Majority Rules! – The Story of Achnai’s Oven

It is election day in Israel, and an opportunity to tell the beautiful and moving story of Achnai’s oven. 

Towards the end of the first century, a few decades after the big Jewish rebellion against the Romans, the sages of the “Sanhedrin” (The highest court in Jewish law) had to determine whether a certain oven “the oven of Achnai” is appropriate to use according to the Jewish law.

With the exception of one sage, Rabbi Eliezer, all sages declared that the oven can become ‘impure’ and therefire it is not appropriate for use.

Rabbi Eliezer who was convinced that his position was right declared:   “If the rule is as I say [That Achnai's oven is in fact pure], then let this carob tree prove it!” Then the carob tree flew out of the ground and landed thirty yards away.

The sages were not impressed: “One does not bring evidence from the carob tree!”

Rabbi Eliezer continued: “If the rule is as I say, then let the stream of water prove it.”  And the stream of water flowed backwards.

“One does not bring evidence from a stream of water,” replied the other sages.

“If the rule is as I say then let the walls of this house  prove it!” continued Rabbi Eliezer, and the walls began to fall inward.  Rabbi Yehoshua, Eliezer’s main opponent, censored the walls for their interference and they did not fall but neither did they return to their previous position.

“If the law is as I say then let it be proved by Heaven,” continued Rabbi Eliezer and indeed a voice from Heaven came and asserted that Rabbi Eliezer was right! Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said (quoting Deuteronomy 30:12) “It is not in Heaven, ” (לא בשמיים היא) and a later sage explained further (quoting Exodus 23:2): “it is for the majority to decide!” (כי אחרי רבים להטות). And so it was.

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10 Responses to Majority Rules! – The Story of Achnai’s Oven

  1. victrumper says:

    prof Kalai,

    a wonderful story indeed. sorry to be off topic but what do u think of the current israel-palestine conflict

  2. Gil says:

    Dear victrumper,

    well, probably I should resist any temptation to discuss politics on this blog.

  3. Gil Kalai says:

    Yisrael Aumann mentioned an even more amazing case from the Talmud on the role of majority in decisions on the Jewish law. In this story the dispute was in Heaven and in a certain gathering all the participants had one view and a single participant — God himself — had the opposing view. The Talmud does not tell what the ruling was, but a later famous sage Moses Maimunides made a ruling in this case, and his ruling was with the majority!

    Several people noted that it is not clear if Achnai is a name of a person or the name for the type of oven, that the story is, in fact, part of a larger story, and that the quotations from the Bible Rabbi Yehoshua had used go opposite to their original meaning in the Bible.

  4. Danielle Gurion says:

    Am Ha-aretz that I am, I always thought this story was sacreligious. Still do.

    • Escamillo says:

      Not so.
      Because, just to make sure that the readers got the meaning, the story ends with God saying– with a smile– ניצחוני בני, ניצחוני
      “They vanquished over me, my sons, they vanquis
      hed over me…”

  5. A rerlative of mine once said that what the rabbis did then was “declare their independence from G_d”.

  6. barry levine says:

    Does it bother no one that the quote from Exodus is wrong?

    לֹא-תִהְיֶה אַחֲרֵי-רַבִּים. 2 Thou shalt not follow a multitude

  7. Pingback: Election Day | Combinatorics and more

  8. Leonard Schulman says:

    There’s indeed an apparent opposition between the (more or less) plain meaning of the source, and these applications of it. This is not so unusual for d’rash…
    It’s worth noting though that there are actually two occurrences of “acharei rabim” (following the majority) in Exodus 23:2; and Rabbi Yehoshua uses the second of those (“acharei rabim l’hatot”), not the first, which Barry Levine quotes.

  9. Anon says:

    In fact I would take this story in the opposite meaning, that is they disobeyed Hashem they claim to follow. On the surface, assuming that what is written here as you wrote it is correct, the majority is to rule. In contrast there are many stories in Talmud where exactly the reverse is true. Did the Rabbi claim that it is Hashem’s law that the majority’s decision should be followed even if it is against Hashem’s law? I seriously doubt it.

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