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Authority In Israel

One of the areas in which even observant Jews sin is their attitude towards their rabbis. The rabbi is not just a man whom we have the right to hire and fire; he is not just a man who gives a speech on the Sabbath. He is a teacher and a leader. When he rules on a point of religious law, it is not only our right to listen to him; it is our obligation to do so.

Yet, so many of our people do not do this and treat the ruling of a rabbi with indifference. If only we realized that the Torah speaks to us only through the mouths of the rabbis, and that on this Earth, the rabbi is the sole spokesman and interpreter of Divine Law!

This is the essence of many a tale of Talmud. Even when we sincerely think we are right we are forbidden to go against the ruling of our rabbi in the community. This is the point of the following story.

The Student Who Obeyed

In the days following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin continued to function, and the voice of Torah was not stilled from the Land. In the yeshivas the students continued to learn, and great rabbis grew up in Israel.

The head of the Sanhedrin at that time was Rabban Gamliel. He was of the house of David and a learned and respected scholar. One year there arose a dispute about when Yom Kippur would fall. Since in those times, there was no fixed calendar, all such problems had to be decided by the Court. After analyzing the evidence and discussing the problem, Rabban Gamliel and the members of the Court decided that it would occur on a certain day.

When Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya heard this he was greatly disturbed, because according to his sincere opinion, the day came out on a different date. He checked and rechecked and was forced to come to the opinion that his calculation was correct and that of the majority wrong.

Rabban Gamliel Hears Of This

When Rabban Gamliel heard that Rabbi Yehoshua had ruled differently than the rest of the Court, he was greatly troubled:

“The majority of the Court,” he said, “has ruled that Yom Kippur shall fall on a certain day, and Rabbi Yehoshua differs with it? This will undermine the authority of the Court.”

He immediately sent a courier to Rabbi Yehoshua with the following message:

“I command you to come to me, carrying your money and your staff, on the day on which Yom Kippur falls, according to your calculation!”

Rabbi Yehoshua Perplexed

Rabbi Yehoshua received the message in stunned silence. How could he violate the sanctity of the holiest day of the year by carrying money and a staff on the day he knew to be Yom Kippur?

Rabbi Yehoshua did not know what to do. He finally decided to go to Rabbi Dosa and seek his advice.

“Tell me what to do,” asked Rabbi Yehoshua, “for I cannot bring myself either to defy the Court or to retreat from what I feel to be the truth.”

The Answer

Rabbi Dosa thought for a long moment and then answered:

“If we feel we can question the decision of the Court of Rabban Gamliel then we have the right to question the decisions of every Court from the days of Moses on.”

“The Court that exists is the only authority in Israel.”

When Rabbi Yehoshua heard this he knew what his answer must be. On the day that Rabbi Yehoshua calculated to be Yom Kippur, Rabban Gamliel looked up to see Rabbi Yehoshua standing before him with his moneybag and his staff. The eyes of Rabban Gamliel filled with tears as Rabbi Yehoshua said:

“My Master and Teacher, I have done what you have commanded.”

Rising to his feet, Rabban Gamliel kissed Rabbi Yehoshua and exclaimed:

“Come in peace, my master and student! My master – in wisdom; my student – that you have obeyed my words. Happy is the generation when the great obey the small.”

Not In Heaven…

The struggle for the supremacy of the Rabbinate and of its majority vote was one that Rabban Gamliel fought for all his life. Perhaps his most difficult moment came when a dispute arose between the Court and Rabbi Eliezer Ben Horkanos.

Rabbi Eliezer was known as one of the greatest of the rabbis, and in the dispute he brought many proofs to corroborate his position. Nevertheless, the majority of the rabbis continued to hold to their opposite position. Seeing this, Rabbi Eliezer rose and declared:

“If I am correct let this tree bring proof!”

Before the eyes of all those assembled the tree uprooted itself and flew through the air for a distance of 400 cubits.

But the rabbis merely shook their heads and said:

“We do not bring proof from the tree.”

More Proofs

Rabbi Eliezer thereupon declared:

“If so, let this stream of water be my proof.”
And once again, a strange thing happened, and the waters began to bubble and the stream flowed backwards.

But again the rabbis only said: “We do not bring proof from a stream of water.”

Rabbi Eliezer stood on his feet and pointing to the walls of the House of Study, he cried out,
“Let these walls of the House of Study be my proof.”

Immediately the walls began to tremble and quake, and it appeared as if they would topple to the ground. Seeing this, Rabbi Yehoshua leaped to his feet and called out to the walls:

“If scholars are immersed in a halachic discourse, how do you dare inject yourselves into the dispute?”

And so, the walls ceased to shake and in deference to both Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, they neither fell nor stood straight but remained inclined.

From Heaven

Rabbi Eliezer now faced the rabbis and said:

If all these proofs are not enough for you, let Heaven itself prove my position.”

No sooner had he finished speaking than a voice from Heaven cried out:

“Do not differ with Rabbi Eliezer, for the law is as he says.”

But not even this could help Rabbi Eliezer. Once again Rabbi Yehoshua rose and looking to Heaven said:

“We cannot listen to a voice from Heaven. The Torah is not in Heaven. It was given to us at Sinai and in it was declared: ‘After the majority shall you go.’”

“We cannot allow a minority to defy the rule of the many. This would doom the Torah.”

And so the rabbis decided, for the unity of the Torah, that Rabbi Eliezer who refused to obey the will of the majority, would be placed under the ban.

The Storm

As Rabbi Eliezer was under the ban, Rabban Gamliel boarded a ship for a voyage on the sea. Swiftly, the sky darkened and the waves lashed at the tiny craft. It appeared certain that the ship was doomed and that in only a matter of minutes she would go under with all aboard.

Rabban Gamliel, seeking the danger said to himself: “It must be that all this is because of Rabbi Eliezer.

Raising his eyes to Heaven he spoke:

“Sovereign of the Universe! It is known to you that all that I have done is not because of personal honor or for the honor of my father’s house. Rather it was done only for Your honor – that there not multiply differences and divisions in Israel.”

Hearing this, the Almighty commanded the sea to calm its wrath. Such is the importance of proper authority in Israel.


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