The Second Tablets and the Role of Divine Intervention in the Halachic Process

Shavuot celebrates a foundational event in Jewish history, the day that God gave the law to the Jewish people. In this lesson, we will investigate God's role in the halachic (legal) process after the giving of the Torah. To begin, let's recap the story.

On top of Mt. Sinai, God spoke to the Jewish people with the words of some of the ten commandments. Following this awesome event, Moshe stayed on the top of the mountain for forty days and forty nights, during which time God wrote the words on the tablets and taught the law to Moshe. When the people thought that Moshe was delayed, they created the Golden Calf. Moshe saw them dancing around the statue as he descended with the tablets in his arms and, in his anger, hurled them to the ground, breaking the first set of tablets. Moshe then ascended the mountain again and, after another forty days and forty nights, returned with a second set of tablets, which he wrote himself.

A famous insight notes that Moshe played a passive role with the first set of tablets, whereas he was an active participant in the second set. In the first case, the Jewish people were like an aron kodesh, an ark, which simply holds the Torah. In the second case, they are the parchment itself, playing an active role in the transmission and interpretation of the law. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God realized that if the Jewish people remained passive in the halachic process, it was doomed to fail, but by becoming active participants, they would certainly succeed.

If this is this case, then, what is God's role after the giving of the second tablets?

It is not in the heavens

The Torah itself, at the very end, presents an amazing idea about the relationship between God and the Jewish people vis-a-vis interpretation of Jewish law.

(יב) לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

(12) It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?”

The story of the oven of akhnai is the most dramatic example of this conflict. In the story, there is an argument between all of the rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer regarding the status of an oven. To bolster his opinion, Rabbi Eliezer calls to God to weigh in on the subject.

Enjoy the full story from the Talmud:

וזה הוא תנור של עכנאי מאי עכנאי אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל שהקיפו דברים כעכנא זו וטמאוהו תנא באותו היום השיב רבי אליעזר כל תשובות שבעולם ולא קיבלו הימנו אמר להם אם הלכה כמותי חרוב זה יוכיח נעקר חרוב ממקומו מאה אמה ואמרי לה ארבע מאות אמה אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מן החרוב חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי אמת המים יוכיחו חזרו אמת המים לאחוריהם אמרו לו אין מביאין ראיה מאמת המים חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי כותלי בית המדרש יוכיחו הטו כותלי בית המדרש ליפול גער בהם רבי יהושע אמר להם אם תלמידי חכמים מנצחים זה את זה בהלכה אתם מה טיבכם לא נפלו מפני כבודו של רבי יהושע ולא זקפו מפני כבודו של ר"א ועדיין מטין ועומדין חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי מן השמים יוכיחו יצאתה בת קול ואמרה מה לכם אצל ר"א שהלכה כמותו בכ"מ עמד רבי יהושע על רגליו ואמר (דברים ל, יב) לא בשמים היא מאי לא בשמים היא אמר רבי ירמיה שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול שכבר כתבת בהר סיני בתורה (שמות כג, ב) אחרי רבים להטות אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו א"ל מאי עביד קוב"ה בההיא שעתא א"ל קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני

And this is known as the oven of akhnai. The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of akhnai, a snake, in this context? Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: It is characterized in that manner due to the fact that the Rabbis surrounded it with their statements like this snake, which often forms a coil when at rest, and deemed it impure. The Sages taught: On that day, when they discussed this matter, Rabbi Eliezer answered all possible answers in the world to support his opinion, but the Rabbis did not accept his explanations from him. After failing to convince the Rabbis logically, Rabbi Eliezer said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, this carob tree will prove it. The carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, and some say four hundred cubits. The Rabbis said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from the carob tree. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the stream will prove it. The water in the stream turned backward and began flowing in the opposite direction. They said to him: One does not cite halakhic proof from a stream. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, the walls of the study hall will prove it. The walls of the study hall leaned inward and began to fall. Rabbi Yehoshua scolded the walls and said to them: If Torah scholars are contending with each other in matters of halakha, what is the nature of your involvement in this dispute? The Gemara relates: The walls did not fall because of the deference due Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not straighten because of the deference due Rabbi Eliezer, and they still remain leaning. Rabbi Eliezer then said to them: If the halakha is in accordance with my opinion, Heaven will prove it. A Divine Voice emerged from Heaven and said: Why are you differing with Rabbi Eliezer, as the halakha is in accordance with his opinion in every place that he expresses an opinion? Rabbi Yehoshua stood on his feet and said: It is written: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). The Gemara asks: What is the relevance of the phrase “It is not in heaven” in this context? Rabbi Yirmeya says: Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a Divine Voice, as You already wrote at Mount Sinai, in the Torah: “After a majority to incline” (Exodus 23:2). Since the majority of Rabbis disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion, the halakha is not ruled in accordance with his opinion. The Gemara relates: Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

  • Whose opinion, the rabbis' or Rabbi Eliezer's, did God agree with?
  • How do we know God's opinion?
  • Why don't the rabbis accept God's opinion?
  • What is valued even more than the "Truth", as expressed by the Divine Voice?
  • What is God's reaction when the rabbis don't follow His opinion?

This story teaches that the halachic process is in the hands of the rabbinic authorities and even God can't interfere with it. God made the choice to give it to the people and to have them be active participants.

Can we take advice directly from God?

The next story is about Joshua, Moshe's successor. According to tradition, Joshua was taught Jewish law directly from Moshe. After Moshe's death, Joshua forgot 3,000 laws!

גופא אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל שלשת אלפים הלכות נשתכחו בימי אבלו של משה אמרו לו ליהושע שאל א"ל (דברים ל, יב) לא בשמים היא

The Gemara returns to the matter itself. Rav Yehuda says that Shmuel says: Three thousand halakhot were forgotten during the days of mourning for Moses. The Jewish people said to Joshua: Ask for guidance from Heaven so that you can reacquire the forgotten halakhot. Joshua said to them: “It is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). Once the Torah was given on Sinai, the Sages of each generation must determine the halakha. No new halakhot may be added or subtracted by heavenly instruction or through prophecy.

  • How do the Jewish people want Joshua to relearn the laws?
  • On what basis does Joshua reject their suggestion?
  • What do you think is gained by doing the hard work of learning something as opposed to acquiring the knowledge without the work?

It is interesting to note that even though there is a possibility of getting something wrong when Joshua learns it himself, it is still preferable to receiving the knowledge without participation.

In the last source, Joshua did not want guidance from Heaven. In the next source, it looks as if King David took a different approach. The Bible says that after a conflict with the Philistines, King David asked God if he should go to war. If direction should come from the Jewish legal authorities, why would King David ask God?

תנא קעילה עיר הסמוכה לספר היתה והם לא באו אלא על עסקי תבן וקש דכתיב והמה שוסים את הגרנות וכתיב וישאל דוד בה׳ לאמר האלך והכיתי בפלשתים האלה ויאמר ה׳ אל דוד לך והכית בפלשתים והושעת את קעילה מאי קמבעיא ליה אילימא אי שרי אי אסור הרי בית דינו של שמואל הרמתי קיים אלא אי מצלח אי לא מצלח דיקא נמי דכתיב לך והכית בפלשתים והושעת את קעילה שמע מינה:

It was taught in a baraita: Ke’ila was a town located near the border, and the Philistines came only with regard to matters of hay and straw, as it is written: “And they rob the threshing floors.” And in the next verse it is written: “Therefore David inquired of the Lord, saying: Shall I go and smite these Philistines? And the Lord said to David: Go and smite the Philistines, and save Ke’ila” (i Samuel 23:2), which indicates that war may be waged in a border town on Shabbat, even with regard to monetary matters. The Gemara refutes this proof by asking: What is David’s dilemma? If you say that he had a halakhic question and was in doubt whether it was permitted or prohibited to fight the Philistines on Shabbat, it is possible to respond: But the court of Samuel from Rama was then in existence, and rather than inquire by way of the Urim VeTummim he should have inquired of the Great Sanhedrin. Rather, he asked: Will he succeed or will he not succeed in his war? The Gemara comments: This is also precise in the language of the verse, as it is written in the response to David’s query: “Go and smite the Philistines, and save Ke’ila.” Learn from this, from the assurance that God gave David of his victory, that this was the subject of his inquiry.

הרי שמואל ובית דינו קיים - ומידי דאיסור והיתר לא משייל באורים ותומים:

And issues of permissible - going to war or not - is not in the domain of the
urim v’tumim (Divine advice), [but in the province of the court.]

  • According to the rabbis of the Talmud and Rashi, whose job is it to decide if King David goes to war?
  • If King David wasn't asking whether or not he should go to war, what was he in fact asking?
  • What is the difference between the two questions?

What if God talks to me in a dream? Do I listen?

Another type of Divine message can come in the form of a dream. The following story asks the question of the place of information learned in a dream when it comes to legal matters.

In this story, a man's father left him an inheritance, but did not tell him where it was. The father dies and the son knows that the money is somewhere but he doesn't know where it is. In a dream, the son is told where the money is but he is also told that he must give the money to charity. When he wakes, the son finds the money. Must the son give the money to charity or may he keep it for himself?

הרי שהיה מצטער על מעות שהניח לו אביו ובא בעל החלום ואמר לו כך וכך הן במקום פלוני הן של מעשר שני הן זה היה מעשה ואמרו דברי חלומות לא מעלין ולא מורידין:

In a case where one was distressed about money that his father left him as an inheritance, because he could not find it, and the master of the dream, i.e., someone in his dream, came and said to him: It is such and such an amount of money and it is in such and such a place, but the money is second tithe, and he found this amount in the place of which he dreamed; and this was an actual incident that was brought before the Sages, and they said that he can spend the money, as matters appearing in dreams do not make a difference in determining the practical halakha.

אם אמרו בחלום אלו המעות שהטמין אביך של צדקה הם אינו כלום דדברי חלומות לא מעלין ולא מורידין

They say to him in a dream these are funds that your father hid and they are
charity. The comments have no substance [the funds are his] for dreams may have no role in validating or invalidating.

Both the story in the Talmud and the law as stated in the Shulchan Arukh say that the son can keep the money. On what basis can he keep the money? Why is he allowed to ignore the Divine message that came to him in the dream?

What if a maggid, a Divine Spirit teaches me the law?

Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, is considered the premier halachic authority. Born in Spain in 1488, Rabbi Karo traveled to the city of Tzfat where he was also a major Kabbalist, mystic.

Rabbi Karo, it is said, was on such a high level that he was personally instructed by a maggid, a Divine Spirit. The teachings of the maggid are recorded in the book, Maggid Meisharim.

How did Rabbi Karo view the relationship between his halachic scholarship which is based on the teachings of the rabbinic authorities and the instruction that he received from the maggid?

He writes, in each of his works, about the number of times that we say "Amen" during the Kaddish prayer which allows us an inside look into his thinking.

First, we will read, according to the teachings of the maggid, the number of times one is required to say "Amen".

והשתא אתינא לגלאה לך רזא דקדישא הלא לך למינדע מאי דאמר שלמה בחירי דאין לענות אמן אחר ויקרב משיחי' לאו קושטא איהו אלא צריך לענות אמן ה' זימנין חד בעידן דאמרין יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא. וחד בעידן דקאמר ויקרב משיחיה. וחד אמן יהא שמיה רבא וכו' וחד בתר שמיה דקוב"ה. וחד בתר לעילא מכל ברכתא וכו' דאמירן בעלמא וכו' דאינון חמש לקביל ה' בתראה דרזא דקדישא איהו לסלקא לה ולייחדא לה בהדי ספירין עילאין. והיינו דקאמר יתגדל כלומר תתייחד עם חסד דהא איהו בתו. ויתקדש כלומר ומתמן יסתלק

Now I am going to reveal the secrets of Kaddish. You should know that what Shlomo, my choice student said that one should not respond with Amen after "you will bring the Messiah" (v'yikarev mishichei), it is not true. Rather one must respond with Amen, once [after] reciting "The great name shall be exalted and sanctified" (Yitgadal v'yitkadash shemi rabbah) and once [after] reciting "you will bring the Messiah," Once while reciting "Amen, the great name shall be blessed etc." (Amen, yehei shmei rabbah), once after "the Holy one Who is blessed"
(d'Kudsha B'rich Hu), and once after "above all blessings ... that are said in the world (da'amiran b'alma), which total five,
corresponding to the last five secrets of Kaddish whose purpose is to take it and unify it with the upper spheres.

  • According to the maggid, the Divine Spirit, how many times should one say "Amen"?

The Shulchan Arukh states the practical Jewish law (halacha) as it is concluded by the rabbinic authorities. The halacha regarding the number of times to say "Amen" is written below.

כששליח צבור אומר יתברך כל העם עונין אמן וכן כשאומר בריך הוא וכן כשאומר ואמרו אמן:

(2) When the chazzan says: "let it be blessed" (yitbarakh) everyone should answer "amen", and so too when he says "Who is blessed" (b'rikh hu), and "let us say Amen" (v'imru amen).

  • According to the Shulchan Arukh, what is the halacha regarding saying "Amen" in the Kaddish prayer?
  • For Rabbi Yosef Karo, what took precedence, the halachic development of the rabbis or the Divine Spirit? Whose job is it to determine Jewish law?

It is quite remarkable that when faced with conflicting opinions - one coming straight from God's representative and one coming as a result of the rabbinic process - Rabbi Karo chooses the rabbinic process! His interaction with Shamayim (Heaven) does not affect the halachic process.

This principle of preferring the halachic process and the effort of learning, is expressed beautifully by the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) in an introduction written by Reb Chaim Volozhin.

The Vilna Gaon also had the opportunity to learn from a maggid and took the same approach as Rabbi Yosef Karo and Joshua, as we read in earlier sources.

הקדמה לספרא דצניעותא
כי שמעתי מפיו הק' שפעמים רבות השכימו לפתחו כמה מגידים מן השמים בשאלתם ובקשתם שרוצים למסור לו רזין דאורייתא בלא שום עמל. ולא הטה אזנו אליהם כלל. וא' מן המגידים הפציר בו מאד. עכ"ז לא הביט אל מראהו הגדול. וענה ואמר לו איני רוצה שתהיה השגתי בתורתו ית"ש ע"י שום אמצעי כלל וכלל. רק עיני נשואות לו ית"ש מה שרוצה לגלות לי...וההשגות ע"י המלאכים המגידים ושרי התורה אשר לא עמלתי ולא חכמתי אין לי בהם חפץ .

Introduction to Sifra de-Zeni’uta
For I heard many times from the mouth of the holy one (Vilna Gaon) that many times Magidim from the heavens came down and were willing to share with him the secrets of Torah without any need for him to struggle. He did not give his ear [pay attention] to them. One of the magidim was very obstinate, with all this he did not look at the angels' great vision. He (Vilna Gaon) answered the angel and said, "I do not want that my knowledge of God's Torah be communicated by any type of medium. Only what my eyes should be able to perceive [the wisdom of Torah] according to what God wishes to reveal to me [through my studies]... The information that is provided by the angels, Magidim and the officers of the Torah for which I do not struggle for, and is not from my wisdom, I have no desire in them.''

  • Why do you think that the Vilna Gaon turned down the offer of learning Torah directly from a Heavenly Spirit?
  • What is the risk of learning on his own and not learning from the Heavenly Spirit?

Partnering with God guarantees the future of the Jewish people

All of the texts that we have studied tell us that even at the risk of getting a legal decision "wrong", we don't ask God for help in deciding halacha. In fact, even when He tells the rabbis the correct answer, the system rejects His interference and relies on the wisdom of the rabbis. How can this be?

God wants us to be partners with Him in the halachic process. In order to be God's partners, He had to move over and give us a role. So God created the halachic system: We get the rules from God, as He revealed them in the Torah, and then we work with it. The role that people play is so significant that sometimes we tell God to step aside. It's as if we are saying, "You gave us the Torah, now take a seat and allow us to continue the process because we need to be active participants."

This is the difference between the two sets of tablets given on Mt. Sinai. The first set of tablets were written by God alone. Moshe is simply the messenger but is not involved in the process. These tablets were smashed. The second set of tablets were written by Moshe. He becomes the message, the embodiment of the Oral Torah. This set survives.

  • A thought to ponder: Think of the difference between Adam & Eve before the sin of eating the fruit from the forbidden tree and after. Is there any resemblance to the destiny of the Jewish people pre and post the sin of the Golden Calf?

And what does God think about this? If we return to the story of the oven of akhnai, we can interpret the ending in two ways, both of which show God's pleasure with the system.

רבי נתן לאליהו א"ל מאי עביד קוב"ה בההיא שעתא א"ל קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בני נצחוני בני

Years after, Rabbi Natan encountered Elijah the prophet and said to him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time, when Rabbi Yehoshua issued his declaration? Elijah said to him: The Holy One, Blessed be He, smiled and said: My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.

The last words can be interpreted in two ways. The first as usually interpreted, "My children have triumphed over Me". But the root of the word nitzchuni also means "eternal". When we are part of the halachic process and become God's partners, we guarantee the future of the Jewish people, which guarantee's God's role in the world.

מדוע היה צריך עם ישראל לפני הופעתו כעם להשתעבד באופן נורא כל כך במצרים? ההסבר הפשוט, מפני שייעודו של עם ישראל לתקן את העולם מבחינה מוסרית, וכדי שיוכל לעשות זאת עליו להכיר באופן מוחשי את הסבל והכאב שיכול אדם לגרום לזולתו.
Why did the people of Israel, before their appearance as a nation, first have to endure such terrible slavery in Egypt? The simple explanation is that Israel’s mission is to rectify the moral state of the world, and in order to do so, it must experience firsthand the suffering and the pain that human beings can cause to one another.