Thursday, May 12, 2005

Flogging that dead horse: fantastic midrash aggada.

Someone commented on someone else's blog that miracles happen all the time. In fact,

The gemarah in Brochos descibes how one Tanna would perform miracles to prove his opinion was correct and although the Halacha was not like him it certainly must have been a consideration. Seems like the Halacha itself might have been influenced by the performance of miracles.

All I can say about this is that it is shocking that an adult who ostensibly studies can say this.

To refresh your memory, here he refers to perhaps the most famous aggada of all, the tanour shel achnai. This particular aggada is used by all sorts of characters to prove anything they like about Torah and halakha. That is not the point of it. Be that as it may the background is something like this. In the early centuries of the common era, Tannaitic times, people were concerned with tumah and tahara in a way that we are not today. There is a din that an earthenware keli will become tamei if it comes into contact with a source of tumah, like a dead sheretz. Unlike other materials used to make a vessel pure, earthenware cannot be made pure except by smashing it. They used to have outdoor ovens made of earthenware called tanours. That was a problem. Bugs could fall into it, as they must have regularly, rendering the oven tamei. And with no recourse but to smash it. It probably got very tedious constantly making new ovens. A lot of people probably said "to heck with this" and ignored it all together. Comes along a brilliant guy and invents a tanour oven that is made of pieces of earthenware that can be assembled and disassembled with ease. A solution? R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus thought it was a great idea and he gave it his hashgacha (maybe it had an ben-HK symbol on it?). Not so fast, said the chachamim. We don't think this works at all. Still tamei. No good.

R. Eliezer was sure he was right. R. Eliezer tried to convince them with halakhic arguments. They weren't buying. R. Eliezer then invoked all sorts of miracles to support his view. He said, for example, "if I am right then let the carob tree prove it" and instantly a carob tree uprooted itself from the ground and landed a hundred feet away. The chachamim said "you can't pasken from a carob tree". He had water run the wrong way, the walls of the beis midrash practically collapse and even a heavenly voice declare that R. Eliezer was right. They said, essentially, "we don't pasken from water, from walls and not from a heavenly voice. The Torah says about itself, about the Torah, that it is lo bashamayim hi (Deut. 30:12). It basically doesn't matter what the din is in shamayim. The Torah says that we need to follow the majority in deciding halakhic matters and that is what we are doing. R. Eliezer, you are outnumbered: you lose."

To begin with, the obvious, simple peshat of this aggada is the opposite of what our friend suggested. Halakha is not influenced by miracles or even the pesak, so to speak, of Hashem. Lo bashamayim hi and all that jazz.

The Maharal explained that each of these miracles are actually references to specific sages that R. Eliezer succeeded in persuading to support his pesak. Thus, for example, the carob tree refers to the saintly R. Chanina ben Dosa, who subsisted only on carobs and so forth.

Perhaps the imagery in the aggada was inspired as well by certain realities. For example, it says that the walls of that beis midrash were in a strange fallen position to that very day. That was probably the case, that that specific beis midrash had sunken walls.

But what is almost certain is that the midrash is not suggesting that carob trees flew and re-rooted themselves or that R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus had that ability. It must always be remembered that these midrash aggada came from actual speeches and lessons taught by the rabbis, in many cases to the common man. They used parables and other devices to attract their attention and make profound points that could be understood by the common man. And here we are 1800 or so years later and people apparently think that Tannaim could cause streams to flow backward. Sigh.

That said, it is not enough, in my opinion, to say that fantastic aggados are allegories. It is our obligation to mine those allegories for all that they're worth. Whether or not the Maharal was historically correct, that in the actual ma'aseh as it happened R. Eliezer went to R. Chanina and others is besides the point. He tried to connect the fantastic story with something tangible. In his view R. Eliezer convinced some of the greatest poskim of the day, yet was overruled since most of the chachamim had to be convinced and in that he did not succeed. If we will seek to understand the midrash ourselves it is not enough to grasp the point, that the Torah is lo bashamayim and that a majority is necessary for rendering proper halakha. We should strive to understand the imagery and examples as well. Why carobs? Why a stream? Why the walls et cetera.

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