Eliezer ben Hurkanis – Part II
Rabbi Yaacov Haber
When Yochonon ben Zakai asked Vespatian for “Yavne ve Chachemecha”, it represented a paradigm shift from the world of the Bais Hamikdosh to the world of the Chachomim.  Ever since Har Sinai, the Jewish people relied on a direct connection to Shamayim.  First there was revelation at Har Sinai, and then there was also Navua and Ruach Hakodesh.  But when the Bais Hamikdosh was destroyed, all this stopped and there was a Homat of Barzel, a wall of iron, separating us from Shamayim. 
The Gemorah says that Yochonon ben Zakai saw this transition coming, even before the  destruction of the Bais Hamikdosh, and that he was ‘mesapek’ - ‘awaiting it’.  This loshon implies that he was ready for the transition to get underway. I can’t overemphasis how major this paradigm shift was.  For over a thousand years, the Jews based their understanding of Halachah on communication with Shamayim through revelation, navuah, and ruach hakodesh – it was top to down communication – and that was about to end.  Even though Navuah itself had ended towards the beginning of the second Temple, there was still Ruach Hakodesh during the Second Bais Hamikdosh. Yochanon ben Zakai understood that the task of the Chochomim at Yavneh was to create a new paradigm – a bottom to top Judaism, where they would use the 13 Hermenuetical principals – given to Moshe at Har Sinai - to re-create Halachah in a post-Bais Hamikdosh world. 
Eliezer ben Hurkanis had spent his life committing to memory the Mesorah, and as the Mishnah says, he was like a cistern that didn’t lose a drop.  Because he could remember all of Halachah, he felt that this transition was not necessary at this point. The Chochomim could just come to him, and ask him what the Halachah was, since he could remember it from the Mesorah that had been passed down from generation to generation.  Pirkei Avos tells us exactly through whom the Mesorah had been passed down, and Eliezer felt we should continue using just the Mesorah since he remembered it all. Remember that Pirkei Avos says, before it’s challenged by Abba Shaul, that on a scale Eliezer would outweigh the other four top students of Yochanon ben Zakai.
The Mishnah in Yadaim deals with Tumah and Taharah.  One of the Mishnahs tells us that one of the Chochomim, Reb Yossi of Damascus, was going to Lud where Eliezer ben Hurkanis lived.  One version says that they met in Eliezer’s house, the other says that they met in the bakery.  Eliezer asked, “What Chidushim have you been coming up with in Yavne.”  It was a trick question, one might even say a cynical question.  But Reb Yossi fell for it and said, “We were discussing whether the Jewish farmers in Moav have to give Maaser Rishon, Maaser Shayni, and Maaser Ani as those do in Eretz Yisroel.  We discussed this subject, and voted that they do have to give the Maaser.”  Moav is what we now call Jordan, and after the Churban Jews moved to Jordan, Bavel, and beyond, and various questions had arisen. By the way, some Jews had also remained in Yerushalayim, and though the Bais Hamikdosh had been destroyed, the Mizbeach itself had not been destroyed, and they had continued to offer the Korben Pesach every year, and possibly other Korbonos.  So the Chomamim of Yavne had voted, had been involved with parliamentary procedure.  Eliezer replied, “Give up with your hands and cry your eyes out, because those who know (meaning himself) know that the answer you came up with is correct.”  In other words, why go through discussions and votes, when I actually have the correct Mesorah.  The Gemorah in Chagigah, which is the Gemorah on Yadaim, because Yadaim itself doesn’t doesn’t have its own Gemorah, says that Reb Yossi did what Eliezer told him to do – he cried his eyes out until he became temporarily blind – but his eyesight came back. 
Eliezer didn’t agree with what they were doing in Yavne.  Why discuss and vote, when he knows the Mesorah – they could just ask him.
The famous Gemorah in Baba Matsia describes when this came to a head.  In Yavne they were discussing whether a certain oven can be Tomay or not.  It was a Tanur that is made from coils of clay, it’s called a ‘snake tanur’ because it resembled coils of a snake.  Eliezer claimed that such a tanur should be considered attached to the ground, and so could not mekabel Tumah.  He was Makel, which is important to emphasize since we associate Bais Shamai – who Eliezer had been moving towards – as  more Machmir.  The Chochomim said that this oven cannot be considered as attached to the ground, and was Cheres, earthenware, and therefore was not only Tomay, but could not become Tahar and had to be destroyed.  They took a vote, and the Chochomim won, saying that all such ovens were tomay.
Eliezer said, “But I know that I am right – I know the Mesorah.  If I am right, led the Carob tree become uprooted and fly 100 feet, some say 400 feet.”  The Carob tree actually became uprooted, and traveled through the air.  The Chochomim were not impressed – it’s a nice trick, but we don’t paskin by Carob trees. Eliezer then said, “If I’m right, let the stream outside flow upstream, in its reverse direction.”  It did, but the Chochomim said that we don’t paskin by streams.  Then it became more personal.  Eliezer said, “If I’m right, let the walls of the Bais Medresh collapse.”  The walls started tilting in, moving close to collapsing.  This was the main Bais Medresh in Yavne, and this is where they were learning and discussing – and Eliezer was in effect saying let your Bais Medresh be destroyed. 
Reb Yehoshua then got up.  Reb Yoshua was another of Yochonon ben Zakai’s main main talmidim.  Reb Yohushua spoke to the walls, and said, stop, don’t cave in, we need this Bais Medresh.  The Gemorah says that the walls stopped caving in for the coved of Reb Yehoshua, but they remained slanted out of the coved of Eliezer. Eliezer then said, “If I am right, let a Bas Kol come and say so”, and a Bas Kol said that Eliezer was right.  But the Chomomim said, we don’t paskin by Bas Kols, Torah Lo be Shamayim He, the Torah is not in Heaven.  The Gemorah then says that based on their vote, on that day the Chomomim destroyed all the ovens that Eliezer had paskined had been Tahir.
The Gemorah then says that one of Chochomim met Eliyahu and asked what Hashem was doing during this episode.  Eliyahu said, Hashem was laughing, and said, “My children have bested me, My children have bested me.”  In other words, even Hashem agreed that Eliezer had been right, but that he is ready to change the Halachah in accordance with the Chachamim.  This is because Hashem understood that without the Bais Hamikdosh and without Ruach Hakodesh, the rules had to change, and Halachah had to be decided and recreated by the 13 Hermeneutical principles, and then by voting. 
The Chochomim then decided that Eliezer had gone too far, and they voted to put him in Cherem.  But then the question was, who would tell him.  Rabbi Akiva volunteered to go.  When Rabbi Akiva told him, Rabbi Eliezer said, “But I know the Halachah, I know the Mesorah.”  After Eliezer was told, the Gemorra says that the earth started shaking.  Rabbi Shimon Gamliel happened to be a sea, and a storm arose threatening to capsize the boat.  So Rabbi Shimon Gamliel stood on the boat, and said that the storm should calm down, and it did.  So we see that Eliezer’s powers extended beyond just threatening the walls of the Bais Medresh of Yavne.
Another Gemorah, that we mentioned previously, describes how Rabbi Akiva and other students of Eliezer came to Eliezer when he was dying.  I want to emphasize Eliezer had been Rabbi Akiva’s Rebbe, that Rabbi Akiva had learned under Eliezer for 13 years and had taught him so much of what he knew.  Rabbi Akiva sat four amos away because Eliezer was still in Cherem.  Eliezer asked, why didn’t you come before?  They answered, we didn’t had the time. 
This was not a good answer.  This reminds me of when I was in Rabbi Sheinberg’s Yeshiva as a bochur, and I was engaged and preparing for my wedding.  Some of the preparation meant taking time off, sometimes even a day away from the Yeshiva.  Rabbi Sheinberg’s seat was at the entrance, and when you entered you had to pass his table.  One time after I had taken a day off, I tried to come in quickly, and felt a strong arm pulling me back.  Rabbi Sheinberg asked, Where were you yesterday?  I said, I had something to do.  This was not a good answer.  He replied, “You mean you only come to Yeshiva when you have nothing to do?”
Rabbi Eliezer told the Chochomim who had come to visit him as he was dying, that they would all die horrible deaths.  And Rabbi Akiva asked, what about me, and Eliezer said that his death would be the worst.  This all came true, and the Gemorah is implying that it’s because of what Eliezer said.  Eliezer said, “I know 300 ways to make a pin Tahar, and you didn’t ask me.” The Gemorah then says that as Eliezer was about to die, Rabbi Akiva took his arms and placed them over his heart, like winding up and closing a Sefer Torah. 
An important Gemorah in Nidah 7 says that after Eliezer was Nifter, Rabbi Yehoshua decided that the Halachah could now be changed in accord with Eliezer.  After all, he had been right.  But they couldn’t make the Halachah in accord with him while he was alive, because it was more important to follow a system that had to be used now that direct connection to Shamayam was gone.  This was even more important than actually being right, it was a higher form of being right.
These are not my Chidushim.  This is all said by Rabbi Tzodok in different places, unless someone has put them together and put them in one place.
We were entering a period of Golus – of Golus and more Golus – periods of pogroms and holocausts.  And we couldn’t just rely on people who had memorized the Mesorah, because they would die out.  We had to rely on a system of recreating and rediscovering the Halacah through the 13 Heremeneutical principles, and then voting.  As I said, this was even more important than being right.  We even see that Hashem was willing to change the Halacahah in accordance with this system.  Because in a period of Golus, post Bais Hamikdosh and post Navuah and Ruach Hakodesh, there was no alternative to having this system.  And even though the top-down Kedushah of the Bais Hamikdosh gives us more Kedushah – and that is what we pray for every day to be restored – the bottom up Kedushah that we generate ourselves through Limad Hatorah, in a certain sense, is a higher level of Kedushah.