Miraculous Intervention in Halakhah

The text is Bava Metsia 59b, one of the most renowned and important aggadic passages in the Talmud. R. Eli’ezer stands defiantly, calling on forces of nature to support his claim that tanuro shel Akhnai, a detachable oven,[i] is incapable of accepting tum’ah. After the Hakhamim disregard each of the miracles performed on his behalf, R. Eli’ezer invokes his trump card, asking God Himself to prove the truth of his claim. God obliges and sends a bat-kol, an echo[ii] or a heavenly voice, which announces that R. Eli’ezer’s opinion is correct ─not only in this instance, but in all cases. In the face of flying trees, reversing currents, falling walls, and direct instructions from God, R. Yehoshua stands up and tells R. Eli’ezer that he is wrong; the oven is, in fact, tamei. Halakhah does not take into account miracles or divine intervention. God (so to speak) laughs and agrees with R. Yehoshua. We, the students, learn the principle of Lo ba-shamayim hi[iii]– [the Torah] is not in Heaven; in other words its interpretation is not subject to Divine intervention.

But the principle of Lo ba-shamayim hi is not so simple. The Gemara in Eruvin 13b tells the story of another famous tannaitic argument, but with a bat-kol playing a very different role. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai argue for three years, each group claiming that Halakhah accords with its position in their many disputes. A bat-kol appears and settles the long-standing dispute by declaring both opinions “divrei E-lohim Hayyim,” words of the Living God, but also decisively ruling that Halakhah follows Beit Hillel. This bat-kol’s intervention is taken very seriously by the Gemara, even in halakhic contexts. In five different locations in the Gemara, in Berakhot 52a, Eruvin 7a, Pesahim 114a, Yevamot 14a and Hullin 44a, the Gemara uses this bat-kol to question why the preceding discussion seemed to assume Beit Shammai’s opinion was viable. Why do individuals still follow Beit Shammai’s opinion? Alternatively, should the Gemara even need to state that Halakhah follows Beit Hillel in a specific case under discussion? Has not the bat-kol already declared that the Halakhah is always like Beit Hillel? To deal with this problem each one of the five sugyot proposes that it is permissible to continue to follow Beit Shammai’s opinion even after the bat-kol’s ruling. However, this is only true according to R. Yehoshua, who believes divine intervention is irrelevant to deciding the halakhah.[iv] In Bava Metsia, R. Yehoshua’s claim that divine intervention has no place in deciding Halakhah seems accepted by the rest of the Hakhamim. Although the bat-kol rules in favor of R. Eli’ezer, the sages stand with R’ Yehoshua and in Kelim 5:10 agree that tanuro shel akhnai is impure. Even God, through His laughter, seems to agree with R. Yehoshua in Bava Metsia. Yet in the case of the Beit Hillel vs. Beit Shammai controversy, the Gemara assumes that the bat-kol of Beit Hillel has real halakhic authority, and ascribes the principle of Lo ba-shamayim hi to R. Yehoshua alone.

Tosafot ad loc. in Bava Metsia provide two explanations for the discrepancy between the aggadah in Bava Metsia, where R. Yehoshua seems to act as the representative of the Hakhamim in general, and the five sugyot where the consensus seems to be that the bat-kol of Beit Hillel does carry halakhic weight. R. Moshe Taragin of Yeshivat Har Etzion explains that the two answers of Tosafot ascribe radically different degrees of halakhic authority to a bat-kol.[v] Tosafot first propose that usually a bat-kol has very little halakhic authority. The sages only took the bat-kol of the Eruvin story seriously because its ruling for the more numerous Beit Hillel concurred with the general rule that Halakhah is decided by majority vote. Tosafot’s second answer, however, claims that a bat-kol usually is taken seriously in matters of Halakhah. Although the Hakhamim did agree with R. Yehoshua’s rejection of the bat- kol, the Bava Metsia case was exceptional. R. Eli’ezer’s bat- kol was not as convincing as the bat-kol of Beit Hillel because he called for the declaration himself; it might be possible that his bat-kol came only out of respect for R. Eli’ezer, thus weakening its authority as an arbiter of Halakhah. Each of these answers resolves the contradiction between the two aggadot, although their opposing assumptions leave us with little clarity about the actual halakhic status of a bat-kol. What is consistent about Tosafot’s two resolutions is that the halakhic status of a bat-kol is more complex than the simple reading of each aggadah alone would imply. Reading the two aggadot together, we must conclude that a bat-kol neither has the final word in deciding Halakhah, nor is it a priori irrelevant to halakhic debate.

While Tosafot address the legal question of when a bat-kol carries halakhic authority and reconcile the halakhic contradiction between the aggadot in Bava Metsia and Eruvin, the messages of the two aggadot remain starkly different. Especially taken in context, the two sugyot paint opposing portraits of man’s place in the world vis-à-vis God. The Bava Metsia story presents humans, the Hakhamim, as strong, bestowed with the awesome authority to interpret the Torah on their own, even when their interpretation is contrary to God’s original intent. The tone of this aggadah draws on elements of Jewish tradition that view humans as partners with, and challengers of, God. The story reminds us of the sages’ power to decide on the date of Rosh Hodesh, even when the date they come up with is not the actual date of the new moon.[vi] God’s anthropomorphic laughter at being “beaten” by His children in Bava Metsia might even convey the message that it is permitted to wrestle with God, to challenge God with hard questions about the morality of the world.

On the other hand, the entire context of the aggadah in Eruvin features stories about man’s humility and failings in the face of God’s power. Immediately preceding the bat-kol story is a discussion of certain sharp sages who would prove their wisdom by finding reasons why a sherets – a rodent – is ritually pure. However, all of their one hundred and fifty proofs cannot change the fact that the verse in Leviticus simply declares a sherets impure.[vii] In the story following the discussion of the bat-kol, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debate for two and a half years whether it was advantageous for man to be created or not. Eventually they vote and decide that man, presumably because of his many sins, would have indeed been better off having never been created. The theme of humility is also important to our story, as the Gemara attributes the bat-kol’s decision to side with Beit Hillel to the fact that Beit Hillel’s members were humble, teaching us, in the words of the Gemara, that “Anyone who humbles himself, the Holy One, blessed is He, raises him up, and anyone who raises himself up, the Holy One, blessed is He, humbles him.”[viii] These aggadot in Eruvin teach that we are bound by even the incomprehensible laws of the Torah, such as those of tum’ahand taharah. We are prone to dispute and sin; our status and honor are completely in the hands of God. Our role with respect to God is to be humble, to carefully check our actions and correct our sins—all thoughts which gently lower us off the proud dais from which we sparred with God in Bava Metsia.

The commentary of the Tosafot is famous for its desire to reconcile contradictory sugyot in the Gemara, and indeed in order to understand the legal question of how much authority a bat-kol has in Halakhah, the aggadot of Bava Metsia 59b and Eruvin 13b have to be reconciled. But even while reconciling the legal aspects that differ between the aggadot, it is important to recognize that the contradictory tones and messages of the passages do not need to be reconciled. The aggadot do have differing views towards man’s role vis-à-vis God, but these views are not mutually exclusive. We do not need to choose between feeling like a partner with God and recognizing our own smallness in the universe. As R. Joseph Soloveitchik discusses in his article, Majesty and Humility, man sometimes encounters God while on a spiritual high, and sometimes while feeling small and frail. Often, the way man connects to God relates to man’s situation in life: “We said before that man meets God, not only in moments of joy and triumph, but also in times of disaster and distress.”[ix] The aggadot of Bava Metsia and Eruvin teach that both attitudes are legitimate and important components of man’s relationship with God, and are appropriate for different situations in people’s lives.

Atara Siegel is a junior at SCW majoring in Psychology, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.   


[i] This is the definition given in Kelim 5:10. See Bava Metsia 59b for a more homiletical explanation of the term.

[ii] See Yevamot 16:6.

[iii] Deuteronomy 30:12.

[iv] Alternatively, each sugya also proposes that the preceding discussion could have taken place before the bat-kol’s pronouncement, when Beit Shammai’s position was still viable, although currently one must follow Beit Hillel.

[v] Rabbi Moshe Taragin, “Shiur #14: Relying On A Bat Kol or Other Non-Rational Halakhic Sources,” The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash, available at: vbm-torah.org.

[vi] See Rosh ha-Shanah 20a where the Gemara states that it is even permissible to intimidate witnesses to change their testimony so that Rosh Hodesh will fall out on an advantageous date – assuring that Shabbat will not fall out next to Yom Tov.

[vii] Leviticus 11:29-31.

[viii] Eruvin 13b, translation mine.

[ix] R. Joseph Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” Tradition 17,2 (1978): 25-37.