Midrash Agada (Legend)-The Akhnai Oven


 We learnt elsewhere: If he cut it into separate tiles, placing sand between each tile: R. Eliezer declared it clean, and the Sages declared it unclean; and this was the oven of Aknai (Y1).

1 Why [the oven of] Aknai? Said Rab Judah in Samuel’s name: [It means] that they encompassed it with arguments as a snake, and proved it unclean.

2 It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument(Y2) , but they did not accept them.

3 Said he to them:If the halachah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it! Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place — others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree, ’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it! Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water, ’ they rejoined. Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it, ’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honour of R. Joshua, nor did they resume the upright, in honour of R. Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven! ’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him! ’ But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’

4 What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, after the majority must one incline.

5 R. Nathan met Elijah and asked him:

6 What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me. It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire.

7 Then they took a vote and excommunicated(Y3) him.

8 Said they, ‘Who shall go and inform him? ’ ‘I will go, ’ answered R. Akiba, ‘lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.’

9 What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits from him.

10 ‘Akiba, ’ said R. Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened to-day? ’

11 ‘Master, ’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee.’ Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes.

12 The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women’s hands swelled up.

A Tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which R. Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up.

13 R. Gamaliel   too was travelling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him. ‘It appears to me,’ he reflected, ‘that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus.’ Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honour, or for the honour of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel! At that the raging sea subsided.

Ima Shalom was R. Eliezer’s wife, and sister to R. Gamaliel. From the time of this incident onwards she did not permit him to fall upon his face.

14 Now a certain day happened to be New Moon, but she mistook a full month for a defective one.

15 Others say, a poor man came and stood at the door, and she took out some bread to him.

16 [On her return] she found him fallen on his face. ‘Arise, ’ she cried out to him, ‘thou hast slain my brother.’ In the meanwhile an announcement was made from the house of Rabban Gamaliel that he had died. ‘Whence dost thou know it? ’ He questioned her. ‘I have this tradition from my father’s house: All gates are locked, excepting the gates of wounded feelings.’



When R. Eliezer fell sick, R. Akiba and his companions went to visit him. He was seated in his canopied four-poster, whilst they sat in his salon.

1 That day was Sabbath eve, and his son Hyrcanus went in to him to remove his phylacteries.

2 But his father rebuked him, and he retreated crestfallen. ‘It seems to me, ’ said he to them, ‘that my father’s mind is deranged’.

3 But R. Akiba said to them, ‘his mind is clear, but his mother’s [sc. of Hyrcanus] is deranged:

4 how can one neglect a prohibition which is punished by death, and turn his attention to something which is merely forbidden as a shebuth?’

5 The Sages, seeing that his mind was clear, entered his chamber and sat down at a distance of four cubits.

6 ‘Why have ye come? ’ said he to them. ‘To study the Torah’, they replied; ‘And why did ye not come before now’, he asked? They answered, ‘We had no time’. He then said, ‘I will be surprised if these die a natural death’. R. Akiba asked him, ‘And what will my death be?  and he answered, ‘Yours will be more cruel than theirs’. He then put his two arms over his heart, and bewailed them, saying, ‘Woe to you, two arms of mine, that have been like two Scrolls of the Law that are wrapped up.

7 Much Torah have I studied, and much have I taught.

8 Much Torah have I learnt, yet have I but skimmed from the knowledge of my teachers as much as a dog lapping from the sea. Much Torah have I taught, yet my disciples have only drawn from me as much as a painting stick from its tube. Moreover, I have studied three hundred laws on the subject of a deep bright spot, yet no man has ever asked me about them.

9 Moreover, I have studied three hundred, (or, as others state, three thousand laws) about the planting of cucumbers [by magic] and no man, excepting Akiba b. Joseph, ever questioned me thereon. For it once happened that he and I were walking together on a road, when he said to me, “My master, teach me about the planting of cucumbers”. I made one statement, and the whole field [about us] was filled with cucumbers. Then he said, “Master, you have taught me how to plant them, now teach me how to pluck them up”. I said something and all the cucumbers gathered in one place’. His visitors then asked him, ‘What is the law of a ball, a shoemaker’s last, an amulet, a leather bag containing pearls, and a small weight? ’

10 He replied, ‘They can become unclean, and if unclean, they are restored to their uncleanliness just as they are.’

11 Then they asked him, ‘What of a shoe that is on the last? ’

12 He replied, ‘It is clean; ’ and in pronouncing this word his soul departed. Then R. Joshua arose and exclaimed, ‘The vow is annulled, the vow is annulled! ’

13 On the conclusion of the Sabbath R. Akiba met his bier being carried from Caesarea to Lydda. [In his grief] he beat his flesh until the blood flowed down upon the earth — Then R. Akiba commenced his funeral address, the mourners being lined up about the coffin, and said: ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof;

14 I have many coins, but no money changer to accept them.’

 [Y1]1) This refers to an oven, which, instead of being made in one piece, was made in a series of separate portions with a layer of sand between each. R. Eliezer maintains that since each portion in itself is not a utensil, the sand between prevents the whole structure from being regarded as a single utensil, and therefore it is not liable to uncleanness. The Sages however hold that the outer coating of mortar or cement unifies the whole, and it is therefore liable to uncleanness. (This is the explanation given by Maimonides on the Mishnah, Kel. V, 10. Rashi a.l. adopts a different reasoning). ‘Aknai is a proper noun, probably the name of a master, but it also means ‘snake’. (Gr. ** ) which meaning the Talmud proceeds to discuss.

 [Y2]Lit., ‘all the arguments in the world

 [Y3]Lit., ‘blessed him,’ a euphemism for excommunication

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