The Mishnah deals with different cases of earthenware ovens and stoves and their susceptibility to tumah. One Mishnah (5:10) discussed two complex cases by name - the tanur (oven) of Achnai and the tanur of Ben Dinai. The commentaries explain that the former oven was named after the man who manufactured such ovens, while the latter was named after the thief who constructed these makeshift ovens.10 While providing historical detail is interesting, it is nonetheless odd that the Mishnah stated the name of the ovens after they were clearly described. Why?
The Gemara (Bava Metzia 59) asks “What is Achnai?” The Ben Yehoyada explains that the Gemara is asking precisely our question. Granted that Achnai produced such ovens, why did the Mishnah need to mention it? The Gemara explains that the oven was the subject of a fiery debate between R’ Eliezer and the Chachamim. The Chachamim surrounded him with arguments like an achna (snake) and decreed such ovens as tameh according to their opinion.
The Gemara then continues describing the debate. When the debate hit a deadlock, R’ Eliezer proceeded to summon miraculous events in order to support his case culminatinf in a Heavenly voice that appeared to indicate that he was correct.11 Nonetheless R’ Yehoshua overruled all these proofs by declaring that halachic rulings cannot be swayed by heavenly intervention as the Torah had decreed that the final ruling is decided by the majority human opinion.12 Later the Gemara recounts that Hashem smiled at that moment and said, “My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.”
Having explained why the Mishnah included the name Achnai, the commentaries also explain the inclusion of the name of the other oven – Ben Dinai. The Bartenura writes that this oven required the Chachamim to rule (danu) many laws (dinim harbe). The Tosfot Anshei Shem explain further that the derogatory name of Achnai was given to the first case, because R’ Eliezer did not concede defeat, while the more complimentary term Dinai was given to the second, as a resolution was reached.
The Tosfot Anshei Shem however cites a difficulty with this explanation. If that was the reason, then the second oven should have been referred to as “Dinai” and not “Ben Dinai”. The question is left as a difficulty.Based on the contrast in the naming one could suggest the following. The second case in which consensus was finally reached is referred to as “Ben Dinai”, with the word “ben” being a singular term, because it stresses the point that consensus was reached more clearly. The Chachamim reached a point where they were “like one man with one heart”.
With this we can perhaps offer a novel answer to another question. Why at the end of the episode with the tanur of Achnai did Hashem repeat “My sons have defeated Me”? Both times the word “sons”, a plural reference, is used. Perhaps the first reference is to the majority opinion that withstood the test of the miracles and ruled, consistent with the Torah dictum, according to the majority. The second reference is perhaps an allusion to the bitter-sweet conclusion. As the dust settled from the heated debate, R’ Eliezer did not concede, and they remained “banai” – two groups in conflict.
10 See the Mishnah for further details about their construction.
11 See the Gemara for more details. Also see, for example, the Maharsha and Ben Yehoyada who each explain the message contained in the miracles and how they supported his cause.
12 The Ben Yehoyada explains that it was to teach this fundamental lesson (that Chachamim will not react to any miracles when it involves overriding a Torah principle) that such miracles occurred.
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