The Right Coast

March 02, 2005
More On The Talmud
By Maimon Schwarzschild

A little more on the Talmud, and the "oven of Akhnai":

The "oven of Akhnai" is one of the Talmud's most famous, and most enigmatic, stories. ("Akhnai" was probably just the name of the oven's owner.) Tom's correspondent rightly reports that the story is in Baba Metzia, a tractate of the Talmud. The Talmud has six "orders", like "Titles" in the US Code, and each order is divided into tractates. Baba Metzia is in the "Damages" ("Nezikin") order, and it is mostly about Jewish tort law although, as always in the Talmud, there are lots of digressions. (If you study torts in Talmudic Hebrew and Aramaic when you are fourteen or younger, as Jewish kids who attend a yeshiva do, law school in English in your twenties is more or less a piece of cake.)

The Talmud "interprets" the Torah, mostly by way of debates among the Talmudic rabbis: for almost every opinion, there is a counter-opinion; usually lots of counter-opinions. The "oven" dispute was over whether an oven made from composite pieces was ritually clean. (It is obscure even to Talmud scholars what the ritual context might have been.) Rabbi Eliezer disagreed about the oven with all his colleagues, and he produced miracles to back up his argument, and eventually a more or less direct word from God. But the rabbis then quote the Bible that the law is "not in the sky", and they outvote Rabbi Eliezer: in effect, they outvote God. And the Talmud famously reports the divine reaction: God smiled and said "My children have defeated me..."

It is a lovely story, with the obvious implication that law should be a matter of human and rational decision, not magic. When the story is retold, as by Tom's correspondent, it usually ends on the sweet and very unusual note of God's self-mocking smile.

But the story in the Talmud actually continues, and turns much darker. Rabbi Eliezer isn't reconciled to his colleagues: on the contrary, they excommunicate him. Personal tragedy follows for R. Eliezer and his family and for many of the other rabbis; and public disaster follows as well. The mix of genuine sweetness and tragic implacability makes the story one of the most haunting and uncanny in the Talmud.

One implication, at least, is that human responsibility doesn't necessarily -- or even very probably -- make for happy endings.