29 March 2016

The oven of Achnai and how to make laws, or not

I’ve been researching Jewish people and Law for years, and this week I’m scheduled to give a lecture at Charles Darwin University in Darwin, Northern Territory on the matter. In preparation for the study of civil laws, I was re-reading Bava Metzia, a section of Gemara I’ve had for years (Thanks Costco!) and found the story of the Oven of Achnai so typical of the banter/ argument/ liveliness of Talmudic debate, I had to investigate further.
So where do you look? The internet of course. And here’s a write up (and the translation is spot on from the Steinsaltz Edition I have in hand.)

The story of the oven is an illustration which is prompted by conversation about men who should be honouring their wife, lest he bring dishonour (impurity) to her (and thus to himself). That is found in 59a. (See endnote for this text) [or simply visit this website: ]

This then from someone who goes by the screen name: seqram.
“The oven of Achnai:
“It is not in Heaven”
Part of a verse from the Bible, Deuteronomy 30:12, where it refers to God's law. Used in one of the most mind-blowing sections of the Talmud I can think of. It's in the Gemara, tractate Bava Metzia, chapter 4, 59b.

The Talmud mentions the case of some particular type of oven (and debates what exactly its characteristics are, etc.) and brings down the events ensuing from a debate among the rabbis over its ritual status. Such debates are very common; in fact, the Gemara mostly is the recording of these debates. In this case, the Sages (the majority of those assembled) held that this oven was susceptible to ritual impurity, while Rabbi Eliezer maintained that it was not. But he didn't concede in the face of the majority, as usually happens (by the way, this wouldn't mean that he was wrong, merely that the law followed the other opinion. It's not the same thing.) Picking up the story, what follows is a fairly close translation of the text.

Rabbi Eliezer brought all the proofs in the world to try to prove his point, but they were not accepted. Finally, he said, "If the Halakhah (legislation) agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!" And the tree was uprooted from where it was and thrown 100 cubits away (some people say 400 cubits). They answered, "We don't bring proofs from carob trees."

"OK, If the Halakhah agrees with me, let the aqueduct prove it!" And the water in the aqueduct started flowing uphill.

"We don't bring proofs from aqueducts."

"If I'm right, let the walls of this house of study prove it!" And the walls started shaking, as if to fall down.

Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked the walls: "You keep out of this! This is a debate among scholars, and no concern of yours!" So the walls didn't fall, out of respect to him, but they didn't stand up straight either, out of respect to Rabbi Eliezer, so they remained sort of leaning.

"If I'm right, let it be proven from Heaven!" And sure enough, a Heavenly Voice manifested itself and said, "Why are you giving Rabbi Eliezer such a hassle? He's right! In fact, he's right in all his arguments! The law should follow him!"

Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said, "It is not in heaven."

(That's the end of the quote of the Talmudic citation.) What did he mean by this? Rabbi Yirmiyah explains that it means that since the law was already given at Mount Sinai, we cannot take advice from a Heavenly Voice, since it already says in the law, to follow the rule of the majority (not necessarily the same translation as usual in English, but it's from Exodus 23). (In other words, now that God has given the law into our hands, it's in our hands. Not even he has the right to mess with the legal system he established: we can outvote God).

Epilogue: Rabbi Natan visited with Elijah the prophet, in Heaven, and asked him what God was doing when all this happened. Elijah answered that God smiled and said "My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me." (The end of the citation)

...And then things go on about the social impact, Rabbi Eliezer's excommunication (not quite the same thing in Judaism as it is in Christianity) for refusing to accept the rule of the council, the difficulties that ensued, because even though they were right to do it (to maintain the authority of the legal system) he was still in some sense "wronged," and God doesn't let such things go by easily... it gets into a different topic here. Which is really how it all came about in the first place, since the topic the Talmud was discussing was people being wronged. The story after this is interesting, but not quite on-topic

This really blows my mind. The whole business of "we can outvote God" is a pretty incredible message. It's a view of divinity that I think is quite unlike that of Christianity, but on the other hand it's a view that considers that God could vest his authority in humanity and trust them enough to make it theirs and not his.

Thought you folks might find it interesting.”

Taken verbatim from http://everything2.com/user/Seqram

Do you like this story? Do you like the intrigue? The weather? The calamity of the fallen walls? Do you see symbolism as many see in the Fallen Temple or the snake imagery of the Garden? (achnai contains the root word of nachash meaning ‘serpent’)

What else do you see? That men can make rules which even God has to obey and to which he has to accede? Is that the way Law meets democracy? Is that accurate?

Now of note, is that the rabbis self-authenticate using a Bible text here. They cite Exodus 23.2 and make it to mean “After the majority must one incline." Wow, what a translation!

But look at these three versions of the Bible:
Here’s the NIV:
Ex. 23.1 ¶ “Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness.
Ex. 23.2 ¶ “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd,
Ex. 23.3 and do not show favoritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.

The Masoretic: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice;”

The Stone Edition: “Do not be a follower of the majority for evil, and do not respond to a grievance by yielding to the majority to pervert (the law),”

The poetry is clearly synonymous parallelism and not antithetical as the Talmud might argue. Wow, make one wrong step in translation, and you can build an entire regime from it. What the rabbis did with Exodus 23.2 is exactly opposite of what the clear meanings of the text render. No, do not go along with the majority (Heb: rav) but do the right thing.

So what's my point? I appreciate the care and the storytelling of the rabbis recorded in the Talmud. And I appreciate the bigger story surrounding the oven, which highlights for me the need to care for my wife, and to honour her regularly. I think that's enough said, you know?


_________________________________________________________________________________________ 59a: 24 R. Helbo said: One must always observe the honour due to his wife, because blessings rest on a man's home only on account of his wife, for it is written, And he treated Abram well for her sake. 25 And thus did Raba say to the townspeople of Mahuza, 26 Honour your wives, that ye may be enriched. 27 We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean;

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