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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

2 Answers 2

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
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:… – 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


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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