Tuesday, March 3, 2009

2:11:98 - More on the oven of Akhnai

(Sorry this is so belated.)

The halachic dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the chachamim (sages) that kicks off the famous story of the oven of Akhnai is often painted as "They were having a dispute about some obscure point in halacha", without regard to the substance of the dispute, but if we look more closely at what they were arguing about, it provides a mirror for the rest of the story.

An object that has the status of keli (human-made vessel/tool/utensil) and meets certain other requirements is mekabeil tum'ah (susceptible to receive ritual impurity). In the context of the mishnah (Kelim 5:10) that records the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the chachamim, "tamei" (ritually impure) means "mekabeil tum'ah / having the capacity to become tamei", and "tahor" means "lacking the capacity to become tamei".

In general, a clay oven is mekabeil tum'ah. If it is broken into pieces, it is no longer mekabeil tum'ah. In the oven of Akhnai, the pieces have been put back together, with sand in between. Rabbi Eliezer holds that putting the pieces together has no effect -- it's still just a bunch of oven fragments, and retains the corresponding status. The chachamim hold that putting the pieces together changes its status into a keli.

In other words, the chachamim believe that human tikkun/takanah (repair/legislation) has the power to alter the fundamental reality of the world, and Rabbi Eliezer believes that it doesn't. This is the background to their dispute about whether to listen to a bat kol (divine voice) or to a human majority vote.

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