The Oven that Coiled Like a Snake

By Rabbi Phyllis Berman & Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[This story is from their book TALES OF TIKKUN: NEW JEWISH STORIES TO HEAL THE WOUNDED WORLD. It is available from Rowman & Littlefield or from The Shalom Center, 6711 Lincoln Drive, Philadelphia PA; Send a check for $13.95.]

On a warm spring evening in the town of Yavneh, dinner had just begun in the home of Imma Shalom and her husband Eliezer ben Hyrcanus. Now Imma Shalom was, as her name said, “Mother Peace.” When people came to her with arguments to settle, she would often say, “In my parents’ house I learned the Torah that ‘Both these words and those words are words of the Living God.’ But this is not enough. For if God is One, these words must somehow mean one thing. Let us learn the wisdom of this Unity.” So she would gently show how two different ways of understanding Torah could be brought into harmony.

Tonight she brought a loaf of new-baked spicy bread to the dinner table. “This comes from an oven I have just invented,” she said. “Many women have complained to me that it is too easy for their fired-clay ovens to become taboo. Then they must be thrown out and a new oven must be bought. What a senseless waste, a terrible burden for the people! Especially for the women.”

“So I have been studying all week the Torah of taboo. We know, of course,” she smiled at her husband, “that if an oven is not really one vessel but many different parts, Torah teaches it cannot become taboo. So I have been working to invent an oven that would not be one vessel — and yet would get hot enough to bake the bread.

“So first let us see if the bread is good to eat, and if it is I will explain my oven.”

So they took off their wedding rings and said the blessing for the washing of their hands. They washed and dried together, they said the blessing for the bread, and then gently and lovingly each put the wedding ring back upon the other’s finger: “Harei aht... “ said Eliezer; “Harei attah... “ said Imma Shalom, as they repeated the commitment of their marriage. And finally they fed each other a morsel of the warm and fragrant bread.

“Wonderful!” said Eliezer. “Your oven makes good bread. Now — what makes you think it cannot become taboo?”

“My oven is something like a barrel, made of clay and sand instead of wood and iron. I began by laying a circle of clay brick,” said Imma Shalom. “and then I laid dry sand upon the brick. A coil of brick, a layer of sand; a coil of brick, a layer of sand. The brick is dark, the sand is light; the oven looked from outside like a snake, coiled on itself, ready to spring. So I named it the Oven of Akhnai, the Serpentine Oven.

“Then I put a thick coat of mud around the whole thing, to hold the heat. But no ring of brick is connected to the one above it or below, and so the whole oven is a ‘no-thing,’ I do not see how any taboo can apply.”

Eliezer smiled. “Amazing! You have become a mason beyond masons, a baker beyond bakers. For a mason mixes clay with water; a baker mixes flour and water; but you have mixed the waters of Torah with masonry and bakery, to make a more nourishing Household of Israel!”

Imma Shalom quirked an eyebrow “Yet you sit in the Sanhedrin, and I do not. — Indeed, though my brother Gam’liel and I learned Torah together in our parents’ house, he chairs the Sanhedrin; but I cannot even attend, since you men will not allow women. Will you make sure that the Rabbis approve this oven of mine? If you have trouble, let me know; I will talk with my brother. Since he heads the Sanhedrin, let him be of some use!”

Next day, the Sanhedrin convened in the center of Yavneh. Eliezer invited the Sages to come look at Imma Shalom’s oven. He explained its construction and removed one slice of mud so that they could see the snake-like coils.

“Nevertheless,” said Rabban Gam’liel, “although my sister is so learned,” — and his eyebrow quirked just like his sister’s — “she has forgotten one important question: How will it seem to those who are not so learned? Indeed, very few men and almost no women are as learned as she. Most of them will look at this oven and think it is ‘one thing.’ If we do not rule that it is susceptible to taboo, they will think all ovens are free from taboo.”

“But wait,” said Eliezer, “that makes no sense. She invented this oven exactly to prevent taboo. All over the Land of Israel, if women hear about this oven they will get rid of their old ones and build this kind of Serpentine Oven. They will know the difference. That’s the whole point! And if they don’t know, we can just teach more Torah.

“Think what these stoves will mean to our wives and ourselves! Much less trouble, much less expense. And you yourself admit that it meets the Torah’s standards.”

“Eliezer, you have always let Imma Shalom twist you around her finger the way a Torah reader rolls the Scroll. She was always very clever, but never very wise. I have ruled!” said Gam’liel.

Eliezer looked around at the other Sages. They all nodded, twirling their beards.

“You shortsighted fools!” he said. “You are coiling these stupid arguments ‘round and ‘round the oven like a serpent — even though you know the Torah permits it. You have been away from home so long that you have forgotten what it means to bake and cook; you have even forgotten your wives. Can any of you remember how beautiful they are? Can any of you remember how wise they are? How on earth can I persuade you?

“Ahh — Earth! If you will not listen to Mother Peace, perhaps you will listen to Mother Earth.”

And Eliezer walked outside. He gazed at a nearby carob tree. “O Tree,” he said, “If the Tree of Life agrees with me, I ask you to rouse yourself and move one hundred cubits.”

The roots of the tree groaned, the tree shivered, its fruit rattled as a breeze brushed its branches, and the tree moved one hundred cubits, where its roots crept back into the ground.

The other sages were rooted to the spot, in fear and wonder. “Trees may move, but we budge not!” said Gam’liel, in a cracked and quavering voice.

Eliezer looked around again. A glittering stream, with tiny waterfalls, ran by the house. “O River!” he said; “If the Wellspring of Truth agrees with me, turn backward; run uphill!”

The water curled and gurgled, foamed and turned backward.

The other sages stared and shook. Said Gam’liel, in a cracked and quavering voice, “Rivers may turn, but we do not reverse ourselves!”

Eliezer looked around again —this time at the House of Study nearby. “O Walls!” he said. “If that Motherly One Who weeps at the Western Wall agrees with me, let yourselves fall, and this House of Study shatter like our Holy Temple!”

Sounds like moans and wailing came from the walls, and they began to lean away from their uprightness. But one of the Sages rushed forward and called out: “O Walls! If rabbis seek victories in a war of words against each other, what is your part in this?” And the walls fell no further, out of respect to the Sages; but they did not straighten, out of respect for Eliezer. So to this very day, it is possible to see the Leaning Walls of Yavneh.

Eliezer looked around once more. Finally he called, “O Heaven! To Mother Earth they will not listen; if I am right, may Heaven speak.”

And a sweet and gentle voice, melodic as the river, a Daughter of the One Most High, echoed softly from the hills and valleys: “Why are you students of My Torah troubling my child, my beloved Eliezer? The sacred path of life is always where he leads you.”

But Gam’liel whispered, “Heaven may speak, but our voices will not waver. You, Holy God, taught us in the Torah: ‘It is not in Heaven. It is in our hearts and mouths, to do.’ And you have also taught, ‘Lean toward the majority.’ The majority has voted; You and Eliezer must acquiesce.”

Eliezer’s mouth fell open. “You have twisted the teaching out of shape!” he said. “The Torah teaches, ‘Do not follow a majority to do evil, nor respond in a law-case so as to lean toward the majority.’ You have ripped the last few words from the Scroll, that is all!”

Gam’liel glared at him. “It is in our hearts and mouths, and we will do it.” He gestured to the Sages to leave Eliezer’s house, and they marched back to the center of Yavneh. Then they excommunicated Eliezer. And they ordered that every bowl and oven, every pot and pan, must be burnt in fire that Eliezer had ever ruled free from the danger of taboo.

From all across the Land of Israel, the implements of baking were brought to the central square of Yavneh and thrust into the flames. Many of them cracked and shattered in the heat. And from every kitchen in the land arose the wails of women.

As he listened to the crackle of the flames, the cracking of the vessels, and the sobs of the mothers of the land, Rabbi Akiva, who was one of Eliezer’s closest friends, turned to the other rabbis. “If the trees and the rivers did Eliezer’s bidding when we were still debating,” he said, “ what will the whole earth do when he is banned? I ask you — let me be the one to tell him, lest Mother Earth destroy us all!” So the Sanhedrin sent Akiba.

Akiba put on clothes of black, ripped a great gash in the cloth above his heart, wrapped himself in a black tallit, and walked to meet Eliezer — just as if he were mourning someone’s death. Instead of coming close to embrace Eliezer as he usually did, he stayed two yards away, as was the rule for those who had been banned.

“Akiba! Why is this day different from all other days?” said Eliezer. “My teacher,” answered Akiba, ”It seems that today your friends must hold themselves apart from you. And also tomorrow ...”

Eliezer began to weep, tore his own clothing, took off his shoes, and sat upon the earth, as if he too had been bereft of some beloved.

As he fell upon the ground, Mother Earth herself received his sorrow, Throughout the Land of Israel, one-third of the olives fell dry and shriveled from their trees. One-third of the wheat was spoiled by mildew. And one-third of the barley was devoured by locusts. Not only was there a dearth of the oil and flour used for baking, but in every kitchen the women found the dough for bread had suddenly turned rotten in their hands.

Even the sea fell into turmoil. After proclaiming the ban on Eliezer, Gam’liel had left Yavneh for the nearby coastline, and boarded a ship to visit far Tarshish. A great storm crashed against the vessel, until Gam’liel rose to face the ocean. “I see in these storm clouds the face of Eliezer,” he cried out. “I taste in this salt spray the tears of Eliezer. O You Who rule the world, it is Your face I honor. Not for the heavy burdens that I bear as president, nor for the weighty reputation of my family, but for Your radiant Face alone have I stepped forward — lest our sisters, mothers, daughters become embattled with us in our houses. “

The sea stopped raging, and Gam’liel returned to his home in Yavneh. Eliezer too returned to his home — shattered and humiliated. To his wife “Mother Peace,” Imma Shalom, he said: “I failed you and all your sisters. I could not persuade the Sanhedrin to approve your Akhnai Oven, and your own brother led them into banning me. “

Imma Shalom looked at Eliezer’s suffering, and her own face took on new lines of sadness and a secret worry. Each day, each week, each month as his loneliness stretched on, she came to pray with him as he murmured words to God. Over and over, his proud bearing failed him and he tottered to his knees and touched the earth. Each time, she caught her breath and ran to help him back to his feet. Over and over, when in his agony he all but fell flat on his face to kiss the earth, she lifted him.

But one day, just as Eliezer began his prayers, there was a knock at the door. Turning, she saw a beggar seeking bread. For a moment she turned back to Eliezer, but saw a flash of pain upon the beggar’s face. “No, you are right,” she murmured, and found a new-baked loaf to hand him.

Coming back to Eliezer, she saw that he had fallen fully on the earth, his face full of tears, in profound prayer. “Arise,” she cried out, “you have killed my brother!”

Indeed, only moments later the shofar sounded from the House of the Sanhedrin in Yavneh: Gam’liel had died.

Eliezer, trembling, rose to his feet. “How did you know this?”

“With him,” said Imma Shalom, “I learned this teaching at our mother’s knee: Since the burning of the Temple and the closing of its gates, all gates of prayer are closed to us but one: the gate of burning tears and deep humiliation. I knew that once you fell from your high station to the lowly earth, if once you let this humiliation sweep fully over you, it would burn through every cautious gate of Heaven and consume whoever had so brought you low.

“I was caught between you, and my brother, and the beggar. How could I turn away from him when he was hungry? How could I turn away from you when you were shattered? How could I turn away from my brother in his danger?”

For many years, among the rabbis and among the women of the land, the story of Imma Shalom, Eliezer, and Gam’liel was told. And then one day,

two generations later, Rabbi Nathan on his journeys met Elijah, the prophet who entered Heaven without ever dying.

“Elijah,” asked Nathan, “What did God do on that day when the Rabbis spoke out against the Voice of Heaven and put the ban on Eliezer?”

“On that day,” said Elijah, “God spoke three times.

“First God wept, saying, ‘Oh Eliezer, my beloved Eliezer, my son, my son, beloved Eliezer!’

“And then God smiled and said: ‘My children the Rabbis have taken My Torah into their own hearts and mouths; my children the Rabbis have been victorious over me; my children the Rabbis have made me eternal.’

“And finally God’s Face shone full of light and glory, and God said, ‘My daughter Imma Shalom has learned to mother the world. By my Life, her daughters will one day bring shalom to all the peoples.’”
The tale of “the oven that coiled like a snake” is told in the Talmud (T.B. Baba Metzia 59b; Soncino pp. 352-355). Our reworking of the story came in two stages. First we realized that traditional readings of the story emphasize the victorious verbal skills of the Rabbis, and God’s celebration and approval of those skills; but that the story as a whole also points out that the use of these skills had disastrous consequences. Disasters fell upon the earth, upon Jewish society as a whole, upon the Sanhedrin, and upon both sides of Imma Shalom’s family — her husband and her brother.

To us, Imma Shalom seemed the key to the story. Her brother and her husband were opponents in the story; she attempts to pick up the shattered pieces of the family at the end; and in the Talmud’s over-all structure and placement of this story, her teaching about God’s response to the prayers of the humiliated is the story’s punch line — its main point.

As we were realizing this, we also realized — especially out of conversations with David Waskow —that one thread of the story is about the tension between the verbal skills of the male rabbis and the domestic communal needs and skills of women, connected perhaps with the rhythms of the earth. So from this perspective as well, it seemed to us that Imma Shalom had played a much more important role in the original events, or in the original story, than the Talmud’s version describes. In the Talmud’s version, Rabbi Eliezer takes her place. He becomes a kind of surrogate woman, carrying women’s earthy, domestic, and communal values against his verbal brethren.

“Why?” we asked. And it seemed to us that in the story as in reality, Imma Shalom had been screened, masked, because as a woman she could not be fully visible. Until the story’s very end, Eliezer stands in for her.

So we started work on our version of the story by asking ourselves what else Imma Shalom did in these events, besides picking up the shattered pieces of her family at the end. From that question flowed the story as we tell it.

For evidence of the tension between Imma Shalom and her brother Gam’liel, see T. B. Shabbat 116a-116b, Soncino, p. 571.