like an akhna (a snake) and made
it impure." It was taught: "On that day, R. Eliezer responded to
them with all the arguments in the world and they did not accept them from
He said to them: "If I am right, this carob tree will
prove it." The carob tree was uprooted from its place and moved one
hundred cubits; some say, four hundred cubits.
They said to him: "We do not bring proofs from carob
He said to them: "If I am right, this stream of water
will prove it." The stream started to flow backwards.
They said to him: "We do not bring proof from
He said to them: "If I am right, the walls of the study
hall will prove it." The walls of the study hall inclined to fall.
R. Yehoshua rebuked them [the walls]. He said to them:
"If talmudic scholars contest one another in matters of Halakha, why does
this concern you?" They did not fall, out of respect for R. Yehoshua, but
they did not straighten, out of respect for R. Eliezer, and they are still
He said to them: "If the halakha is as I say, let it be proved
from the heavens." A heavenly voice came forth and proclaimed: "Why are
you contesting R. Eliezer, when Halakha follows him in every area?"
R. Yehoshua arose and said: "'It is not in heaven'
(Devarim 30: 12). What does this mean? R. Yirmiyah said: The Torah
has already been give at Sinai. We pay no heed to heavenly voices, since it has
already been written in the Torah at Sinai, 'follow the majority' (Shemot
R. Natan came upon Eliyahu. He said to him: "What is the
Holy One, Blessed be He, doing at this time?"
Eliyahu said to him: "He is laughing and saying,
'My children have defeated me; My children have defeated me'."
(Bava Metzia 59a-59b)
Although this famous story continues and subsequently
moves in some important directions, we will stop at this point and provide some
interim analysis. Many cite this gemara as an example of the individual's
freedom to interpret without conceding to authority. As Walter Kaufman notes,
however, this conclusion misreads the tale entirely. The gemara here does
suggest that humans are to interpret the Torah without explicit Divine
assistance in this process, but this incident involved a majority forcing its
decision upon a minority, dissenting view. Thus, whatever the story says about
the relationship between the human and the Divine, it most certainly does not
call for the contemporarily popular standpoint of personal freedom from
religious authority structures.
How can the sages ignore a heavenly voice and knowingly
continue to teach an incorrect religious ruling? Tosafot suggest that in truth,
they did no such thing. According to Tosafot, the heavenly voice came forth only
to defend the honor of R. Eliezer, but did not truly reflect a Divine judgment
regarding the case at hand. Perhaps, Tosafot could not imagine a conscious
decision to ignore what one knows to be correct. Furthermore, a different
gemara, in Masekhet Yevamot (14a), relates that the sages chose to follow the
rulings of Beit Hillel based on the guidance offered by a heavenly voice. This
source certainly suggests that a heavenly voice can influence the process of
Despite this implication of the gemara in Yevamot,
Rabbenu Nissim (Derashot Ha-Ran 3) disagrees with Tosafot's
interpretation. He explains that the heavenly voice in fact reflected the
absolute truth of the matter; R. Eliezer was indeed correct, while the majority
erred. However, the nature of the halakhic system is such that the sages are
supposed to exert themselves to arrive at their conclusions based solely on
human effort and intelligence. Information received from heavenly supplements
has no place in their mode of operation. Therefore, in order to maintain the
integrity of the system, R. Yehoshua and his colleagues were forced to adhere to
their ruling, even though they now knew it to be in error.
It is this latter approach, of Rabbenu Nissim, that has
become more famous, partly because R. Aryeh Lieb Heller cites it in the
introduction to his celebrated work, Ketzot Ha-choshen. To fully
understand this position, we must first examine why the system makes halakhic
rulings depend on human reasoning, rather than on ongoing prophetic revelations.
Rabbenu Nissim attributes this dependence on logic deduction to the inherent
limitations of prophecy. Prophets are not empowered to receive prophecy on
demand; furthermore, prophecy itself will not remain a constant of Jewish
history. Therefore, a more enduring approach to halakhic rulings was necessary.
There won't always be a prophet, but there will always be a sage;
Halakhic decision-making is thus placed in the hands of the latter.
However, this explanation only clarifies the need for
sages; it does not provide justification for ignoring prophetically conveyed
information. Abravanel (commentary on Devarim, p. 162) therefore adds
another reason for why Halakha depends on the sage rather than the prophet. If
we allowed subsequent prophetic messages to carry halakhic weight, even in an
interpretive mode, this would ultimately erode our sense of the Mosaic prophecy
at Sinai as a unique revelation that could never be supplanted. Once people turn
to later prophets for elucidation of the covenant, they will also turn to those
prophets for new direction, and, potentially, even for abdication of the old
covenant. The eternality of Torah demands ignoring any prophetic message that
seeks to impact the halakhic system.
This idea works beautifully with a clever remark found
in Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes' commentary (printed in the back of standard,
Vilna edition of the Talmud) on this story of R. Eliezer's dispute with the
rabbis. Our quotation of the gemara ended with the words "Nitzchuni
banai," – "My children have defeated me." R. Chajes argues that the
word "nitzchuni" perhaps evolves from the term netzach, eternity,
rather than nitzachon, victory. Hashem here expresses His joy, as
it were, over the sages' decision to reject heavenly voices, thereby
ensuring the Torah's eternality. According to this reading, God laughs,
so-to-speak, and proclaims: "My children have made My Torah
Another issue that one must address in considering this
passage is the specific items R. Eliezer enlists to miraculously prove his
stance. Do they have any particular symbolic significance? Maharsha answers in
the affirmative. He sees each miraculous manifestation as a particular challenge
R. Eliezer poses to the majority. He enlists the carob tree, which takes a very
long time to bear fruit, as a symbol through which he questions the productivity
of the other sages. He concedes that generally speaking, the majority wins – but
only when that majority shows itself capable of thinking productively; a
majority of intellectually barren scholars must be discounted.
Chazal often compare Torah to water because water
runs downhill, just as Torah scholarship is reserved for the humble individual
who lowers himself of herself. Maharsha suggests that the stream indicates R.
Eliezer's questioning of the other sages' sincerity. Perhaps, he contends, it is
their arrogance that prevents them from conceding that he is correct. Finally,
R. Eliezer asks them if their desire to triumph, as if they engaged in some
schoolboy competition, prevents them from admitting their error. The collapsing
walls of the study hall represent the inevitable destruction of Torah
institutions when such competitive childishness prevails.
Apparently, R. Eliezer's accusations were off
mark, and the other sages were sincerely motivated by their desire to maintain
the integrity of the legal system. At the same time, however, Maharsha's
symbolic reading of R. Eliezer's claims can provide an instructive model for our
own approach to Torah scholarship. Judaism indeed affords primary significance
to human reasoning in the process of halakhic decision-making. However, this
does not mean that Yahadut becomes a kind of silly putty, adjustable in
the way each individual sees fit to mold it. Those who interpret Torah must meet
three criteria. First, they must be wise and knowledgeable, or, in R. Eliezer's
words, more productive than the carob tree. Additionally, they should not be
essentially motivated by arrogance, or by the competitive desire to win talmudic
contests. Only those who meet the above criteria can utilize their human
intellects and decision-making faculties to interpret the Torah.
(Next week, we will examine the continuation of this story.)