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Andrew D. Gross





Does God Have Halakhic Authority?



APA e-journal

Andrew D. Gross





Does God Have Halakhic Authority?






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Does God Have Halakhic Authority?

In the famous story of the Oven of Akhnai, Rabbi Eliezer makes recourse to divine revelation to defend his legal ruling. Rabbi Joshua responds that “the Torah is not in heaven” and God has no say. Elsewhere in the Talmud, however, heavenly voices are considered authoritative, a view which aligns with that of the Qumran sect, which believed God continues to reveal secret details of Torah laws.


Does God Have Halakhic Authority?

The Talmud Lesson, H. Werner, ca. 1900. Wikimedia

In Deuteronomy 30, Moses asserts:

דברים ל:יא כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא־נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. ל:יב לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה־לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. ל:יג וְלֹא־מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבָר־לָנוּ אֶל־עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה. ל:יד כִּי־קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.
Deut 30:11 “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it too far away. 30:12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 30:13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ 30:14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

“God’s Instruction,” to quote Jeff Tigay’s summary, “is not unintelligible or esoteric (v. 11), nor is it inaccessible and unknown (vv. 13–14). It has already been imparted to Israel by Moses, permitting Israel to learn it, meditate on it, and carry it out.”[1] The rhetoric of the passage aims to encourage Israel to keep the laws communicated in the Torah,[2] highlighting that they know what to do and it is all within their grasp. Reflecting on this passage, Richard Elliott Friedman writes:

In one of the most beautiful passages in the Torah… [Moses] explains…: The commandments are not enigmatic, they do not reside in a distant realm, and they do not require an intermediary. They are already made known. And they are within a human’s ability to do.[3]

In the famous tale of the Oven of Akhnai which appears in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Bava Metzia 59b), composed around the 6th century C.E., the rabbis read this declaration as something more than a motivational speech. Instead, the verse is presented as a fundamental legal principle rejecting the authority of post-Sinaitic divine revelation.[4]

The Tale of the Oven of Akhnai

The tale arises from a dispute regarding an earthenware oven that has become impure.[5] R. Eliezer argues that through dismantling the oven, it can be purified. His ruling is rejected by the other rabbis, and in response, R. Eliezer claims that he will prove he is correct through a series of miracles.

He makes a carob tree jump 400 cubits, a stream run backwards, and the walls of the study house fall. In each case, his colleagues respond that these miracles do not constitute legal proofs. Finally, R. Eliezer invokes heaven itself to side with him:

חזר ואמר להם אם הלכה כמותי מן השמים יוכיחו יצתה[6] בת קול ואמרה מה לכם אצל רבי אליעזר[7] שהלכה כמותו בכול מקום.
He answered and said to them, “If the law agrees with me let it be proved from heaven.” A heavenly voice came forth and said, “Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer since the law agrees with him in every matter.”

Even God’s direct intervention in R. Eliezer’s favor fails to move the rabbis. In response, Rabbi Joshua gets up and quotes the opening phrase of Deuteronomy 30:12: לא בשמים היא “It is not in heaven.” Rabbi Jeremiah elaborates on this point:

אמר רבי ירמיה שכבר נתנה תורה מהר סיני אין אנו משגיחין בבת קול.
Rabbi Jeremiah says: “Since the Torah was already given at Mount Sinai, we do not regard a heavenly voice.”

For the rabbis, God revealed his Torah at Sinai, and Moses confirmed that humans are charged with interpreting its commandments.[8] Therefore, even God’s own judgment cannot outweigh the consensus of the rabbis.[9]

The episode—which is part of a larger literary unit—concludes with an account of God’s reaction to the rabbis’ words:

אשכחיה רבי נתן לאליהו, אמר ליה: מאי קא עביד קודשא בריך הוא בההיא שעתא? אמר קא חייך ואמר נצחוני בניי נצחוני בניי
Rabbi Nathan encountered Elijah and said to him: “What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that time?” He answered: “[God] smiled and said: ‘My children have triumphed over Me; My children have triumphed over Me.’”

In other words, God accepts the rabbis’ understanding that on matters of halakha, the authority to rule is no longer in heaven but in their possession. Paradoxically, with this midrashic reading of the text, the rabbis are arrogating the sole authority to interpret halakha to themselves. Nevertheless, the narrative highlights a debate in Jewish interpretive tradition about whether God still has the authority to make or interpret law after Sinai.

Heavenly Voice as Authoritative in the Talmud

While the Akhnai passage in Bava Metzia presents Rabbi Joshua’s view as the standard, a tradition in the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 9:3, Yebamot 1:6, Sotah 3:4),[10] which dates to the 4th century C.E., takes a heavenly voice supporting the halakhic authority of Beit Hillel as authoritative.

The passage begins by saying that one should follow either Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel consistently, after which, the text comments:

הדא דתימר עד שלא יצאת בת קול. אבל משיצאת בת קול לעולם הלכה כבית הלל וכל העובר על דברי בית הלל חייב מיתה.
This could have been said before the heavenly voice made its proclamation, but after the heavenly voice made its proclamation, the law follows Beit Hillel, and anyone who violates the words of Beit Hillel is worthy of death.

The Talmud continues by quoting a Tannaitic source explaining what the heavenly voice said:

תני יצאת בת קול ואמרה אילו ואילו דברי אלהים חיים הן אבל הלכה כבית הלל לעולם.[11]
It was taught: A heavenly voice announced: “These and these (=the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai) are the words of the living God, but the law follows Beit Hillel in all circumstances.”

This tradition appears in the Babylonian Talmud as well (Eruvin 6b–7a), which notes a contradiction in a Tannaitic source, whether the law always follows Beit Hillel or one can choose to follow Beit Shammai. The Talmud suggests several answers. The first is identical to what we saw in the Jerusalem Talmud:

לא קשיא כאן קודם בת קול כאן לאחר בת קול
This is not a problem: One is referring to before the heavenly voice [made its announcement] and the other to after the heavenly voice [made its announcement].

Like the Jerusalem Talmud passage, this answer takes for granted that a heavenly voice is authoritative. The second answer is perhaps even more pertinent:

ואיבעי אימ[א] הא והא לאחר בת קול ור' יהושע היא דאמ[ר] אין משגיחין בבת קול [12]
Alternatively, both of them were stated after the heavenly voice [made its announcement], but [the one which states that it is still permissible to follow Beit Shammai] follows the view of Rabbi Joshua, who said “we do not pay attention to heavenly voices.”[13]

Here again the Babylonian Talmud quotes Rabbi Joshua’s principle, but in this presentation, it’s only his individual view, not the majority position.

We thus see that in the rabbinic period, halakhic authorities were torn about whether credence should be given to claims of divine revelation after Sinai, with R. Joshua representing the negative camp and R. Eliezer representing the positive camp. The latter view appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran (2nd cent. B.C.E.–1st cent. C.E.).[14] Like R. Joshua in the Talmud, the Qumran sect derives their position from a verse in the very same speech of Moses towards the end of Deuteronomy, both of which appear in Parashat Nitzavim.

“Hidden Things Belong to God”: Sectarian Interpretations

Before Moses tells the people that the Torah is not in heaven, he discusses the status of certain secret things:

דברים כט.כח הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַי־הוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד־עוֹלָם לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
The hidden things belong to YHWH our God, and the revealed things belong to us and to our children forever to do all the provisions of this teaching.

Deuteronomy’s point is that the things that belong exclusively to the divine realm do not concern humans.[15] The job of humans is simply to follow the commandments that have been revealed to them.[16]

In interpreting this verse, the Qumran sect divided Jewish law into two categories:

Niglot (“revealed things”), the corpus of laws and interpretations thereof that were known to all Jews;

Nistarot (“hidden things”), a corpus of halakhic rulings received through divine revelation exclusively to sectarian leaders.

In other words, while every Jew had access to God’s revelation at Sinai, in the form of the Torah, the people of Qumran had access to subsequent, secret revelations of law, known only to their leaders.

The Rule of the Community

The Rule of the Community, amongst the Qumran sectarian writings, regulates the affairs the community, including admission procedures to the community and day-to-day behavior. Distinctive vocabulary and phraseology from Deuteronomy 29 is peppered throughout the text’s preamble in its first column.[17] The most robust statement concerning the revealed and the hidden laws can be found later on in col. 5, lines 7–12:

כול הבא לעצת היחד יבוא בברית אל לעיני כול המתנדבים ויקם על נפשו בשבועת אסר לשוב אל תורת מושה ככול אשר צוה בכול לב ובכול נפש לכול הנגלה ממנה לבני צדוק הכוהנים שומרי הברית ודורשי רצונו ולרוב אנשי בריתם המתנדבים יחד לאמתו ולהתלך ברצונו
Whoever enters the council of the Community enters the covenant of God in the presence of all who freely volunteer. He shall swear with a binding oath to revert to the Law of Moses, according to all that he commanded, with whole heart and whole soul, in compliance with all that has been revealed of it to the sons of Zadok, the priests who keep the covenant and interpret his will and to the multitude of the men of their covenant who freely volunteer together for this truth and to walk according to his will.

The passage here refers to a subset of the hidden laws (nistarot), namely, the interpretations of the Law of Moses revealed (nigleh) to the priestly leadership of the sect, the sons of Zadok, and known to the rest of the members of the sect. Ironically, the secrets are “revealed,” but only to the members of the group. The text continues:

ואשר יקים בברית על נפשו להבדל מכול אנשי העול ההולכים בדרך הרשעה כיא לוא החשבו בבריתו כיא לוא בקשו ולוא דרשהו בחוקוהי לדעת הנסתרות אשר תעו בם לאששמה[18] והנגלות עשו ביד רמה
He should swear by the covenant to be segregated from all the men of injustice who walk along the path of wickedness. For they are not included in his covenant since they have neither sought nor examined his decrees in order to know the hidden matters in which they err by their own fault and because they treated revealed matters with disrespect…

Here the text castigates people outside of Qumran not only for violating the Torah laws all Jews know about (niglot), but even for not even trying to learn the hidden laws (nistarot) of the sect. In other words, all Jews are held accountable for observing all of these various types of law, even if they are unaware of their existence. The text is using “revealed” (niglah/niglot) in two different ways: above it refers to laws hidden to all Israel but revealed to the sect, while here it refers to laws revealed to all Israel, i.e., explicit in the written Torah.

The Damascus Covenant

These same precepts can be found in another sectarian text, the Damascus Covenant,[19] whose understanding and interpretation of halakha is quite close to what we see in the Rule of the Community:

ובמחזיקים במצות אל אשר נותרו מהם הקים אל את בריתו לישראל עד עולם לגלות להם נסתרות אשר תעו בם כל ישראל שבתות קדשו ומועדי כבודו עידות צדקו ודרכי אמתו וחפצי רצונו אשר יעשה האדם וחיה בהם
But with those who held fast to God’s precepts, who remained from among them, God established his covenant with Israel forever, so as to reveal to them hidden matters in which all Israel had gone astray: his holy sabbaths and his glorious feasts, his just stipulations and his truthful paths, and the wishes of his will that man must do and thereby live by them.[20]

According to this passage, because this group was faithful, God revealed details of the law to them that the Jews were mistaken about. This is a close parallel to the position of Rabbi Eliezer in the Oven of Akhnai story, who uses divine revelation to clarify a disputed point of law.

Halakhic Revelation: Continuous or Fixed?

The Rule of the Community makes clear that divinely revealed interpretations of law change over time and that the process of divine revelation is continuous:

היאה[21] מדרש התורה א[ש]ר צוה ביד מושה לעשות ככול הנגלה עת בעת וכאשר גלו הנביאים ברוח קודשו
It is the interpretation of the Torah that he commanded by the hand of Moses to do according to everything that was revealed from time to time and as the prophets have revealed by his holy spirit.[22]

In other words, this body of legal interpretations was a living corpus that could be updated by later divine revelations and clarifications, despite its revealed, authoritative nature. This is exactly what the rabbis dispute in the story of the Oven of Akhnai and elsewhere. For instance, the final verse of Leviticus states,

ויקרא כז:לד אֵלֶּה הַמִּצְו‍ֹת אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הוָה אֶת מֹשֶׁה אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהַר סִינָי.
Lev 27:34 These are the commandments that YHWH gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.

The Sifra (3rd/4th cent. C.E.) interprets the opening words thus (Bechukotai 13.7):

אלה המצות—אין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה.
“These are the commandments”—no prophet is permitted to add anything new from this point forward.[23]

Rabbi Joshua’s stance is the diametric opposite of Qumran’s.[24] While the rabbinic texts date to centuries after the Qumran sect ceased to function, this side of the dispute may go back to Second Temple times.

Over the letters לנו ולבנינו ע in Deuteronomy 29:28, the Masoretic Text, whose consonantal form coalesced during this period, includes a series of dots.[25] The exact meaning of the dots in this case is disputed, but Albert Baumgarten of Bar Ilan University suggests that it may reflect the discomfort of the scribes responsible for the Proto-Masoretic text,[26] who many see as forerunners of the rabbis (certainly the rabbis adopted their text as canonical), with the ways that sectarians like those at Qumran were interpreting this verse.[27] If so, this theological dispute appears to have lasted for centuries.


August 31, 2021


Last Updated

March 27, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Andrew D. Gross is an associate professor in the department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.  He received his Ph.D. in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University in 2006, and is the author of Continuity and Innovation in the Aramaic Legal Tradition (Brill, 2008) and (with Lawrence H. Schiffman) The Temple Scroll: 11Q19, 11Q20, 11Q21, 4Q524, 5Q21 with 4Q365a (Brill, 2021).