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The Caving Walls of the Study Hall

The Caving Walls of the Study Hall

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[An oven] that was cut into parts and sand was placed between the parts, Rabbi Eliezer maintained that it is pure (i.e., not susceptible to ritual impurity). The other sages said that it is susceptible to ritual impurity....

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected. Said he to them: "If the law is as I say, may the carob tree prove it." The carob tree was uprooted from its place a distance of 100 cubits. Others say, 400 cubits. Said they to him: "One cannot prove anything from a carob tree."

Said [Rabbi Eliezer] to them: "If the law is as I say, may the aqueduct prove it." The water in the aqueduct began to flow backwards. Said they to him: "One cannot prove anything from an aqueduct."

Said he to them: "If the law is as I say, then may the walls of the house of study prove it." The walls of the house of study began to cave in. Rabbi Joshua rebuked them, "If Torah scholars are debating a point of Jewish law, what are your qualifications to intervene?" The walls did not fall, in deference to Rabbi Joshua, nor did they straighten up, in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. They still stand there at a slant.

Said he to them: "If the law is as I say, may it be proven from heaven!" There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: "What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer -- the law is as he says..."

Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: "'The Torah is not in heaven!'1" ... We take no notice of heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to 'follow the majority.'"2

Rabbi Nathan subsequently met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: "What did G‑d do at that moment?" [Elijah] replied: "He smiled and said: 'My children have triumphed over Me, My children have triumphed over Me.'"

Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a–b
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Riwkah Israel October 12, 2017

What does it mean when G'd says: "My children have triumphed over me."? Reply

Anonymous Camarillo, CA, USA January 18, 2015

To "follow the majority." It doesn't say to "follow the majority." It says "Do not follow a majority for evil." This is commonly interpreted as follow a majority good, or that following a majority won't lead you to evil. But there is another, more literal way to read Exodus: It's saying don't follow the majority if they are evil. So, in this situation, if Eliezer was right and the opposing position was evil, then Joshua was advocating exactly what the Torah prohibits -- following the majority for evil. Reply

Jonathan January 17, 2015

Torah reference What reference to ritual impurity in the Torah is this story referring to? I don't understand the origin of the law in question here. Reply

Anonymous February 20, 2014

hillel and shammai jli There is a JLI course on this topic that says that one was the House of Hillel and one was the House of Shammai and although the walls and the carob tree and the river were all saying he was right - we will only be aligned with Shammai after Moshiach comes - he was correct, But not right now. Right now we listen to the majority and what they were saying in this story because that is the opinion of Hillel. Reply

Anonymous November 1, 2012

My children 6. G-d said : " My children have defeated Me ! My children have defeated Me ! "

G-d meant that the Torah is made in heaven. It was up to men to make laws on earth.

G-d was elated. that the laws of man preceded the laws of Eliezer/Torah, even though Eliezer was right, This was true in this case, maybe no others in his day. Reply

Yehudit Olam Hazeh, Ein Sof November 1, 2012

Making a Jewish decision Hashem supported the method of majority rule using rational deduction. But it appears that Rabbi Eliezer came from a more ancient tradition where the quality and power of the soul determined who would be followed. Aren't all the patriarchs as well as all post-Mosaic Jewish leaders- the political/spiritual leaders such as Joshua, David, Solomon, and the prophetic leaders- of this type? They embodied the power of rabbinical ordination given from divine source- and people wanted to follow them. However, in the days of this Talmudic discussion, Jewish leaders with rabbinical ordination in the direct line from Aaron and Moses (and maybe there was a divine connection from Abraham to Moses) were soon to be murdered by the Romans. What remains is the Torah and a method of decision making and leadership based -not on divine transmission- but on Torah-based rational deduction. Was G-d preparing our ancestral leaders at the turn of the millenium for the break in rabbinic ordination and exile? Feedback welcome! Reply

Anonymous Shellharbour, NSW November 1, 2012

Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus Rabbi Eliezer would not accept the majoirity decision. If one person could hold everything up nothing would ever have been decided or done and the people would have been without guidance. Even though G-d supported R. Eliezer's judgement on the issue of the stove, the method of decision making was considered more important. This is how I read it but I am not an expert. Reply

Danny New York October 13, 2011

Misquoting the Torah Rabbi Joshua says that the Torah states that we should follow the majority. However, the actual commandment is "DO NOT follow the many TO DO EVIL" Reply

Anonymous September 20, 2010

R. Eliezer Not being satisfied with the Oven story i tried to dig up some details. This story is far more fascinating than i first thought. There are a ton of commentaries on it. Following it is really fabulous because it shows how rich our Jewish heritage is, and what first got me interested in Judaism. My final analysis follows. It leaves out a million background details :

1. Eliezer lost because he was banned from the community. He was bitter to the very end. He cursed two of the rabbis who visited him on his deathbed telling them that they would not die natural deaths. One drowned in a storm at sea. Another was tortured by the Romans.

2. The community lost because they did not know laws such as impurity to anywhere near the level of Eliezer.

3. Most often arguments only have losers.

4. The political climate/chaos of the times required excommunication. Eliezer was his intransigent self at the wrongest of times. As they say : timing is everything.

5. Lessons from the story are manifold. Reply

Moss Posner, M.D. Fresno, CA September 20, 2010

Rabbi Eliezer's excommunication The story goes that the voice of Ha-Shem explained subsequently, "The Torah was made for man; man was not made for the torah." The fact is that men are, for the most part, fallible; however, once a decision has been made--in all conscience and sincerity--the matter (for that moment) is closed. Rav Eliezar's insistent albeit valid points were regarded as divisive. Reply

Anonymous Montreal via fcmontreal.com September 20, 2010

Excommunication, response to anonymous He was edcommunicated to instill in everyone the importance of the court's decision Reply

Anonymous September 15, 2010

Rabbi Eliezer This story is still unsettling. For Rabbi Eleizer to be excommunicated sounds very harsh. He must have done something more severe in this story. Did he keep arguing his point despite the ruling ? That would be divisive for the community. Thus, was Rabbi Eliezer guilty of having too much ego ? We are normally encouraged to ' fight for what is right '. Did Rabbi Eliezer not comprehend his negligence of the law of the majority. Did his personality cause his faux pas ?
For me and i don't think i am alone in this, excommunication in this story teaches that one should not fight for what is right, but follow like a sheep. The conclusion that G-d smiled about the incident is no solace whatsoever. Why was rabbi Elaiezer given such power of ' miracle ' ?
I heard this story several weeks ago. It continues to be disturbing in light of the verdict to excommunicate Eliezer. It almost sounds like he was mentally ill, that his holy brain blunted his talmudic brain vis a vis the law of majority ... Reply

Judith LA, US February 17, 2010

The Mystical Judaism of R. Eliezer went underground with this monumental decision made by the rabbis of the sanhedrin, the passing of R. Eliezer, saved in the yeshiva of R. Shimon bar Yochai until it reappears again with Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Ari, in the 12th century. In fact, the mitnagdim try to abort its rebirth even today in the form of a 2 dimensional 'modern' Judaism devoid of soul that turned so many of us off, looking everywhere but in our own Jewish backyards for transcendence and G-dliness. There is a marriage between mysticism and human rationality that is necessary for humans to grasp just a little flavor of life beyond the material plane, to 'know' that there is much more than this physical, neuron-bound limited life, where G-d's Presence can be found, waiting for us to look His way. The rabbis did a necessary thing for Jewish survival, but now its time to awaken all the Rabbi Eliezers and teach us anew the truth of the Torah. It seems to me that the Lubavitch tradition is this reawakening. Reply

Judith LA, US February 17, 2010

Major turning point in Judaism? Placing this story in the context of its time in history may throw some light on this fascinating discussion in the Mishna. Our rabbis lived during the destruction of the second Bet HaMikdash, and the immense cultural complexities surrounding this time: the destruction of a nation under siege by an empirical foreign power, influence of Hellenism on the Jewish people, the search for a strong national leader like David, desperate times spawning the pervasiveness of occultism in Jewish culture. R. Eliezer reminds me of rabbis like the Lubavitcher Rebbe who are revered in part because of their ability to 'know' beyond the ordinary human mind. In this historical context of uncertainty, the sanhedrin decided to place more weight on human reason which is predictable (logical) vs superhuman knowledge as demonstrated by R. Eliezer. Their determination was strong enough to excommunicate him whom they revered, yet their deep love for him remained as their rebbe passes to the next life. . Reply

Menachem Posner for Chabad.org via chabadofmarinadelrey.com September 21, 2009

To Rebekah: I heartily recommend this masterpiece by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman: Is It Really the Torah, Or Is It Just the Rabbis? Reply

Rebekah Yesilevsky Mar Vista, CA via chabadofmarinadelrey.com September 17, 2009

Does this story intend to say That the torah is absolutely eternal, and that even G-d could not (or would not) change a single part of it. Were it possible to hear such a heavenly voice, would it be considered a test not to fail if (said) voice commanded anything besides what is written in the Torah? Are interpretations of the Torah absolute? Is there absolutely NO measure for contemplations about the Torah if all it's words are absolutely and concretely interpreted by those who have lived before our time? I ask in ignorance, not in argument. What a wonderful site, giving blocks of knowledge to build more awareness for (me) readers in the year to come. If sleep wasn't a must, I would read all throughout the night! Reply

Hannerz staten island, ny January 7, 2009

the picture The artist's son is in my class at school! Reply

ma elikottil kerala, india August 14, 2007

Stories Great eternal fascinating stories. Mankinds greatest heritage Reply

Moshe Posner Fresno, CA November 22, 2006

Controversy between minds vs G-d Yet it is distressing to recall that Rav Eliezer was excommunicated because he refused to agree with the majority. Worse yet, shortly before his death they proved their insight into the error of their ways by entreating him to lecture on his deathbed and in his presence mourning his passing.

This contradiction is very troubling indeed. Reply

Anonymous May 12, 2006

This story is almost as beautiful as that passage of Genesis where Abraham bargained with G-d to save Sodom. Of course, the rabbis knew as early as they saw the carob tree uprooted that G-d was taking part in their controversy. It was no longer between them and R. Eliezer, but rather between them and G-d, and surely they enjoyed every minute of it. And so did Hashem and He must have been just as curious as they were what they would answer next. He also must have been pleased to see the Torah was so much on their minds and dear to them that they would argue so passionately over it. And to see they would even stand up against Him and thereby prove they had not changed a bit: they were the same Israel that had wrestled with Him at the ford of the Jabbok—His people. “That’s the spirit, rabbis,” Hashem probably murmured to Himself. Reply

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