Yael Shahar

The place where we are right: Lessons from a talmudic story

One school of Jewish law favored tradition, another innovation, but it was only when they tried to fix one over the other that things really went wrong
Image adapted from Pixabay.

Once upon a time, two factions in the Jewish world were arguing over something they felt strongly about. In fact, they felt so strongly about it that the two sides eventually stopped eating at each other’s tables, stopped intermarrying, and even came to blows.

This dispute went on for generations, until finally things came to a head, and someone decided that the issue had to be settled once and for all. After all, one can’t have a unified populace if the two sides can’t even eat at one another’s tables!

Most people know the outcome of this argument from a famous story in the Talmud. That story, known as the “Tanur shel Akhnai” (the oven of Akhnai), is often cited as a sort of rabbinic “Declaration of Independence” from a system of decision-making that had become too hide-bound and constraining. The resounding cry, “It is not in Heaven!” is considered the ultimate assertion of the role of reason in deciding issues of Jewish law.

The thing is, that’s not really what the story is about. Rabbi Yehoshua’s famous statement, “It is not in Heaven!” is not where the story ends. Nor does it begin with the argument over whether a makeshift oven is, or is not, subject to ritual impurity. The story actually begins with the disagreements between the followers of Shammai and Hillel, which, over generations, had evolved into an argument over decision-making methodologies and governance.

Understanding the actual take-away from the story is important in today’s fraught and contentious political turmoil.

When arguments multiplied in Israel

The prequel to our story (in Tosefta Eduyot) begins with this cryptic passage: “When the sages assembled in the vineyard at Yavne they said: in the future, people will search for something from the words of Torah and not find it, from the Divrei Sofrim (Oral Traditions) and not find it.” At the time, the sages “assembled in the vineyard at Yavne,” Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans and would soon be destroyed. Jewish national sovereignty had long existed in name only; it was about to become nothing more than a cherished memory. The sages, under the leadership of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, had gathered at Yavne to salvage anything they could from the ruins.

The success or failure of this task would depend on their ability to tap into the sources of Jewish survival up until then — the Torah and its oral traditions. The problem, of course, was that there was no accepted mechanism for resolving disputes. The school of Shammai might say one thing, the school of Hillel another, and common practice could be something altogether different. Let us, therefore, return to our sources, the sages said. Let’s go back to the original teachings of Hillel and Shammai, before the time when disagreements multiplied in Israel. Let us try to resolve these differences and restore unity.

Over time, the two schools of Shammai and Hillel came to be represented by the two different approaches of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. While R. Eliezer was a strong proponent of Shammai’s more conservative approach to Halakhah, R. Yehoshua was a champion of innovation and creative interpretation. Both approaches were vital to the success of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai’s program of preservation, to ensure that something survived the devastation to grow and flourish after the darkness had passed.

But where it all went wrong was when the sages, under the leadership of Rabban Gamliel, tried to decide who was right, once and for all.

In the Talmud Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud), the story is told of how the sages decided to ostracize Rabbi Eliezer, and how R. Eliezer sought to prove that his version of Halakhah was the correct one. The open rift between R. Eliezer and the sages at Yavne, in the picturesque words of the Talmud, shook the pillars of the house of study. By banning R. Eliezer, the sages managed to preserve unity at a time when it was desperately needed — but at the expense of destabilizing the very pillars of the Torah.

A much misunderstood story

In the Babylonian Talmud, the story of the ban on R. Eliezer appears in Bava Metzia, in the middle of a discussion on Ona’at D’varim — deceitful or injurious speech. Just before this story, we find admonishments not to humiliate one’s wife, while just after it are admonishments not to wrong a convert, either financially or verbally.

So what is this story doing here?

It turns out that its placement is the key to understanding the story. The Bavli is trying to tell us about something more than halakhic methodology.

After providing the background to the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages, our story opens with, “On that day, R. Eliezer answered with every possible answer but they refused to accept them from him.” Unable to provide sources for his ruling, R. Eliezer resorts to miracles to prove that he is right. Each sign he asks for is given. And each time, the sages reply that nothing can be proven from miracles.

Inclining after the majority

This battle of miracles versus reason is full of symbolic elements. “If the Halakhah agrees with me,” cries R. Eliezer, “let the walls of the house of study prove it!” The walls lean inwards, on the verge of collapse. R. Yehoshua yells back at the walls, “If scholars engage in a halakhic dispute, what is it to you?” The walls listen to both opponents; they don’t collapse, in deference to R. Yehoshua, but in deference to R. Eliezer they don’t resume their upright position; they remain leaning.

The word used for the inclining walls of the study hall is from the same root להטות as used in the expression “incline after the majority.” This word was clearly not chosen by accident. In “inclining after the majority” the Palace of Torah was left askew, and it has never recovered from the altercation; the walls remain leaning to this day. We incline after the majority — but that can mean inclining away from God, or away from truth.

We all know the next stage of the story. In desperation, R. Eliezer shouts, “If the Halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from the Heavens!” A heavenly voice calls out, “What do you want with R. Eliezer, with whom the Halakhah accords in every case?”

At this point, R. Yehoshua springs to his feet and cries, “It is not in Heaven!”

And here a parenthetical element is introduced in Aramaic, to show that this is the narrative voice of the Gemara:

R. Nathan met [the prophet] Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One do at that moment?” Elijah said, “He laughed, saying, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me.’”

R.Yehoshua’s “It is not in heaven!” resounds through the stricken study hall, and continues to echo down the ages. But the story does not end there. In fact, the conclusion of the story shows the cost of the sages’ victory:

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…. Rabban Gamliel was on a ship, when a wave stood above him to drown him…. He rose to his feet and said, “Master of the World, it is revealed and known before You that not for my honor did I act, 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.

But even that isn’t the end of the story…

[In Aramaic] Ima Shalom, the wife of R. Eliezer, was Rabban Gamliel’s sister. From then on, she did not allow R. Eliezer to prostrate himself in prayer [lest he pray for the death of Rabban Gamliel]. One day she miscalculated the New Moon and mistook a 29-day-month for a 30-day-month. Some say: a poor man came and stood at the gate, and she brought out bread to him. She found R. Eliezer prostrate in prayer and said, “Get up! You have killed my brother.” At that moment, a ram’s horn sounded from Rabban Gamliel’s house [to announce] that he had died. R. Eliezer asked, “How did you know?” She said, “I have received a tradition from the house of my father’s father that “All gates are closed but the gates of humiliation.”

The last line ties the story in with the discussion in this part of Bava Metzia: harmful speech and humiliation by words. The version of this story in the Yerushalmi had made it clear that deciding to base the halakhic process on Beit Hillel at the expense of Beit Shammai “shook the pillars” of Halakhah. Someone hearing only that version would very likely come away with a very negative view of Rabban Gamliel: had he just left well enough alone and let both opinions stand, all would have been well. Let some choose to follow this view and others that view!

The Bavli allows Rabban Gamliel to defend himself against the charges of sowing strife: “I didn’t do it out of ego, or even for the honor of the Patriarchy; everything was for the sake of Heaven, so that we not become two peoples.”

The tragedy of being right

There are some important lessons in this for us today: Rabban Gamliel was struggling for national unity at a difficult time. He clearly thought that leaving the situation as it was, with two separate legislative mechanisms running in parallel, risked eventual civil war. Already, it was getting to where people who espoused one system could not marry those who followed the other system.

We see something very similar threatening our society in Israel today: already many Israeli citizens can’t marry other Israeli citizens because the government and the halakhic system are using different legislative mechanisms to determine personal status. We could use a Rabban Gamliel today!

But it is Rabbi Eliezer’s wife who has the last word. What Rabban Gamliel did might have been for the sake of national unity, but are we allowed to sacrifice the individual even for the good of the nation? Are we allowed to disenfranchise a minority for the sake of the majority?

Like so many seemingly “simple” stories in the Talmud, this one is actually an exercise in appreciating the real-world complexities of our decisions. This is what we are apt to miss when we quote only the first half of this story. We may come away with the lesson that Beit Hillel carried the day with the full approval of God, but without understanding the price of that victory. No decision is ever made without the loss of potential. Free will is a painful gift. Our reaching for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge leads us ever farther from the paradise of childhood, and we hear the laughter of God at our backs.

But most important of all is the underlying lesson: it wasn’t the disagreement about the Halakhah that caused the crisis, but the decision to resolve the dispute once and for all, and the way that decision was carried out. By silencing one side of the debate, the halls of governance were left askew, never to be put right.

This same tension runs through Jewish history to this day — the tension between the “conservative / preservative” strain of thought, which transmits faithfully only what it heard from its teachers, and the innovative — and risky — strain of thought that attempts to incorporate new ideas and values. We can’t do without either of these viewpoints. This is the true meaning of the saying: “These and these are the word of the living God.” It’s not that both viewpoints are equally important; it’s that only the combination of the two viewpoints is a reflection of the Divine.

One of the more beautiful commentaries on the story of the ostracism of R. Eliezer wasn’t actually written in response to that story at all (at least, to the best of my knowledge).

The Place Where We Are Right

by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a courtyard.

But doubts and wondering
Make the world soft
Like a mole,
Like a plow.

And a whisper will be heard
In the place where the House once stood
That was destroyed.

המקום שבו אנו צודקים

יהודה עמיחי

מן המקום שבו אנו צודקים
לא יצמחו לעולם פרחים.
המקום שבו אנו צודקים
הוא קשה ורמוס
כמו חצר.

אבל ספקות ותהיות
עושים את העולם לתחוח
כמו חפרפרת
כמו חריש.

ולחישה תשמע
במקום שבו היה בית
אשר נחרב.


A much longer analysis of the Tanur shel Ahknai story in both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi can be found at:

About the Author
Yael Shahar has spent most of her career working in counter-terrorism and intelligence, with brief forays into teaching physics and astronomy. She now divides her time between writing, off-road trekking, and learning Talmud with anyone who will sit still long enough. She is the author of Returning, a haunting exploration of Jewish memory, betrayal, and redemption.
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