VCU Menorah Review
Current issue • Archive • Search
VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2009
Number 71
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Talmud Revisited: Tragedy and “The Oven of Aknai”

By Janet Madden

“There is sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power.” Washington Irving

When I was a child, I read a biography of the Dutch scientist Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who, through the medium of his microscopes, was able to perceive what no human being had ever seen. I was transfixed by the idea of his discovery of entire worlds contained within drops of water, an image that has stayed with me throughout my life and that I recalled as I thought about what aspect of our Talmud studies I wanted to revisit for this final essay. And so, as I have been thinking about ona’at devarim, tears and the gates of tears, and the structure and rhythm of the Aggadah, I have also been thinking about literary composition, the power of scale, theme, symbols and timing, and how the Aggadic exploration of ona’at devarim and the power of tears can be viewed through many lenses, each yielding a world of meaning. However, just as I could not recognize or comprehend Bialik’s allusions in “To the Aggadah” to “tears in torrents gushing,” to the “gates of heaven,” to King David and to the Aggadah as the expressive heart and heart-strings of the Jewish people before studying the Aggadic story of “The Oven of Aknai,” so my understanding of the story, at this introductory stage of my Talmudic development, is rudimentary. Even at my initial readings, the worlds of thematic and symbolic meaning beckoned. But as I continued to ponder “The Oven of Aknai,” I began to consider possibilities that I had not at first perceived.

My revisit to the “The Oven of Aknai” depends, most essentially, on a structural investigation through the prisms of two complementary templates. The first is Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, with which the Rabbis of the first century would have been familiar; the Rabbinic opposition to Greek culture was informed by the Rabbis’ understanding of its attraction. Since classical literatures of antiquity were the results of lively cross-fertilizations of genres and literary forms, including history, biography, fables, philosophy, popular wisdom, and anecdote, it is not improbable that the Rabbis, too, incorporated cross-cultural genres into their literary composition, the Aggadah. And, in order to better understand the underlying structure of “The Oven of Aknai,” it is useful to apply a second, more detailed structural template, Gustav Freytag’s Pyramid, a five-part elucidation of Aristotle’s theory of the elements of drama.

In the strictest sense of the word, “tragedy” refers to drama: a literary composition written for performance by actors, in which a tragic protagonist or hero, a person of virtues and gifts far greater than the ordinary person, suffers a serious misfortune which is not accidental and, therefore, random or meaningless but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected with the hero’s actions. Tragedy stresses the vulnerability of human beings whose suffering is brought on by a combination of human and divine actions. Tragedy ends in misery for its characters, who fall as a result of an error or frailty, because of external or internal forces or of both. Classical tragedy contains other significant and characteristic elements: a flawed hero, a commentary on the action that is expressed by the chorus, spectacle, dramatic reversal, irony, a final commentary that serves as a revelation. From its inception, tragedy was a public genre; it was intended to be presented in a theater before an audience. But in his Poetics, Aristotle pointed out that it is possible to experience the affect of tragedy through private reading. And this shift, from public performance to private reading, raises the logical possibility of a similar modification of genre from drama to narrative.

In applying elements of classical tragedy to “The Oven of Aknai,” the notion of the application and transference of dramatic to narrative form is a tantalizing possibility precisely because of the nature of the Aggadah. Unlike the prescriptive formula of Halacha, the transmission of the fundamental teachings of the Aggadah is accomplished not merely by explicit exegesis, but through the implicit means of allegories and allusions. Its superficial realism, derived through stories of the Rabbis, only apparently reflects the world of historical reality, and its realistic aspects only thinly veil the inherent structural drama of the three-part interlinked narrative of Rabbi Eliezer. Indeed, if one applies to “The Oven of Aknai” the Aristotelian dramatic structure of beginning, middle and end, and the characterization of genres of literary works into the categories of epic, dramatic, and lyric, then it is not difficult to perceive in this Aggadic story the adaptation, or translation, of dramatic form into narrative. Further, the story’s narrative incidents have as their purpose precisely what Aristotle defines as the purpose of drama: the arousal of pity and fear in the audience and the accomplishment of a catharsis. Thus, when we further consider the essence of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy--beginning in prosperity, ending in adversity--and the focus on the tragic fate of an individual, it is feasible to understand “The Oven of Aknai” as a tragedy cast in narrative form, a mimetic representation of a serious action that extends the magnitude of that seriousness to the audience, and that impresses on the audience the power of the Divine. It is even possible to attribute to either or both R. Gamliel and R. Eliezer the character of the tragic hero; both are exemplars of Rabbinic “royalty” and both can be perceived as the possessors of a fatal flaw. The tragic flaw of R. Eliezer is his insistence on the rightness of his interpretation of Halacha, regardless of the price that his individualism exacts from his Rabbinic colleagues and its affect on the Jewish community; that of R. Gamliel is his failure to exert the authority of his position and intervene in order to prevent the ona’at devarim of R. Eliezer’s excommunication.

The superimposition of Freytag’s Pyramid onto “The Oven of Aknai” reveals the extent of the dramatic purpose and structure of the narrative as its development closely parallels the five stages of classical drama: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and catastrophe. Exposition, the initial stage of the drama, as Lajos Egri points out, is integral to the entire work; it is not simply a fixture to be used at the beginning and then discarded, but it establishes the initial conflict. Similarly, exposition in “The Oven of Aknai” does not serve merely to introduce characters its Talmudic purpose extends to the explanation of onn’aat, the prooftext of the appropriate pasouk, the comparison of types and degrees of onna’at, the illustrative anecdote of ona’at devarim and David, the great but flawed leader, explanations of the linkages of tefillah and tears and the gates of tears, and the introduction of the power of tears to affect Hashem. All of these themes, definitions, explanations, symbols, and sources introduce and contextualize the character of R. Eliezer, foreshadow the development of the plot, and contribute to thematic motifs.

The rising action of the drama is enacted through the successive tests, or trials, of R. Eliezer. The escalating dispute begins with a disagreement over the status of an oven, an apparently innocuous object that lies at the center of an apparently routine Halachic ruling. The episode begins, almost laconically, with a typically succinct Talmudic statement of differing opinions: “Rabbi Eliezer declares it ritually pure and the Sages declare it ritually impure.” Yet an investigation of the complex symbolism of the oven symbolizes the opposing perspectives of R. Eliezer and the Sages and the enormity of what is at stake. For this is no mere academic argument, or even a theological discourse. Rather, the contest between R. Eliezer and his rabbinic colleagues over whether the oven should be considered as a series of segments or as a complete entity signifies a contest of values that pits autonomy against communality.

R. Eliezer neither accepts the status of minority opinion nor “incline[s]” himself to accommodate the opinion of the majority. He is unbendingly insistent on his correctness; he is convinced that “the Halacha is with me.” And, in opposition to R. Eliezer’s refusal to yield to the majority viewpoint, to his display of his unnatural abilities as he persists in his argument and calls on the carob tree, the water and the walls of the Beit Midrash to act in opposition to their natures in order to affirm the rightness his point of view, the other Sages surround him with their opposition and mass together, ready to strike like the coiled snake that gives the oven its name. The dramatic exhibitions that take place at R. Eliezer’s behest embody the element of spectacle in classical drama. But the dynamism of spectacle the jumping tree, the waters that reverse their courses and the leaning walls does not move the Sages. Each successive unnatural act underscores the unnatural combative stance of the adamant R. Eliezer and serves only to harden their determined opposition.

In choosing compromise, neither falling nor standing erect, the walls of the Beit Midrash enact the choice of compromise, exemplifying the middle way: respect both for R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. The walls “remain leaning to this day,” a reminder both of the historic dispute and of the possibility of compromise. But, as the tension heightens, it becomes clear that although the walls apparently have been influenced by the learning that has taken place within them, for the unyielding R. Eliezer and his opponents, there is so much at stake in this contest that it cannot accommodate compromise; it must end with one side victorious and the other vanquished.

Of the many literary devices that the Aggadah employs to convey the intensity of the rising action of the plot, symbolism is the most powerful; the title of “The Oven of Aknai” encapsulates two potent images. An oven is a matrix; it is intimately connected with fire, the agent of purification and destruction, and, in doubled irony, the oven is the object of contested purity that foreshadows the Sages’ burning of every object that R. Eliezer has declared ritually pure. Since ovens, fires and furnaces symbolize spiritual trial, the dispute over the oven becomes the appropriate medium for the spiritual contest between R. Eliezer and the Sages. Ovens are also troped as mother-symbols, and the centrality of the oven also prepares the reader for the crucial role of the symbolically-named Imma Shalom, who protects her brother through watching over her husband and whose own spiritual trial is expressed in her final words, since she knows, better even than her husband, the power of tears.

The coiled snake-shape of the circular oven is reminiscent of the ouroboros, the Greek image of the essential oneness of life that often is accompanied by the maxim “One is all” an ironic counterpoint to the deep division between of R. Eliezer and the other Sages. The symbol of the snake in the ancient world, including the cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome, was widespread, and its significance was of a dual nature, associated with both destructive and protective powers. In Torah, too, the snake is a potent symbol, and it figures prominently at two seminal junctures the story of Gan Eden in Beresheit and in Moses’ setting the brass serpent on a pole in B’midbar at G-d’s behest, both as an antidote to venomous snakebites and to attract the people’s eyes from earthly chaos to focus, instead, on the heavens. In similar vein, the snake-shaped-and-named coiled oven, the catalyst that exposes the poisonous dispute between R. Eliezer and the Sages, embodies the potential for destruction or protection of both R. Eliezer and R. Gamliel and of life itself. This moral tale for the Jewish people makes clear, as its plot unfolds, that the escalation of differing viewpoints into onna’at devarim can, indeed, end in the shedding of blood.

The oven itself has almost been forgotten by the time of the emergence of the fourth, and final, dramatic spectacle, although the oven serves as the symbolic crucible of the increasingly heated dispute. Since four is the number of the totality of the created and the revealed, this episode is immediately recognizable as the most powerful spectacle yet; evidence for R. Eliezer’s rightness moves from the earthly to the heavens. But, when the “heavenly voice” assets that “The Halacha is in accordance with [R. Eliezer] everywhere,” the Sages refuse to accept that the opinion of one can override that of the majority; their spokesman, R. Yehoshua, “[rises] to his feet” in protest and defies the bat kol’s partisanship of R. Eliezer by declaring that the Torah “is not in Heaven.” His point is that the power of authoritative interpretation is invested in the concurrence of the majority, and that neither R. Eliezer’s nor the bat kol’s assertions can be accepted even if the opinion of a single Rabbi is, in fact, correct, if the majority does not accept that view, then the Halacha is not “with him” it is with the ruling of the majority. G-d’s laugh and the repeated phrase “My sons have defeated me,” mark the ending of this scene, but not the ending of the narrative. And in fact, this scene, which might at first appear to be a solution, is quickly revealed to be the preparation for the narrative’s crisis, since G-d’s response confirms that the view supported by the majority must be accepted.

The climax, or turning point, of “The Oven of Aknai” comes on “that day,” through R. Eliezer’s refusal to accept what even G-d acknowledges as the Sages’ correctness in holding to the position that agreement by the majority determines Halacha. But, rather than displaying magnanimity in the justification of their position and in the Divine sanction of their victory, the Sages reveal their corruption by the snake-oven; instead of acting from the position of chesed or rachamim, they publicly shame R. Eliezer in absentia by venomously and ostentatiously burning of all of the objects that he had declared ritually pure. Thus, since public humiliation is tantamount to murder, they publicly execute his rabbinic reputation. But the Sages do not stop at merely destroying his reputation they vote for R. Eliezer’s excommunication in his absence, so that he is entirely ignorant of their vote, thus destroying his rabbinic identity without permitting him the opportunity for self-defense. In ignoring the dicta that all Israel is responsible for one another, that one should not wrong his neighbor, and that one who causes ona’at devarim in public forfeit his share in the world-to-come, the Sages clearly indicate that they are not motivated merely by the desire to settle matters of Halacha. In intentionally and publicly inflicting ona’at devarim upon R. Eliezer, the Sages forfeit their claim to wisdom as surely as they display their own spiritual impurity; appropriately, the revelation of their spiritual nadir comes at the height of narrative tension.

As the narrative structure shifts from climax to falling action, so the behavior of the Sages contrasts with the act of one man. Only Rabbi Akiva, R. Eliezer’s student, exhibits sensitivity both to the plight of his teacher and to the inevitable Divine repercussions of the Sages’ behavior in knowingly and deliberately harming R. Eliezer by ona’at devarim. But R. Akiva’s delicate and oblique announcement to R. Eliezer of his condition of living death cannot soften the Sages’ blow. R. Akiva’s careful introduction of mourning clothing and customs as signifiers of his teacher’s condition cannot obviate R. Eliezer’s pain; R. Eliezer rends his garments and removes his shoes, sits on the ground “like a mourner,” and his eyes stream “with tears of pain and anguish.” And his tears of anguish engender Divine wrath. The “immediate” consequences of R. Eliezer’s tears are that one-third of olives, a crop associated with peace, and one-third of wheat and barley crops, grains associated in the ancient world with life after death as well as with earthly sustenance, are destroyed.

The toll of the Sages’ actions is laid at the door of all, but for Rabban Gamliel, Gaon of the Yavneh academy, and R. Eliezer’s brother-in-law, there is especial culpability: due to his position, he is responsible for the actions of the Sages. Indeed, when the wave a watery symbol of destruction that has swollen in volume from the streams of R. Eliezer’s tears rises against him, ready to drown him, R. Gamliel does not pretend to be ignorant of the reason. He acknowledges that “this can only be happening to me because of the anguish caused to Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus.” The only word missing in his acknowledgment is “I”, but, as he rises in the self-defense that has been denied R. Eliezer and gives his explanation “no individual, great as he may be, should reject a decision reached by the majority, so that controversies will not multiply in Israel” the sea “rest[s]” from its wrath. But rest is not cessation. R. Gamliel makes no overture of reconciliation to R. Eliezer; his excommunication is not nullified, his anguish is not assuaged. R. Gamliel does not exert his leadership to repair the consequences of the onna’at devarim that has devastated his brother-in-law, and his failure to act presages the end of the narrative.

The catastrophe, or conclusion, of “The Oven of Aknai” concerns the aftermath of R. Eliezer’s excommunication. Imma Slalom attempts to shield her brother, R. Gamliel, from the inevitable consequences of her husband’s tears by preventing R. Eliezer from falling on his face during Tachanun, the prayer during which he pours out his grief and engages in supplication. Her attempt to save her brother’s life while fully and clearly understanding the power of her husband’s tears is all the more poignant because Imma Shalom like her brother has learned from childhood but, unlike him, remembered--that the gates of tears are never locked and that G-d “will not hold [his] peace at [one’s] tears.”

But the mighty nexus of tears and Tachanun can only be postponed, not negated. Thus, predictably, in the manner of tragedies, Imma Shalom’s watchfulness is subverted. Her miscalculation of the time of the moon, an important marker of time in the Jewish calendar, a symbol specifically associated with the feminine principle and with tides, is also subtly connected to an oven, as she brings bread to the poor man the stranger who has come to her door. The inextricability of life and death is signaled by the connection of time, food and death: at the very time that she provides life-giving sustenance, her brother dies. As she makes clear when she tells her husband, “You have killed my brother” in advance of the shofar that announces his death, the truly wise Imma Shalom has always understood her early lessons.

As she pronounces the dramatic epilogue, the tradition that Imma Shalom learned in the house of her grandfather of the power of tears to pass through the unlocked “gates of onna’ah,” she both provides the final comment on the moral lesson of the narrative and a warning for B’nai Israel. Fulfilling the precepts of tragedy, we are left with Aristotle’s catharsis, a purifying of the emotions that is brought about through the evocation of intense fear and pity. The teaching of “The Oven of Aknai” is complete; the reader has learned, from the collective guilt of the Rabbis themselves, of the terrible power of onnaa’t devarim and the even greater power of tears to move G-d to provide justice, however severe, for the afflicted.


Janet Madden is a rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She received her Ph.D. from the National University of Ireland.

|  Virginia Commonwealth University  |  College of Humanities and Sciences  |  School of World Studies  |
Center for Judiac Studies

Comments and manuscripts are welcome.
Address all correspondence to:
Center for Judaic Studies
Box 842021
312 North Shafer Street
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2021

Phone: (804) 827-0909  |  Email: jdspiro@vcu.edu

Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

Created by VCU University Relations