> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > Between the Lines

The Snake Oven

Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30 )

by Rabbi Abba Wagensberg

The three keys to spiritual success.

Greetings from the holy city of Jerusalem!

In this week's parsha (Deut. 30:12), we are told that the Torah "is not found in Heaven" (Lo BaShamayim Hee). The Talmud (Baba Metzia 59) relates a story that connects to this verse:

There was once a debate concerning the status of an oven's purity. It was dubbed the "Snake Oven," due to the amount of discussion 'coiled' around the topic, as a snake coils around its prey. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that the oven was pure, while the other Sages argued otherwise. To prove his viewpoint, Rabbi Eliezer said, "If the law is like me, let this carob tree prove it." The tree suddenly uprooted itself and flew about the length of a football field. The Sages, unimpressed, commented that a proof of Jewish law cannot be brought from a carob tree.

Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is like me, let this stream of water prove it," at which point the stream began to flow uphill, a truly miraculous event! Again, the Sages were unmoved and stated that Jewish law could not be verified through water. So Rabbi Eliezer continued, "If the law is like me, let the walls of this study hall prove it." Suddenly, the walls began to cave in.

Although the walls of the study hall caved inward out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer, they did not collapse completely, out of respect for Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sages, but remained at a tilt. The Sages stated that we do not bring proof for Jewish law through the walls of a Beit Midrash. And Rabbi Yehoshua, one of the Sages, exclaimed to the walls, "Why are you getting involved in a debate between the Sages?!"

With the Sages still not persuaded, Rabbi Eliezer called to Heaven to prove his opinion correct. Immediately, a heavenly voice (Bat Kol) rang out, "Why do you argue with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is like him at all times!" To protest, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and cited the verse in this week's portion, Lo Bashamayim Hee - [Torah] is not in Heaven." Since God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, at Mount Sinai, authority over Torah matters is here on Earth, not in Heaven!

Furthermore, since the Torah states (Exodus 23:2) that we are to rule according to the majority, that in itself is explicit proof that in the case of the oven the law was in accordance with the consensus of Sages.

Some time after this incident, Rabbi Nathan saw Elijah the Prophet and asked him how God had reacted at the conclusion of the "Snake Oven" debate. He responded that God had (metaphorically) smiled and said, "My children have been victorious over Me!"

Several questions arise concerning this story: If the first sign (the uprooted carob tree) that Rabbi Eliezer revealed did not impress the Sages, why did he continue to convey more? Surely the Sages were not interested in proof from signs. And why did Rabbi Eliezer choose these specific signs? What do these items symbolize?


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The Vilna Gaon explains that there are three keys to success in Torah:


  • Histap'kut - Sufficiency, that is being content with one's (material) lot.
  • Anivut - Humility.
  • Shkeida Raba - Diligence.


There are several sources where we learn of the importance of Histap'kut in acquiring Torah. For instance, the Talmud says (Avot 6:4) that "the way of Torah is eating bread with salt, drinking a measured amount of water, and sleeping on the ground" - in other words, where a person could handle, if necessary, a life where physical needs reach only the most basic level.

Furthermore, the Talmud (Brachot 17b) relates that every day a voice is heard from Mount Sinai, saying, "The whole world is sustained through the merit of My (God's) child, Chanina, who sustains himself on a measure of carob from one Shabbat to the next," implying that Rabbi Chanina's greatness was achieved by subsisting on a bare minimum.

This could be a reason why Mount Sinai is also referred to as Chorev (Exodus 33:6), as it has exactly the same letters as the word Charuv - carob. The way to acquire Torah, given at Chorev, is by being able to make do with a minimal amount of material comforts.

The second key which the Vilna Gaon mentions - humility - is derived from the Talmud (Ta'anit 7a, citing Isaiah 55:1) which compares the Torah to water. Just as water runs from high places and comes to rest in low places, so too Torah moves away from "high" or haughty people, and resides in "low," humble people. The importance of this attribute is emphasized in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) which states that the law is always like Hillel, who was known for his humility, as opposed to Shamai, even though the latter was intellectually superior.

The third key - diligence - is highlighted in the Talmud (Eruvin 21b-22a) which states that Torah is found among those who rise early and stay late in the study hall. Diligence in Torah necessitates dedicating much time and energy to it's study, and is of paramount importance for success in becoming a Torah scholar.

[We could suggest that these three keys are hinted at in the three blessings that we recite prior to studying Torah (see Brachot 11b). The first blessing, La'asok BeDivrei Torah - "to engage, or toil over the words of Torah," corresponds to the attribute of diligence, as much time, effort and dedication is required for success in this area. The second blessing, 'VeHa'arev Na', where we ask God to make the Torah sweet for us, refers to Histap'kut, as happiness and sweetness are achieved by means of being satisfied with one's material lot. Finally, the third blessing, 'Notein HaTorah', where we mention 'the One who gives us the Torah', corresponds to the trait of humility, as we humbly recognize that we do not take the Torah from God but rather, that God chooses to whom He gives the Torah. It is therefore fitting that prior to learning Torah, we recite these blessings, to remind us of the three ways to achieve success in our studies.]


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We can now understand the answer to the third question posed earlier, regarding why Rabbi Eliezer used the specific items of a carob tree, water and study hall as signs to verify his halachic decision, and why Rabbi Eliezer continued to bring more signs even after the Sages were unmoved by the first sign.

Through the carob tree (symbolizing Histap'kut), Rabbi Eliezer hinted to the Sages that he possessed the attribute of being content with his physical lot. He assumed that his acquisition of this key to Torah would serve as confirmation of his accurate understanding of the law. The Sages, however, were unimpressed, so Rabbi Eliezer thought to show his possession of the majority of keys to Torah. He therefore proceeded to the next sign, using water, which symbolizes humility, as a proof that he had also attained the second key to Torah.

Again, however, the Sages were not swayed, so Rabbi Eliezer realized that he must show that he has acquired all the keys to Torah. He therefore brought the third sign, where the walls of the study hall began to collapse, hinting that he possessed the attribute of diligence. Surely, after proving that he had acquired all three keys, the Sages would admit that his understanding of Halacha must be correct?

Finally, once Rabbi Eliezer realized that even all three keys would not impress the Sages, he called upon Heaven to verify his conclusion. A heavenly voice was heard, validating all of Rabbi Eliezer's halachic rulings, but Rabbi Yehoshua, still undeterred, promptly arose and exclaimed, Lo BaShamyim Hee - "Torah is not in Heaven!"

A Midrash helps us understand why even the voice from Heaven did not sway the Sages to accept Rabbi Eliezer's decision. The Midrash (Bereishit Raba 8:5) relates that when God wanted to create Man, some angels were in agreement, while others opposed the idea. This scenario is hinted to in Psalms 80:11 which says, "Kindness and Truth have met." The Midrash states that Chesed (kindness) went to God, as it were, and told Him to create Man because he will perform many good deeds. However, Emet (truth) claimed that Man will be filled with falsehood and should therefore not be created. God took Truth, says the Midrash, and cast it to Earth. (As it says in Daniel 8:12, "And it shall cast Truth to the ground," and in Psalms 85:12, "Truth grows from the ground.")

Why did Truth claim to God that Man was unworthy of being created? The Vilna Gaon suggests it was due to the fact that Man, with his limited intellectual capacity, would not have the ability to fully recognize Truth. Thus to circumvent this claim, God cast Truth to the Earth, enabling Man to access it - and thus worthy of being created!

The Vilna Gaon explains that Torah is the truth which God cast to Earth (Torat Emet - see Malachi 2:6). This is why Rabbi Yehoshua and the Sages, even after hearing the heavenly voice thundering that Rabbi Eliezer's conclusion is correct, were undeterred. They recognized that Truth, the will of God, lies not in Heaven, but here on Earth, with the word of God that was already handed to us at Mount Sinai, in the Torah.

We could suggest that is why God smiled and said, "My children have been victorious." In effect the oven incident was a test from God to see whether the Sages would concede under pressure from the signs (particularly the heavenly voice) and accept the validity of Rabbi Eliezer's ruling, or whether they would stand firm with the Truth of Torah. The Sages succeeded, and thus guaranteed the eternity of the Torah in the world, because the only way that Torah can be perpetuated down the generations is through the teachings of our Sages who hold the keys to the truth. (The words 'victory' and 'eternity' share the same root, netzach.)

The real bearers of Truth are those connected to Torah. Our tzaddikim individuals with fully refined characters and giants in Torah wisdom, hold the keys to the will of God. We must not doubt nor fear the decisions and advice of our Sages, but follow them wholeheartedly, as we are told in Deut. 17:11, because we recognize that it is they who know the truth.

And with this, may we all merit the keys to spiritual success!

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