Bat Kol - A Divine Voice

The lowest level of prophecy, but a mighty powerful voice.

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Literally, "Daughter of a voice," an echo, the term given in the Talmudic literature and Jewish mystical thought to a communication from heaven, the lowest form of direct divine inspiration. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states that for three years the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai debated whose authority was to be accepted in Jewish law until a Bat Kol decided that, while the words of both schools were 'the words of the living God', the actual rulings in practice were to be in accordance with the school of Hillel. On the other hand, in the Talmudic tale (Bava Metzia 58b) where a Bat Kol bat koldecides that the ruling is in accordance with the view of Rabbi "Eliezer against that of the sages, Rabbi Joshua protests that the Torah is not in heaven (Deuteronomy 13: 12), and so a heavenly voice must not be allowed to overturn the clear ruling of the Torah that the majority opinion of the sages is to be adopted.

The medieval commentators discuss at length why in the one case the Bat Kol is heeded but ignored in the other. Some argue that a Bat Kol is only ignored, as in the case of Rabbi Eliezer and the sages, where it runs counter to a definite ruling of the Torah. In any event, the consensus in Jewish thought is that no appeal to a heavenly voice can be made to decide matters of halakhah where human reasoning on the meaning of the Torah rules is alone determinative. In non-legal matters, however, a Bat Kol is to be heeded.

Occasionally the term Bat Kol is used in a purely figurative manner, as when the early third-century Palestinian teacher, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, said (Ethics of the Fathers 6:2): 'Every day a Bat Kol goes forth from Mount Sinai to proclaim: "Woe to mankind for contempt of the Torah" a way of declaring that the very fact of the revelation of the Torah at Sinai is a permanent protest against those who hold the Torah in contempt. But the belief persisted in the Middle Ages that the saints can actually attain to the mystical state known as the Bat Kol. Judah Halevi (Kuzari, iii. 1I) observes that the truly religious person sees himself always in God's presence and then he can, at times, see the angels and hear the Bat Kol, as did the most prominent of the sages during the period of the Second Temple. But Judah Halevi qualifies this by saying that the place in which the saint stands has to be a holy place, in this context the Holy Land, which is why there are few references to later saints hearing a Bat Kol. In modern Jewish thought, even among the Orthodox, claims to have heard a Bat Kol would be treated with extreme suspicion and dismissed as chicanery or hallucination.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.