Torah scrolls [illustrative].
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Shavuot is referred to as the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. But what did God actually reveal? Is our tradition set in stone, or is it open to whatever alteration the scholars desire to make? How legitimate is the claim that “Where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way”?
I believe two talmudic passages describing incidents in the life of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus help answer our questions.
Tractate Bava Metzia
(59b) records a conflict between Rabbi Eliezer (the “cemented cistern who never loses a drop,” according to Ethics of the Fathers) and the sages over whether or not a particular type of oven is subject to ritual impurity. Rabbi Eliezer brings three miracles to support his case, culminating in a “divine voice” which exclaims: “What do you want from My son Rabbi Eliezer? The Law is always in accordance with his view.”
Nevertheless, the sages stand their ground. They argued that when Moses said the Torah “is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12), he meant it had been given to the scholars on earth to interpret. The Oral Law is determined by majority rule, hence the sages can overrule not only Rabbi Eliezer but even God Himself!
The Talmud goes on to record Elijah the Prophet’s report of God’s reaction: “The Almighty laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated Me, My children have eternalized Me” (the Hebrew nitzhuni
can mean both things).
This controversy must have had great significance. It took place after the destruction of the Second Temple, when the sages were reconstituting Judaism from a religion centred on sacrifices to one based around the home and the synagogue.
Rabbi Eliezer believed halachic change could only take place if there was precedent within the tradition itself. So he never stated a law which he had not heard from his teacher (B.T. Succa
The majority of the scholars disagreed. They believed that with the 13 principles of hermeneutic logic communicated by God to Moses, they could plumb the depths of the Bible, explicating even the crowns on each letter, to interpret and apply the Law.
Seeing that Rabbi Eliezer was not budging, these sages placed a ban (herem
) on him and sent Rabbi Akiva, his disciple, to inform Eliezer.
Hearing of the ban, Rabbi Eliezer cried out to God, and Rabban Gamliel, the head of the delegitimizing Sanhedrin, died immediately as punishment. This talmudic passage closes with the words: “After the destruction of the Temple, all gates to God are closed except the claim of unfair treatment.”
The second incident (B.T. Sanhedrin
68a) takes place when Rabbi Eliezer is critically ill. Since he is still under ban, when Rabbi Akiva and his friends come to visit, they stand at a distance of four cubits. “Why have you come?” he asks.
“We have come to study Torah from you,” they reply.
“Why haven’t you come until now?” he asks.
“We had no time,” they lamely reply.
“You will not die natural deaths,” he says.
Rabbi Eliezer then places his arms upon his heart. In deep anguish, he
declares; “Woe unto you, my two arms, which are like two Torah scrolls
which have been tied up.... Much Torah have I taught, but my students
took from me less than can fit into an eye dropper…”
His erstwhile colleagues ask him about the halachic status of a
particular shoe. He declares it “pure” and with that word his soul
leaves his body. Rabbi Joshua rises to his feet and declares, “The ban
has been lifted, the ban has been lifted.”
In his eulogy, Rabbi Akiva cries out: “My father! My father! The
chariot of Israel…” – the words of Elisha when Elijah was transported
Somehow tradition and change must be orchestrated in such a fashion
that Halacha never ossifies, but neither can it become totally
malleable. This is the greatest challenge of our generation.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.