Rabbi Eliezer's Excommunication

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #21: Rabbi Eliezer's Excommunication

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

(Last week, we discussed the story told of a debate between Rabbi Eliezer and the sages; the sages refused to accept R. Eliezer's minority view, even after he invoked supernatural proof - including a heavenly voice - to support his position. Today we will present and analyze the continuation of the gemara's narrative.)

It was taught: On that day, they brought all the taharot that R. Eliezer had ruled pure and they burned them in fire, and they voted and excommunicated R. Eliezer. They said: "Who will go and inform him?"

R. Akiva said: "I will go, lest the wrong person go and inform him in a way that destroys the world."

What did R. Akiva do? He wore black and wrapped himself in black and sat at a distance of four cubic meters from R. Eliezer.

R. Eliezer said to him: "R. Akiva, why is today different from other days?"

He answered: "Rebbe, It seems to me that your colleagues are separating from you."

He (R. Eliezer) also tore his garment, removed his shoes and sat upon the ground. Tears poured from his eyes…

It was taught: There was great anger in the world on that day, and every place to where R. Eliezer placed his eye was burned. R. Gamliel was traveling on a boat and a wave threatened to sink the boat. He said: "It seems to me that this is only because of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus." He stood up and said: "Master of the universe! It is revealed and known before You that I did not do this for my own honor or for the honor of my father's house, but for Your honor, so that disputes will not proliferate in Israel!" The sea calmed from its anger.

Ima Shalom, R. Eliezer's wife, was the sister of R. Gamliel. From the time of this episode, she would not allow her husband to fall on his face (in Tachanun). One Rosh Chodesh day, she became confused as to whether the previous month was full (30 days) or not full (29 days). Some say, a pauper came to the door and she brought him bread. She found R. Eliezer fallen on his face (in prayer). She said: "Arise, for you have killed my brother." In the meanwhile, a voice came from the house of R. Gamliel that he had died.

R. Eliezer said to her: How did you know (that this would happen)?"

She said: "I have a tradition from my grandfather's house that all gates are closed except for the gate of ona'a (verbal abuse)." (Bava Metzia 59b)

This story may actually convey a good deal of halakhic information. For example, we learn from this account that one omits Tachanun from the prayer service on Rosh Chodesh: on the day Ima Shalom mistakenly thought was Rosh Chodesh, she felt no need to actively prevent her husband from nefilat apayim, assuming that he would omit it on his own. In addition, the Ritva derives from our tale that ideally, Tachanun should immediately follow the amida. He reasons that Ima Shalom could not have prevented her husband from reciting Tachanun all day, but she could have delayed her husband each day by displacing Tachanun from its optimum time and thereby minimizing its effectiveness.

Another halakhic issue centers around the nature of the ban placed on R. Eliezer. Tosafot and the Ritva understand that it was the type of ban known as nidduy, and they must therefore reconcile R. Eliezer's conduct while under excommunication with the halakhic guidelines of nidduy found in Moed Katan. The Ramban disagrees, claiming that the sages employed the harsher form of excommunication - cherem - and this explains the tearing of garments, removal of shoes, and some other aspects of R. Eliezer's conduct. However, despite the importance of these two legal issues, the essence of this story clearly belongs to the aggadic realm.

What was the wisdom in R. Akiva's method of informing his teacher of his excommunication? Firstly, he conveys the news indirectly. We often relate bad tidings in an indirect fashion in the hope that the recipient's gradual realization of the sad development will lessen the blow. Maharsha notes an additional element. When R. Akiva dressed in black, he implied that it was the rest of the scholars, including R. Akiva himself, who are excommunicated. Maharsha argues that the same point emerges from the formulation, "your colleagues are separating from you" - as if they are the ones being pushed away from the place of importance. According to Maharsha, this method conveys the tension of the entire episode. The sages find it necessary to excommunicate R. Eliezer but also have a sense of the problematic nature of such a drastic measure.

Indeed, we must ask, who was correct in this episode? On the one hand, R. Eliezer's grievance carries heavenly weight, and R. Gamliel, the head of the rabbinical court, suffers the consequences. The broader Talmudic context of the story, dealing with ona'at devarim (verbal oppression), also suggests that the other sages had wronged R. Eliezer. On the other hand, Hashem accepted R. Gamliel's contention on the boat that he acted for the good of Am Yisrael. Furthermore, let us recall (from last week's shiur) that God smiled approvingly when the sages refused to accept the heavenly voice calling upon them to side with R. Eliezer. We thus seem to have conflicting pieces of evidence as to where God's sympathies lie.

One resolution might differentiate between the halakhic decision to reject R. Eliezer's position and the ban consequently placed upon him. Perhaps the former was justified, but the latter was not. Therefore, Hashem approved of their ruling against R. Eliezer but punished them for excommunicating him. R. Yaakov Emden (in his commentary, printed in the back of the Vilna shas) offers a somewhat different version of this explanation. He says that the other sages indeed did have a right to excommunicate R. Eliezer, but they were still punished for the pain they inflicted upon him. Since R. Eliezer was a great man who found favor in heaven, the sages should have emulated that favorable heavenly judgment and avoided causing him grief. R. Emden draws a parallel to a gemara in Taanit (23a), which records Shimon ben Shetach's remark that he would excommunicate Choni Ha-me'agel (Choni "the circle drawer") if not for the fact that Choni's deeds find favor in heaven. If we take the parallel to Choni seriously, R. Emden apparently suggests that the various miracles performed on behalf of R. Eliezer indicate Divine favor that should have stifled any thoughts of excommunication.

Perhaps we can propose an alternative suggestion. Indeed, the sages were justified in banning R. Eliezer despite the apparent heavenly approval manifest in the miraculous support for his position. In fact, the miracles may have even provided additional justification for the ban, as R. Eliezer refused to accept normal halakhic methodology. Nevertheless, even justifiable actions have repercussions and implications. In situations where competing values are at stake, even doing the right thing often comes with a cost. Preserving some modicum of halakhic unity may have mandated banning R. Eliezer, but hurting a great individual cannot but leave a mark of some kind. The sages needed to internalize this point and find ways to maintain R. Eliezer's honor even as they continued to promote the ban.

I believe this point to be of major significance. We often make choices among competing ideals and probably often make the right choice (assuming the setting allows us to speak of a right choice). Yet, we should not make the mistake of thinking that the right choice frees us from any further follow-up. This correct choice may have forced us to temporarily relinquish a competing ideal for which we must find ways to compensate. If one chooses aliya over remaining in the Diaspora to care for parents, he must determine how to enhance his kibbud av va-em while living in a different country. Conversely, if one's family responsibilities lead him to stay in the Diaspora, he mincrease his support for Israel from abroad. In this incident, the sages choose the ideal of preventing halakhic anarchy over the ideal of preserving R. Eliezer's honor. The choice may have been perfectly acceptable, but the neglected ideal then had to be dealt with. If this is not done successfully, the implications can be very grave, and indeed R. Gamliel, who, as head of the court, bore responsibility for this shortcoming, paid the ultimate price for R. Eliezer's humiliation.