I am stepping away from the historical part about the rise of the Herodian Dynasty for this posting. I decided to do so because a few days ago I came across one of the most surprising stories, and concepts, in the Talmud. It is not an obscure story, exactly, but I think many take it for granted and don’t dwell on the implications – perhaps deliberately, since the implications are, to an extent, almost a heresy…
This is about the concept named Bat Kol. The word, in Hebrew and Aramaic, mean “Daughter of the Voice.” Basically, it is a divine voice, though because of the word “daughter”may mean not God’s voice directly, but His messenger. The nature of this voice is described in so many ways as to make it confusing, but a couple of characteristics are always the same. For example, the source using it is always invisible. Also, it comes from the direction of Heaven – the older, longer
sources actually say it The Bat Kol that fell from Heaven.
The Bat Kol is mentioned many times in the literature. It announces events of great importance, good and bad. It could comfort a single person or the entire nation in times of struggle. It resolved legal/religious doctrines. There are several incidences in which Hillel was involved with the presence of a Bat Kol. For example, in Sanhedrin 11a, the story is told: “Our Rabbis taught: Since the death of the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the Holy Spirit [of prophetic inspiration] departed from Israel; yet they were still able to avail themselves of the Bat Kol. Once when the Rabbis were met in the upper chamber of Gurya's house at Jericho, a Bat Kol was heard from Heaven, saying: 'There is one amongst you who is worthy that the Shekhinah[i]should rest on him as it did on Moses, but his generation does not merit it.' The Sages present set their eyes on Hillel the Elder. And when he died, they lamented and said: 'Alas, the pious man, the humble man, the disciple of Ezra [is no more].” In another incident after Hillel’s death, the Bat Kol settled an argument between his Academy and the Academy of Shammai. Obviously, the Bat Kol is extremely important, and one expects everyone to obey it.
Or so I thought until I heard the story I will relate here. It is from Baba Mezi'a 59b. The story is presented in such a matter of fact, simple way, that I think it will be best to post it in the original text. After each paragraph, I will have a footnote, where you will find the explanation for the text. It may be a bit annoying to go back and forth, but I simply can’t see a better way to present the story in its entirety.
For some reason, the story starts abruptly, as if we are jumping into a conversation that has been
going on for a while. I have seen it done like that before when reading Talmudic passages, and find it fascinating. It is almost as if the writers of the Talmud wanted to engage us in their conversations, held so long ago. Here is the story:
“We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of 'Aknai. Why [the oven of] 'Aknai? — Said Rab Judah in Samuel's name: [It means] that they encompassed it with
arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean. [ii]
It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. [iii]
Said he to them: 'If the halachah[iv]agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!' Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. 'No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,' they retorted.[v]
Again he said to them: 'If the halachahagrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!' Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — 'No proof can be brought from a stream of water,' they rejoined. [vi]
Again he urged: 'If the halachahagrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,' whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: 'When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?' Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. [vii]
Again he said to them: 'If the halachahagrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!' Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: 'Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachahagrees with him!' But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: 'It is not in heaven.'[viii]
What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline.[ix]
R. Nathan met Elijah[x]and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.' [xi]”
The significance of this story has so many ramifications, that one can spend a lifetime studying it.
But the thing that stands out, for me, more than anything else, is the remarkable conclusion that the Jews obey God not out of fear, but because, very simply, they want to. They have a choice not to obey. Israel and God are, at least in this story, equal partners pursuing one goal – the study and appreciation of the Torah – the name given by the Jews not only to the scriptures, but to the entire body of law, wisdom, science, understanding and knowledge, which, for them, is the raison d’être of being human.
[i] Lit., 'abiding [of God]' 'Divine presence'); the spirit of the Omnipresent as manifested on earth.
[ii] This refers to an oven, which, instead of being made in one piece, was made in a series of separate portions with a layer of sand between each. R. Eliezer maintains that since each portion in itself is not a utensil, the sand between prevents the whole structure from being regarded as a single utensil, and therefore it is not liable to uncleanness. The Sages however hold that the outer
coating of mortar or cement unifies the whole, and it is therefore liable to uncleanness. (This is the explanation given by Maimonides on the Mishnah, Kel. V, 10. Rashi a.l. adopts a different reasoning). 'Aknai is a proper noun, probably the name of a master, but it also means 'snake'.
[iii] Rabbi Eliezer refused to accept the rule of the majority, an unacceptable behavior among the sages, who strictly believed in majority rule. Despite his high standing, the sages simply refused to give in and would not accept his reasoning.
[iv] (Lit., 'step'. 'guidance'), (a) the final decision of the Rabbis, whether based on tradition or argument, on disputed rules of conduct, (b) those sections of Rabbinic literature which deal with legal questions, as opposed to the Aggadah.
[v] Rabbi Eliezer here resorted to forcing his will by supernatural phenomenon. If he was correct, he said, the carob tree would magically move itself out of the ground and walk a certain distance on its own roots. The sages, always unimpressed with magic, answered that a carob tree cannot resolve such an issue.
[vi] Rabbi Eliezer continues with this unpleasant display of magical tricks, by making a stream of water flow backwards. Again, the sages are totally unimpressed with his childish displays and say that a stream is not a halachic authority.
[vii] At this point, Rabbi Eliezer is committing an unforgivable act. Asking the walls to close around the sages is putting their lives in danger. Luckily, the walls obey the other sage and stay in place.
[viii] And here Rabbi Eliezer is calling on God himself to testify on his behalf. And, amazingly, God does. He sends the Bat Kol to intervene and command the sages to agree with Rabbi Eliezer. But they do not do so. Rabbi Joshua rises and cries – it is not in Heaven! Rabbi Joshua refuses to acknowledge the authority of the Bat Kol – which can mean only one thing, that he is defying God Himself.
[ix] The Torah is not in Heaven, because it was already given to Israel, by God himself, on Mount Sinai. It is in our world, and therefore, it is subject to our rules – and we believe in majority rule. We do not have to pay attention to the Heavenly Voice – the voice of God! It has no right to interfere in the independence of human reasoning! (When the word “Thou”is mentioned, this is directly speaking to God and telling Him not to interfere in the discussion).
[x] It was believed that Elijah, who had never died, often appeared to the Rabbis.
[xi] And as amazing as the defiance of God by the sages, is God’s reaction to it. According to Rabbi Nathan, He loves it and laughs indulgently at his children’s defiance.