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The Caving Walls of the Study Hall

The Caving Walls of the Study Hall


[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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Discussion (20)
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.
Camarillo, CA, USA
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.
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.
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.
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!
Olam Hazeh, Ein Sof
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.
Shellharbour, NSW
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"
New York
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.
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.
Moss Posner, M.D.
Fresno, CA
September 20, 2010
Excommunication, response to anonymous
He was edcommunicated to instill in everyone the importance of the court's decision