Rabbi Boaz Genut
Former Rosh Kollel in St. Louis
Former Executive Director of Torah Mitzion
Currently Director of the Department of Marriage and Community Affairs at Tzohar

 

For this commandment, which I command you today, is not too difficult for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in heaven . . . nor is it across the sea. . . . Rather, it is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, so you can do it (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

The sages once disagreed with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. He was one of the greatest of the Tanna’im in the generation following the destruction of the Second Temple, and a prize pupil of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai. The disagreement revolved around the laws pertaining to the purity of an oven. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 59b) describes the development of the disagreement:

On that day, Rabbi Eliezer put forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them.

He said to them, “If the halakhah agrees with me, this carob tree will prove it.” The carob tree moved 100 cubits from its place. The sages replied, “We do not bring proofs from a carob tree!”

He continued, “If the halakhah agrees with me, the stream of water will prove it.” The water flowed backwards. The sages replied, “We do not bring proofs from a stream of water!”

He continued, “If the halakhah agrees with me, the walls of the beit midrash (study hall) will prove it.” The walls started to fall in. Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked them. . . . They did not fall, out of respect to Rabbi Yehoshua, and they did not straighten up, out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, and thus they remain inclined to this day.

He continued, “If the halakhah agrees with me, heaven itself will prove it.” A bat kol (heavenly voice) proclaimed: “Who are you to dispute Rabbi Eliezer?! The halakhah always follows him!” Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and proclaimed, “‘It is not in heaven’ (Deuteronomy 30:12), which means we do not pay attention to heavenly voices. For at Sinai it was already written, “Incline after the majority’ (Exodus 23:2).”

This story, impressive as it is, leads us to ask a fundamental question: What is the meaning of the “proofs” which Rabbi Eliezer offers? Do his supernatural abilities testify to the correctness of his claims? Halakhic discourse revolves around logical analysis of positions, claims, and counterclaims. How can miracles, which defy logical explanation, persuade the opposition? The Vilna Gaon is quoted as suggesting that in truth, the goal of these proofs is not to justify Rabbi Eliezer’s claims, but rather to convince his opponents of his greatness.

There would seem to be two ways to resolve a halakhic dispute which remains unresolved even after each side has attempted to logically persuade the other of the correctness of its position. The first is to evaluate anew the “weight” carried by each disputant, and the second is to resort to the principles of pesak (halakhic decision-making).

Initially, Rabbi Eliezer takes the first approach, and attempts to prove that his opinion should be given more weight than that of his opponents. To this end, he begins with a series of impressive proofs: the carob is uprooted, the stream runs backwards, and the walls of the beit midrash incline to fall. In the Vilna Gaon’s opinion, these proofs are not random; they teach us the greatness of Rabbi Eliezer. The carob symbolizes being satisfied with little, water symbolizes humility, and the walls of the beit midrashsymbolize diligence (in Torah study). These traits are the measure of the greatness of a talmid chakham (Torah scholar). Rabbi Eliezer introduces the proofs to show that he possesses all of these traits. His opponents, headed by Rabbi Yehoshua, are not impressed. The fact that the walls of the study hall neither fell in nor straightened up indicates that among Rabbi Eliezer’s opponents as well there were people who were satisfied with little, who were humble, and who were diligent.

At this point, Rabbi Eliezer tries the second route, making his case by resorting to the principles of pesak. He calls upon heaven for help. A bat kol pronounces the principle that the halakhah always agrees with Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Yehoshua stands strong against this heavenly revelation and asserts, “It is not in heaven.” For opposing the bat kol is the original divine revelation of Mount Sinai. The Torah which was given to us at Sinai brings with it eternal and unchanging values. These are to be preferred to a bat kol of the here and now. The Torah decrees: “Incline after the majority.” And so it must be.

Torah MiTzion is pleased to take part in perpetuating eternal Torah truths, by sending young talmidei chakhamim – who are satisfied with little, who are humble, and who are diligent – to communities thirsting for Torah all over the world.