The Oven of Akhnai
In Baba Metzia 59a-b, the gemara relates a famous story about an oven — The Oven of Akhnai:
Rabbi Eliezer disagreed with all the sages about whether this oven was pure. In order to persuade them, he declared that if he was right, a carob tree should prove it. Instantly, the carob tree was ripped from the ground, flying one hundred cubits away. The sages responded, stating that the carob tree had no bearing on the halakhic dispute and is not a form of proof. Twice more, Rabbi Eliezer called upon miracles, causing a river to flow backwards and a house to partially collapse, to prove his point. Twice more, he was rebutted by the sages.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer cried to God for support. In response, a heavenly voice called out and rebuked the sages for disagreeing with Rabbi Eliezer. To this, Rabbi Yehoshua famously retorted, quoting a passage from Devarim, “Lo Bashamayim Hi” or in English, “It is not in heaven.” Rabbi Yirmiya explains these words to mean that the Torah was already given at Har Sinai, and now it is for us to interpret with no regard to heavenly voices. Despite Rabbi Eliezer’s miracles, the halakha went with the majority. All the objects that Rabbi Eliezer declared clean were brought forward and burned.
(Later, Rabbi Natan happened upon Elijah, and asked him how God reacted when the sages proclaimed “it is not in heaven.” Elijah replied that God laughed with joy and said, “My sons have defeated me…”)
After burning the vessels Rabbi Eliezer had said were clean, the sages voted to excommunicate him. It is said that on the day Rabbi Eliezer was excommunicated, disaster struck the world: One third of the olive, barley, and wheat crop was destroyed. Everything which Rabbi Eliezer looked at was set ablaze. Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin (who had voted to excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer) was travelling on a ship that day, and a wave rose up to destroy his ship. Rabban Gamliel diverted disaster with prayer.
Rabbi Eliezer’s wife, Ima Shalom, was Rabban Gamliel’s sister. She saw that because her brother had wronged her husband, God had tried to kill him. She became afraid that if her husband said Tachanun, her brother would die. She tried to stop Rabbi Eliezer from saying Tachanun, but one day, she made a miscalculation of Rosh Chodesh and forgot to stop him. That day, her brother died. To end this story, she explained to her husband that “all gates are locked except for the gates of wounded feeling.” In other words, God gives priority to prayers that come from feelings of being hurt or wronged.
In addition to being a fantastical, bizarre story, this tale has a number of important lessons and themes. The first of these stems from the phrase “it is not in heaven.” This story teaches us that Judaism is no longer a religion where authority is defined by miracles that come from heaven. Final decisions come from knowledge based upon the rule of law, not rivers flowing backward. God has given the Torah to us to better the world and enrich our lives with meaning. Humans are now the ultimate keepers and authorities on the Torah.
Another interesting message of this story is that of how to deal with those who disagree with you. The Sanhedrin, because of Rabbi Eliezer’s resistance when it came to the purity of ovens, decided to excommunicate him. This was the ultimate political punishment, stripping him of any power within the institution. This blow to Rabbi Eliezer’s authority had drastic detrimental implications for the whole world. This story teaches us the dangers of crushing dissenting opinions. If leaders crush everyone who disagrees with them, the world will feel its effects.
The final lesson of this story is one about prayer and pain. When Rabbi Eliezer prayed, God felt the immensity of his pain and anger over his excommunication and it resulted in God taking Rabban Gamliel’s life. Whether or not this was a logical punishment, it is a testament to the power of our raw emotions in the eyes of God. God cares and feels for our pain and responds to it.
Even if the Sanhedrin and its strictly logic based decision making is the ultimate authority on Torah and halacha, God still responds to the sheer intuitive power of emotion and prayer.