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 Baba Metzia, chapter 4, page 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 law should follow 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, then if the law is like 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."

What did he mean by this? Rabbi Yirmiah 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.

...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.

The oven of Akhni is a story told in the Talmud, tractate Bava Meziah 59b. The Rabbis are having an argument about a technical point of law; whether a particular type of oven is pure or impure.

This story is often quoted by Rabbis and Jewish educators. It makes the point that humanity has been given a large amount of autonomy and control over law, right and wrong; and it reinforces the basic principles of interpretation of Jewish Law.

R. Eliezer declared [the oven] pure, but the [other] Sages maintained it was impure. R. Eliezer brought every possible argument, but they rejected it.

He said to them "If the Halacha (law) agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it". The carob tree was then ripped out the ground and flew 100 (or maybe 400) cubits. They replied to him "You can't prove a point of law using a carob tree".

He said to them "If the Halacha agrees with me, let this stream prove it". The stream suddenly started to flow backwards. They replied to him "You can't prove a point of law using a stream".

R. Eliezer carried on, saying "If the Halacha agrees with me, let this walls of the study house prove it". The walls started to cave inwards. R. Yehoshuah told off the walls and said "When scholars are having a legal dispute, what right do you have to get involved?". The walls stopped caving in out of respect for R. Yehoshuah, but didn't straighten out of respect for R. Eliezer (they are still curved to this day).

Desperate, R. Eliezer said If the Halacha agrees with me, let heaven prove it". Suddenly, a voice from heaven said "Why are you arguing with R. Eliezer, don't you know that his rulings always right?"

R. Yehoshuah got to his feet and said "[The Torah] is not in heaven! (Deut 30:12])" What did he mean? R Yirmia explained that the Torah had already been given, at Sinai. We don't pay any attention to a voice from heaven, as You wrote in the Torah given at Sinai that "After the majority must one incline (ex 23:2)".

The law went the way of the Sages, and R. Eliezer lost. But who was actually in the right? This story has a little more to it to answer that question.

R. Natan met Elijah the prophet and asked him "What did the Holy One do then?"
Elijah answered "He laughed, and said 'My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me!'"
An interesting addendum to the story of Lo B'Shamyim Hi, It is not in heaven, or the oven of Achanai is the symbolism inherent in the story.

Snakes

Firstly, the baker, Achanai enquires as to whether his oven is Kosher or not. Achanai comes from the same Hebrew root as the word Nachash, which means snake; in fact many translations of the Talmud do away with the name Achanai and refer to this story as the oven of the coiled snake. Instantly we know that there will be divisions between man and man (from the story of Moses and the servants of Pharaoh and the rods which turned into snakes), and we know that there will be divisions between man and G-d (from the story of the snake and the apple in the Garden of Eden).

Trees

The image of the tree being ripped out of the ground in agreement with Rav Eliezer backs this up, as trees being ripped out of the ground are also bad images. For example, the Bar Kochba revolt is not often looked at as a generally good thing for Judaism, and at one point, the entry requirement for Bar Kochba's army was the ability to rip a Cedar of Lebanon tree from the ground whilst on horseback. In addition to this, this also conjures up images of the Tree of Life/Knowledge and the snake, as previously mentioned.

Eliezer

Throughout the Talmud, there is one thing common about many of the stories that feature Rav Eliezer: He is almost always wrong! In fact, he was eventually excommunicated. If you know what you are reading, you know what the outcome will be right at the start of the debate. The question is, why will Eliezer be wrong?

The walls

Is the passage about the walls half collapsing but still standing alluding to the destruction of the Temple, given that the southern wall and part of the western wall still stand? Could it be saying that an argument of such magnitude could be catastrophic for Judaism?

The ending

It is worth noting (and, dare I say it, nodeing) that Natan and Elijah came several hundred years after this discussion. So why was this bit tacked onto the end? Try rereading the story without the verse about 'My children have defeated me'. We are presented with Rav Yehoshua basically shouting at G-d at the end, and there being no conclusion as to who is right and who is wrong. With this piece, not only do we find that Yehoshua is not a bad guy, and is working within G-d's framework, but we also get the answer to who really was right on this.

The message

This story is usually interpreted to mean that Halacha can be changed, but only by a majority of the Rabbanim of the Sanhedrin. Having said that, the Talmud was written after the Sanhedrin had disbanded, so why was it even included?

The Story : My thoughts

I think this story was included because it can be studied over and over again, and everyone can get something out of it, from novices to experienced learners. I don't think there is really any Halacha attached to it, it is really an exercise in learning Talmud, all the key elements are there, Eliezer, G-d, a really meaty debate and a clear answer.

Maybe that answers the final question about the story, why have I learned it at least 15 times in the last year?!?!?!?!

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