The Legislative Authority of a Bas Qol

A brief summary of the Encyclopedia Talmudit entry on “Bas Qol”, the paragraph about its impact on halachah:An Achna’i-style oven was made from pieces of pottery that were not cemented together. So, the question arose: Can it, like any other oven, become tamei? Or, is it like shards of pottery which can not? Rabbi Yehoshua and the other sages ruled stringently. Rabbi Yehoshua ruled leniently.When the vote was taken, Rabbi Eliezer disputed the result. “If I am right, let the carob tree prove it.” The tree flew through the air. But the chakhamim replied that we don’t accept halachic rulings from trees. He similarly makes a stream flowed backwards, and even the walls of the beis medrash started to buckle. All three times, the miracles back Rabbi Eliezer, but the sages insist the law follows the majority. Rabbi Eliezer then appeals to heaven, and a bas qol declares, “Why are you disputing with R. Eliezar, for the Halakhah is according to him everywhere”. Rabbi Yehoshua rose to his feet and said, “It is not in Heaven.” (Devarim 30:12)Several generations later, Rav Noson asked Eliyahu haNavi what happened in heaven during that story. He is told that G-d “smiled” and said, “Nitzchuni banai — My children have defeated me!”

However, in Eiruvin 13b, the bas qol is relied upon to give precedence to Beis Hillel. “These and those are the words of the living G-d, but the halachah is like BH.”

The two stories therefore appear to conflict on the question of the precedence of bas qol vs. normal halachic process.

1- Rav Nissim Gaon (Berachos 19a), opinion I: The bas qol said “halachah k’moso b’chol makom”. As a general rule, the halachah is like R’ Eliezer, but not here. The halachic conclusion does not contradict the bas qol, and it’s even possible that the BQ caused them to reach their decision.

2- Ibid, opinion II: The bas qol was only a test for the sages. Again, normally BQ would have halachic power.

3- Tosfos (Eiruvin 6b) I: The bas qol was only for the kavod of R’ Eliezer, who called down the opinion of Shamayim. BQ does NOT have halachic authority.

#3 is only possible (assuming that G-d doesn’t lie) by saying that R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua were in an eilu va’eilu situation — both were right. Therefore, to show R’ Eliezer respect, G-d asserts that R Eliezer isn’t wrong even though the halachah is like R’ Yehoshua. In short, exactly the same point made by the BH vs BS story.

4- Tosfos II: There is a difference between whether the bas qol runs counter to metahalachah (normal halachic process), or in accordance with it. Bas qol can confirm a ruling, but not run counter to normal halachic process. Metahalachically, we follow BH because they are the majority. The BQ only confirms that fact.

(Why did it need confirmation? Probably because this is the first generation that the Sanhedrin was in exile, and because BS were generally considered the sharper group. Therefore there was a crisis in confidence in rejecting BS’s opinion without word from the Chamber of Hewn Wood.)

5- Or Samei’ach (Yesodei HaTorah 9:4): There is a distinction between whether the bas qol is clarifying a particular halachah and whether it speaks of a person’s ruling. In the first case, BQ is certainly not followed — metahalachah is the G-d-given means of creating new halachah. (cf
Temurah 16:1, where the prophet Yehoshua refuses to retrieve lost halachos via prophecy.) In the second, we do follow Beis Hillel, as per the BQ. (Although R’ Yehoshua disagreed about this use of bas qol as well.)

#5 appears to be nearly identical to #4, but with the added statement that given two true answers (speaking of one of two extant rulings), i.e. metahalachah allows one to follow either, BK can be followed. His conclusion is that even had BH and BS been of equal number, the halakhah would still be like BH.

In short, RNG gives authority to BQ to override halachic process, and the Achnai story’s bas qol is a special case for two different reasons. Tosafos and the OS agree that BQ has less authority than metahalachah, and possibly even no halachic say at all.

In either case it’s a question of whether one follows pre-existing rules for making halachic decisions despite supernatural evidence. It’s support for the notion of metahalachah, not for arbitrary leeway in making decisions.

FWIW, RYB Soloveitchik notes that “nitzchuni” does not mean “conquered”. Rather, by the normal rules of grammar it would be singular first person passive causitive of netzach (eternal). At the end of the Achnai story G-d is actually saying “My children have made Me [i.e. My Torah] eternal”. Which it would not be if we were limited to those decisions revealed at Sinai that weren’t lost.

2 thoughts on “The Legislative Authority of a Bas Qol

  1. Micha, Shalom!

    I don’t know if you’ll ever see this – I came here via Avodah v 25 i 15 (?), and this is an old post. Perhaps people have already commented, but your grammatical analysis of “nitzchuni” is way off. It is clearly and undoubtedly pi’el past tense third person plural, with a pronominal suffix in the first person singular ithat replaces a separable “oti” as the object of the verb. Additionally, in order to claim that the interpretation you bring from Rav Soloveitchik is anything other than drash, you’d have to bring other instances in which the verb root n-tz-h is used by Chazal elsewhere in the sense of “to eternalize”. My passing familiarity of how it’s used elsewhere tells me that you’ll not find such an instance. In fact, the image the Beit Midrash as a stage for intellectual jousting (of the most sacred sort, of course) only works when n-tz-h is understood as it normally is and should be: to triumph, to defeat, to best in battle.

    Rav Berachot,

    Yehoshua Kahan

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