"And the Name of the Special One was Eliezer"
Adapted by Dov Karoll
And Yitro… took Tzippora… and her two sons, the one who was named Gershom… and the one was named Eliezer…. (Shemot 18:2-4)
The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Chukat 8) asks: Why does the Torah write, "And the one was named Eliezer"? Why does it not say instead, "And the second son was named Eliezer"?
It answers with the following story. When Moshe ascended the Heavens, he found God studying the topic of para aduma, the red heifer, citing the law in the name of the scholar who taught it: "My son Eliezer says, Cattle are defined as an egla, a calf, at the age of one, and as a para, a cow, at the age of two." This is indeed the first mishna in Tractate Para, a law cited in the name of Rabbi Eliezer.
Moshe asked God, "The whole world is Yours, and You quote laws in the name of people?" God answered, "There is one righteous person who will teach the first law in regard to the para aduma. This is Rabbi Eliezer, who says, 'Cattle are defined as an egla, a calf, at the age of one, and as a para, a cow, at the age of two.'"
Moshe responded: "Master of the Universe, may it be Your will that this scholar be one of my descendants." God answered, "Indeed he is from your descendants, as the verse states, 'And the one was named Eliezer,' meaning, 'And the name of the special one was Eliezer.'"
This selfsame Rabbi Eliezer is the central figure in the well known Talmudic episode of "Tanuro shel akhnai" ("the snake's oven"), recorded in Bava Metzia 59a-b.
The Gemara cites a dispute regarding an oven constructed by sticking together pieces of pottery. This oven was known as "the snake's oven," because Rabbi Eliezer's arguments "surrounded" the issue, but the rabbis nonetheless objected to his ruling. Rabbi Eliezer believes that such an oven cannot become impure, because it is not considered a proper vessel. The other sages ruled that it can become impure, claiming that it is defined as a proper vessel.
The Gemara relates that Rabbi Eliezer proceeded to provide "all the answers in the world" to establish his position, but they were all rejected. He said, "If the law is in accordance with my ruling, let the carob tree prove it," and the carob relocated by either 50 or 400 amot, depending on two versions cited in the text. The rabbis responded that you cannot bring proof from the carob.
He said, "If the law is in accordance with my ruling, let the stream prove it," and the stream reversed its direction, with the water flowing upstream. The rabbis responded that you cannot bring proof from the stream.
Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is in accordance with my ruling, let the walls of the study hall prove it," and the walls nearly collapsed. Rabbi Yehoshua then reprimanded the walls, asking, "If the scholars are debating the issue, why do you involve yourselves in it?" The Gemara explains that the walls did not fall in deference to Rabbi Yehoshua, but they did not return to an upright position in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. Rather, they were suspended in an intermediate position.
Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is in accordance with my ruling, let proof come from the Heavens." A voice came forth from the heavens, proclaiming, "Why do you dispute the position of Rabbi Eliezer? The law is always in accordance with his ruling!" To this, Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and proclaimed, "It [the law] is not in the Heavens!" (Devarim 30:12).
The Gemara then inquires as to the significance of this statement. Rabbi Yirmiya explains that once the Torah was given, Heavenly voices can play no role in legal discourse. God has already established a method for resolving legal dispute in the Torah, namely, the ruling of the majority of sages: "And you shall turn toward the many" (Shemot 23:1).
Following this incident, Rabbi Natan saw the prophet Eliyahu, and Rabbi Natan asked him, "What did God do at that time [when Rabbi Yehoshua said, 'It is not in the heavens']?" Eliyahu answered, "He smiled and said, 'My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.'"
On that day, all items that Rabbi Eliezer had proclaimed to be ritually clean were brought in and burnt, and a decision was reached that he must be excommunicated for not accepting the authority of the Sanhedrin. They asked, "Who will tell him?" Rabbi Akiva, who was Rabbi Eliezer's student, responded, "I will go, because if the wrong person goes, Rabbi Eliezer could destroy the whole world."
What did Rabbi Akiva do? He put on black clothing, and sat four amot away from Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Eliezer asked him, "Akiva, why is today different from previous days [that you will not come near me]?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "It seems that your colleagues have separated themselves from you." Rabbi Eliezer understood what was meant; he proceeded to rip his clothes and sit down on the floor, as the Halakha dictates for a person in excommunication (as for a mourner), and began to cry. As a result of his tears, the Gemara relates that one third of the olive crop, one third of the wheat crop, and one third of the barley crop were destroyed, and some say that even the dough in the hands of women rotted.
Rabban Gamliel, who had led the excommunication, subsequently was on a boat, and a wave came to drown him. He said, "It seems that this is only because of Rabbi Eliezer ben Horkenos." He stood up and declared, "Master of the Universe, You know that I did not act for my own honor, nor for the honor of my family [the house of David], but rather for Your Honor, to prevent the promulgation of dispute in Israel!" The sea then calmed, and he was saved.
Also, Rabbi Eliezer's wife was Rabban Gamliel's sister. From then on, she would not allow Rabbi Eliezer to fall on his face in prayer. There came a day when she saw that he had fallen on his face in prayer, and she cried out, "You have killed my brother!"
Indeed, at that time, word came from Rabban Gamliel's house that he had passed away. He asked her how she knew. And she said that he has a tradition from her father's family that "All gates are locked other than the gates of abuse (ona'a)."
There are many lessons that can be gleaned from this Gemara. First of all, the Maharal (Netivot Olam 2, Netiv Ahavat ha-re'ia 2) explains that these "proofs" are not meant literally. He explains that the carob tree is symbolic of the tradition upon which his position is based, the stream symbolic of clarity of thought, and the walls of the study hall are symbolic of the depth of study upon which his position was based. Alternatively, it could be that the miracles really did take place, but the sages in the room could not see the first two, and they only realized afterward that they were really taking place.
But there is another, more basic question: why is the ruling on high in accordance with the position of Rabbi Eliezer? Do the heavens not know the rule of "And you shall turn toward the many"? One answer is that this was a test of the sages, to see if they could remain steadfast with their ruling despite the tremendous pressure generated by the introduction of the heavenly voice.
I would like to suggest a different approach. Let us begin by analyzing the nature of the dispute at hand. Rabbi Eliezer and the sages disputed whether an oven which was stuck together from a variety of pieces is defined a complete vessel. Rabbi Eliezer says that this is not defined as a complete vessel. Why? A complete vessel is not pieced together in this way; rather, it should be made from one unit. And, in fact, Rabbi Eliezer is correct in the theoretical, abstract, "Heavenly" perspective. In a pure sense, only a vessel which is whole and complete should be considered a complete vessel, subject to impurity. After all, only something that is fitting to absorb sanctity and holiness is correspondingly subject to impurity. The negative impaof impurity will only function where there is capability for sanctity. Thus, according to Rabbi Eliezer and the Heavenly court, this oven is not defined as a vessel.
According to the Sages, on the other hand, in this world we have a more flexible standard for completeness. In fact, nothing in this world is really complete. An oven made of several strips that have been connected, stuck together with sand, is to be considered whole. Sanctity can reach even those who are not "complete" in the sense referred to by Rabbi Eliezer.
From the continuation of the Gemara, we see the Sages' courage and strength, not only in overruling Rabbi Eliezer in accordance with the rule of the majority, but also in uprooting all of his rulings, and putting him in some form of excommunication. It was not a full excommunication, but they did "separate themselves from him," for they needed to establish the importance of accepting the rule of the majority. This was carried out despite the fear that Rabbi Eliezer would wreak tremendous havoc in response to this ruling.
As Rabban Gamliel said, he did not act for his own glory or even for the glory of the Davidic line. He did what he felt was necessary to maintain the unity of the Torah. He could not accept competing streams and "two Torot." He recognized the importance of keeping the Torah community united, even if this came along with taking strong action against a man of such great strength in learning and spirituality.
Nonetheless, the Gemara concludes that Rabban Gamliel was punished for the suffering he caused Rabbi Eliezer.
This is the very unique Rabbi Eliezer, "the special one whose name was Eliezer."
[This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Yitro, 5763 (2003).]
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