Three rabbinical tales with profound rational lessons
Maimonides, in his Commentary on the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Chelek, describes how one should understand rabbinical stories and declares that most people do not deal with rabbinic Midrashim correctly.
According to Maimonides, three clusters of people exist, each taking a radically different approach to the stories in Midrashim. The first group, the largest of the three, is composed of those who accept midrashic tales literally. They believe that what the rabbis state actually occurred – even when the stories relate occurrences that are impossible and irrational. “The impossible for them must have happened [because the sages said so], and they believe it because they do not understand the underlying wisdom [of the tale] because they lack the ability to understand.” Maimonides considers this group a collection of “fools” who are insulting the Torah and the sages by believing that Judaism could maintain such silly and impossible ideas.
The second assortment of people, also large in number, also fails to grasp the inner meaning of the rabbinical story. Members of this group, like those in the first group, are convinced that the sages are stating what they believe to be the truth. However, they differ from the first larger group in that they recognize that the so-called facts in the story are impossible. Therefore they reject the Midrash out of hand. They read the Midrash and conclude that they are “obviously” smarter than the rabbis because they can see that the story could never have occurred, while the rabbis did not understand the simple rules of nature. As a result, they approach all other rabbinical statements with skepticism and are prone to dismiss them without trying to mine their inner meaning. Maimonides also calls these people “fools.”
The third group, comprised of very few individuals, “too small even to call a class,” recognizes that the rabbis were wise and knew the truth, that they do not make inane statements and that they frequently need to teach the masses in parables and tales, with the hope that the populace will take the time to delve into their statements and search for their unstated moral. Maimonides extols the latter approach. He states that he recognizes that the task of uncovering the underlying teaching of tales is difficult, but he encourages his readers to do so because the rabbis were wise and their messages are valuable.
I will evaluate three rabbinical tales using the Maimonidean approach.
The Story of rabbis rejecting God’s interpretation of the law
The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b, relates the remarkable and impossible tale of a dispute between sages and God. It begins with a difference of opinion between the majority of rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer about an oven, called in this story an akhnai, a metaphoric description, meaning a circular discussion that went round and round, like a snake circling a jar. The rabbis argued whether the oven was ritually pure (Rabbi Eliezer) or impure (the rabbis). At God’s attempt to intercede and settle the dispute, the sages rejected God’s decision: The Talmud reports:
Rabbi Eliezer provided all possible answers, but [the rabbis, who were in the majority] refused to accept them. So he [Rabbi Eliezer] said: If the halakhah [law] is as I claim, let this carob tree prove it; and [as he requested] the carob tree was uprooted a distance of one hundred cubits; others say four hundred cubits. [The rabbis] said to him: one cannot prove anything by a carob tree. He spoke again: If the law is as I claim, let this channel of water prove it; and the water flowed backwards. [The rabbis] said to him: one cannot prove anything by a channel of water. He again said: If the law is as I claim, let the walls of the academy prove it; and the walls of the academy began to lean and were about to fall. Rabbi Joshua rebuked [the walls], saying: If scholars are arguing about the law, what is it your business! So the walls did not fall out of respect for Rabbi Joshua, but did not straighten up out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer. He again said to them: If the law is as I claim, let the heavens prove it. A bat kol [heavenly voice] descended and proclaimed: What do you have against Rabbi Eliezer? He is correct about the law! Rabbi Joshua then stood up and said: It [the Torah] is not in heaven. Why is it not in heaven? Rabbi Jeremiah said that ever since the Torah was given at Sinai, we no longer pay attention to a heavenly voice, since [God] already wrote in the Torah at Sinai. We should “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2). Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do at that time?” He replied: “He laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.’”
How is this story to be understood?
Following Maimonides’ stricture, we should not accept the colloquy between the humans and God as a true report and we should not dismiss it out of hand because of the impossibility. Instead, we should seek the lesson that the sages are teaching.
The generally accepted understanding is that the tale was composed to teach the halakhic (legal) principle that sages should follow the majority view when there is a dispute in making halakhic decisions. Thus, although Rabbi Eliezer’s opinion was correct, the rabbis could – indeed should – not accept it as the law since it is a minority opinion.
This understanding is correct, but it ignores a more fundamental point. The rabbis understood that they could not advance and help society by developing their own ideas unless they recognized that they had a right, even a duty, to use their minds in a rational fashion to understand the law as well as everything else to aid the development of people and society. Thus, the underlying moral of the tale is encouragement to think beyond the truths of the past and develop new ideas. We will see that the rabbis also taught this somewhat surprising lesson in the two following midrashic stories.
The Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel forces Rabbi Joshua to obey him
Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 25a and Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9 report that in the second century C.E. Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, one of the senior rabbinical leaders after the destruction of the Second Temple (the same rabbi who appeared in the previous story) rejected the testimony of witnesses who claimed to have seen the first sliver of the moon for the month of Tishrei, the month in which the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkoth fall. The witnesses’ testimony was accepted by Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel the Patriarch – the leader of the Jewish community and the head of the Jewish court. As a result, Rabbi Joshua understood the holidays, including Yom Kippur, to fall on a different day than that proclaimed by Rabban Gamaliel and his court.
Rabban Gamaliel sent a message to [Rabbi Joshua], saying: “I command you to come to me with your staff and money on the day of Yom Kippur according to your calculation.” [Rabbi Joshua was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand he had to comply with the order of the Patriarch. On the other hand, he felt that carrying a staff and money on the day he knew was Yon Kippur was a violation of the law.] Rabbi Akiva found him grieving, and said to him: ‘I can prove to you that whatever Rabban Gamaliel has done is proper, for it says: “these are the seasons of the Lord, the holy assemblies, which you shall proclaim” [Leviticus 23:4, meaning that God has given the rabbis the right to decide when the month begins and their decision on this matter is decisive. Rabbi Joshua was persuaded.]…. He took his staff and money in his hand and went to Yavneh [where Rabban Gamliel lived] to Rabban Gamaliel on the day he had calculated to be the Day of Atonement. Rabban Gamaliel stood up and kissed him on his head and said to him: “Come in peace, my rabbi and my pupil; my rabbi in wisdom, and my pupil, because you accepted my words.”
The generally accepted understanding of the moral of this story is, again, that the majority decision is decisive. There is also the additional lesson that the rabbis have the authority to decide when the new month begins even when the decision affects when biblically mandated holidays occur. The Midrash also presents the significant, often overlooked idea, mentioned earlier, that Jews must think for themselves and rabbis can change/interpret Torah law.
The prior narratives should make it clear that the rabbis decide what the Torah means. God, according to the first account, cannot tell Jews what God intends. The rabbis decide by majority count. The decision of the majority is then binding on all, according to the second anecdote, even when one is a recognized sage and convinced that the majority is wrong.
This latter point does not mean that the individual must abandon his view. He can continue to think as he wishes, but he must conform his behavior to the majority, for to do otherwise would endanger the survival of society. Maimonides, for example, did not think like the masses of Jews, yet he was orthopractic – he observed all of the rabbinical enactments and persuaded others to do so.
The following legend makes these points in a striking manner.
The remarkable story of baffled Moses attending the school of Rabbi Akiva
The Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b, relates that Moses ascended to heaven and saw God drawing small crown-like strokes on the top of many letters in the Torah. Upon asking God why God was doing so and what the crowns meant, God told him that in the future Rabbi Akiva would develop many laws based on these crowns. Moses asked if he could see Rabbi Akiva. God agreed, and instantaneously Moses found himself in the back row of Rabbi Akiva’s school. He listened carefully to the rabbi’s lecture on the Torah that he had brought to the Israelites, but was unable to understand what he was teaching and what his students were responding.
Not being able to follow their arguments he was ill at ease. But when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master “Whence do you know it?” and the latter replied, “It is a law given unto Moses at Sinai,” he was comforted.
What is the Talmud teaching by dramatizing the case of Rabbi Akiva teaching Torah – the Torah given to the Israelites by Moses – including lessons that he insisted were “given to Moses at Sinai” – while Moses knew that they were not delivered at Sinai and “was comforted”?
Most Jews are unable to understand this tale, and, like the first group of Midrash readers discussed by Maimonides, think it teaches nothing more than that Rabbi Akiva was a great man.
Actually, the moral is that the rabbinical teachings, including those developed by Rabbi Akiva, have the same religious authority as the Torah itself, as if they were given at Sinai. The statement that Moses “was comforted” emphasizes that even though Moses saw that the rabbinical enactments were not even hinted in the Torah, they still have a Sinaitic authority. This tale emphasizes yet again that Judaism is not mired within the constraints of the past, that people need to gain knowledge and improve.
Maimonides emphasizes that the vast majority of Jews are either unable or too lazy to think. Thus, when they hear rabbinical parables, they cannot analyze them to find their meaning. They accept the tales as literal facts rather than parables with morals, even when the events that are described in the story are impossible. A second sizable group recognizes the impossibilities, but thinks no further. They reject the parable they are reading because they see it as being absurd and dismiss all other rabbinical tales without reading them because some make no sense. A remarkably small number sees the rabbinical statements for what they really are and mines them for the lessons the rabbis intended to teach.
Three such tales were presented. At least two of the three describe unnatural events and were not meant to be taken at face value. Each has certain lessons apropos the events described. These include the halakhah (law) that the majority rules when there are disputes in law as well as the halakhah that the court decides when the new month begins and that their choice is decisive even when the date of biblical holidays are impacted. One story also dramatizes that certain rabbinical enactments have the authority as if they were handed to the Israelites at Sinai.
However, all three are based on the premise that Jews are encouraged to think and make decisions and not rely solely on ancient thinking – a premise that Maimonides promoted in his works. As he wrote: God created humans with eyes in front of their faces, not behind them.
 This is from my first Maimonides book “Maimonides the Exceptional Mind,” published by Gefen Publishing House.
 Midrash – the plural is Midrashim – are a series of unrelated books composed by different authors beginning in the third century CE and continued to be written through the late middle ages that contain portions dealing with biblical interpretations and stories. Many of the stories are hyperbolic and meant to be understood as parables. This article addresses the stories. The term midrash is also applied to parabolic tales found in the Talmud.
 The title Rabbi began to be used for leaned sages after the temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the title Rabban was given to the senior Rabbi. Rabban is no longer used.