Bava Metzia 59b says that at the end of the episode of the Oven of Akhnai, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus was excommunicated. (Apparently there's a makhloket about whether this was nidui or cherem.)

The question is, why was he excommunicated? It couldn't have been just for expressing his opinion, since the Mishnah is full of dissenting minority opinions. Was there something special about the nature of this dispute that warranted this sentence?

  • 1
    I'm going to be "that guy", but you realise that excommunication is a Catholic phenomenon? The term denotes an inability to accept communion, and is inappropriate for describing cherem (and nidui).
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 12:22
  • 4
    @ShimonbM it may be the influence of Christianity (l'havdil), but I hear the word "excommunicate" used for cherem a lot in Jewish circles. I wouldn't read more into it than that in this case. Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 15:52
  • @MonicaCellio I don't think he was implying that Jews who use it are actually closet Christians. He's saying we should pick a better word for our concepts, rather than one with unwanted connotations. This is something that is done for other words with Christian origin; I can't think of a good example off the top of my head right now.
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 17:22
  • @DoubleAA he was banned? Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 17:26
  • @ShmuelBrin Ban, ostracize, expel, segregate, exile, shun, banish,
    – Double AA
    Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 17:37

1 Answer 1



At the simplest level, he was acting in a manner akin to the zaken mamre or "rebellious elder" (Deuteronomy 17:12). As the Gemara in Sanhedrin explains, a member of the Sanhedrin is allowed, and encouraged, to express a dissenting opinion. However, once the Sanhedrin votes and his opinion is determined to be the minority, he may still:

  • Personally follow his minority opinion
  • Lecture to the public on the subject and conclude "so I'd say the sources look like my position is correct, however for practical ruling please consult the majority opinion."

He may not:

  • Give others practical ruling in according with his minority opinion.

Rabbi Eliezer wasn't excommunicated for saying "I think the oven is tahor", he was excommunicated because he couldn't acknowledge that he was outvoted here, and would have insisted on continuing to practically tell anyone who asked him that the oven is tahor. The oven happened to be what brought up the broader question of the halachic process. Keep in mind this was a tumultuous period in Jewish history, with all sorts of splinter groups and a great deal of confusion after the Second Temple was destroyed. Rabbinic Judaism was spared the split that you'd see between, say, Shiite and Sunni Islam, because minority views were acknowledged (and respected) but then for our faith to remain cohesive we picked the majority view and went on from there.

Personally I find this reading strong enough as is.


However, Rabbi Yosef Eliyahu Henkin z'l did in fact feel that this "oven" discussion was code for something larger, i.e.:

If the oven comes apart into pieces, Raban Gamliel felt it's still "whole", but Rabbi Eliezer insisted that it's "broken."


The Second Judean Commonwealth had come apart in the year 70. Raban Gamliel felt it could easily be reconnected, by taking up arms against the Romans; Rabbi Eliezer felt it had been fundamentally broken, and fighting the Romans was ill-advised.

His grandson, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Hekin shlit'a, questions this interpretation as conventional history has Raban Gamliel (and the general majority) accepting Roman rule, with those who would take arms (e.g. Bar Kochba) to be in the minority. Rabbi YH Henkin therefore suggests a slightly different interpretation. He starts by observing Rabbi Eliezer's opinion in Pesachim 9:2: if you are one step outside the Temple, halacha deems you "on a distant path." We therefore have:

If the oven comes apart into pieces, Raban Gamliel felt it's still "whole", but Rabbi Eliezer insisted that it's "broken."


If a Jew messes up and finds himself alienated from the mainstream, Raban Gamliel felt that he is still part of a whole that can be easily reconnected. Rabbi Eliezer says he's been fundamentally broken away.

This works nicely as we follow Raban Gamliel's more forgiving opinion. (Similar to R' Tzadok HaKohen's interpretation of the hagada's response to the wicked son: "the time for filtering out the Jewish population was the Exodus. But guess what? You were redeemed. So you're a part of us now, whether you identify with it or not.")

(Rabbi YH Henkin's interpretation, and that of his grandfather, are found on an mp3 of his on yutorah.org)

  • Any source for your first explanation?
    – msh210
    Commented Nov 17, 2013 at 17:01

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