Akhnai’s Oven

A few people have been asking about where to read the account of Akhnai’s Oven (which can also be “Aknai’s Oven”). This is the link to the source of this text.

Here is the text of the argument:

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. It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument, but they did not accept them. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah 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. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees 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. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees 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. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees 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 halachah agrees with him!’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ 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.

Another source for this text (with a slight variation) can be found at this link. Be sure to scroll down to the page 140 marker.

Both Avi ben Mordechai and his inspiration Daniel Gruber use this passage in order to try and cast reproach upon rabbinical authority. The claim is made that the rabbis are actually in opposition to the Written Word of God, and will not listen to Hashem even if they hear from Heaven itself. For some time I was swayed into this line of thinking, until challenged to examine the context of this argument firsthand. Upon a cursory exmination, it appears that I have been duped.

In short, this argument is a classic example of how the rabbis upheld Scripture in a case where a person wanted to try and outwit Scriptural authority through clever devisiveness. R. Eleazer, siding with Akhnai (apparently the owner of the oven, or a nickname for such, meaning “snake” in Aramaic), is the classic representation of the false prophet warned against in Deuteronomy 13. R. Eleazer rules that the clay oven (Read the Biblical laws associated with the contamination of earthen vessels, including ovens), which has been “broken” via being cut apart and mortared back together is oblivious to contamination from contact of a dead animal. First, both Akhnai and R. Eleazer in this scenario are intentionally working to find a loophole around the Biblical ordinance for contamination, and immediately shows a rebellious nature towards the commandments of Hashem.

Second, the halachah of R. Eleazer actually is working to “abolish the Torah” in the same way that many within Christianity are doing today, and have been doing throughout the centuries. Rather than using the written Word of Hashem as the plumbline by which all things are aligned, they follow charismatic leaders with whom are signs and wonders.

Opposite of what we have been lead to believe, the case of Akhnai’s Oven actually is one in which the rabbis are upholding the Written Word of God over the opinions of man, even when backed by signs and wonders.

You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.
(Devarim / Deuteronomy 13:3)

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