Yevamot 90 - 96
Fire From Heaven
Do the Sages have the power to decree something in direct opposition to Torah Law? The debate on this issue centers around the mishna which states that if someone intentionally tithed pure grain by separating from it impure grain to give to the kohen, his tithing is invalid. Rabbi Nosson understands this to mean that although his tithe has the status of terumah because such tithing is valid according to Torah Law, the fact that he violated the rabbinical ban on setting aside such an inferior tithe requires that he tithe once again. Rabbi Chisda's interpretation is that the Sages completely annulled his tithing, and even what he set aside for the kohen returns to its pre-tithing status of tevel.
Among the many supports cited by Rabbi Chisda for his position that the Sages have the power to "uproot something from Torah Law" is this beraita which discusses the Torah obligation to obey a prophet: "You shall obey him" (Devarim 18:15) even if he tells you to momentarily violate one of the Torah laws, such as in the case of Eliyahu on Mount Carmel, when the hour demands it.
(In order to expose the false prophets of idolatry during the reign of King Achav, the Prophet Eliyahu challenged them to a confrontation before their misled followers on Mount Carmel. Both he and they offered sacrifices and called for fire from heaven to consume them. When their calls went unanswered and his sacrifice was dramatically consumed, the people shouted "Hashem is the L-rd" and put the false prophets to death. In order to achieve this, Eliyahu had to ask the people to offer a sacrifice outside the Beit Hamikdash in contravention of Torah Law.)
This support is rejected by the gemara because it deals with an extraordinary measure taken to correct an emergency caused by a drift towards idolatry, and can therefore not serve as a model for an ongoing rabbinical decree. Tosefot raises a question regarding this attempted comparison of the power of a prophet and that of the Sages. The gemara (Sanhedrin 89b) stresses that one must obey the command of an established prophet, and cites as examples Yitzchak's compliance to serve as a sacrifice because of Avraham's prophecy, and the compliance of the people with Eliyahu's command to offer a sacrifice outside the Beit Hamikdash. Why, asks Tosefot, was it necessary for Eliyahu to be an established prophet if he had the same authority in his capacity as the head of the Sages of his generation?
The answer he offers is that the emergency measure at Mount Carmel was only justified if there was a certainty of fire coming from heaven. Only because Eliyahu was an established prophet could they be confident that his merit and his prayers would achieve the desired miracle.
- Yevamot 90b
How Great is Hate
"Greater is the hate of the haters than is the love of the lovers." This is a rule of human nature which finds expression in a number of places in our mesechta. One of them relates to the question of how far we extend our reliance on a single witness who testifies regarding a change in the status of a woman.
A single witness' testimony about a man's death is sufficient to allow his wife to marry someone else. There are two reasons we believe him: One is that a person is not suspected of lying in a matter in which he can inevitably be exposed as a liar (e.g., the arrival of the "dead" man). The other is that the woman, aware of the dire consequences she faces if her husband reappears, is extremely careful in assuring the fact of his death before marrying another.
What if the single witness' testimony regarding the husband's death is being applied to a widow of a childless man marrying her yavam (brother-in-law) under the law of yibum? The first consideration of the witness' credibility, his fear of exposure, applies. But in regard to the second factor, a doubt arises whether she will indeed check as carefully as she should, since she may have an affection for the yavam which affects her judgment by causing her to believe what is in her favor.
The same question arises in regard to a single witness testifying that a woman who is unquestionably the widow of a childless man is not bound to her yavam, because he reports that the yavam has died (or that the husband died after his son, and was therefore not childless at the time of death). Here too, the fear of exposure is relevant, but the reliability of the woman properly checking is in doubt, because she may so hate the yavam that she is willing to readily accept the witness' testimony freeing her from him.
One opinion in the gemara is that in the first case we disregard the motive of love for the yavam as a factor in compromising her objectivity, and raise the question only in regard to the second case where hatred of the yavam may affect her judgment. One reason for this distinction, points out Tosefot, is that "greater is the hate of the haters than the love of the lovers."
- Yevamot 93b