June 17, 2024
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The Shocking Heavenly Endorsement of a Mara D’Atra and Its Major Contemporary Ramifications

A Contradiction

What a shocking and very rare heavenly endorsement of a halachic concept! The Gemara (Shabbat 130a) tells of a community that followed its halachic authority (mara d’atra), Rabi Eliezer, even regarding a matter where the majority opinion hotly contests their rav’s outlook. They followed his ruling that one may violate Shabbat even for machshirei milah, preparatory steps for a milah (such as the mohel carrying his milah knife to the brit in an area not encompassed by an eruv). The Gemara endorses their practice noting that no one died prematurely in this community. In addition, when the Romans issued a decree forbidding brit milah, they exempted Rabi Eliezer’s district.

This Gemara constitutes a powerful endorsement of the mara d’atra’s authority. However, it is shocking that the Gemara arrives at this conclusion based on Hashem’s intervention. After all, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 59b) in the famous Tanur Shel Achnai episode dramatically rejects Divine interference in the determination of halacha. Moreover, the chachamim reject the bat kol (heavenly voice) that endorses the view of none other than Rabi Eliezer. So why is the Divine intervention accepted in Shabbat 130a but rejected in Bava Metzia 59b?

 

Explanation #1: Hashem’s Domain

One suggestion is that Shabbat 130a addresses a question of violation of Shabbat, which entails the heavenly punishment of karet. Karet involves premature death (Moed Katan 28a). The fact that the community that followed Rabi Eliezer did not die prematurely showed that Hashem did not administer the punishment of karet. If Hashem did not impose karet, it signals that the community acted appropriately by following Rabi Eliezer, even though his voice stands alone regarding machshirei milah and Shabbat.

 

Explanation #2:
Conformity With Halacha

The bat kol described in Bava Metzia as endorsing Rabi Eliezer’s view ran counter to following the majority ruling. Regarding such matters, Rabi Yehoshua proclaims that Hashem’s Torah paradoxically does not allow Divine interference in the process of halachic decision-making. However, the Torah does not explicitly discuss the authority of the mara d’atra. Thus, Hashem has a say about this matter. Tosafot (Bava Metzia 59b s.v. Lo BaShamayim Hi) explicitly state that we reject Hashem’s interference with the halachic process only when His proclamations contradict the words of the Torah.

In addition, the authority of the mara d’atra is very much in line with Torah thought. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik told me (in a personal conversation) that the Social Contract Theory fits with the Torah viewpoint. He noted that the authority of the Torah stems from our willingly accepting it, as recorded in Shemot Perek 19. The Rambam similarly states that the stature of the Talmud stems from its universal acceptance among the Jewish people. The authority of the mara d’atra also stems from his acceptance by the Jewish community he serves. Thus, Hashem’s endorsement of Rabi Eliezer’s authority as the mara d’atra not only does not run afoul of a Torah prohibition, it is thoroughly in keeping with Torah values.

 

Explanation #3:
Upholding Rabbinic Authority

Interestingly, Shabbat 120a and Bava Metzia 59b not only do not contradict, but they even communicate the same message. The Tanur Shel Achnai incident is the Talmud’s boldest endorsement of rabbinic authority. Moreover, it records Hashem’s approval of the Sages’ rejection of the bat kol pronouncing the halacha as following Rabi Eliezer. Shabbat 130a similarly conveys Hashem’s endorsement of the authority of the local rabbinic authority.

The only difference between Shabbat 130a and Bava Metzia 59b is whether we reject Rabi Eliezer’s lone views. In Bava Metzia 59b, Rabi Eliezer and the chachamim battle over whom the halacha follows for the entire Jewish people. In such a situation, the majority view must prevail. However, Shabbat 130a addresses the permissibility of a lone Jewish community following the unique perspectives of its local halachic authority. In such a situation, the view of the mara d’atra prevails. Thus, paradoxically, the less area one seeks to rule, the greater authority one enjoys.

With our distinction in mind, we explain why Hashem issued a bat kol supporting Rabi Eliezer’s ruling in Bava Metzia 49b only to have His bat kol rejected by the Sages (and Hashem’s subsequent endorsement of the rejection!). Rabi Eliezer’s opinion constitutes a valid halachic view despite its singular opinion. Rabi Eliezer’s local constituents had every right to follow his rulings, even regarding the Tanur Shel Achnai. The human and divine rejection of Rabi Eliezer’s view came only when he tried to impose his decision upon the entire Jewish community.

 

Explaining the Rare Divine Intervention

Divine interference in the halachic process is rare. In the cases of Bava Metzia 59b and Shabbat 130a, it occurs only to confirm rabbinic authority (albeit in different ways in different circumstances). This Divine intervention establishing rabbinic authority is reminiscent of Hashem endorsing Moshe Rabbeinu’s authority over that of Korach and his evil supporters. Once Hashem affirms the Sages’ authority, they responsibly exercise this authority without further need of Divine approval.

 

Conclusion: Tremendous Implications for Today

Our discussion has significant implications for contemporary Torah life. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has noted (in an address in October 1986) that a community enjoys the right to follow its halachic leader’s singular opinions, provided that it lies within legitimate halachic bounds (like Rabi Eliezer’s views regarding machshirei milah). Examples include Chabad adherents following unique rulings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, followers of Rav Ovadia Yosef adhering to his particular views, and talmidim of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik following his distinctive approaches. However, the Tanur Shel Achnai incident teaches that we do not have the right to impose one’s rebbe’s singular views upon the greater Jewish community.


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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