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Babylonian Talmud Bava Mezia 59a-b: The Bet Midrash and Divine Law

Olive TreesThe following passage in the Babylonian Talmud highlights the human element in the interpretation and application of the divinely written Torah. Even God, as it were, accepts the authority of the Rabbis to interpret the law.

We learned elsewhere- 79 “If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile-Rabbi Eliezer declared it clean, and the sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven
of ‘Aknai.” 80 Why [the oven of] ‘Aknai?—Said Rav Judah in Samuel’s name- “[It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, 81 and proved it unclean.”

It has been taught- On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them- “If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!”

Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place. Others affirm, four hundred cubits.

“No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,” they retorted.

Again he said to them- “If the halakhah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!”—whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards.

“No proof can be brought from a stream of water,” they rejoined.

Again he urged- “If the halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,” whereupon the walls inclined to fall.

But Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, saying- “When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what have you to interfere?”

Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they resume their upright position, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.

Again he said to them- “If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!” Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out- “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer,
seeing that in all matters the halakhah agrees with him!” But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed- “It is not in heaven.” 82

What did he mean by this? Said Rabbi Jeremiah- That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because You have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘‘After the majority must one incline.” 83

Rabbi Nathan met Elijah (the prophet) and asked him- “What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour?—He laughed [with joy],” he replied, “saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’’’

It was said- On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him. 84 Said they, “Who shall go and inform him?”

“I will go,” answered Rabbi Akiva, “lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.” 85

What did Rabbi Akiva do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him.

“Akkiva,” said Rabbi Eliezer to him, “what has particularly happened today?”

“Master,” he replied, “it appears to me that your companions hold aloof from you.” 86 Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, 87 while tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten- a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up. 88

A tanna taught- Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which Rabbi Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. Rabban Gamaliel too was traveling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him.

“It appears to me,” he reflected, “that this is on account of none other but Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.”

Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, “Sovereign of the Universe! You know full well that I have not acted for my honor, nor for the honor of my paternal house, but for Yours, so that strife may not multiply in Israel!”

At that the raging sea subsided. 89

78. Trans. I. Epstein, The Babylonian Talmud (London- Soncino Press, 1935-52), 35 vols.

79. Mishnah Kelim 5-10.

80. The issue concerns whether after cutting an impure oven into pieces and reassembling it in this manner, it remains susceptible to ritual impurity (as would a complete oven) or if it is not susceptible to impurity like a broken oven. Cf. Lev. 11-35.

81. Aramaic ‘akhna’ means “snake.”

82. Deut. 30-12.

83. Ex. 23-2.

84. For refusing to accept the ruling of the majority of sages.

85. If Rabbi Eliezer should choose to, he could call down divine wrath just as he had received divine support for his halakhic view.

86. For they have excommunicated you.

87. As a sign of mourning as is required of one who is excommunicated.

88. Became spoiled.

89. The continuation of the story in the Babylonian Talmud is an amoraic addition to the tannaitic material presented here.

Posted in: The Rabbis

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