Relying On A Bat Kol or Other Non-Rational Halakhic Sources

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


By Rav Moshe Taragin



Shiur #14: Relying On A Bat Kol or Other Non-Rational Halakhic Sources



The gemara in Berakhot concludes in accordance with Beit Hillel on a particular issue, and then goes on to ask why special mention had to be made of this fact. After all, it is obvious that we rule according to Beit Hillel; a bat kol had already directed us to side with Beit Hillel in most disputes with Beit Shammai! The gemara explains that this statement that the halakha follows Beit Hillel’s opinion was issued prior to the emanation of that bat kol. Alternatively, the gemara attributes this conclusion to R. Yehoshua, who claims that we do not heed a bat kol.


This gemara in Berakhot (as well as parallel gemarot) highlight two very different approaches to bat kol. The gemara itself seems comfortable inclining toward Beit Hillel based on a heavenly voice directing a halakhic decision.  R. Yehoshua, however, appears to disagree, claiming that we ignore heavenly guidance in halakhic issues. 


Of course, the issue of relying upon a bat kol is a well-known question with a seemingly conclusive position.  The famous gemara in Bava Metzia (59a) cites a debate regarding an oven that had been patched up (the tanur shel Achnai) and whether it was still capable of receiving tumah. Most of the Chakhamim asserted one position while R. Eliezer dissented.  Attempting to bolster his claim against the majority, R. Eliezer requested a bat kol in his defense.  Even though the bat kol emanated and defended R. Eliezer’s opinion, the Chakhamim refused to concur, citing the pasuk in Parshat Nitzavim: “Lo ba-shamayim hi.” Once the Torah was delivered at Sinai, they argued, its halakhic decisions are no longer influenced by heavenly events.  It would appear that R. Yehoshua’s aversion to bat kol-induced pesak is the consensus opinion in Bava Metzia. 


Tosfaot in Bava Metzia offer two ways to reconcile the inadmissibility of a bat kol in Bava Metzia with the reliance upon a bat kol in the disputes of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  Tosfafot’s second answer claims that IN GENERAL, a bat kol is heeded; the bat kol of R. Eliezer was ignored only becuase it was he who summoned it. The Chakhamim detected that a solicited bat kol was only dispensed to protect the integrity of R. Eliezer.  As it did not emanate independently, it lacked halakhic authority.  This position implies that a typical bat kol that issues without a request does carry halakhic authority. 


Tosafot also provide an initial answer that significantly curtails the authority of a bat kol.  Generally, a bat kol is not authoritative.  However, a bat kol that directs ruling like Beit Hillel against Beit Shammai is more concrete.  Halakhic calculus would suggest ruling in accordance with Beit Hillel, since this “house” of scholars was more numerous than the Shammai “house” and we generally favor the majority. However, Shammai’s scholars were known to be extremely astute, and this might equalize their numerical disadvantage. The bat kol merely assured that the conventional calculus of ruling as the majority could still be maintained in this case. This approach of Tosafot severly limits the efficacy of a bat kol; only in the lone instance of Hillel and Shammai can a bat kol be incorporated. 


Ultimately, the two respective positions in Tosafot in Bava Metzia dispute the reliability of a bat kol.  Can normative halakha be decided by supernatural input?


In a broader sense, it appears that the Rambam and the Ra’avad also disputed this issue, although not in a direct fashion. In the introduction to his commentary to the mishna, the Rambam asserts that prophetic faculty is completely insignificant in the halakhic realm.  Only rational “sevara” is factored in arriving at halakhic conclusion. In fact, the Rambam (Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 9:4) claims that if a prophet were to assert a halakhic ruling as prophecy, he would be considered a false prophet and be summarily executed. Such a prophet is, in essence, contradicting the Torah, which stated “lo ba-shamayim hi” – that after its delivery, Torah would no longer be guided by prophecy. 


In contrast, the Ra’avad is quite clear that he factored in non-rational information into his halakhic rulings.  In his comments to the Rambam in Hilkhot Lulav 8:5, for example, he discusses a hadas branch whose top has been clipped and rules that it is pasul (against the Rambam, who allowed it). To defend his position, he writes, “We have benefited many years from ruach ha-kodesh in our beit midrash, and based on this experience we rule that a decapitated hadas is invalid.” (R. Chaim Vital, a student of the Arizal, once claimed that the Raavad regularly studied kabbala with Eliyahu Ha-Navi. The Ra’avad also published a book on Sefer Ha-Yetzirah).  In fact, one of the Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, R. Yaakov Ha-Chasid, published a sefer of responsa known as “Shut Min Ha-Shamayim” based on halakhic questions that he asked the heavenly court. This entire sefer is built upon the premise that non-rational factors can affect halakhic ruling. 


Of course, it is not altogether clear that the Rambam would argue with the gemara’s reliance upon bat kol, the Ra’avad’s reliance upon ruach ha-kodesh, or R. Yaakov’s inquiring of heavenly courts. The Rambam’s comments in Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah can be interpreted as referring solely to a NAVI who employs prophecy to issue halakhic statements. Prophecy is not an intended source for halakhic activity and directly flaunts the concept of lo ba-shamayim hi.  Would ruach ha-kodesh DELIVERED to a human being BY ELIYAHU be considered a violation of lo ba-shamayim hi? Would a bat kol dispensed from heaven and intended for human hearing defy the lo ba-shamayim principle? If this information is dispatched specifically for human consumption, is it considered “Torah ba-shamayim”?


A different distinction may further allow the Rambam to accept some of these precedents. In particular, his comments in the introduction to his commentary to the mishna indicate that his opposition to use of nevuah in determining halacha is that it is not based upon logic, but rather prophecy.  It is therefore obvious that prophets offering logical input are allowed to participate in the process. In fact, the gemara provides ample precedent of prophets who did influence halakha through their logical-halakhic activity (Yechezkel and Chizkiyahu, among others). From the Rambam’s comments in Yesodei Ha-Torah, it appears that ONLY rational statements based on sevara are acceptable, thus eliminating the autocratic experience of a bat kol.  However, if Eliyahu engages in rational discussion with the Ra’avad, or if R. Yaakov Ha-Chasid receives a RATIONAL argument from the heavenly court, are they similarly excluded? Perhaps the Rambam does not accept halakhic arbitration based upon a bat kol since it appears to be completely arbitrary, but he may be willing to accept logical input from supernatural sources.