Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Furnace of Akhnai: Story and Puzzle

In studying Jewish law (for a course I teach on legal systems very different from ours), I came across the story of the furnace (or oven) of Akhnai. In brief:

Rabbi Eliezer disputed with the sages as to whether a clay oven that had become impure, had been broken up, and then reassembled with sand between the pieces, was still impure or, having been broken, was now pure. After he offered all of his arguments to show that the oven was now pure and they were all rejected, he called upon a carob tree to prove the truth of his position. The carob tree promptly uprooted itself and was flung a great distance away. The sages responded that a carob tree had nothing to say in the disputes of legal scholars.

The argument continues, Eliezer is supported by two more miracles, each of which the sages insist is irrelevant. Finally he asks heaven to support him, and a voice form heaven announces that in all matters of the law Eliezer is correct. To which one of the sages replies (to God) "It is not in heaven." Or in other words, "butt out."

To make sense of the story so far, one needs a little background. Jewish law, like any system based on divine revelation, has an inherent problem with maintaining consistency. If the law is what God said, and different judges have different interpretations of what that is, then the judges will give different rulings on the same question. What God said is not determined by majority vote.

Early on, the legal scholars came up with a solution to this problem, based on their interpretation of a passage in the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. What God said was something that each legal scholar could determine for himself. But if they disagreed, what the law was was determined by majority vote of the scholars. Better that they risk getting the law wrong than that they end up disagreeing in their judgments. A scholar who disagreed was free to argue for his position, but when functioning as a judge he had to decide according to the view that had been established by the majority.

The story is happening at the end of a period of several generations in which the legal scholars were divided into two schools, the school of Hillel and the school of Shamai, which disagreed about details of the law but continued to each treat the other as legitimate. Eliezer was a leading figure in the school of Shamai; the "sages" in the story are scholars of the school of Hillel, which at that point was the larger of the two. The point of the first part of the story is that, even if Eliezer was correct in his interpretation of the law, what the law was was determined not by what position was correct but by what position was supported by the majority—and the majority was against him. The law is no longer in heaven to be determined by God but on earth, having been given by God to the legal scholars to interpret for themselves and define by majority vote.

Having rejected divine authority as a basis for the law—a decision which, according to another bit of the story, God himself approved of—the sages went on to put Rabbi Eliezer under ban. After which:

Said they, 'Who shall go and inform him?' 'I will go,' answered R. Akiba, 'lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.' What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. 'Akiba,' said R. Eliezer to him, 'what has particularly happened to-day?' 'Master,' he replied, 'it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee.' Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up.

A Tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which R. Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up. R. Gamaliel too was travelling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him. 'It appears to me,' he reflected, 'that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus.' Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, 'Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honour, nor for the honour of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel! 'At that the raging sea subsided.

Ima Shalom was R. Eliezer's wife, and sister to R. Gamaliel. From the time of this incident onwards she did not permit him to fall upon his face. Now a certain day happened to be New Moon, but she mistook a full month for a defective one. Others say, a poor man came and stood at the door, and she took out some bread to him. [On her return] she found him fallen on his face. 'Arise,' she cried out to him, 'thou hast slain my brother.' In the meanwhile an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamaliel that he had died.
(from the Babylonian Talmud)
The sages came to the correct decision about the law; the only puzzle in that part of the story is why, having been told by God that Eliezer had it right, the other scholars didn't all change their opinion accordingly, thus changing the majority vote.

What about the ban? That corresponds to what really happened in the conflict between the two schools—the school of Hillel won out and effectively suppressed the rival school. The story seems to imply that that outcome was wrong—or if right, catastrophically right, resulting in mass destruction. God threatened to drown the leader of the sages for his role in what happened, even if persuaded not to, and God did kill him the first time Eliezer prayed—at least I assume that's what "falling on his face" refers to.

Some versions I have seen say that Eliezer, having been outvoted, continued to tell his followers to decide cases according to their view of the law, which would at least explain the ban. I'm not sure if that is based on separate evidence, or someone's attempt to explain the story.

With any luck, one or more of the readers of the post will be more familiar with the subject than I am, and able to throw some light on the second half of the story.

Jewish law is not the only system to face the problem of establishing consistent law based on an authoritative source. The equivalent problem in U.S. law is constitutional interpretation, and the solution is rather like the Jewish solution. A judge or law professor is free to argue for his interpretation of the Constitution, but once the Supreme Court has voted on the subject a judge is required to rule according to its vote.

Sharia also claims to be deduced from religious sources rather than created by a ruler, legislator, or court. The split between the schools of Hillel and Shamai in Jewish law corresponds to the division among the four schools of Sunni Muslim law. In the Muslim case Shamai was never repressed. The four schools continued to regard each other as mutually orthodox for more than a thousand years—and still do.

Which suggests that legal uniformity may be less essential than one would expect.


At 7:28 PM, July 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(This is Bava Metzia 59b, for anyone else who wants to read the source.)

"Falling on his face" refers to a section of individual, petitionary prayer (called tachanun) at the end of the Amidah (main prayer of the service). This section is omitted on certain days, including the new moon.

The interpretation I learned of this part, which I find in later commentaries but not in the gemara itself (the part of the talmud you're quoting), is that he prayed to God about his unhappiness and God took action, not that he directly prayed for any ill to fall to Gamliel. (Yes, that's some challenging theology.)

As you note, the houses of Hillel and Shammai disagreed with each other, but they generally coexisted peacefully. I'm not sure this was surpression of Shammai rather than surpression of a beligerent sage. Elsewhere in talmud (I think in Eruvim but I can't find it now) we're told that while they disagreed they got along, intermarried with each other, ate in each others' homes (even though one of the things they disagreed
about was kashrut), etc.

I hope this helps a little.

(Blogger doesn't seem to want to let me provide OpenID or a name/URL, so just in case this comes through as anonymous, this is Monica:

At 7:32 PM, July 24, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

1. I did link to the source, although only fairly far down in the post. The notes in the source explain about falling on his face, but I didn't want to go into that much detail in the post.

2. I'm pretty sure that the school of Shammai was in fact suppressed. At least, the account I've seen is something like "for four generations, the two schools disagreed in peace, with members of each willing to eat in the house of the other and marry their daughters." The implication I got was that that situation eventually changed.

But I could be wrong--I'm certainly not an expert.

At 8:23 PM, July 24, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry; I totally missed your link for reasons that elude me. Didn't mean to be redundant.

I'm not an expert either -- have studied some of these passages in classes and with my rabbi, but I'm just a curious layperson.


At 7:59 PM, July 25, 2010, Blogger dWj said...

It seems to me that it would be harder to sustain a situation in which one school commanded a clear majority of support, and with only two schools one is likely to be bigger than the other. Perhaps there's a certain balance of power among the Sunni schools that has contributed to their better preservation.

At 11:12 AM, July 26, 2010, Blogger Izgad said...

I actually did a post on this story a few years ago ( My main interest in it is the implied opposition to charismatic leaders and their claims to performing miracles. Regardless of whether Rabbi Eliezer could perform miracles, the mere proposition that any individual could do so is something so dangerous for established religious authority that it has to be repressed.

At 11:19 AM, July 26, 2010, Blogger Izgad said...

In terms of Beit Shammai being suppressed, we see for example Rabbi Tarfon being castigated in Brachot for following the dictates of Beit Shammai in saying the Shma prayer. That being said Beit Shammai is generally used as an example of rabbinic inclusiveness since regardless of whether rabbinic Judaism follows Beit Shammai in practice, their opinions are still accepted as legitimate in the Talmud as opposed to say the Sadducees.
Traditional Judaism has its version of different schools accepting the validity of each other. For example Ashkenazic and Sephardi halachic traditions are very different but still accept the validity of the other. Lithuanian and Hasidic schools of thought, despite their strong opposition to each other in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, now accept the other.

At 11:40 AM, July 26, 2010, Blogger David Friedman said...

Izgad mentions later examples of mutually orthodox but differing schools of Jewish law. I believe those are after not only the end of the Sanhedrin but the loss of effective control over the law by the Babylonian academies--at a point at which there was no way of establishing legal uniformity.

At 11:33 PM, July 27, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And if Jewish people stop using a bunch of fairy tales as the foundation for their law and politics, they might avoid being killed by Iranian A-bomb.

At 6:44 AM, July 28, 2010, Blogger Izgad said...

Dr. Friedman

I am not certain as to how important the downturn in the Babylonian Academy’s power. (Keep in mind that there was no sudden collapse, but a decline that starts somewhere around the tenth century. The Academy continues to exist for centuries afterwards.) Rabbinic Judaism successfully managed to disassociate itself from the Karaites. The move is connected by most scholars to Saadiah Gaon in the tenth century.


Mythology does not have to be a matter of believing or not believing. It can simply be a way of expressing values. As mythologies go, this is a good one to have; it is a rejection of supernatural authority. We no longer care if someone can perform miracles. The story goes so far as to say that human beings can overrule God. If one is going to try building a humanist religion, this is a good place to start.

At 10:03 AM, July 28, 2010, Anonymous Bruce said...

Izgad's point is a good one. Contemporary Orthodoxy is very ossified; it is difficult if not impossible to change and existing law.

But this story (and a few others) from the Talmud reflect the flexibility and dynamism of the system, at least at that time. It shows that there was actually a common law system of law in place; there was respect for tradition and authority, but new rules could be made and old rules could be changed.

The earliest example of this common-law approach actually comes from the Torah itself, in the two stories about the Daughters of Zelophechad in the Book of Numbers. I have blogged about the legal aspects of those stories here and here.

At 6:38 PM, March 25, 2011, Anonymous Peter B said...

I have loved this story ever since I first read it (horrors) 40-odd years ago. Writing an article about miracles I thought I'd bring it up there, and in looking commentary on it came across this blog (obviously) -- but there is a truly brilliant article by Daniel Greenwood here:
that pulls every thread out of it you can imagine (and quite a few I couldn't have). Not a quick read, but wonderfully rewarding, and hugely recommended.

Thanks for linking to the online Talmud translation... at last the authoritative source!

Peter B

At 10:33 AM, July 09, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fiction is fiction -- the Temple was gone and miracles ceased to exist -- therefore this is a tale that is told to prove a point. Truth be known -- did this really happen? Could it occur today? Very doubtful. Did it happen then? Another bedtime story.

At 11:22 AM, September 07, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do not attempt to give a logical answer to an illogical situation.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home