ב׳ באלול ה׳תשע״ב (August 20, 2012)

Berakhot 19a-b: The Excommunication of a Sage

The Gemara on today’s daf discusses cases of excommunication, and mentions the famous case of Rabbi Eliezer and the tanur shel akhnai – the “snake oven” – that appears in Massekhet Bava Metzia (daf 59).

A question was raised about the status of an oven that was made of separate pieces and then placed together with sand between the pieces. Should this tanur shel akhnai be seen as having lost its status as an existing oven when taken apart and rebuilt, or is it considered an oven throughout, since it was made to be taken apart in this way? Rabbi Eliezer felt that it lost its status as an oven and therefore, had it become ritually defiled, it would lose that status, as well; the ruled that it retained its status throughout.

Rather than argue the case on its merits, the Gemara records that Rabbi Eliezer called on the carob tree to support him, the flowing water to support him, and the walls of the study hall to support him. In response to his call, the carob tree uprooted itself and moved 400 amot , the spring flowed backwards and the walls began to collapse – until Rabbi Yehoshua stopped them. The Sages refused to be influenced by any of these miraculous occurrences. Finally Rabbi Eliezer asked the heavens to support his position, and a bat kol – a heavenly voice – was heard to say “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer, whose rulings are always correct?” In response the Sages said lo ba-shamayim he – since the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, decisions are no longer made based on heavenly decisions, but on the decisions of the Rabbis who interpret it.

While some rishonim take this story literally and explain that miracles were performed on behalf of the Talmudic sages, just as they were for the early prophets, Rabbenu Hananel suggests another approach. He argues that this story was a dream – a vision at night – that seemed so real and significant that it was recorded for the message that it contains.

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