What We Talk About When We Talk About "The Oven of Achnai"
1 א

Context: The generation after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Late Biblical Judaism, centered around the (questionable) Davidic Monarchy, and a Temple, priests and sacrifices, agriculture and the Land of Israel, is in crisis. The Romans have abolished the monarchy and destroyed the Temple. The entire system of sacrifices have come to an end. Much of the Jewish people is living in exile scattered around the region, and more will be soon. Much of the law given at Sinai seems obviously irrelevant: why maintain the system of ritual purity to enter the Temple if there is no Temple to enter? A thousand year conflict over the nature of sacrifice and the substitutes for it - prayer and pursuit of justice - has been resolved by force majeur. Nevertheless, the Rabbis main aspects of the system of ritual purity, and also continually reconstruct Jewish life through their methods of interpretation.

The Talmud Narrative of the "Oven of Achnai"
2 ב

תנן התם: חתכו חוליות ונתן חול בין חוליא לחוליא? ר"א מטהר, וחכמים מטמאין. 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!

אמרו: אותו היום הביאו כל טהרות שטיהר ר"א ושרפום באש, ונמנו עליו וברכוהו. ואמרו: מי ילך ויודיעו. אמר להם ר"ע: אני אלך, שמא ילך אדם שאינו הגון ויודיעו ונמצא מחריב את כל העולם כולו. מה עשה ר"ע? לבש שחורים ונתעטף שחורים וישב לפניו ברחוק ארבע אמות. אמר לו: ר"א: עקיבא מה יום מיומים? אמר לו: רבי, כמדומה לי שחבירים בדילים ממך. אף הוא קרע בגדיו וחלץ מנעליו ונשמט וישב על גבי קרקע,זלגו עיניו דמעות.

לקה העולם: שליש בזיתים, ושליש בחטים ושליש בשעורים, ויש אומרים: אף בצק שבידי אשה טפח, תנא: אך גדול היה באותו היום שבכל מקום שנתן בו עיניו ר"א נשרף.

ואף ר"ג היה בא בספינה; עמד עליו נחשול לטבעו. אמר: כמדומה לי שאין זה אלא בשביל ר"א בן הורקנוס. עמד על רגליו ואמר: רבונו של עולם, גלוי וידוע לפניך שלא לכבודי עשיתי, ולא לכבוד בית אבא עשיתי, אלא לכבודך שלא ירבו מחלוקות בישראל. נח הים מזעפו.

אימא שלום דביתהו דר"א אחתיה דר"ג הואי; מההוא מעשה ואילך לא הוה שבקה ליה לר"א למיפל על אפיה. ההוא יומא ריש ירחא הוה ואיחלף לה בין מלא לחסר. איכא דאמרי: אתא עניא וקאי אבבא אפיקא ליה ריפתא. אשכחתיה דנפל על אנפיה. אמרה ליה: קום, קטלית לאחי. אדהכי נפק שיפורא מבית רבן גמליאל דשכיב. אמר לה: מנא ידעת? אמרה ליה: כך מקובלני מבית אבי אבא: כל השערים ננעלים חוץ משערי אונאה.

It was taught elsewhere: If one cut [an oven] into sections (lit. vertebrae), and placed sand between every section - [What is the ruling?] Rabbi Eliezer rules it pure and the Sages rule it impure. This is the “Oven of Achnai.”

What is "Achnai"? Said Rabbi Judah in the name of Samuel: That they surrounded it with words [of debate] like an Achnai snake, and declared it impure.

It was taught: On that day Rabbi Eliezer answered all the answers on earth and they did not accept it from him.

He said, “If the law is like me, the carob tree will prove it”; the carob tree was uprooted from its place one hundred cubits, some say four hundred cubits. They said: “We do not bring proof from a carob tree.”

He came back and said, “If the law is like me, the water channel will prove it”; the water channel flowed in reverse direction. They said: “We do not bring proof from a water channel.”

He came back and said,“If the law is as I say, the walls of the House of Study will prove it”; the walls of the House of Study inclined to fall. Rabbi Joshua protested at them [i.e. the walls], saying to them, “If scholars defeat each other in the law, how does it benefit you?” They did not fall because of the honor of Rabbi Joshua but they did not straighten, because of the honor of Rabbi Eliezer, and still they incline and stand.

[Rabbi Eliezer] came back and said, “If the law is like me, from the Heavens they will prove it”; a heavenly voice came out and said, “What is with you towards Rabbi Eliezer, for the law is like him in every instance?” Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said, “[The Torah] is not in heaven,” (Deuteronomy 30:12).

What does "[The Torah] is not in heaven" mean? R. Jeremiah said: “Since the Torah was already given at Sinai, we do not pay attention to a heavenly voice, since You already wrote at Sinai in the Torah, 'After the majority to incline,' (Exodus 23:2).

Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah and said to him, “What did the Holy Bountiful One do in that hour?” He said to him: “God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me. My children have defeated Me.”

They said: On that day, they burned all the pure things Rabbi Eliezer had declared pure; they voted regarding him and excommunicated him. They asked,“Who will go and let him know?” Rabbi Akiva said,,“I will go, lest an improper person inform him and all the earth will be destroyed.” What did Rabbi Akiva do? He dressed in black and sat before him at a distance of four cubits. Rabbi Eliezer said: “Akiva, what is different today from all days?” He said, “My master, it seems to me that your friends distanced themselves from you.” Then Rabbi Eliezer tore his clothes, removed his shoes and sat on the ground, his eyes flowed tears.

The earth was stricken: a third in olives, a third in wheat, a third in barley. Some say: even dough in a woman’s hand spoiled. It was taught: Great was that day that every place Rabbi Eliezer put his eyes was burned.

And even Rabban Gamliel was on a ship; a wave stood upon him to drown him. He said: It appears to me this is only because of Rabbi Eliezer son of Hyrkanos. He stood on his feet and said, “Master of the world, it is revealed and known before You that not for my honor I did, nor for the honor of my father’s house, but for Your honor that controversies not multiply in Israel.” The sea rested from its anger.

Ima Shalom, the wife of Rabbi Eliezer, was Rabban Gamliel’s sister; from then on, she did not allow Rabbi Eliezer to fall to the ground in prayer. One day, the New Moon became miscalculated for her between a twenty-nine or thirty day month. Some say: a poor man came and stood at the gate, she brought out bread to him. She found Rabbi Eliezer fallen in prayer and said, “Get up, you have killed my brother.” Meanwhile a ram’s horn blast went out from Rabban Gamliel’s house [to announce] that he died. [Rabbi Eliezer] asked, “How did you know?” She said,“So I have received a tradition from the house of my father’s father: “All gates are closed but the gates of oppression.”

The Issue with the Bat Kol / Heavenly Voice
3 ג

לא בשמים היא - והא דאמר בפ"ק דיבמות (ד' יד. ושם ד"ה רבי) דהלכה כב"ה משום דיצאה בת קול שאני הכא שבא לחלוק על דברי תורה דכתיב אחרי רבים להטות אבל התם אדרבה ב"ה רובא אי לאו דהוה מספקא לן אי אזלינן בתר רובא משום דב"ש הוו חריפי טובא ועוד דכאן לא יצאה בת קול אלא משום כבודו דר"א שאמר מן השמים יוכיחו והא דאמר התם רבי יהושע היא דאמר אין משגיחין בבת קול ולא שמעינן ליה לר' יהושע אלא על ב"ק דהאי מעשה דר"א דהכא התם דייק מדקאמר לא בשמים היא כבר ניתנה לנו תורה מסיני משמע דבשום מקום אין משגיחין:

It is not in the Heavens! - But it says in the first chapter of Yevamot that the halachah is like Beit Hillel because a Bat Kol went out. It is different here, because he came to be divisive about the words of Torah, as it is written, "After the majority incline," but there on the contrary. Beit Hillel was the majority; if we had doubts, we would have gone after the majority in the name of Beit Shammai, who was good and sharp. Furthermore, here a Bat Kol did not go out except for the honor of Rabbi Eliezer, who said, "Let the Heavens bring proof!" But it said there the Rabbi Joshua said that the Bat Kol does not provide guidance, and we do not listen to it, because of this story here. There it was specifically said that it was not in the Heavens, that the Torah was already given to us from Sinai, meaning that because of this, we do not listen to the Bat Kol.

What was God smiling about?
4 ד

קחייך ואמר נצחוני בני - והא דאמר בריש ע"ז (ד' ג:) מיום שחרב בהמ"ק אין שחוק לפני הקב"ה היינו קבוע והכא מילתא דבדיחותא בעלמא הוא דאמר:

God smiled and said, My children have defeated me - But it said in the beginning of Avodah Zara (3b): On the day the Temple was destroyed, there was no laughter in the Holy Bountiful One's presence, which was established, but here it was speaking of mirth in general.

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Some questions about this Talmudic story:

  • What is the main point of this story? (And remember, this was written by the rabbis about the rabbis.)
  • Why did the Rabbis not change their opinion when God weighed in?
  • Are the Rabbis right to rule against Rabbi Eliezer?
  • Did the Rabbis overrule God?
  • How do Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Jeremiah use verses quoted from the Torah to support their position?
  • Why did God take delight in a decision that in direct conflict with God's ruling?
  • Why excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer? Are they right to do so?
  • What do you make of Rabbi Eliezer's responses to his excommunication?
  • What happens when a leader is banished?
  • Given the context of this narrative, what does this narrative say about the process of Rabbinic Judaism?
  • How does authority in this story differ from your experience with authority in your own religion?
  • Does this story match your experience of contemporary Judaism?
  • What does this story have to say about insiders and outsiders?
  • What do you imagine next for this group of people with regards to their relationships with one another?
  • What does this narrative have to say about nature? truth? revelation? managing conflict? Jewish unity?
  • How can we work towards a world where multiple voices/points of view can live and work together?
  • What does it mean to trust God and yet allow humans to interpret God's message and guidelines?
  • What is the human role in doing God's work?
  • And so many others...
Always Look Back at the Original Context for Biblical Quotations! "It is not in the Heavens!"
6 ו

(י) כִּ֣י תִשְׁמַ֗ע בְּקוֹל֙ ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר מִצְוֺתָיו֙ וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו הַכְּתוּבָ֕ה בְּסֵ֥פֶר הַתּוֹרָ֖ה הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֤י תָשׁוּב֙ אֶל־ה' אֱלֹקֶ֔יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֖ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

(פ) (יא) כִּ֚י הַמִּצְוָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם לֹֽא־נִפְלֵ֥את הִוא֙ מִמְּךָ֔ וְלֹ֥א רְחֹקָ֖ה הִֽוא׃ (יב) לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ (יג) וְלֹֽא־מֵעֵ֥בֶר לַיָּ֖ם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲבָר־לָ֜נוּ אֶל־עֵ֤בֶר הַיָּם֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃ (יד) כִּֽי־קָר֥וֹב אֵלֶ֛יךָ הַדָּבָ֖ר מְאֹ֑ד בְּפִ֥יךָ וּבִֽלְבָבְךָ֖ לַעֲשֹׂתֽוֹ׃ (ס)

(10) If you shall listen to the voice of the Eternal your God, to keep God's commandments and God's statutes which are written in this book of the Instruction; if you turn to the Eternal your God with all your heart, and with all your life-force.

(11) For this commandment which I command you this day - it is not too wondrous for you, neither is it far away. (12) It is not in heaven, [that you should] say: ‘Who will go up for us to the Heavens, and take it to us, so we can hear it, and do it?’ (13) Nor is it across the sea, [that you should] say: ‘Who shall cross the sea for us, and take it to us, so we can hear it, and do it?’ (14) But the matter is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it.

Incline after the majority (unless...)
7 ז

(ב) לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת׃

(2) You shall not follow a multitude for evil; nor shall you bear witness in a dispute to incline after a multitude to pervert justice;