Rabbi Tanchuma (c. A.d. 350) said, “Once upon a time a certain cargo ship belonging to Gentiles was crossing the Great Sea in which there was a certain Jewish boy. A great tempest rose up upon the seas, and every single one among them arose and bowed down, taking his idol in his hand and crying out in prayer, but to no avail. Then, when they saw it was no use, they said to the Jewish boy, ‘Come, my son. Call to your God. He will hear us, for he responds to you when you complain to him, and he is strong.’ So the boy got up and begged with all his heart, and God received his prayer and quieted the sea. Then as they came to the shore, they all went down to buy things they needed. They said to him, the little boy, ‘Is there not anything you want to buy for yourself?’ He said to them, ‘Why do you ask this of me, a poor foreigner?’ They said to him, ‘You, a poor foreigner? We are the poor foreigners! Some are here and their idols are back home in Babylon, others are here, but their idols are in Rome, and others are here who have their idols with them, but none of them is any help to anyone. But you know every place where you go, your God is with you, as it is written, “What great nation is there that has a God so near to them as our God is whenever we call to him?” (Deut. 4:7; jBerakoth 9.1).
Introduction: One day the Jewish sages at Jamnia were debating a legal question (halachah), namely whether an oven constructed in sections with sand between them was a “utensil” and therefore subject to the laws of household purity. A dramatic conflict erupted between Eliezer ben Horkanos who argued it was not a utensil but just pieces of tile, and all the other sages, who said it was a utensil because the outer shell of cement binding the whole together made it a unified entity used in daily chores. This seemingly insignificant issue became the occasion for a far-reaching conflict between the rabbis over the issue of how best to discern God’s will.