Friday, April 17, 2009

The Oven of Aknai

Over Pesach I read Akiva by Dr. Marcus Lehmann. The book is amazing, both because it is so accessible to everyone, and more importantly for me, because I had known all these stories before, but had not understood how one flowed from the next. The book allowed me a context which enabled me to make sense of the stories.

One of the scenes referenced in the book is that of the Oven of Aknai. One thing I found interesting was that I had always thought that the actual miracles that occurred (the walls of the Beit Midrash caving in, for instance) had literally happened, but Lehmann cited a different understanding of these events (surely from a different source.) This excerpt I reproduce below.


There was a certain oven- called Achnai's oven- that these Sages differed about. Rabbi Eliezer considered that oven to be like a building, and held the halachic opinion that it was not susceptible to impurity. His colleagues however, considered it to be like an earthenware vessel, and thus they believed that it could become impure. It was a heated discussion, and although Rabbi Eliezer supported his view with a wealth of arguments and proofs, the other Rabbis refused to change their minds. At this point Rabbi Eliezer said, "If my authority is not enough for you, then let 'the Charuv' ('the Carob Tree') decide!"

"The Charuv" was a name which people used for Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa, who was one of the most renowned men of his time. He was so poor that he lived solely off the fruit of his carob tree (carob trees were quite common in Eretz Yisrael). He too had been a disciple of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. He was a great tzaddik, and God had often answered his prayers in a miraculous manner. So highly esteemed was he that even his teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, once asked him to pray for is son, who was very ill at the time. And God answered his prayer and RAbban Yochanan ben Zakkai's son recovered.

Now Rabbi Eliezer called for him, so that he should voice his opinion on the disputed matter. And the result was that the great and celebrated Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa agreed with Rabbi Eliezer! But Rabbi Eliezer's colleagues still held firmly to their view.

So Rabbi Eliezer said, "If our authority is insufficient, then let 'the Brook' decide!"

"The Brook" was the nickname of Rabbi Elazar ben Arach, one of the most distinguished Sages of his time. His teacher, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, had compared him to a powerful spring that gathers force and turns into a strong, flowing brook. He favored his sayings over those of all his other students. He also said of him, "If all of Israel's Sages were measured in greatness against Elazar ben Arach (even if Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurkanos would be counted among them), he would take first place over all of them."

When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai died, Rabbi Elazar had moved to Emmaus. He expected all his companions to follow him there, but they did not. Then he thought of moving to Yavneh, but his wife, who was very proud of him, felt that it was beneath his dignity to do so if the other scholars had not followed him to Emmaus. Because they remained in Emmaus Rabbi Elazar hadn't participated in the study sessions in Yavneh for many years. Now Rabbi Eliezer called for him, and he too decided like Rabbi Eliezer. But the Sages still refused to accept Rabbi Eliezer's decision.

Rabbi Eliezer then proposed the following challenge: "If you really insist on the rule of the majority, then let 'the walls of the beis midrash decide!"

Who are "the walls of the beis midrash?" They are the pupils (the future teachers), who lend purpose and structure to the house of learning. So the pupils who were present stood up and they too confirmed Rabbi Eliezer's view. In reaction to this, Rabbi Yehoshua told them sharply, "My dear pupils, you are still too young and immature to join this debate!" So they remained silent. They no longer dared to take part in their elders' controversy.

Rabbi Eliezer now stood up and said, "So let it be decided from Above!"

And God accepted his appeal. Without delay He sent the Prophet Eliyahu, who said to the Sages: "Why are you fighting against Rabbi Eliezer? He is always right in his rulings!"

Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and replied, "It says in the Torah: 'The Torah is not in Heaven.' The Torah was given to us by God at Mount Sinai, and in it we find the precept that decisions shall be made according to majority rule!"



Even though I once had this story explained to me (regarding truth and how we derive truth and rules and suchlike, with the Ran and the Maharal), I still don't completely understand it. But I thought it was pretty interesting that the nature in the story (the brook, the carob tree, the walls) are actually titles for people, and symbolic in nature.


Gavi said...

My favourite interpretation of the Tannur shel Achnai story is the one I link to below (from a siyyum on Seder Taharos):

Columbia Student said...

This is the explanation of the Maharam Schif BM 59b-the Maharsha as well interprets it allegorically using his own explanation of what these "miracles" represent.

Chana said...


The idea is beautiful, but the way in which he derived it is not. I cannot reconcile myself to statements such as these:

"All the way until his death, R. Eliezer lived an isolated, angry, and broken existence."

Or: "And so he died - a broken potsherd."

Not so! Firstly, LabRab did not account for the fact that when Rabbi Eliezer died, he did so with the word "pure" on his lips, which certainly suggests that he died in purity just as much if not more than Job did. Secondly, his description of Rabbi Eliezer as this "isolated, angry and broken" man may literally be so, but is not so per the commentaries. The way in which his death is described in Akiva for instance, it is very wholesome.

An excerpt-

When he saw them, he asked them, "Why have you come?"

"To learn Torah," they answered.

"And why haven't you come until now?"

"We didn't have time."

Then Rabbi Eliezer said, "You have sinned by not coming to learn from me! One day you will have to suffer a very gruesome death to atone for your sin!"

"And I?" Rabbi Akiva asked.

"Your death will be more cruel than theirs, for your heart is as big as the entrance hall in the Holy Temple, and you could have learned a great deal from me."

Rabbi Eliezer then placed his two arms over his heart, and cried, "Woe unto you, my two arms, you are like closed Torah scrolls that no one reads. I have learned much Torah and I have taught much Tora. I have learned much Torah, and I hardly received as much from my teacher as the amount of water a dog can drink from the sea! I have taught much Torah, and my disciples didn't receive more from me than the amount of paint a paintbrush absorbs when it is dipped into box of paint! I know three hundred halachos concerning leprosy spots, and no one has ever asked me about them! I also know three thousand laws concerning mysticism, and no one ever asked me about them except for Akiva ben Yosef!"

The Sages asked the sick man difficult questions, and he answered them all. The last answer he gave, before his soul departed, ended with the word "pure."

Then Rabbi Yehoshua cried out, "His soul has departed in purity- the ban is removed! The ban is removed!"

RAbbi Eliezer died in Caesarea. After Shabbos was over, they carried his body to Lod for burial. Rabbi Akiva followed the funeral litter, and in a loud, wailing voice he called out, just as the Prophet Elisha had when Eliyahu was taken from him, "My father, my father, Israel's fighting chariot and military force! You fought and wrestled for us, and your prayers protected us more than the mighty armies of war. Oh, I have so much to ask, but the one that could answer me is gone forever more!"


Therefore, to suggest that Rabbi Eliezer was a bitter, vituperative man who took out his anger on others and died a broken man to me misses the point. It was the students who were in error and should have come to him...

Columbia Student,

Thank you! That is the one thing I really regretted about the book, is that he does not cite his sources and I was dying to know where this idea was from. And now I'm curious to see the Maharsha.

Gavi said...


I understand your point, but R. Elazar was clearly in the wrong for continuing to rule according to his opinion, and not like the chachamim. For this reason, he isolated himself willingly... kind of like the case of Akavya ben Mehallalel. The logical response to such behaviour is excommunication...

Unfortunately, the consequences of being far outside the acceptable range of halachic "rabim" (cf. R. Chaim Jachter's essay on different paths of halacha/hashkafa) can be quite dangerous.


Full disclosure: I am typing from memory here, with no shas available. I am sure the mefarshe agadda will shed some more light on R. Elazar's true state.

Chana said...


Saying that Rabbi Eliezer was incorrect in terms of holding to his opinion even though the majority did not side with him is different from ascribing character and personality traits to him (bitter, angry, broken etc) as Labrab did. It is this description of him that I take issue with.

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch describes the various reasons ascribing personality traits to scholars based on their halakhic decisions is flawed here.

Anonymous said...

R. Elazar was clearly in the wrong for continuing to rule according to his opinion, and not like the chachamim.
I didn't notice the gemara saying he continued to rule, just that he continued to believe himself correct. Do you see it differently?

Also do you believe personality traits do not impact the positions taken by various poskim?
Joel Rich

Rabbi said...

Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

see the explanation by r' avram korman, he explains it as a political debate if to fight together with bar kochba.

Chana said...

Anonymous 9:51,

That is fascinating. I am excited to read it! However, I don't know where to find R' Avraham Korman's writings; where do I look for that? Is there a specific sefer?

Lisa said...

I read that version of the story (with the miracles being people) in the "Tales of Our Sages" comic in the Jewish Press back in like the 80s. It's nice to have a source for it, finally.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for posting! I love learning more and reading up on this deeper. I came across this in a search because a Messianic/Christian (Does not believe in Oral Torah delivered at Mount Sainai, and believes in Yoshki) is using this story to say that the sages of the 2nd Temple Period invented the Oral Torah to dupe the people after the temple was destroyed and this example is being used to say that the Rabbi's were taking their authority to "overshadow the authority of God, stripped Him of his sovereignty and made themselves Gods." *Rolls eyes* It's the first time I've heard of this Talmudic story, so wanted to read it in context. If anyone has any ideas/resources to send it in context and with a true understanding, please send them my way!