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A Breakthrough Insight Into The Tanur Shel Achnai Incident

A pivotal story in the Gemara is the Tanur Shel Achnai episode (Bava Metzia 59b). Here is the story in a nutshell:

The Story in Brief

R. Eliezer and the Chachamim (Sages) were embroiled in a heated dispute about whether a particular oven was tamei or tahor. R. Eliezer vigorously argued that it was tahor, but most insisted tamei. After exhausting conventional halachic arguments, R. Eliezer resorted to convincing his opponents through miracles. As a result, a carob tree moved, the water in the channel outside the beit midrash changed direction, and the walls of the rabbinic study hall even began to cave. None of these extraordinary actions moved the Chachamim to budge. In a final effort, R. Eliezer announces that a voice from heaven (bat kol) would proclaim he is correct. Lo and behold, the bat kol rang out loudly and clearly in his favor! Shockingly, R. Yehoshua arose and announced that we do not follow a bat kol since the Torah is lo bashamayim hi, not in heaven (Devarim 30:12). The Torah commands us to follow the majority opinion of the sages (Shemot 23:2), and we heed this command even if it runs counter to a voice from heaven! R. Natan later encounters Eliyahu HaNavi, who reports that Hashem reacted to this incident by smiling and remarking, “My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.”

A Powerful Question

TABC Talmid Jacob Horn, though, poses a bold and compelling question. If Hashem empowers us to establish the halacha, why do we not adjust the halacha to our convenience? I responded that some, unfortunately, misunderstand the story in this manner to justify the blatant violation of halacha. A classic example is the Conservative Rabbinic Assembly permitting driving a car to synagogue on Shabbat (a ruling later regretted by many Conservative leaders as a significant blunder and contributor to the demise of their communities).

TABC Talmid Judah Belgrade immediately responded by noting a parable we had a few weeks earlier cited from the Maharal of Prague. Maharal likens the relationship of the Chachamim and Torah to someone who is assigned the task to complete an unfinished mansion. When completing the mansion, all added components must perfectly match the original. Therefore, permitting driving to the synagogue does not fit the “original mansion” and is not a legitimate Torah ruling. On the other hand, the Chachamim’s stance regarding the Tanur Shel Achnai does match the original mansion, despite its running counter to the bat kol.

A Crucial Nuance

I added to Judah by noting a crucial but overlooked aspect of the Tanur Shel Achnai episode. The bat kol rang out in favor of the lenient view classifying the oven as tahor, ritually pure. However, the Chachamim steadfastly adhered to their strict belief that it is tamei (ritually impure). If Hashem declares something permitted, why argue that it is forbidden?!

An answer lies in a crucial distinction regarding our relationship with Hashem. An employee granted permission by his boss to leave early will eagerly take advantage of the offer. However, a partner in a business will not go earlier than appropriate if he feels that his departure will negatively impact the business. This is because the employee works only for his paycheck while the partner is invested in the enterprise’s success.

Noach was interested merely in complying with Hashem’s will. Thus, he offers no resistance when Hashem informs him that He will be destroying the world. In stark contrast, Avraham Avinu rises in impassioned tefilla when Hashem tells him that He plans on destroying Sedom. Avraham Avinu views himself as a junior partner with Hashem and not merely an employee.

Our heritage is that of Avraham Avinu. Therefore, even if Hashem tells us that something is permitted, we will not follow if we feel His ruling runs counter to the Torah!! We love keeping the Torah, and we are committed to upholding the Torah just as much as Hashem!! Therefore we would never issue a ruling out of convenience. We dismiss such a ruling as illegitimate.

Beit Hillel’s Strict Rulings

If a particular rabbi’s every ruling is lenient, then something is amiss with his approach to halacha. It is understandable if a halachic decisor is inclined to rule leniently, and many of his rulings are in the lenient direction, such as Beit Hillel of yore and Rav Ovadia Yosef of our time. However, if every decision points to a permissive path, the rabbi is interested in arriving at a convenient conclusion and not maintaining fidelity to the Torah. For this reason, the Mishna and Gemara highlight the exceptional situations where Beit Hillel rules strictly (“meichumrei Beit Hillel”).

A Powerful Concluding Question

TABC Talmid Akiva Kessler, though, notes that perhaps Hashem smiles and approves of our dissent only when we disagree with Him in the strict direction. Does Hashem react the same when the Chachamim rule leniently in defiance of His view? We shall address this vital question next week with Hashem’s help.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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