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This is part of a series of questions on the Gemara in Bechoros 8b-9a. Below is a summary of the relevant parts of the Gemara. After being challenged by Caesar, R' Yehoshua went to Athens to defeat the Athenian Elders in a battle of wits.


In the process of their debate, the following cases are brought up.

The Elders challenged R' Yehoshua to build a house in midair. R' Yehoshua said the Shem of Hashem and began levitating. "Bring me some bricks and mortar," he said, "and I'll do it." (The story doesn't make clear when, exactly, he dropped back down to Earth, but presumably he does eventually.)


Further down, the Elders ask him to bring a well from the desert into the city. "Bring me a rope of bran," he said, "and I'll do it."


The Elders finally ask R' Yehoshua to sew together a broken millstone. "Bring me threads of stone," he said, "and I'll do it."

In respect to the second case, with the well, Rashi says that "if you can fulfill my request (which you can't), I will fulfill yours."

Since R' Yehoshua uses a similar language in all three cases, I would assume that he meant the same by all of them. So how did he answer their challenge by saying that he won't? He's not fulfilling their challenge or saying that it's possible; all he's saying is that he'll do it when the impossible happens, which is essentially saying no in a dignified manner.

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The house in the air shows Rav Yehoshua's connection to the supernatural. Artscroll Bechoros 8b6 note 51 says

One would have expected such a feat to dispel, by itself, any doubts the Athenians may still have harbored regarding R' Yehoshua's capabilities. However, the issue at hand was whether the Jewish Sages were privy to Divine insight, while R' Yehoshua's ascent was a display of supernatural power rather than of supernatural wisdom.

His answer was to show them that they could not "build" such a building without being able to provide the necessary preparations. If the preparations are not possible, the the builder is not at fault for not completing the building (note 52 Maharal)

Maharsha describes this as an attempt by the elders to say that the Jews would never be able to return to a relationship with Hashem (build the temple) because Eretz Yisrael is under the control of the Romans and there is no place on Earth that hte Jews can call their own.

Rav Yehoshua showed that Hashem is accessible to all who cleave to him even "between the sky and the Earth". It is only the worshipers of idols who insist on concrete physical representations that cannot approach Hashem.

Maharal says that the Sages explain that the soul is separate from the body and continues after death. The Athenians held that both body and soul are destroyed by death.They argued that since the sage believe that a person is both a soul and a body then a person should be able to "dwell" in both realms. Since man is restricted to Earth, that proves it is not so.

Rav Yehoshua answered that since man has a bodily component, then that component prevents him from rising to his complete status. Man cannot raise the physical to existance "above the Earth".

According to Nezer Nitzachon, the Athenians denied creation ex nihilo. Rav Yehoshua answered, that Hashem created the universe, it is only man who must build from what already exists.

Rav Yehoshua demonstrated the internal contradiction inherent in the Athenian belief structure.

For although Aristotelian philosophy asserts the eternity of matter, it also holds that matter draws its existence from an immaterial First Cause. How, asked R' Yehoshua, if you cannot conceive of a "building in air", do you intend to elevate bricks to that selfsame air? How can matter, the fundamental "bricks" of which the world is built, emanate from a Cause completely immaterial?

The other answers are similar in that he is showing them that their assumptions about the universe are inherently flawed. Each of the "objects" that he requests has a deeper meaning involving the difference between the materiolistic philosophy of the Athenians and the spiritual philosophy of the Torah.

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  • I don't follow. Who said anything about building the Temple and redeeming the Jews? And how does it answer the question at hand - how did R' Yehoshua actually answer the Elders? – DonielF Aug 19 '16 at 3:59
  • @DonielF I added some more explanation. I cannot add more now. Take a look at the Art Scroll Bechoros for the answers in more detail. – sabbahillel Aug 19 '16 at 14:39

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