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Divrei Torah on the weekly portions

Devarim: Nitzavim

Down to Earth

“It (The Torah) is not in Heaven …” (Devarim 30:12).

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 59b) relates a fascinating aggadic episode known as Tanur Shel Achnai concerning an oven made of separate tiles that were connected with sand-cement. Rabbi Eliezer insisted that if a ritually impure substance was placed in it, the whole oven remained pure; whereas the Sages maintained that it became impure. Rabbi Eliezer brought many miraculous signs to show that he was correct, but the Sages stood firm in their decision. (See Maharsha for a profound insight to these miraculous signs.) Rabbi Eliezer then called on Heaven to prove that he was right. A Heavenly voice proclaimed: “What argument do you have with Rabbi Eliezer, for the halachah (Jewish law) is like him in every instance?” Upon hearing this, Rabbi Yehoshua declared: “It (The Torah) is not in Heaven (Devarim 30:12)”! This means that we pay no heed to a Heavenly voice in matters of halachah, for the Torah was already given to mankind at Mount Sinai, incorporating the phrase: “Acharei Rabim LeHatot” = “matters shall be decided according to the majority (of the Sages)” (Shemot 23:2).

Is this story meant to be taken literally? Is the conclusion that the Sages may sometimes make a mistake yet we are duty-bound to follow their rulings nonetheless? Or is it actually a discussion about the nature of absolute truth? Finally, is there a specific connection between the details of the case about the oven and the ensuing drama?

According to Rabbeinu Chananel, it is unclear whether the story really took place. Some say it was a Sage’s dream recounted to his colleagues, whilst others say it really did happen with these holy characters. Whatever, as with all aggadic passages, it is the messages that are most relevant.

Sefer HaChinuch (496) explains that Rabbi Eliezer and the Heavenly voice were in fact right that the oven remained pure, but the Sages applied the Torah’s guidelines of following the majority to enforce an erroneous halachic decision! God delegated the responsibility for deciding halachic issues to the Sages of each generation, even though they would inevitably err occasionally. God did this for the greater good, because the detriment of an occasional mistake is far outweighed by the benefit of having an authority with the power to decide halachic issues.

Rav Nissim Gaon (printed on GemaraBerachot 19b), however, teaches that the Sages were actually right that the oven became impure! The Heavenly voice was merely a test of whether the Sages would stand by their principles.

Rabbi Alan Kimche elucidated that the Gemara is making a statement about the nature of absolute truth. Judaism believes that there is a multifaceted absolute truth: “Eilu VaEilu Divrei Elokim Chaim (Gemara Eruvin 13b). It’s analogous to the square root of 4 in mathematics. The answer is +2 or -2. For practical purposes we prefer to use +2, but -2 is also true. Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion is correct, from Heaven’s viewpoint; but, from an earthly perspective, the Sages are right.

Rabbi Yehudah Amital connects the case about the oven with this conclusion. When Rabbi Eliezer determined the status of the oven, he looked at it from Heaven’s viewpoint (hence the Heavenly voice supported him) of completeness and wholeness. From that lofty standpoint the oven was not at all whole. Therefore it could not become ritually impure. However, from that perspective, nothing in this physical world is ever really complete. The Sages realised this and therefore judged the oven from a realistic, worldly angle. From this point of view, the oven was whole and therefore ritually impure.

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