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Eiruvin 13b recounts an argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai. The argument grew very heated until a bat kol intervened and stated the famous line elu v'elu divrei elohim chayim ("These and also those are the words of the living God"). But then the bat kol concluded v'hahalacha k'veit Hillel ("And the halacha is according to beit Hillel").

The bat kol seems to settle the dispute; however, we learned in the story of the Oven of Akhnai (Bava Metzia 59b) that we don't listen to a bat kol to settle halachic disputes because the Torah is lo bashamayim hi ("The Torah is not in heaven").

So why was the bat kol able to settle this dispute?

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The Batei Hillel/Shammai bat kol was able to convince its listeners and the Akhnai bat kol was not. Lo bashamayim hi - if the rabbeim are not convinced, it's irrelevant, but if they are convinced, it is relevant. The takeaway - diplomacy and tact matter. – Charles Koppelman Jul 29 '13 at 16:16
    
@CharlesKoppelman Can you prove that? Just saying that the halacha is according to Hillel doesn't seem that convincing. Especially immediately after elu v'elu... – Daniel Jul 29 '13 at 16:26
    
@Daniel I can't prove it with sources (hence this is a comment, not an answer). But it seems like it was convincing enough to settle the dispute - at least for the Amoraim who wrote the story. – Charles Koppelman Jul 29 '13 at 17:00
    
@CharlesKoppelman I think your argument is circular. – Daniel Jan 12 at 17:38

Tosafot in Yevamot 14a (d"h R. Yehoshua) asks precisely this question. Tosafot answers we don't generally follow the ruling of R. Yehoshua that holds we don't listen to a bat kol. Tosafot goes on to explain that by the Oven of Achnoi everyone agreed not to listen to the bat kol since it was only for the honor of R. Elazar who stated "From the heavens it shall be prooven I am right". Tosafot also says that by the oven the bat kol was also against the majority and the halakha always follows the majority. However by Bait Shammai the bat kol said to follow the majority (however without the bat kol we would be unsure, since Bait shammai were sharper).

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So when do we follow a bat kol and when don't we? If we only follow a bat kol when it is according to the majority, then that means that we don't really hold by it at all because the halacha should always be according to the majority. – Daniel Jul 29 '13 at 20:44
    
@Daniel Well we are unsure if the halacha is like the majority if the minority is sharper. That was clarified by a bat kol – chacham Jul 29 '13 at 20:50
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Doesn't that seem to be the case by the oven of Achnai? R' Eliezer definitely seems to be the sharper one. In fact, R' Eliezer is from beit Shammai. – Daniel Jul 29 '13 at 21:00
    
maybe there is a difference by a majority against one person than a majority against a smaller group – chacham Jul 29 '13 at 21:36
    
See Etz Joseph: judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/27325/… – Baby Seal May 20 '14 at 1:26

I heard an answer to this when I was learning Yevamos, which went as follows:

The rule of lo bashamayim applies to deciding matters of halacha. However, it does not apply to clarifying facts. Thus the Gemara in Shabbos 108a (with Rashi):

בעא מיניה מר בריה דרבינא מרב נחמן בר יצחק מהו לכתוב תפילין על גבי עור של דג טהור א"ל אם יבא אליהו ויאמר מאי אם יבא אליהו ויאמר אילימא אי דאית ליה עור אי דלית ליה עור הא חזינן דאית ליה עור ועוד התנן עצמות הדג ועורו מצילין באהל המת אלא אם יבא אליהו ויאמר אי פסקא זוהמא מיניה אי לא פסקא זוהמא מיניה

Rashi:

מאי אם יבא אליהו ויאמר - היתר ואיסור אין תלוי בו דלא בשמים היא

(My paraphrasing):

Mar Son of Ravina: Can we write tefillin on fish skin?

R' Nachman: When Eliyahu comes, he will tell us.

Gemara (or perhaps Mar): What does it mean Eliyahu will tell us?

Rashi: He can't tell us prohibitions or allowances! Lo Bashamayim!

Gemara (or perhaps R' Nachman): He will tell us if its filthiness dissipates.

So after just asking "How can he tell us halacha!" the gemara seems to answer how he will tell us the halacha. The resolution is, as stated, that he cannot give a halachic decision, but he could clarify the facts that lead to a halachic decision.

So, too, in the dispute between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, they knew that acharei rabim lehatos, and they understood that to mean to follow the weight of opinion, which is most likely to yield the correct answer. But they were unsure if sharper minds would more likely yield correct answers, or a greater convention of minds, which would provide more variety of viewpoints and discussion. Therefore, the Heavenly voice was, in actuality, only clarifying their doubt of a fact-based dispute, which automatically led to the conclusion that the halacha followed Beis Hillel.

(There is an acharon who says all this, but I don't remember who it was)

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The Encyclopedia Talmudit entry on “Bas Qol”, the paragraph about its impact on halachah focuses on the apparent conflict between the conclusion one would get from the Tanur Akhnai story and from the one about following Beis Hillel. A summary of resolutions:

1- Rav Nissim Gaon (Berachos 19a), opinion I: The bas qol said “halachah k’moso b’chol makom”. As a general rule, the halachah is like R’ Eliezer, but not here. The halachic conclusion does not contradict the bas qol, and it’s even possible that the bas qol caused them to reach their decision.

2- Ibid, opinion II: The bas qol was only a test for the sages. Again, normally bas qol would indeed have halachic say.

3- Tosfos (Eiruvin 6b) I: The bas qol was only for the kavod of R’ Eliezer, who called down the opinion of Shamayim. bas qol does NOT have halachic authority.

It seems to me #3 is only possible (assuming that G-d doesn’t lie) by saying that R’ Eliezer and R’ Yehoshua were in an eilu va’eilu situation — both were right. Therefore, to show R’ Eliezer respect, G-d asserts that R Eliezer isn’t wrong even though the halachah is like R’ Yehoshua. In short, exactly the same point made by the Beis Hillel vs Beis Shammai story.

4- Tosfos II: There is a difference between whether the bas qol runs counter to metahalachah (normal halachic process), or in accordance with it. Bas qol can confirm a ruling, but not run counter to normal halachic process.

Metahalachically (i.e. in terms of the halakhos about how to make halakhah), we follow Beis Hillel because they are the majority. The bas qol only confirms that fact.

(Why did it need confirmation? I would conjecture that this is because this is the first generation that the Sanhedrin was in exile from the Temple, and because Beis Shammai were generally considered the sharper group. Therefore there was a crisis in confidence in rejecting Beis Shammai’s opinion without the conclusion coming from the Chamber of Hewn Wood.)

5- Or Samei’ach (Yesodei HaTorah 9:4): There is a distinction between whether the bas qol is clarifying a particular halachah and whether it speaks of a person’s ruling. In the first case, bas qol is certainly not followed — metahalachah is the G-d-given means of creating new halachah. (cf Temurah 16:1, where the prophet Yehoshua refuses to retrieve lost halachos via prophecy.) In the second, we do follow Beis Hillel, as per the bas qol. (Although R’ Yehoshua disagreed about this use of bas qol as well.)

No. 5 appears to be nearly identical to #4, but with the added statement that given two true answers (speaking of one of two extant rulings), i.e. metahalachah allows one to follow either, a bas qol can be followed. His conclusion is that even had Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai been of equal number, the halakhah would still be like Beis Hillel.

In short, Rav Nissim Gaon gives authority to bas qol to override halachic process, and the Achnai story’s bas qol is a special case for two different reasons. Tosafos and the Or Sameiach agree that bas qol has less authority than metahalachah, and possibly even no halachic say at all. And it is their opinion that one finds again and again in later sources.

(In general, the geonim had an understanding of halachic truth and of machloqes that none of the rishonim continued with. This may be a consequence. See R' Moshe Halbtertal's "The History of Halakhah, Views from Within: Three Medieval Approaches to Tradition and Controversy")

In either case it’s a question of whether one follows pre-existing rules for making halachic decisions despite supernatural evidence. It’s support for the notion of meta-halakhah, not for arbitrary leeway in making decisions.

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