If Your Wife Is Short, Bend Down and Hear Her Whisper: Rereading Tanur shel Akhnai

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Miriam Gedwiser

Sometimes, returning to a familiar text uncovers something new. In this essay, I hope to reexamine the story of the Oven of Akhnai (a.k.a., the “lo ba-shamayim hi” story) on Bava Metzia 59a-b, which has become a staple in many educational settings and is likely familiar to many readers, and uncover a layer that has not, to my knowledge, received much attention. Examining the larger surrounding sugya as a whole reveals a complex, multifaceted commentary on gender roles, interpersonal relationships, and the perils of sacrificing ethics for law.

One standard reading of the story focuses on the dramatic confrontation between Rabbi Eliezer and the Rabbis over an obscure question of purity law. Rabbi Eliezer invokes supernatural proofs for his position, culminating in a heavenly voice that declares, “Why do you take issue with Rabbi Eliezer, for the Halakhah follows him in all cases!” Rabbi Yehoshua stands up to declare that “it is not in heaven,” and the law must follow the majority of the rabbis against even the heavenly voice. Rabbi Yehoshua is presented as the hero, and his declaration as a triumph. On this reading, this is an empowering story of human agency and its role in Halakhah.

More recently, it has also become increasingly popular to read the story in its larger literary context. The story appears in the middle of a longer sugya about ona’at devarim, verbal oppression, and continues past Rabbi Yehoshua’s declaration to describe the emotional devastation experienced by Rabbi Eliezer after he was rejected by his colleagues. In this context, the protagonist is Rabbi Eliezer himself, and the story, read to completion, focuses on his pain and its destructive consequences. (This approach is exemplified by, and generally traceable, to chapter two of Jeffrey Rubinstein’s Talmudic Stories.)

In this essay I would like to take this contextualization one step further. The “lo ba-shamayim hi” confrontation appears almost directly between two textual poles: a discussion of rules or general advice for emotionally and spiritually appropriate relationships between husbands and wives on 59a, and a story of the interaction between one husband, Rabbi Eliezer, and his wife, Imma Shalom, on 59b.  As we will see, all three elements have something to do with access to heaven, but, as is often the case, the narrative complicates and in some ways undercuts the legal/advice section that came before.

The Sugya

To begin, in the middle of 59a Rav states: “A man should always be careful regarding the (verbal) oppression of his wife, for because her tears are frequent her oppression is more likely (kerovah).” This statement is clarified with reference to an assertion of Rabbi Elazar that, since the destruction of the Temple, “the gates of prayer were locked,” but the “gates of tears” remain open. Apparently, since wives cry easily, their suffering is more likely to provoke divine revenge. The Gemara continues with another statement of Rav: “Anyone who follows his wife’s advice falls into Gehinom,” with Ahav cited as proof.

Between his two statements, Rav seems to set out a view of a husband as something of a benevolent dictator: he should not listen to his wife’s advice, but he shouldn’t make her feel bad about it either.

The Gemara, however, continues:

R. Papa objected to Abaye: But people say, If your wife is short, bend down and hear her whisper! There is no difficulty: the one refers to general matters; the other to household affairs. Another version: the one refers to religious matters, the other to secular questions.

Concerned about the contradiction between Rav’s statement and a folk saying regarding the propriety of listening to wives, the Gemara settles on a resolution of separate spheres.[1] Wives deserve deference in matters of the home, or perhaps all worldly matters; husbands deserve deference in matters of Heaven, and perhaps in all nondomestic matters.

Finally (for our purposes), the earlier segment includes the statement of Rav Hisda, who echoes R. Elazar above and states that “all the gates (to Heaven) are locked, except the gates of oppression.”

So far for the categorical statements of the sugya: Women have such strong feelings that they cry easily; husbands should mind and manage their wives’ feelings; men should control matters of heaven; men, presumed to be of higher physical stature than their wives, should bend down to listen (sometimes), a solicitous posture that nevertheless reflects and reinforces their superior stature. Each of these assertions is called into question by the narrative that follows.

After the Sages reject the intercession of a bat kol on Rabbi Eliezer’s behalf, they excommunicate Rabbi Eliezer and declare impure everything he had declared pure. Upon being informed (gently) by Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Eliezer’s suffering is so powerful that “his eyes flowed with tears. The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop; and some say, even the dough in a woman’s hands spoiled. It was taught, there was great anger on that day, for everywhere that Rabbi Eliezer set his eyes was burned.” Rabbi Eliezer’s liquid tears transform into fire-eyes that bring destruction to the world.

Rabbi Eliezer’s pain even generates a storm that threatens to drown Rabban Gamliel at sea. Rabban Gamliel was not the main sage to confront Rabbi Eliezer – that was Rabbi Yehoshua – but Rabban Gamliel was still accountable by virtue of his role as the nasi (head) of the Sanhedrin. Rabban Gamliel saved himself by declaring before God that he acted “not for my honor, and not for the honor of my father’s house, but for Your honor, that disputes not proliferate in Israel.” This justification only gets him so far, however, as the continuation of the story shows.

After that incident, the narrative turns to the interaction between Rabbi Eliezer and his wife (and Rabban Gamliel’s sister), Imma Shalom:

Imma Shalom was R. Eliezer’s wife, and sister to R. Gamliel.

From the time of this incident onwards she did not permit him to fall upon his face (to recite penitential prayers).

Now a certain day happened to be New Moon, but she mistook a full (thirty-day) month for a defective (twenty-nine-day) one. Others say, a poor man came and stood at the door, and she took out some bread to him.

[On her return] she found him fallen on his face. She said to him, “Get up, you have killed my brother.”

Just then an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamliel that he had died.

He said to her, “How did you know?”

She said to him: “I have this tradition from my father’s house: All the gates are locked, except for the gates of oppression.” (modified Soncino transl.)

The story thus comes full circle to the statement of Rav Hisda on the prior page: “All the gates are locked, except the gates of oppression.” Indeed, the connection to verbal oppression is the anchor that brings the story to these pages at all. But the story is not simply a case-in-point for the claims about the power of oppression on the previous page. Instead, the story picks up several threads from the legal section, but takes them in unexpected directions.

The Connections between Law and Narrative

On the previous page, Rav warned that a man must heed, even manage, his wife’s delicate emotions, lest she come to cry and he deserve punishment for oppressing her. In our story, however, it is the wife, Imma Shalom, who is tasked with managing her husband’s strong feelings to prevent punishing destruction. The husband, Rabbi Eliezer, has already cried uncontrollably once (when he first heard the news), and his cries are still so close at hand that they will burst forth at a moment’s inattention.

Whereas both opinions on the previous page neatly placed matters of the spirit – “matters of heaven” – into the domain of men, here it is Imma Shalom, the wife, who controls how her husband prays. The subversion is not complete, however, as Imma Shalom does not succeed. Her plan is derailed by one of two things. On one suggestion, she miscalculates the date of the new moon, a mistake regarding heavenly bodies. Perhaps it is her very overconfidence in her mastery of “matters of heaven,” the domain that on the previous page was reserved for husbands, that prevents her from succeeding. Alternatively, the Gemara suggests, she is distracted by a poor visitor at the gate. The visitor stands at the nexus of “the home” (a female domain, per the Gemara on 59a) and “the world” (a domain whose spousal purview the same Gemara leaves as the subject of a dispute). She cannot manage both home and heaven at the same time.

When Imma Shalom leaves her vigil over Rabbi Eliezer’s “matters of heaven” for the other realms for just a moment, he succeeds in evading her. Imma Shalom’s attempts to control Rabbi Eliezer’s heavenly access ultimately fail, either because she has overstepped the bounds of her gender, or, more likely, because in this sugya the oppressed Rabbi Eliezer himself has the most complete heavenly access – not the other rabbis, and not his wife. And yet, even though Imma Shalom ultimately fails to save her brother, she still knows about the workings of the heavenly gates. She remains more knowledgeable about at least some “matters of heaven” than her husband.

Finally, on the matter of posture, Rabbi Eliezer does indeed attempt to bend down. But unlike the idealized husband of the previous page, he is not a man of stature politely obliging his lower-stature helpmate. He bends over in subservience to God, but in defiance of his wife.[2]

The story of Imma Shalom and Rabbi Eliezer, then, is a narrative about a husband and wife that undercuts the general statements about husbands and wives earlier in the same sugya. Why?

When Law and Narrative Meet, Neither Stays The Same

As a first reading, if we take the bright-line general statements of the Gemara more or less at face value, we can read the story as casting Rabbi Eliezer in the role of the oppressed wife. This highlights his plight by likening him to a relatably vulnerable category of people. What makes oppressed wives especially vulnerable is the power differential – whether in terms of physical, financial, or social power – between husbands and wives. By showing Rabbi Eliezer as the oppressed wife, then, the sugya suggests that just as power differentials within marriage carry an inherent potential for abuse, so does rabbinic power, even when wielded against other rabbis.

The rabbis were not, it seems, careful enough to avoid this pitfall, and as a result they face grave risks. At the same time, if Rabbi Eliezer is in the position of “wife,” then “matters of heaven” are outside his domain, and the story may contain a subtle rebuke of Rabbi Eliezer himself for seeking to meddle in matters of heaven by invoking the bat kol – a female voice that also, it would seem, is overstepping its proper domain.[3]

This first reading takes the Gemara’s claims about gender roles on 59a as static, then plays out what they would mean for the story. But from a second perspective, we may read the claims on 59a dynamically, informed by what comes later. In such a reading, the Talmud subverts its own clear assignment of gender roles, as if to admit that when such broad rules meet real women and men, they may not hold. Rav tells men not to listen to their wives if they wish to avoid Gehinom, but Rabbi Eliezer seems to have no choice but to obey his wife, until she (mistakenly or otherwise) chooses to leave him alone. Even though Imma Shalom ultimately fails to control her husband’s heavenly access, the very fact that the she tries suggests that the neat division of labor between husbands and wives (home/world/heaven) becomes messy upon practical application. And certainly, the tragic consequences when Rabbi Eliezer does disobey her (Rabban Gamliel’s death) hardly suggest that Rabbi Eliezer would have been risking Gehinom had he listened to her instead.

Both the legal/advice generalizations on 59a and the story on 59b warn about the dangers of oppression from different angles. First, husbands must treat their wives gently or face consequences. But the bright-line rules – women are emotional, so manage them – are not the end of the story. In the narrative portion, it is not husbands who must be gentle with wives, but rabbis who must be gentle with each other or face consequences. Claims about who owes what to whom based on personal status give way to a situational analysis, where susceptibility to oppression and pain is intensely personal. This shift warns the reader that formal, a priori regulations of interpersonal behavior only go so far. We can’t simply determine who needs emotional support and who does not by looking at gender, for example. The real work occurs in response to actual human beings, come as they may.

Finally, these two pieces about husbands and wives bracket and complicate the central declaration of “it is not in heaven.” Before that central moment, the Gemara concludes that “matters of heaven” should be the domain of men. And, both before and after, we learn that even if the rabbis will not accept communication that flows from heaven to earth, the gates of heaven are open in the other direction: God will accept the communication of the oppressed and suffering. God has not entirely abdicated control of earthly religious matters to the majority of rabbis. Perhaps those rabbis have absolute authority over matters of Halakhah, but, if they create victims, those victims have a powerful voice as well.

Rabbi Eliezer’s appeal to heaven in a matter of law is the moment at which his break from the rabbis becomes inevitable. And yet it is his very ability to appeal to heaven in the realm of human suffering and interpersonal justice that drives the rest of the story. It would be a mistake to understand “it is not in heaven” as a totally exculpatory for the Rabbis. “It is not in heaven” operates as a legal justification, but on the ethical plane matters are in heaven. The tragedy of the story is that the rabbis feel that to defend the law they must separate heaven and earth, interpersonal justice and law.

The sugya seems on the one hand to accept Rabban Gamliel’s justification for this bifurcation: he acts for the sake of avoiding intractable disputes. Perhaps the path of separation is truly the only option given Rabbi Eliezer’s notoriously abrasive (cf. Megillah 25b) and inflexible character. Rabbi Eliezer, after all, is a firebrand whose anger causes his gaze to literally burn the world around him. Even with someone as difficult to get along with as Rabbi Eliezer, the rejection of him and his Torah has inescapable, negative consequences. Indeed, the rabbis never seem to come fully to terms with these losses, even through the moment of Rabbi Eliezer’s death. (See Sanhedrin 68a.[4]) When the rabbi in the minority is less of an inflexible zealot than Rabbi Eliezer, the justification for risking such consequences due to majority inflexibility becomes concomitantly weakened.

As we learned on 59a, while heaven and earth, law and interpersonal ethics, may be separate, it is best when they are married together. Taken as a whole, the sugya demands that rabbis take full responsibility for the interpersonal consequences of their legal decisions. But beyond that, the tragedy and intractability of the Talmudic conflict and its consequences, once set in motion, serve as a warning for future generations. Before embarking on the path of isolating a colleague, or of forcibly imposing the will of the majority, contemporary rabbis would also be wise to take the time and effort needed to find a third path, one that marries law and ethics without doing damage to either.

[1] In an interesting irony given the emphasis on rabbinic authority on the next page, it is worth noting that the Gemara modifies the plain meaning of Rav’s statement in light of an unattributed saying of common people.

[2] Two manuscripts of our sugya have a third posture-related line. In the Munich and Hamburg manuscripts, Elijah reports that God “bent down” when he said “my children have defeated me.” Rubinstein (id. at 63) sees this variant as a corruption. If it is original, however, it adds an additional layer to this analysis: God, it would seem, takes the popular advice to bend down and listen to those of lesser status, but in this case not as a husband to a wife, but as a father to children.

[3] For more on the significance of a bat kol, see Ari Lamm, Talking To and About God.

[4] A full treatment of the story of Rabbi Eliezer’s death is well outside the scope of this piece. For one fascinating reading of that story, and its relationship to the Oven of Akhnai events, see Devora Steinmetz, “Like Torah Scrolls That Have Been Rolled Up: The Story of the Death of Rabbi Eliezer in bSandedrin 68a,” in Joel Roth, Menahem Schmeltzer, and Yaacov Francus, eds., Tiferet Le-Yisrael (JTS, 2010).

Miriam Gedwiser teaches Talmud and Tanakh at the Ramaz Upper School, and is on the Faculty of Drisha. A recovering attorney, Miriam writes and guest-lectures widely, and is a Consulting Editor for the Lehrhaus.