These were two exhilarating days in TABC’s Y11C shiur. First, we delved deeply into the Tanur Shel Achnai incident, where the majority opinion of the Chachamim overrides the Bat Kol (voice from heaven), supporting the lenient view of Rabi Eliezer. But most shocking is Hashem’s smiling approval of our dissent.
TABC talmid Akiva Kessler asks if Hashem’s approval is limited to where we rule more strictly than He. What if we rule more leniently? The answer, I suggest, lies in a stunning Mishnah: Yadayim 4:3. Without learning this incredible Mishnah one cannot understand Tanur Shel Achnai.
Yadayim 4:3: סוֹד ה’ לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם
The Mishnah records a vigorous debate regarding the lands of Ammon and Moav (the western portion of modern-day Jordan). On the one hand, we do not observe shemitah in this region since it is outside Eretz Yisrael. On the other hand, the rabbis required the separation of terumot and ma’aserot in those lands since it is very close to Israel. The question emerges as to whether we must separate ma’aser sheni or ma’aser ani during the shemitah year in Amon and Moav.
In Eretz Yisrael this is not a question since we do not give terumot and ma’aserot during the shemitah year. However, in years one, two, four and five of the shemitah cycle ma’aser sheni is separated, and in years three and six we give ma’aser ani. While in Eretz Yisrael, neither is separated during the shemitah year, the question emerges regarding the lands of Ammon and Moav: do we separate ma’aser sheni or ma’aser ani?
In a relative rarity, the Mishnah records the intense argumentation of the parties to the debate at considerable length. Finally, the matter came to a vote, and “nimnu v’gamru,” the consensus decided ma’aser ani.
Rabi Eliezer remained at his home in Lod during this debate. He refused to concede to the majority opinion in the Tanur Shel Achnai debate and was placed in cherem, excommunication. Nonetheless, he continued to hear about the great Chachamim’s discussions. In our case, the Mishnah records (slightly emended translation from Sefaria.org):
Rabi Yose ben Durmaskit visited Rabi Eliezer in Lod. He said: what new thing did you have in the house of study today? He said their votes were counted, and they decided that Ammon and Moav must give ma’aser sheni in the seventh year. Rabi Eliezer wept and said: סוֹד ה’ לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ,לְהוֹדִיעָם “The counsel of the Lord is with them that fear Him and His covenant, to make them know it” (Psalms 25:14). So go and tell them: Don’t worry about your voting. I received a tradition from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai who heard it from his teacher, his teacher from his teacher, and so back to a halacha given to Moshe at Sinai, that Ammon and Moav must give ma’aser sheni in the seventh year.
Other Examples of סוֹד ה’ לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם
We find סוֹד ה’ לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם regarding Rashi and Rabbenu Tam’s famous arguments about the order of the parshiyot in tefillin and whether a mezuzah is affixed vertically or on a slant.
In the 20th century, archaeologists discovered that in the time of Bayit Sheni, some tefillin were arranged following Rashi’s view, and some tefillin followed Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion! Some homes had mezuzot affixed following Rashi and others like Rabbeinu Tam!
A Stark Contradiction
This Mishnah teaches that Hashem influenced the consensus after a spirited debate among the Chachamim. How does this fit with the Tanur Shel Achnai story, which teaches that the Chachamim outweigh the ruling of Hashem? Moreover, it is none other than Rabi Eliezer who pronounces סוֹד ה’ לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם regarding the majority opinion of the Chachamim!
Resolving the Contradiction: Hashem Subtly Influencing the Consensus
There is no contradiction. The Chachamim’s ruling (i.e., the consensus view) in the Tanur Shel Achnai case reflects the subtle influence of Hashem—סוֹד ה’ לִירֵאָיו וּבְרִיתוֹ לְהוֹדִיעָם. The Bat Kol, as Tosafot to Bava Metzia 59b (d”h Lo BaShamayim Hi) say, was issued in respect to Rabi Eliezer.
Maharal (Be’er HaGolah 1:5) adds that both Rabi Eliezer and the Chachamim reflect the dvar Hashem. However, more of the emet lies with the Chachamim, and the halacha follows this view.
I suggest that Hashem subtly influences the halachic consensus to adopt the view that captures more emet. I also suggest that when a halachic consensus does not emerge, both opinions capture equal shares of emet, and therefore both persist through the generations.
This approach is supported by the Ramban (Devarim 17:11), who says that we must follow the decisions of the Sanhedrin even if it appears incorrect to us since Hashem influences their choices.
The Chatam Sofer (cited in Chut HaMeshulash page 97) told his son, the Ketav Sofer, that a consensus view among fully observant Jews is an expression of Divine influence. The Aruch HaShulchan (Orach Chaim 345:18) describes the halachic consensus regarding relying on community eruvin as if a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) rang out in favor of this view. Rav Asher Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Asher 1:30) similarly describes the halachic consensus regarding the prohibition to turn on electric appliances on Shabbat as if a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) rang out in favor of this view. We may similarly understand Pesachim 66a, which endorses the widespread practice of the devout Jewish community, stating, “If they are not prophets, they are the children of prophets.”
Hashem’s Role in the Halachic Process
Poskim readily finding a precedent in Chazal for every breakthrough in science, technology, medicine, etc., indicates Divine influence. How can we otherwise explain why the Gemara contains perfect analogies (to cite but a few examples) for airplanes, in vitro fertilization, refrigerators, electric shavers and dishwashers? הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה, the Chachamim exert every effort to master Torah and correctly apply it, but Hashem shapes the outcome (Avot 3:15).
Perhaps this is why (Bava Metzia 59b) Hashem smiles when proclaiming “Nitzchuni banai,” my children have defeated Me. The Chachamim’s “victory” is illusory since Hashem has quietly tilted their view. This approach explains why Rabi Eliezer cries when he realizes the Divine influence on the majority opinion. He realizes that while the Bat Kol rang out in his favor, ultimately Hashem sides with the Chachamim.
Conclusion: Answering Akiva Kessler’s Question
Akiva Kessler wondered whether Hashem accepts His “defeat” even when the Chachamim rule more leniently than He. While this question arises when learning the Tanur Shel Achnai story alone, we resolve it by examining the complementary story in Yadayim 4:3. While it may appear that the Chachamim run counter to the Divine decision, the consensus view and practice ultimately represent God’s viewpoint. Rabot machshavot b’lev ish, v’atzat Hashem hi takum, while there are many thoughts and plans in man’s heart, in the end, Hashem’s word emerges triumphant (Mishlei 19:21). Whether the lenient or strict approach, the consensus view that arises reflects Divine judgment.
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.