Wednesday, March 08, 2006

"Like a Broken Potsherd": The Inspirational Lesson of the תנור של עכנאי

Please read this post in its entirety.
Even if you find it long; even if you find it complex; even if you are ideologically opposed to studying Talmud.
Even if you hate me but especially if you love me.
Please read it because it speaks to each and every one of us - most of all, to myself - about life, about suffering, about how to create a stable future out of a broken past.
For this is the secret of the most famous vessel in all of ש"ס, the תנור של עכנאי - the Achnai oven.

Every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in the ונתנה תקף prayer, we read a chilling passage contrasting ephemeral man to eternal God:

אדם יסודו מעפר וסופר לעפר בנפשו יביא לחמו. משול כחרס הנשבר, כחציר יבש וכציץ נובל,וכצל עובר, וכענן כלה, וכרוח נושבת, וכאבק פורח, וכחלום יעוף. ואתה הוא מלך, אל חי וקיים.
Among other things, man is compared to "a broken potsherd." What is the meaning of this symbolism? How exactly is man like a shattered piece of clay?

From the context (dried grain; withered buds; passing shadows, floating dust, fleeting dreams) we extrapolate the theme of TRANSIENCE. It seems that man has only one chance in this world. If he wastes it, that's it. His time is up.

Further basis for this interpretation of TRANSIENCE is found in the Biblical source for the "broken potsherd" metaphor, Jeremiah chapter 19:
א כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, הָלֹךְ וְקָנִיתָ בַקְבֻּק יוֹצֵר חָרֶשׂ; וּמִזִּקְנֵי הָעָם, וּמִזִּקְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים. י וְשָׁבַרְתָּ, הַבַּקְבֻּק--לְעֵינֵי, הָאֲנָשִׁים, הַהֹלְכִים, אוֹתָךְ. יא וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם כֹּה-אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, כָּכָה אֶשְׁבֹּר אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה וְאֶת-הָעִיר הַזֹּאת, כַּאֲשֶׁר יִשְׁבֹּר אֶת-כְּלִי הַיּוֹצֵר, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יוּכַל לְהֵרָפֵה עוֹד; וּבְתֹפֶת יִקְבְּרוּ, מֵאֵין מָקוֹם לִקְבּוֹר.

1 Thus said the LORD: Go, and get a potter's earthen bottle, and take of the elders of the people, and of the elders of the priests; 10 Then shalt thou break the bottle in the sight of the men that go with thee, 11 and shalt say unto them: Thus saith the LORD of hosts: Even so will I break this people and this city, as one breaketh a potter's vessel, that cannot be made whole again; and they shall bury in Topheth, for want of room to bury.

Once again: when a potter's vessel is broken, it can no longer be put back together. Period.

The halacha also codifies this characteristic transience of earthenware vessels. As the mishna teaches, in Kelim 2:1:
ב,א כלי עץ, כלי עור, כלי עצם, וכלי זכוכית--פשוטיהן טהורין, ומקבליהן טמאין. נשברו, טהרו; חזר ועשה מהן כלים, מקבלין טומאה מכאן ולהבא. כלי חרס וכלי נתר, טומאתן שווה--מיטמאין ומטמאין באוויר, ומטמאין מאחוריהן, ואינן מיטמאין מגביהן, ושבירתן היא טהרתן.

All standard vessels - whether wooden, leather, bone, or glass - can be reconstituted into new vessels after they are broken. And once they are reconstituted, they become new vessels, and are susceptible to ritual defilement once again. [A metal vessel even retains its original defilement when it is remolded into a new vessel.] However, for an earthenware vessel, שבירתן היא טהרתן. Once you shatter it, it is no longer susceptible to impurity, no matter how carefully you try to glue it together.

The mishna in כלים ג/ג establishes this point explicitly:
ג,ג חבית שניקבה, ועשאה בזפת, ונשברה--אם יש במקום הזפת מחזיק רביעית--טמאה, מפני שלא בטל שם כלי מעליה; חרס שניקב, ועשאו בזפת--אף על פי שהוא מחזיק רביעית--טהור, מפני שבטל שם כלי

"If a clay pot received a hole, and a person plugged it with pitch - even if the vessel holds a quarter-measure, it is ritually pure, since the status of 'vessel' has been nullified in it."

All of which brings us to the one earthenware vessel in the entire מסכת which inexplicably counters this ironclad principle: The Achnai oven.
What is the תנור של עכנאי? And why did such a strident, defiant, earthshattering argument arise about it, such that this oven became the symbol of the entire rabbinic tradition?

The mishna in כלים ה/י teaches:
ה,י חתכו חוליות, ונתן חול בין חוליה לחוליה--רבי אליעזר מטהר, וחכמים מטמאין. זה תנורו של עכנאי. יורת הערביים שהוא חופר בארץ וטח בטיט--אם יכול הטיט לעמוד בפני עצמו, טמא; ואם לאו, טהור. זה תנורו של בן דינאי.

According to the basic law (found in כלים ה/א), an oven becomes susceptible to impurity only if it is four hand-breadths tall.
In this case, a person took earthenware cylinders that were less than four hand-breadths tall, stuck sand in between, and lathered on a great deal of plaster on the inside and outside, so that it looked and functioned like a regular oven. Should it be susceptible to impurity? R. Eliezer says no; the sages say yes.

At first glance, R. Eliezer seems right. He HAS to be correct. We embrace our fundamental principle - once a shattered vessel, always a shattered vessel! A person can simply not construct a viable earthenware vessel out of the ruins.

The רמב"ם, in his explanation of this law (כלים טז/ה-ח), strengthens the question on the sages by expanding the law of the Achnai oven to ANY CASE in which a person makes an oven out of shattered pottery. They don't even need to be regular cylinders. He writes:

ז] המביא שברי כלי חרס, ודיבקן זה בזה ועשין תנור, ועשה לו טפילה מבפנים ומבחוץ, והסיקו--הרי זה מקבל טומאה, אף על פי שאין בכל חרס מהן כשיעור.
ח] פיטס שקירזלו, ועשהו תנור, ועשה לו טפילה מבחוץ--אף על פי שמקבל על דופנותיו כשיעור, הרי זה טהור: שכלי חרס שטהר, אין לו טומאה לעולם, אלא אם כן עשהו תנור, ועשה לו טפילה מבפנים ומבחוץ.

"If a person brings shattered earthenware vessels, and glues them together into an oven and plasters inside and out, and fires it - it becomes susceptible to impurity, even though none of the pieces has the appropriate dimensions. ... Any earthenware vessel which became pure, never becomes impure again - unless he made it into an oven, and lathered on plaster outside and inside."
Why? How do we explain the sages?

I believe that חכמים were sensitive to the comparison between man and the potter's handiwork. משול כחרש הנשבר. They intuitively understood: There must be some way to rehabilitate a broken man. It may take a great deal of effort. It may take layering on with scabs and wrinkles and scars. It may require the covering of the sharp, painful edges with a plaster so thick that nobody will know that the jagged edges are still present beneath the surface. But it must be possible, in at least one theoretical case. And this is the secret of the תנור של עכנאי. By becoming newly טמא, it allows for the shattered man the possibility of redemption.

The tragedy of R. Eliezer is that he adopted for himself his own stance about the Achnai oven. After the grand dispute concerning the תנור של עכנאי, in which the sages ultimately overruled R. Eliezer, R. Eliezer was excommunicated. In a day, he lost everything. His reputation, his career - were shattered, like the proverbial earthenware vessel.

What did R. Eliezer do about it? Did he attempt to put the pieces together, to build a new oven - and a new life? No. He brooded. He vented. And he destroyed. As the Talmud records (Bava Metzia 59b):

Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.8 Said they, 'Who shall go and inform him?' 'I will go,' answered R. Akiba, 'lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy the whole world.'9 What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black,10 and sat at a distance of four cubits from him. 'Akiba,' said R. Eliezer to him, 'what has particularly happened to-day?'11 'Master,' he replied, 'it appears to me that thy companions hold aloof from thee.' Thereupon he too rent his garments, put off his shoes, removed [his seat] and sat on the earth, whilst tears streamed from his eyes.12 The world was then smitten: a third of the olive crop, a third of the wheat, and a third of the barley crop. Some say, the dough in women's hands swelled up.
A Tanna taught: Great was the calamity that befell that day, for everything at which R. Eliezer cast his eyes was burned up.
R. Gamaliel
13 too was travelling in a ship, when a huge wave arose to drown him. 'It appears to me,' he reflected, 'that this is on account of none other but R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus.' Thereupon he arose and exclaimed, 'Sovereign of the Universe! Thou knowest full well that I have not acted for my honour, nor for the honour of my paternal house, but for Thine, so that strife may not multiply in Israel! 'At that the raging sea subsided.

All the way until his death, R. Eliezer lived an isolated, angry, and broken existence. The talmud in Sanhedrin 68a recounts the final moments of R. Eliezer's life:

When R. Eliezer fell sick, R. Akiba and his companions went to visit him. ... 'Why have ye come?' said he to them. 'To study the Torah', they replied; 'And why did ye not come before now', he asked? They answered, 'We had no time'. He then said, 'I will be surprised if these die a natural death'. R. Akiba asked him, 'And what will my death be?' and he answered, 'Yours will be more cruel than theirs'. ... His visitors then asked him, 'What is the law of a ball, a shoemaker's last, an amulet, a leather bag containing pearls, and a small weight?'10 He replied, 'They can become unclean, and if unclean, they are restored to their uncleanliness just as they are.'11 Then they asked him, 'What of a shoe that is on the last?'12 He replied, 'It is clean;' and in pronouncing this word his soul departed. Then R. Joshua arose and exclaimed, 'The vow is annulled, the vow is annulled!'13

Is this baseball susceptible to contracting impurity?

Right up to the end, R. Eliezer maintained his idiosyncratic disputes with the
sages in the laws of vessels. A baseball - that is, a leather vessel with a permanently filled core - is still impure! [Thank goodness for the position of the sages! :)] And so he died - a broken potsherd.

There is a biblical parallel to the singular rehabilitation of man against all odds, despite the most dire of circumstances. It is found in the book of Job. [Jameel, are you paying attention?] Job had been beaten down. He was so much like a shattered piece of pottery, that he even took for himself potsherds to scratch his boils (Job 2:8). All his friends blamed him for his problems, attempting to convince him that he had no recourse, no alternative, no future. But suddenly אליהוא בן ברכאל הבוזי ממשפחת רם comes in, and provides the authentic Torah perspective on suffering. Though the Hebrew is difficult, it is too beautiful to pass up. The English will follow.

טו בַּחֲלוֹם, חֶזְיוֹן לַיְלָה--בִּנְפֹל תַּרְדֵּמָה, עַל-אֲנָשִׁים; בִּתְנוּמוֹת, עֲלֵי מִשְׁכָּב.טז אָז יִגְלֶה, אֹזֶן אֲנָשִׁים; וּבְמֹסָרָם יַחְתֹּם.יז לְהָסִיר, אָדָם מַעֲשֶׂה; וְגֵוָה מִגֶּבֶר יְכַסֶּה.יח יַחְשֹׂךְ נַפְשׁוֹ, מִנִּי-שָׁחַת; וְחַיָּתוֹ, מֵעֲבֹר בַּשָּׁלַח.יט וְהוּכַח בְּמַכְאוֹב, עַל-מִשְׁכָּבוֹ; וריב (וְרוֹב) עֲצָמָיו אֵתָן.כ וְזִהֲמַתּוּ חַיָּתוֹ לָחֶם; וְנַפְשׁוֹ, מַאֲכַל תַּאֲוָה.כא יִכֶל בְּשָׂרוֹ מֵרֹאִי; ושפי (וְשֻׁפּוּ) עַצְמֹתָיו, לֹא רֻאּוּ.כב וַתִּקְרַב לַשַּׁחַת נַפְשׁוֹ; וְחַיָּתוֹ, לַמְמִתִים.כג אִם-יֵשׁ עָלָיו, מַלְאָךְ--מֵלִיץ, אֶחָד מִנִּי-אָלֶף: לְהַגִּיד לְאָדָם יָשְׁרוֹ.כד וַיְחֻנֶּנּוּ--וַיֹּאמֶר, פְּדָעֵהוּ מֵרֶדֶת שָׁחַת; מָצָאתִי כֹפֶר.כה רֻטְפַשׁ בְּשָׂרוֹ מִנֹּעַר; יָשׁוּב, לִימֵי עֲלוּמָיו.כו יֶעְתַּר אֶל-אֱלוֹהַּ, וַיִּרְצֵהוּ, וַיַּרְא פָּנָיו, בִּתְרוּעָה;וַיָּשֶׁב לֶאֱנוֹשׁ, צִדְקָתוֹ.כז יָשֹׁר, עַל-אֲנָשִׁים, וַיֹּאמֶר, חָטָאתִי וְיָשָׁר הֶעֱוֵיתִי; וְלֹא-שָׁוָה לִי.כח פָּדָה נפשי (נַפְשׁוֹ), מֵעֲבֹר בַּשָּׁחַת; וחיתי (וְחַיָּתוֹ), בָּאוֹר תִּרְאֶה.כט הֶן-כָּל-אֵלֶּה, יִפְעַל-אֵל-- פַּעֲמַיִם שָׁלוֹשׁ עִם-גָּבֶר.ל לְהָשִׁיב נַפְשׁוֹ, מִנִּי-שָׁחַת-- לֵאוֹר, בְּאוֹר הַחַיִּים.לא הַקְשֵׁב אִיּוֹב שְׁמַע-לִי; הַחֲרֵשׁ, וְאָנֹכִי אֲדַבֵּר.לב אִם-יֵשׁ-מִלִּין הֲשִׁיבֵנִי; דַּבֵּר, כִּי-חָפַצְתִּי צַדְּקֶךָּ.לג אִם-אַיִן, אַתָּה שְׁמַע-לִי;
הַחֲרֵשׁ, וַאֲאַלֶּפְךָ חָכְמָה.

15 In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falleth upon men, in slumberings upon the bed;16 Then He openeth the ears of men, and by their chastisement sealeth the decree,17 That men may put away their purpose, and that He may hide pride from man;18 That He may keep back his soul from the pit, and his life from perishing by the sword.19 He is chastened also with pain upon his bed, and all his bones grow stiff;20 So that his life maketh him to abhor bread, and his soul dainty food.21 His flesh is consumed away, that it cannot be seen; and his bones corrode to unsightliness.22 Yea, his soul draweth near unto the pit, and his life to the destroyers.23 If there be for him an angel, an intercessor, one among a thousand, to vouch for a man's uprightness;24 Then He is gracious unto him, and saith: 'Deliver him from going down to the pit, I have found a ransom.'25 His flesh is tenderer than a child's; he returneth to the days of his youth;26 He prayeth unto God, and He is favourable unto him; so that he seeth His face with joy; {N}and He restoreth unto man his righteousness.27 He cometh before men, and saith: 'I have sinned, and perverted that which was right, and it profited me not.'28 So He redeemeth his soul from going into the pit, and his life beholdeth the light.29 Lo, all these things doth God work, twice, yea thrice, with a man,30 To bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of the living.31 Mark well, O Job, hearken unto me; hold thy peace, and I will speak.32 If thou hast any thing to say, answer me; speak, for I desire to justify thee.33 If not, hearken thou unto me; hold thy peace, and I will teach thee wisdom.

Elihu is beseeching Iyov: Even though you feel like a shattered vessel now, there is a way out. You will emerge from your ordeal with new flesh, a new appetite, and a new appreciation for God's works. God periodically tests man. Not every person merits the advocacy of his 1/1,000 protecting angel. Only those who are capable of growing out of their ordeals, plastering all around their shards, and becoming a new oven, newly susceptible to impurity but less likely, since he will have come closer to God through his ordeals - these are the ones God tests. Listen to me - not to Jeremiah and his shattered vessel, which cannot be repaired" - not to Elifaz, Bildad, and Tzofar - and you too will one day enjoy the אור החיים, the light of life.

And so Iyov did. "So the LORD blessed the latter end of Job more than his beginning (42:11). And so do I, and so do all of us. This is the inspirational lesson of the תנור של עכנאי.


The very last mishna of מסכת כלים speaks of broken glassware. [One of my students was kind enough to break a test tube last night in lab, so I had a genuine artifact to present.]

ל,ד צלוחית קטנה שניטל פיה, טמאה; וגדולה שניטל פיה, טהורה. של פלייטון שניטל פיה--טהורה, מפני שהיא סורחת את היד. לגינין גדולים שניטל פיהן--טמאין, מפני שהוא מתקינן לכבשים. והאפרכס של זכוכית, טהורה. אמר רבי יוסי, אשריך כלים--שנכנסת בטומאה, ויצאת בטהרה.

A small glass flask whose lip was removed, remains susceptible; a large one whose lip was removed becomes pure. Of a perfume bottle whose lip was removed becomes pure, because it lacerates the hand. Large glass barrels whose lips are removed are susceptible, since a person sets them aside for pickling. The glass hopper is pure. R. Yose said: Happy art thou, tractate Kelim, for you entered with "impurity" but ended with "purity."

I pray that God will give me the opportunity to end many more tractates "in purity."


At 9:11 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said...

A multilayered vort.

Also, excuse the foul wordplay, a 'vort of varning'.

Well written. Well done.

At 9:14 PM, Blogger Lonely Man of Mechqar said...

Now I'm really sorry that I missed your siyyum. That was, in a word, spectacularly done. Thank you for posting it.

At 9:21 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

LabRab, we're so proud of you. And I'm really glad that I didn't miss the siyyum.

חילָך לאורייתא!

At 10:15 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said...

Though the Hebrew is difficult, it is too beautiful to pass up. The English will follow

Follows the transcription of the Hebrew text:

Psook 33:15
bachalom chezyon laila binfol tardema al-anashim bitnumot alei mishkav
az yigle ozen anashim uvemosaram yachtom
lehasir adam maase vegeva migever yechase
yachshoch nafsho mini-shachat vechayato meavor bashalach
vehuchach bemachov al-mishkavo veroiv verov atzamav etan
vezihamatu chayato lachem venafsho maachal taava
yichel besaro meroi veshupy veshupu atzmotav lo ruu
vatikrav lashachat nafsho vechayato lammitim
im-yesh alav malach melitz echad mini-alef lehagid leadam yashro
vayechunenu vayomer pedaehu meredet shachat matzati chofer
rutafash besaro minoar yashuv limei alumav
yetar el-eloha vayirtzehu vayar panav bitrua vayashev leenoosh tzidkato
yashor al-anashim vayomer chatati veyashar heeveiti velo-shava li
pada nafshoi nafsho meavor bashachat vechayatoi vechayato baor tire
hen-kol-ele yifal-el paamayim shaloosh im-gaver
lehashiv nafsho mini-shachat leor beor hachayim
hakeshev iyov shema-li hacharesh veanochi adaber
im-yesh-milin hashiveni daber ki-chafatzti tzadkeka
im-ayin ata shema-li hacharesh vaaalefcha chachma

- - - - - - - - - -

At 12:02 AM, Blogger samantha said...

yasher koach - now come to visit me for shabbat!

At 4:54 AM, Blogger Lipman said...

So, bekitzer: You think Chazal decided the halachic status exclusively because of a nice allegory?!

(And shkouech!)

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...


Thanks - that was an amazing vort!

May you be zocheh to finish many more masechtot b'tahara and in the kedusha of Eretz Yisrael.

(And at least that way, I maybe able to attend your siyumim!)

At 10:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks! just come across your blog, and has been a pleasure. great vort - i look forward to the next..
on a personal level you addressed a lot of issues... i haven't been given to thinking along these lines in a while and its beem intensely refreshing! has actually led me to comment on u on my own blog (first time for everything) -so any feedback, comments, letting me know where it all went wrong welcome..

yasher koach

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous jdub said...

good vort.

One question: The Tanur shel Achnai refers to, essentially, a modular oven. The gemara says "chatchu chuliot" i.e., they cut the oven into sections, not shattered it (leaving aside the Rambam). So the shattered potsherds allegory doesn't quite fit, no?

You should read Louis Finkelstein's take of this episode in his book Akiba: Scholar, Saint, Martyr. Since Prof. Finkelstein was a marxist (historian, not politically), he viewed this as an episode of class warfare and economic determinism. R. Eliezer was of the elite and thought that this clever oven was permissible and not mekabel tuma, since if it became tamei, they'd simply undo it into its modular parts and reconstruct it. Obviously (acc. to Finkelstein) only somethign the rich could afford.

The Chachamim, representatives of the proletariat, objected to the elitist way of avoiding a general prohibition, and asserted their dominance over the elite by not only declaring it tamei, but excommunicating R. Eliezer.

Totally different vort. In any event, yishar kochecha to you and have a freileche Purim.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Lab Rab said...

Thanks all for the kind comments.

LMOM - Next time. Though at current rates, your family simcha will probably come first (B'ezras Hashem).

Lipman - I think it's possible. I think the recognition that this transcends the normal "broken kli" is essential, whether or not you find the allegory compelling.

Jameel - Amen.

Anon - I was really impressed by the depth and emotion of your post. IY"H I'll comment on it over by you (later).

JDUB - There is a major machloket rishonim on how to interpret the case of Tanur Shel Achnai. Rashi reads that the oven was constructed out of pieces. So, apparently, does Rambam, by virtue of his extension to shattered pieces of pottery. Many of the Geonim and Rishonim understand, however, that a person took a whole oven and cut it into cylinders, and the question is whether it retains its original Tum'ah. This fits the text of "chat'cho chulyot" much better. See Shitta Mekubetzet in Bava Metzia. My vort was following the interpretation of Rashi and Rambam.

I found Finkelstein explanation to be really clever! Thank you!

You should know, by the way, that the Mishna in Kelim 5:9 speaks of a barrel-style oven made of vertical strips held together by metal cylinders -and says that when it's together, it's Tamei, and when it's separated, it's Tahor. No argument between Chachamim and R. Eliezer. So R. Eliezer doesn't need the Tanur Shel Achnai to find a rich man's oven that is easily purifiable. [Unless you say that the Tanur Shel Achnai is much sturdier, which it is; but that supports my vort.]

At 6:24 PM, Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

chat'cho chulyot

That's חֲתָכוֹ, of course.

At 7:54 PM, Anonymous jdub said...

now was that really necessary?

At 5:03 PM, Blogger ~ Sarah ~ said...

yasher koach... well done
purim sameach!

At 3:47 PM, Blogger Shoshana said...

Really beautiful, and hopeful. Thank you.

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Yehuda Shain said...

where is the one about cows? treifas

At 10:56 PM, Blogger rebecca said...

USFINE.COM is well known for Age Of Conan gold service.

At 2:17 PM, Blogger Avraham Apatow said...

Beautiful and profound...thank you!

עכנאי gematria 151

So from the state of brokenness and the reading of all 150 chapters of Tehillim we can start anew, like the Tanur shel aknai.


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