Halacha Is Not Decided In Heaven
Tue, 05/24/2011
Shlomo Riskin
Shlomo Riskin

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:58 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 1:1-4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22
Shabbat ends: 9:06 p.m.

Is our tradition set in stone, or is it open to whatever alteration the scholars desire to make? How legitimate is the claim that “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way?”

Two Talmudic passages describing incidents in the life of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus help answer our questions.

The Talmud [Bava Metzia 59b] records a conflict between the Sages and Rabbi Eliezer (the “cemented cistern who never loses a drop,” according to Ethics of the Fathers) over whether or not a particular type of oven is subject to ritual impurity. Rabbi Eliezer brings three miracles to support his case, culminating in a “Divine voice” which exclaims: “What do you want from My son, Rabbi Eliezer? The Law is always in accordance with his view.”

Nevertheless, the Sages stand their ground. They argued that when Moses said the Torah “is not in heaven” [Deuteronomy 30:12], he meant it had been given to the scholars here on earth to interpret. The Oral Law is determined by majority rule; hence, the Sages can overrule not only Rabbi Eliezer but even God Himself!

The Talmud goes on to record Elijah the Prophet’s report of God’s reaction: “The Almighty laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have eternalized Me,” (the Hebrew nitzhuni can mean both things).

This controversy must have had great significance. It took place after the destruction of the Second Temple, when the Sages were reconstituting Judaism from a religion centered on sacrifices to one based around the home and the synagogue.

Rabbi Eliezer believed halachic change could only take place if there was precedent within the tradition itself. So he never stated a law that he had not heard from his teacher [B.T. Succa 37].

The majority of the scholars disagreed. They believed that with the thirteen principles of hermeneutic logic communicated by God to Moses, they could plumb the depths of the Bible, explicating even the crowns on each letter, to interpret and apply the Law.

Seeing that Rabbi Eliezer was not budging, these sages placed a ban (cherem) on him and sent Rabbi Akiva, his disciple, to inform Eliezer.

Hearing of the ban, Rabbi Eliezer cried out to God, and Rabban Gamliel, the head of the delegitimizing Sanhedrin, died immediately as punishment. This Talmudic passage closes with the words: “After the destruction of the Temple, all gates to God are closed except the claim of unfair treatment.”

The second incident [B.T. Sanhedrin 68a] takes place when Rabbi Eliezer is critically ill. Since he is still in cherem, when Rabbi Akiva and his friends come to visit, they stand at a distance of four cubits. “Why have you come?” he asks.

“We have come to study Torah from you,” they reply.

“Why haven’t you come until now?” he asks.

“We had no time,” they lamely reply.

“You will not die natural deaths,” he says.

Rabbi Eliezer then places his arms upon his heart. In deep anguish, he declares; “Woe unto you, my two arms, which are like two Torah scrolls which have been tied up. ... Much Torah have I taught, but my students took from me less than can fit into an eye dropper…”

His erstwhile colleagues ask him about the halachic status of a particular shoe. He declares it “pure” and with that word his soul leaves his body. Rabbi Joshua rises to his feet and declares, “The ban has been lifted; the ban has been lifted.”

In his eulogy, Rabbi Akiva cries out: “My father! My father! The chariot of Israel…” — the words of Elisha when Elijah was transported to heaven.

Somehow tradition and change must be orchestrated in such a fashion that halacha never ossifies, but neither can it become totally malleable. This is the greatest challenge of our generation.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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I'm afraid Rabbi Riskin, like generations of rabbis before him, misses the main point of the story, and the main consequence. In Tractate Yoma (9b) we learn that "the eariler exiles, with their cause revealed, had their end revealed, but this [the Roman] exile, with its cause still unrevealed, has its end still unrevealed.

The true and tragic significance of the dispute over the ovens of Achnai, and the sages' refusal to heed the Voice of God as it issued directly from heaven is that, like all such earlier refusals to heed His Voice -- from Adam in Eden to the Jews after the assassination of Gedaliah ben Ahika ben Shefan, it brought the punishment of exile. Rather than signalling God's approval of this cold-blooded rebellon against Him, His reported laughter was, rather, in fulfillment of Moses' prophecy that "just as He [God] is happy to welcome you into the land, so he will be happy to throw you out of it."

And the numbers involved -- 70 rebels, 25 more guilty than the rest, and one who stands outside the rebellion (described as Yahazanyahu ben Shefan) offer stunning, precise fulfillment of Ezekiel's vision (Ezekiel 8:16). It was clearly to this rebellion that the rebels later referred when they again refused to heed God's voice by referring to a "halacha" that heavenly voices were to be ignored. Nonetheless, and very tellingly, they in the end obeyed the Voice's ruling that Beit Hillel should dominate halachic dcisions for the time being.... even though the majority voted to support Beit Shammai.
Sadly, by then the damage had already been done, and the dark clouds of a seemingly endless exile were gathering.

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