Monday, April 30, 2007

Do contemporary Rabbis have revelatory ability - Ruach Hakodesh? Do they use it in their Halachik rulings?

This post is a synopsis and some of my reactions to a chapter in a book I am reading by Professor David Assaf - Ne’echaz Basvach. The book researches seven instances of embarrassing episodes among Chassidim in Eastern Europe, comparing the way the episodes were recorded and the truth. The chapter I am reading is about the struggle over the sefer Ohr Hachaim by Rabbi Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar (was a Talmudist and Kabbalist; born at Mequenez, Morocco, in 1696; died in Jerusalem July 31, 1743.)

Rambam in his introduction to the Pirush Hamishna tells us unequivocally and at great length that prophecy cannot have any impact on explaining the Torah.
Here is his introductory summary to the discussion:

הקדמת הרמב"ם למשנה

ודע, שהנבואה לא תועיל בעיון בפירושי התורה ולמידת הדינים בי"ג מדות, אלא מה שיעשה יהושע ופינחס בעניני העיון והדין הוא מה שיעשה רבינא ורב אשי.

Know that Prophecy will not help in explaining the Torah nor used for the exegesis of the 13 Midot. Whatever authority Yehoshua or Pinchas (prophets) have regarding Halacha is equal to Rav Ashi and Ravina.

However we find a Teshuvah in Divrei Chaim by R. Chaim Halberstam of Zanz (1799-1876) that has a very different opinion.

שו"ת דברי חיים יורה דעה חלק ב סימן קה

ולכן בעל אור החיים נשבג"מ בודאי חיבר ספרו ברוח הקודש אך לא הוא לבדו רק כל מחבר אפילו בדורינו אם הוא ראוי לכך חיבר ספרו ברוח הקודש היינו שהסכים בחכמתו לאמתו של תורה כמו שאמרו בש"ס על ר' אביתר וכן כתב התומים לדינא [בקיצור ת"כ סי' קכ"ג וקכ"ד] שאין לומר קים לי נגד השולחן ערוך משום שכתבו דבריהם ברוח הקודש ע"ש:

ולכן המלמד המכחיש רוח קדשו של אוה"ח הוא אפיקורס שאינו מאמין בגדולי הדור שהעידו עליו שהי' ראוי לרוח הקודש והמלמד הזה כפר בעיקר רוח הקודש וליעג על דברי הש"ס בבא בתרא הנ"ל ויפה עשיתם שלא עזבתם את בניכם בידו ויישר כוחכם בזה:

(My Translation/ paraphrase interspersed with my comments) –

Therefore the Ohr Hachaim definitely wrote his sefer with Ruach Hakodesh. (Earlier the Divrei Chaim differentiated between Nevuah and Ruach Hakodesh based on Rambam in MN accepting that prophecy (nevuah) does not exist nowadays but Ruach Hakodesh does. However he did not address the real issue which is the use of revelation in learning.) Not he alone but every author even in our generation, if he is at the proper level, writes his book with Ruach Hakodesh. Writing with RH means that he arrived through his intellect to the truth of the Torah… (Interestingly in this last comment RCZ shows a little ambiguity in his understanding of RH – arriving through intellect at the truth is a rational description of RH! But this did not seem to change his opinion in practical terms). The teacher who denied that the Ohr Hachaim had RH is an Apikores who has no faith in the generation greats who stated that the Ohr Hachaim could have RH. This teacher therefore denied the dogma of Ruach Hakodesh, denied the Gemara in Baba Batra mentioned earlier (which says that RH exists even after the Churban) and you did well not letting him teach your children.

Earlier in the responsa the DC also comments that although the teacher had supporting letters from great Rabbis who agreed with him that Ohr Hachaim did not write with RH, he suspects that he distorted the question to get a response that suits him.

What I find fascinating is that the DC excoriated the man for claiming that RH does exist anymore and all this in the context of the Ohr Hachaim. However, as Prof. Assaf points out, the Ohr Hachaim himself on Breishit 6:3 decries the fact that Ruach Hakodesh no longer exists nowadays and is the major source of all the trouble that Jews suffer. Apparently the OH felt the same way as the teacher!

Professor Assaf found in a collection of writings by R. Shlomo Kluger (1785 – 1869), the Gadol of Galicia at the time, a letter by a certain Avraham Cohen of Sivan. The letter was dated 1865 and asked R. Shlomo to intervene in protecting him from being fired. Apparently a shochet responded to an attack by what he terms “Chassidei Am Ha’aretz” - unlearned Chassidim - on contemporary Geonim who claimed that they lacked mystical apprehension. He told them that earlier Gedolim who did have Ruach Hakodesh would never use it in Halachik matters, as the Torah is not in heaven and the only way to know it is through hard work. They then asked him if he held the same opinion about the Ohr Hachaim. He answered that the Ohr Hachaim probably had Ruach Hakodesh but would not use it when learning or writing his commentary on the Chumash. They then declared him an Apikores and persecuted him. This teacher came to his defense and was persecuted too. He argued that he could not hold back seeing how these people do not respect scholarship and instead follow a different Derech which includes sitting and drinking in each other’s company. The son of Rabbi Yisroel Friedman of Ruzhyn, (1797-1850), R. Nachum Friedman of Stefanesti (Moldova) who lived in the area, saw to it that this teacher lose his position. He is therefore asking R. Shlomo Kluger to intercede on his behalf and rule whether they had the right to punish him for holding this opinion. There is no response from R. Shlomo Kluger that we know of.

Prof. Assaf feels that this is the same teacher that the Divrei Chaim so vigorously castigated in the above Teshuvah. Little is known about the final outcome but this gives us an interesting insight into the sad state of affairs among the Jews in Eastern Europe during the second half of the 19th century. Chassidic rebbis ruled over their areas like despots and were able to destroy people and their families at their whim. When one reads this man’s letter to RSK one gets a picture of a decent principled person whose arguments were completely in tune with the way Rishonim and most of the Acharonim would hold. He was persecuted and impoverished for saying the truth which was seen as possibly undermining the authority of a Rebbi whose claim to fame was mystical powers rather than scholarly knowledge.

It also points to an earlier manifestation of the current Da’at torah idea where Meta Halachik authority is given to certain people under the rubric of Emunat Chachamim. Furthermore we know that in areas such as these there is really no definitive Halacha. The discussion whether certain people have RH or not does not fall into the realm of Halacha. Rambam tells us several times in his Pirush Hamishna that in arguments of this sort found in the Mishna one cannot rule like either party. It also is in contrast with a story repeated by the Talmidim of the Gra, that when he was offered heavenly help (a Maggid or revelatory inspiration) in learning he refused it. Whether the story is true or not is irrelevant. The idea that the knowledge of Torah is not a result of revelation, but hard work and study, comes through quite clearly.

Prof. Assaf ends the chapter with a contemporary story. In 1974 R. Menashe Klein of Boro Park was asked whether a Shochet who followed the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch against the Mishna Berurah was acceptable. I copied pertinent parts of the responsa which I will not bother translating. The point it makes is that if the Shochet denies that the Chafetz Chaim wrote his sefer with Ruach Hakodesh one may not eat from his Shechita! If however he rules like R. Shlomo Ganzfried because that was the custom in his community he is a good person. That old controversy is still alive and well.

שו"ת משנה הלכות חלק ז סימן קס

שוחט שרוצה לפסוק מקצש"ע ולא כמ"ב

ובדבר שאלתו במי שנמשך בכל דבריו אחר הקצש"ע ולא רצה לשמוע דבר אחד מן המ"ב וכו'. הנה בזה הקשה לשאול מאד כי לא הבנתי כוונתו במה שכתב שאינו שומע להמ"ב, אי כוונתו שמיקל בכבוד המ"ב או שכוונתו כיון שהוא בא ממקומות שסמכו על בעל קצש"ע אפילו נגד המ"ב והרי הוא נמשך אחר מנהג מקומו. והחילוק בזה פשוט שאם הוא מיקל ח"ו בכבוד המ"ב הרי הוא בכלל אינו מאמין בדברי חז"ל שבכל דור ודור ושחכמי הזמן זוכין לרוה"ק ופשוט דמי שאין לו רוח הקדש לא היה יכול לחבר חיבור קדוש כהמ"ב ואם הוא אינו מאמין שהמ"ב נכתב ברוה"ק אזי הוא בכלל אפיקורוס וכופר בתורת ה'… לכן השוחט הזה נמי אומר אני אם אינו מאמין על בעל מ"ב שחיבור ספרו ברוה"ק וכיון לאמיתה של תורה הרי השוחט הזה הוא אפיקורוס וכפר בעיקר ולאו הוא דוקא אלא כל מי שאינו מאמין בזה שחיטתו נבלה (ובעונ"ה הרבה מלמדים יש בזמן הזה שאין מאמינים שגם בדורינו אנו ישנם חכמי הזמן שיש להם רוה"ק שזוכין לכוון ולהסכים בחכמתם לאמיתה של תורה …אבל אם השוחט הנ"ל הוא מאמין בגדלות ובצדקת המ"ב אלא שנמשך אחר הקצש"ע בפסק משום שהוא בא ממקום שנהגו דבריהם ונמשכו ע"פ פסק של הקצש"ע ואינו רוצה לנטות מדרכי ומנהגי אבותיו ז"ל זה ענין אחר הוא ואז אדרבה הרי הוא מחזיק בדרכי אבות והגם שהרבה נמשכים אחר המ"ב מ"מ בדור הקודם עדיין לא היה המ"ב מפורסם ובפרט בשאר מדינות חוץ מליטא וכמעט לא היה בנמצא

Friday, April 27, 2007

But you shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) has a fascinating approach to the following verse in this week’s Parsha:

, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ: אֲנִי, יְהוָה.
but you shall love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD.

The first thing that comes to mind is what is the connection of loving your neighbor with Hashem? It is as if loving a fellow Jew proves the existence of God.

The idea that God is an entity that willed everything into existence in time is a basic belief in Judaism. The concept of a personal God that man can relate to makes sense only if that entity we worship has freedom of choice and will. The God of the philosophers, the First Cause in its pure concept, has no choice or will. It is just the “eminence grise” that is out there and explains how everything is here. We arrive at that concept by looking at the universe and noting that all things are contingent and therefore there must be a non-contingent entity out there. However if we look a little deeper we notice that the continued existence of the universe is dependent on how it evolved and made the right decisions to survive. There seems to be a built in mechanism that insures its survival. When we put living things into the equation, the very minute variations in the development of earth that would have made that impossible, the sense that there is an entity that programmed all this becomes stronger. It may not have been a willing entity - but an entity it is. When we add man into the equation, a being that has free will and choices, the appearance of a being that can think and make choices having developed by chance becomes counter intuitive. The God of the philosophers becomes a more distant possibility. Of course there is no definitive proof and the scientifically minded will bring a series of endless arguments to show how this is just conjecture and not provable. I agree – it is not provable. It is however also not refutable. As we are dealing with a non-material Entity, science which deals with the physical universe cannot show that a willing God cannot exist. Thus our intuition supported by Revelation and our history allows us to rationally believe in a unique God that willed and created everything in time. A God that is good because He put in place the mechanisms and the wherewithal that existence becomes permanent and self-sustaining.

The strongest argument for a willing God is man but an even more compelling one is the Jew. The survival of a nation through all the turmoil and persecutions remaining a unit that carries on for thousands of years against all odds is the greatest indication that there is a God who wills things. How else can we explain our continuity, in the face of all the challenges, if not that we are an integral part of a long term plan put into place by an Eternal, Unique but also a choosing and willing God? The Torah speaking for God is telling us that you yourself and your fellow Jew prove that I exist. Your existence and survival proves that there is order, thought and planning and therefore I am the God, the personal God that you are searching and trying to find. Love yourself and your fellow Jew. (Note that Rambam tells us that real love is a function of intimate knowledge).

Disclaimer: RMS like all great thinkers writes in a way that is understood by each of us according to his level. I have written this based on my understanding of the Meshech Chochma. I suggest that those familiar with Hebrew read it in its original. It is a beautiful piece worth the effort.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What is Holiness?

ב דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם--קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
2 Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them: Ye shall be holy; for I the LORD your God am holy.

What is holiness? Rambam in Hilchot De’ot 1:6 tells us:

ומצווין אנו ללכת בדרכים אלו הבינוניים, והם הדרכים הטובים והישרים, שנאמר "והלכת, בדרכיו". כך לימדו בפירוש מצוה זו: מה הוא נקרא חנון, אף אתה היה חנון; מה הוא נקרא רחום, אף אתה היה רחום; מה הוא נקרא קדוש, אף אתה היה קדוש

(My paraphrased translation) –

We are told to follow these ways that are the mean. They are the good and straight ways that copy HKBH as it says in Devarim 28:9 you should follow in His ways. This is how to Rabbi taught this Mitzvah: Just as He is gracious so shall you be gracious; just as He is compassionate so shall you be compassionate; just as He is holy so shall you be holy.

Holiness therefore means to act in a way that is balanced. In the Halachot preceding this one Rambam explained that we all have natural tendencies that are not always in balance. Some of us, for example, are more prone to anger while others are more prone to passivity. The correct way is to be able to show anger (note my choice of language – one may never be really angry – a discussion for another time) when necessary and be passive when it is proper. To train in controlling his impulses, an angry person must at first teach himself to never become angry, even at times when he should. After learning to control his impulses he then allows himself slowly to act as needed. A person that has perfected a trait is considered holy.

The Torah teaches us the balanced or to be more exact how to follow the mean- the middle road. In MN 2:39 Rambam states:

It is clear that the Law is normal in this sense; for it contains "Just statutes and judgments" (Deut. iv. 8); but "just" is here identical with "equibalanced." The statutes of the Law do not impose burdens or excesses as are implied in the service of a hermit or pilgrim, and the like; but, on the other hand, they are not so deficient as to lead to gluttony or lewdness, or to prevent, as the religious laws of the heathen nations do, the development of man's moral and intellectual faculties.”

In other words following the Mitzvot trains us to maintain a balanced way of life without giving in completely to materialism but also not rejecting it completely. We do have to live and act in a material universe and our spiritual existence is impossible without our material wellbeing. The Torah is teaching us to find the right balance.

This explains Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvot:

ספר המצוות לרמב"ם שורש ד

. כאילו יאמר היה קדוש בהיותך עושה כל מה שצויתיך בו ונזהר מכל מה שהזהרתיך ממנו. ולשון ספרא קדושים תהיו פרושים תהיו. רוצה לומר הבדלו מן הדברים המגונים כלם שהזהרתי אתכם מהם….כי זה הצווי אינו צווי עומד בעצמו אבל הוא נמשך אחר מצוה שנצטוו בה ומקיים הצווי ההוא יקרא קדוש. ואין הפרש בין אמרו קדושים תהיו או אילו אמר עשו מצותי..

(My translation/paraphrase with comments)

Discussing the words קדושים תהיו : It is as if God says - be holy by doing all that I ordered you and refrain from doing all that I forbade. In other words, keep away from the ugly things I warned you against… When the Torah tells us to be holy it is not a separate mitzvah (the context of this discussion is whether קדושים תהיו is a Mitzvah on its own or as Rambam explains here an admonition to keep the Mitzvot in general) but is a description of a person that keeps a Mitzvah that he was ordered to do. There is no difference between if He would have said be holy or if he would said do My Mitzvot.

The Torah’s purpose being to make us into better people by being following the mean makes us holy, which is the word that describes a person that is perfectly balanced.

This is quite a different understanding of holiness than the popular concept of it being some mystical state.

If I get around to it I will discuss Ramban’s understanding of this verse.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Was Rambam an elitist?

I have been preoccupied with the Mesora subject and am working on trying to define the impact of Rambam and Ramban’s understanding of Mesora on contemporary Halacha. So in the meantime I decided to post a paraphrase/translation with a few comments of what I find an interesting excerpt of a letter on page 408 in R. Shailat’s edition of Rambam letters.

The letter is addressed to a simple Jew in Baghdad who wrote Rambam telling him that he is an Am Ha’aretz (an ignoramus), that he is working very hard on his learning Rambam’s commentary on the Mishna (written originally in Arabic) and that he has difficulty learning Mishne Torah because it is in Hebrew (Lashon Mishna). He asks Rambam among other things to advise him about learning.

Rambam answers him:

"First know that you are not an Am Ha’aretz! You are my pupil and beloved as is anyone that is endeavoring to cleave to learning Torah whether he understands one verse or one Halacha, whether in Hebrew, Arabic or Aramaic. The purpose of learning is to understand the subject in any language; after all reading of Shema is permitted in any language how much more the commentaries. The most important thing is to busy oneself with learning for anyone that abandons it – if he never learned one thing – he falls in the category of “for he deprecated the word of God” (Bamidbar 15:31). One who is lazy in adding knowledge, even if he is a great scholar, he transgresses the Mitzvat Asseh (positive commandment) of Talmud Torah, which outweighs all other commandments together. [Note the distinction between one who never learned a thing and one who has stopped growing]. In general I am advising you not to devalue yourself - do not give up on excelling, the greatest of our sages started learning at an advanced age and became the great people they were. It is worthwhile for you to learn enough Hebrew, the kind I used to write my Mishne Torah. [Apparently a speaker of Arabic did not have to work too hard to acquire simple Hebrew]. My book is easy to understand and very accessible to learn it. Once you learn one of its books [Rambam divided Mishne Torah into 14 books] you will be able to learn the whole Sefer. I do not want to translate it into Arabic under any circumstance because it will lose its subtlety. In fact I would like to translate the commentary on Mishna and the Sefer Hamitzvot into Hebrew so do not ask me to translate Mishne Torah into Arabic. Generally you are my brother God will help you and you will acquire perfection and be successful in two worlds."

I find this letter very uplifting. It puts to rest the accusation of an elitist Rambam. He was elitist in the sense of having expectations for constant self-improvement but he saw it as a universal capability. Everyone has the ability to grow! I also find fascinating the importance Rambam gave to his great work. He really had a realistic view of what he had accomplished and his own self worth. He did not indulge in false modesty. It is a trait we find in all his writings. He was a real Anav - more on this at another occasion.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Is there a single Truth? Rambam and Ramban - Two fundamentally different opinions.

As I have shown in the last few posts the difference between Rambam and Ramban in their approach to what Mesora consists of is quite striking. The difference becomes even more dramatic when we understand their two different concepts of the role the Beit Din has in interpreting the text. As Professor Halbertal points out, when analyzing a text one can argue that one has to figure out what the writer had in mind when he wrote it. There is one truth and a reader can either understand correctly what the writer had in mind or err. There is another way to look at it too. One can see the text as a repository of many different ideas that have to be milked out of it. The writer has put into it different concepts which each reader will relate to depending on his circumstances.

Rambam sees the text as containing one and only truth. The Rabbis will use that truth as a starting point when they need to extend the law to a new case. To make sure that they start from the correct premise, the transmitters of the Mesora made sure that the original text and its concurrently given explanations were kept in their original pristine form. There cannot be any deviation or argument in that part of the Law. There is therefore a clearly defined truth in the Torah and if a Beit Din wants to expand the Law to address a contemporary issue they start with the transmitted Mesora and use the hermeneutical rules to compare. Everything builds from an immutable core.

Ramban on the other hand believes the text has many meanings. There is not a single truth but many. More importantly, interpreting the text is up to every Beit Din and two opposite conclusions can both be true. Here is Ramban:
רמב"ן דברים פרק יז פסוק יא

והצורך במצוה הזאת גדול מאד, כי התורה נתנה לנו בכתב, וידוע הוא שלא ישתוו הדעות בכל הדברים הנולדים, והנה ירבו המחלוקות ותעשה התורה כמה תורות. וחתך לנו הכתוב הדין, שנשמע לבית דין הגדול העומד לפני השם במקום אשר יבחר בכל מה שיאמרו לנו בפירוש התורה, בין שקבלו פירושו עד מפי עד ומשה מפי הגבורה, או שיאמרו כן לפי משמעות המקרא או כוונתה, כי על הדעת שלהם הוא נותן (ס"א לנו) להם התורה, אפילו יהיה בעיניך כמחליף הימין בשמאל, וכל שכן שיש לך לחשוב שהם אומרים על ימין שהוא ימין, כי רוח השם על משרתי מקדשו ולא יעזוב את חסידיו, לעולם נשמרו מן הטעות ומן המכשול…

(my paraphrased translation):

This Mitzvah (of Lo Tassur – do not transgress from what the Rabbis tell you) is very much needed as the Torah was given in writing. One cannot therefore expect unanimous interpretation of the text. That would result in different opinions on how to apply it to new cases. We will end up with many opinions and the one Torah will become many (The concern is apparently in not having a unified praxis). The Torah has therefore decreed that we should listen to the Great Beit Din (Sanhedrin) that is extant in the Beit Hamikdash, to their interpretation of the written text of the Torah, whether they received the explanation transmitted from Sinai or it is an explanation they derived from the text. Because the Torah was given for them to interpret it according to their understanding of it even if in your eyes it would seem that they are confusing right and left. You should of course assume that they are correct because God’s spirit is extant on the servants of his temple, he does not forsake His followers, they are always protected from errors…

There are those who understand Ramban as holding that even if the Beit Din errs the Torah orders us to follow the Beit Din so as not to erode their authority. Others are more sanguine and see the truth as being the rabbi’s interpretation, whatever it is, as long as it can be read into the text, even with great difficulty. Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli (1250-1330)), a third-generation pupil of the Ramban school writes:

חידושי הריטב"א מסכת עירובין דף יג עמוד ב

אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים. שאלו רבני צרפת ז"ל היאך אפשר שיהו שניהם דברי אלהים חיים וזה אוסר וזה מתיר, ותירצו כי כשעלה משה למרום לקבל תורה הראו לו על כל דבר ודבר מ"ט פנים לאיסור ומ"ט פנים להיתר, ושאל להקב"ה על זה, ואמר שיהא זה מסור לחכמי ישראל שבכל דור ודור ויהיה הכרעה כמותם…
(Paraphrased Translation)

The Gemara says that both (Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel) opinions are the words of the living God. The French Rabbis asked: how can two opposite opinions be true? One forbids an act another permits it? They answered that when Moshe ascended to receive the Torah they showed him 49 arguments each for permitting something and forbidding it. He asked God how to deal with that. He was told that this will be left to the Rabbis of each generation to decide and their decision will be binding…

In other words the text contains more than one opinion. Both are true and each Beit Din can apply the opinion they chose as needed.

Rambam sees argumentation as deterioration in the system. It is only after the pupils of Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel lacked enough training that arguments started to surface. Ramban sees the differences of opinions as inherent and important part of the system. Milking out the meaning of the text is an eternal endeavor and is at the core of Halacha.

The difference between these two opinions has a major impact on contemporary Halacha and learning. According to Rambam the objective of learning is to discover the truth, the one and only truth that is embedded in the Torah. Our starting point is the transmitted information which is found in the Talmud. When Rav Ashi edited the Talmud, it was the last gathering of the legitimate transmitters of the Mesora. As Rambam explains in his introduction to Mishne Torah:

הקדמה ליד החזקה לרמב"ם

נמצא רבינא ורב אשי וחבריהם. סוף גדולי חכמי ישראל המעתיקים תורה שבעל פה. ושגזרו גזירות והתקינו התקנות והנהיגו מנהגות ופשטה גזירתם ותקנתם ומנהגותם בכל ישראל בכל מקומות מושבותם. ואחר בית דין של רב אשי שחבר הגמרא וגמרו בימי בנו נתפזרו ישראל בכל הארצות פיזור יתר והגיעו לקצוות ואיים הרחוקים ורבתה קטטה בעולם ונשתבשו הדרכים בגייסות ונתמעט תלמוד תורה ולא נכנסו ישראל ללמוד בישיבותיהם אלפים ורבבות כמו שהיו מקודם אלא מתקבצים יחידים השרידים אשר ה' קורא בכל עיר ועיר ובכל מדינה ומדינה ועוסקין בתורה ומבינים בחיבורי החכמים כולם ויודעים מהם דרך המשפט היאך הוא.

Ravina and Rav Ashi and their contemporaries were the last of the Jewish Sages, the transmitters of the Oral Torah. They set in place Gezeirot, Takanot and Minhagim that spread among all the Jewish communities around the world. After the Rav Ashi Beit Din which authored the Gemara and finished it during the lifetime of his son, the Jewish people were dispersed to far away places, communications among communities became curtailed, and wars became common, learning Torah was greatly reduced. The Yeshivot no longer had thousands and tens of thousands attending them as before. Small numbers of individuals, those that heard the call of God, the remnants in the various cities and countries, dedicate themselves to learning Torah and understanding the works of the Sages. They are the ones who know the ways of the Laws.

Rambam continues to explain that lacking the gatherings of learned men, the rabbinic authority is localized. No new laws can be instituted that will be binding on the whole of the Jewish community. The conclusions of the Gemara are binding and anything that is derived after that, any expansion of the Law remains a local affair. The purpose of learning is to understand the “ways of the law” - דרך המשפט היאך הוא – which can be found in the text of the Talmud. Rambam therefore composed the Mishne Torah which he considered the ultimate collection of the truth found in the Mesora – the Talmud. It is the only law book that is needed to determine the Halacha. (More on this in a future post)

It is in this spirit that Rambam writes in his letter to his pupil R. Yosef: (my paraphrase)

“I have already insisted that you know my work (Mishne Torah) in its entirety, make it into your Sefer, and teach it so that its value will be spread. The purpose of the writing of the Talmud is completed by it (Mishne Torah). The goal of the learners is a waste of time focusing on the arguments of the Gemara as if it is its purpose to develop dialectical skills. That is not the case. Arguments are incidental… the purpose being to know what to do or not…”

Ramban on the other hand sees learning as a constantly evolving process of interpretation. As we learn we can milk out new meanings and there really is no clear-cut single truth – there are many. In the introduction to his Milchamot Hashem he comments: (my paraphrase)”… for every person that learns our Talmud knows that there is no incontrovertible proofs for the different opinions of its interpreters nor are there such answers on the various questions. This Chochma does not have empirical demonstrations like geometry or mathematics.”

In my upcoming posts I would like to explore further how these two different approaches affects us today. I would also like to take this into Ta’amei Hamitzvot.

(More to come)

Friday, April 13, 2007

Hermeneutics- The 13 midot - Two opinions - Rambam and Ramban.

(Continued from the last two posts)

In the second Shoresh, Rambam addresses the Mitzvot that are deduced using the 13 Midot, the hermeneutical rules that were given at Sinai. He disagrees with Behag who considered many of those rules as De’oraitot and listed them as part of the 613 Mitzvot. He refers us back to his introduction to the Pirush Hamishna to the third category where he clearly differentiated between the hermeneutically derived Mitzvot and those that were transmitted. Rambam’s position is that any law derived using the 13 Midot is generally Derabanan unless we are specifically told they are De’oraita. Unless we find a clue in Chazal that it was a Kabbalah (as in Mesora- Transmission not the mystical sense) we must assume it is rabbinic law. There are instances where although the law was received at Sinai orally, the Rabbis will try to find a reference to it in the text using the 13 Midot; they will however let us know somehow that they are Mekubalot.

Rambam makes a very interesting observation in this discussion. He refers to the Gemara in Temurah 16:1 which tells us that during the mourning period for Moshe, 1700 halachot “Kalin Vechamurin ugezeirot shavot vedikdukei soferim”, were forgotten and Atniel ben Knaz reconstituted them. Rambam notes that if 1700 were forgotten how much larger must the whole corpus of the new halachot have been! Clearly Moshe had developed “many thousands” (literally Rambam’s words) halachot using the hermeneutical rules and none of them are considered other than rabbinic law. Rambam therefore concludes that unless the transmitters of the law (the Rabbis in Mishna and Talmud) specifically indicate that the law that has a hermeneutic connection to the text is De’oraita or “Guf Torah” (belongs to the Corpus of Torah - a term coined in Gemara which Rambam does not define - at least to my knowledge).

This position of Rambam has created a host of difficulties and almost every student of Halacha has to deal with this difficult rule. One of the biggest difficulties is that we find many cases where a hermeneutic law is defined as Sinaitic and we still find arguments among Rabbis. Ramban in his comments on this Shoresh lists extensively cases where there are clues that they are De’oraita when they are not and vice versa. He also lists cases that are clearly De’oraita and we find arguments. Much has been written on this subject and anybody that learns Mishne Torah is confronted with the problem constantly.

I would like to focus on a comment Rambam makes in this Shoresh and Ramban’s response, which again opens a window into their understanding of the philosophy of Halacha.

Rambam comments:
ספר המצוות לרמב"ם שורש ב

ואולי תחשוב שאני בורח מלמנותן להיותן בלתי אמתיות והיות הדין היוצא במדה ההיא אמת או בלתי אמת, אין זו הסבה אבל הסבה כי כל מה שיוציא אדם הם ענפים מן השרשים שנאמרו לו למשה בסיני בבאור והם תרי"ג מצות. ואפילו היה המוציא משה בעצמו אין ראוי למנותם

(My paraphrased translation)-
Do not think that the reason I do not include them [the hermeneutically derived laws] in the listing is because they are untrue, that the law derived in such a way is correct or incorrect. That is not my reason. The reason is that everything one derives (שיוציא) is considered a branch that sprouts from the roots that Moshe received at Sinai in the form of explanation of the written text. Only the roots are part of the 613 Mitzvot. Even when Moshe himself was the person who derived these laws they should not be counted.

Rambam cautions us against questioning the validity of the Laws derived by hermeneutics. They are a necessary part of our legal system as long as they were instituted by a recognized Beit Din. They just are not Sinaitic and therefore Derabanan and changeable by subsequent Batei Din. They are not “Mekubalot” and thus not immutable[1]. Professor Halbertal notes that Rambam introduces the idea of branches and roots as a metaphor for these two classes of laws. He understands that Rambam sees the laws derived by hermeneutics not as being read into the text but rather as analogous cases to the textual law. They are logical extensions that we arrive at by comparing them to the specific written rule. Halbertal understands Rambam to hold that analogous cases are never De’oraita notwithstanding how similar they are. I am not sure he is right in that. I do agree though that Rambam does not read these derivative laws into the text. To support his argument Rambam uses the rule
אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, where he reads it simply that the text is never read other than literally. The hermeneutics are case related rather than textual. As we will see Ramban disagrees and argues that they are derived from the text.

השגות הרמב"ן לספר המצוות שורש ב

ופליאה דעת ממני נשגבה לא אוכל לה, שאם נאמר כי אין המדות הנדרשות מקובלות מסיני ולא נצטוינו לדרוש ולפרש בהן את התורה א"כ הרי הן בלתי אמתיות והאמת הוא פשטיה דקרא בלבד לא הדבר הנדרש, כמו שהזכיר [עמ' נד] ממאמרם אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו, ועקרנו שורש קבלתנו בי"ג מדות שהתורה נדרשת בהן ורוב התלמוד אשר יוסד בהן.

(Paraphrased translation)
I do not understand! If we argue that the hermeneutics are not Sinaitic law nor do they reflect the meaning of the text, they are therefore untrue. If the truth is as Rambam argues based on אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו the literal meaning of the text, we have destroyed the source of our Kabbalah which consists of the 13 Midot and most of the Talmud which is based on them.

Ramban will not accept that the 13 Midot are not text related. He is adamant that they are one of the possible meanings of the text and therefore have as much validity as the literal meaning. As opposed to Rambam, he therefore sees all the laws that are deduced through hermeneutics as De’oraita unless specifically told that they are not.

Again we see how these two great Halachist had opposite views of what Mesora is. Ramban sees the text as the sine qua non of all possible laws. The Rabbis read into the text and learn from it how the Halacha should be. Of course Rabbis disagree on how to read and Halacha is established according to the majority reading. The text is flexible and expandable as to its meanings – it has many. Rambam on the other hand sees the text and the related explanations as sacrosanct. The laws that are transmitted – the Mekubalot – are immutable. The Rabbis have special authority to extend the laws and apply them to analogous cases. These are not De’oraita unless otherwise stated.

[1] רמב"ם הלכות ממרים פרק ב הלכה א

ב"ד גדול שדרשו באחת מן המדות כפי מה שנראה בעיניהם שהדין כך ודנו דין, ועמד אחריהם ב"ד אחר ונראה לו טעם אחר לסתור אותו הרי זה סותר ודן כפי מה שנראה בעיניו, שנאמר אל השופט אשר יהיה בימים ההם אינך חייב ללכת אלא אחר בית דין שבדורך.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Two Opinions - Revelatory Laws - Rambam and Ramban -

Rambam explains in his introduction to his Sefer Hamitzvot that he plans to write a definitive work on all the Laws of the Torah that will include all the rulings in Mishna, Talmud, Sifrei, Sifra and Tosefta as well as what the later Geonim have extracted (Hotzi’u), clarified and explained. It will cover what is forbidden and permissible, unclean and clean, Passul and Kasher, when one is guilty or innocent, pays or does not, swears or does not. It will be so all encompassing that in addition to the written Law no other book will be necessary for one to know everything in the whole Torah whether De’oraitot or Derabanans (Biblical or Rabbinic Law). To make sure that he does not skip anything he proposes to list all the Laws in the Torah in a systematic way. All related Laws will be listed together so that when he organizes a Halacha he will list at the beginning all the positive and negative commandments that relate to that particular Law. In fact the Mishne Torah is so organized and at the start of each series of halachot Rambam lists all the related commandments. For example at the beginning of Hilchot Shabbat he lists five Mitzvot, (1) to rest on the seventh day, (2) not to work, (3) not to punish on Shabbat, (4) not to go outside the boundaries on Shabbat and (5) to make the day holy by remembering it. He does not list the 39 Melachot as to him they are the practical aspects of #2 above which is the Mitzvah.

To Rambam listing the Mitzvot is therefore very important as an organizing tool but he also sees it as a key in understanding how our laws have evolved as we will see later. By the time Rambam started this work there was already a whole literature addressing this listing, the most extensive and detailed being the Sefer Halachot Gedolot (generally referred to as Behag)by Rabbi Simeon Kayyara (Hebrew: שמעון קיירא) (was a Jewish-Babylonian Halachist of the first half of the 9th century)(courtesy Rambam felt that this work was incorrect containing many mistakes and before starting his own listing, he put together fourteen Shorashim or literally roots, basic rules, that describe the conditions required for Mitzvot to be listed.

The first Shoresh (rule) addresses the fact that Behag lists the lighting of the candles on Hanukkah, reading the Megilah, 100 daily Berachot, consoling the bereaved, visiting the sick, burying the dead, clothing the poor, calculating the seasons and the 18 days one finishes Halel. The Mitzvot that make up the 613 should be only those given at Sinai and may not include Takanot made by the later Rabbis. Rambam takes the number 613 very seriously and literally. The 613 are composed of those Mitzvot that we received at Sinai with their explanations, the ones I defined in the first category in my previous post. When addressing Halel Rambam asks how can one say that Halel was given at Sinai when it is made up of psalms written by David several centuries later? How could one imagine that over a thousand years later, during the second Temple, such and such will happen in our interaction with the Greeks and Hanukah will be established? Rambam considers this to be absurd. He therefore argues that these rules belong in a separate category (#5 in my earlier post) and have no place in the basic listing of Mitzvot.

However Rambam makes an interesting point. He says that the authority the Rabbis have in making these new Takanot are based on the Mitzvah of Lo Tassur. The Torah tells us that we may not stray from whatever each Beit Din establishes. That authority and ruling is enough to allow us to say in the blessings that we make on the Mitzvah “asher kideshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu”, “Who made us holy with His Mitzvot and ordered us to do such and such”. The Rabbis having established a new Mitzvah, it becomes binding and obligates us to keep it based on Lo Tassur. The same applies to Megilah which was established by prophets. To Rambam the prophet’s authority in establishing a Mitzvah has nothing to do with prophecy. It is based totally on the prophet’s rabbinic authority as a member of a Beit Din. According to Rambam prophecy cannot alter the torah. The prophecy that was required to give the Torah was unique to Moshe Rabbeinu and is what makes the Torah immutable. In fact a prophet who proposes to add, alter or take away a Mitzvah is inherently a false prophet who deserves the death penalty. At the beginning of Mishne Torah Rambam again lists all 613 Mitzvot in a shorter version. At the end of the listing he makes the following comment:

ג כל אלו המצוות שנתחדשו--חייבין אנו לקבלם ולשומרם, שנאמר "לא תסור, מכל הדבר . . ." (ראה דברים יז,יא); ואינם תוספת על מצוות התורה. ועל מה הזהירה תורה "לא תוסף . . . ולא תגרע" (דברים יג,א)--שלא יהיה נביא רשאי לחדש דבר ולומר שהקדוש ברוך הוא ציווהו במצוה זו להוסיפה למצוות התורה, או לחסר אחת מאלו השש מאות ושלוש עשרה מצוות.
ד אבל אם הוסיפו בית דין עם נביא שיהיה באותו הזמן מצוה דרך תקנה, או דרך הוראה, או דרך גזירה--אין זו תוספת: שהרי לא אמרו שהקדוש ברוך הוא ציווה לעשות עירוב או לקרות המגילה בעונתה. ואילו אמרו כן, היו מוסיפין על התורה.
Paraphrasing: After listing all 613 Mitzvot and a smattering of new ones by prophets and sages such as the reading of the Megilah and the lighting of the Hanukah candles, Rambam addresses these later innovations. All these new Mitzvot are obligatory based on the rule of Lo Tassur and are not considered additions. What then does the prohibition of Lo Tossef and Lo Tigrah apply to? [Rambam is referring to the verse in Devarim 13:1 which exhorts us to listen to every Law without adding or subtracting any – in other words the Torah’s Laws are immutable]. It applies only when the prophet claims that he received this new law from God. However if the prophet or the sages of a time add a Mitzvah as a Takanah, as a ruling or a preventative measure, as long as they don’t say that God told them to make an Eruv or to read the Megilah at its proper time. If they do claim that God told them, it would be considered an addition and they would contravene the prohibition.

Here again we get another glimpse of Rambam’s understanding of Torah min Hashamayim. There is an immutable core that is transmitted from generation to generation from Sinai. One of those laws permits later Batei Din to make changes that are binding. However they must be clearly designated as rabbinic additions and not as revelatory Law. There was a unique and only revelation in all history; Moshe’s Torah – both written and Oral. It is very circumscribed and defined.

In his defense of Behag Ramban begins by questioning the seriousness of the number 613. He suggests it is just a Midrash and one should not feel too strongly restricted by it. He then engages in a lengthy discussion addressing each point Rambam makes against Behag. The most striking argument Ramban makes is in response to Rambam’s finding it absurd for a law established during the second temple to be seen as originating at Sinai. Ramban asks is it not true that the Torah text is full of predictions? Did not the rabbis find in the Torah allusions to Megilah? (Ramban himself in his commentary on the Torah interprets the two Tochachot, in Vaykra and Devarim, as alluding to the destruction of the first and second Temples). In Ramban’s words, “the Torah explains orders, predicts and alludes”. The Rabbis as they establish new laws go back to the text of the torah and interpret it. The Rabbis establish the rules based on how they read the Torah text. When they established Hanukah they indeed based it on their interpretation of the Sinaitic text. The current event confirmed the prediction in the Torah and only became understood now after it happened.

This latest argument brings into sharp contrast the two positions of Rambam and Ramban. While Rambam sees a core of immutable laws given at Sinai, and everything else that we do is either an extension or a new Takanah, Ramban sees a flexible text. He also accepts subsequent revelatory Laws. This difference between these two giants will become even more apparent when we address the second Shoresh.

More to come.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Rambam's Five Categories of Mesora.

I am in the middle of reading a so far excellent book by Professor Moshe Halbertal, Al Derech Ha’emet. It discusses Ramban’s systematic approach to the whole corpus of Torah addressed in his many writings. In the first chapter he contrasts Rambam and Ramban’s understanding of what exactly is Mesora, using Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot and Ramban’s critical comments. This brings me to the subject of this post and hopefully a few more on the subject.

In his introduction to his Pirush Hamishna – commentary on Mishna – Rambam lays out five categories of Mesora:

1. Commentaries on the written Law that go back to Sinai – When Moshe received the Torah; he received at the same time explanations on how the specific laws have to be put into practice. An example Rambam uses; when God told Moshe “You shall sit in Sukkoth seven days” (Vaykra 23:42) He at the same time told him that only males have to sit, the sick and travelers are exempt, use only things that grow from the ground as cover (schach)and not wool or silk nor utensils even if they originate from something that grew, both eating and sleeping should be in the Sukkah for seven days, the Sukkah should be at least seven Tefachim by seven by ten high. In other words the basic rules needed for the practical execution of the Mitzvah were given orally at the same time the written Law was given. Rambam, unlike many of his predecessors among the Geonim, holds that these rules remained with us unchanged and without any dispute all the way back to Moshe at Sinai[1]. I will discuss this further when I talk about category 3.

2. Halacha Lemoshe Misinai – These are those halachot that we received from Sinai that are not mentioned or alluded to in the written law. Rambam lists, in his words, “most” of them in the introduction. Here too there is no conflict and the Mesora is reliable all the way back to Moshe.

3. Laws that were deduced using the hermeneutical system received from Sinai. This system allows us to expand the scope of the given law and apply it to new situations that were not directly addressed by it. The idea is to define the underlying reason and logic of the written law and the received explanation (category 1) thereby applying that reasoning to the pertinent case brought in front of the court. This is one of the areas where differences of opinion occurred and the court ruled according to the majority opinion. Each court when confronted with the same question, reevaluated it, discussed it and voted. The ruling could change from generation to generation as the court was reconstituted and the majority vote changed. It is in this area that we are ordered to follow the ruling of the court that is extant in our time notwithstanding earlier rulings.

Here again Rambam disagrees with his predecessors. The Geonim held that disagreements occurred in all these three categories and as time passed the transmission of both oral categories (1 and 2) got faulty. Rambam vehemently disagrees and uses very sharp language accusing those who held that position of ignorance in the ways of the Talmud, the inability to distinguish between transmitted laws and innovations and of weakening the authority (to be exact causing suspicion) of the transmitters of the Kabbalah (Mesora).The basis for both opinions is the Tosefta brought down in Sanhedrin 88b which describes the procedures of how Halachik questions were decided during the time of the Sanhedrin. After describing the different levels of courts and how they ruled according to the majority, the Tosefta comments that originally there were not many disagreements. It is only the pupils of Shamai and Hillel, not having acquired enough experience, who got into disagreements. Rambam and the Geonim disagree as to what type of Halacha the Tosefta is referring to. The Geonim saw it as all-inclusive while Rambam held it was only in those that were innovated using the Hermeneutical rules or those soon to be listed in categories 4 and 5. Explaining his position Rambam gives us some interesting insights into his way of thinking. He explains that the earlier generations were better trained and therefore had a much stronger consensus of the underlying reasons for the different laws. Being of equal intellectual capacity and the same information at hand, there was much less room for disagreements. In fact very few occurred and those were easily resolved by majority rule. They were so rare and insignificant that hardly a trace remains in our sources. He also notes that we cannot fault the later generations for disagreeing because we cannot expect all to be equal to Yehoshua and Pinchas! Still we must follow the rulings of the contemporary Beit din based on the ruling of “you should ask the Judge that will be at that time” (Devarim 17:9).

4. The rules - Derabanans - that each generation of courts imposed as a protection to the De’oraitot – the Torah laws. There we find arguments about whether they should be put into place. Some remained localized, if the Sanhedrin did not impose them, others became generalized. The latter cannot be overruled ever, even by future Batei Din, not even by Elyahu. However for them to take on this strict aspect, they had to be accepted and spread throughout the Jewish communities.

5. New Takanot and Minhagim imposed by Beit Din to address issues that crop up as the world changes. Once imposed and agreed to by the nation they cannot be changed and remain in place forever.

I am planning to address each of these categories in future posts, compare each with Rambam’s discussions of them in Sefer Hamitzvot and Mishne Torah and Ramban’s position on each of them.

However we already get a picture of Rambam’s view of Mesora. There is an immutable core comprising of the written law as interpreted by the Oral Law that we received simultaneously and unwritten halachot that Moshe received at Sinai – Halachot Lemoshe Misinai. That core Mesora is unchanged and has been jealously guarded and transmitted to us in its original form in the Mishna, Tosefta, Sifrei, Sifra and the Talmud. Although it is not always obvious from the text which Halacha belongs to these categories, a thorough and careful analysis of the text will yield a clear answer. Of course Ramban will show us that he does not buy Rambam’s analysis on specific cases, and therefore accepts the Geonim position. But that is for another day. Then Rambam has three categories of innovative laws some based on hermeneutics, others as Derabanans while others as Takanot and Minhagim. In these later categories disagreements are common.

More to come on this.

Moadim Lesimcha.

[1] Sinai in this context generally means from Moshe. The Rishonim argued about when exactly Moshe received all the Laws, whether they were given all at once or piecemeal over the 40 years. I am not sure about Rambam’s position, though here, in the introduction to his commentary on Mishna, he seems to hold that all were given to Moshe at once and he released them over time to the people. I do not have it clear at this moment how he holds in his other writings.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

When are Chumrot appropriate?

Pessach there are a slew of Chumrot that people feel the need to adhere to; that is because of the perceived seriousness of the issur of Chametz on Pessach and the fear that one may transgress. There is though a deeper understanding of how one relates to chumrot. They are not necessarily prescribed rules but rather those that come from within a person.

There are two parallel processes that one needs to engage in during the search for God. The intellectual understanding of existence and its cause needs to be complemented with actions to transit from the transcendental and theoretical to reality. Those actions are the Mitzvot. They are God’s commandments that give us a sense of what is right and wrong. They are our compass for what is considered proper or improper behavior. As we intellectually apprehend God, or to be more exact, what God is not, we develop a sense of His constant presence in us, in our minds. We develop a feeling of being always in His presence as we have brought Him into our minds. We therefore act in ways that are in harmony with that feeling. Using the Mitzvot as a guide to what is appropriate when in His presence we instinctively know when we are inappropriate even when it is not ordered. It is not a sense of guilt but rather positive respect and reverence to that Entity that is always present in our minds.

Know that when the perfect understand this, they achieve such humility, such awe and fear of God, such reverence and such shame before him, may he be exalted – and this in ways pertaining to true reality not imagination – that their secret conduct with their wives and in latrines is like their public conduct with other people. Thus it is related of our renowned Sages that even in their sexual intercourse with their wives they behaved with great modesty. They also said, "Who is modest? He whose conduct in the dark night is the same as in the day." You know also how much they warned us not to walk proudly, since "the fullness of the whole earth is His glory" (Isa. vi. 3). They thought that by these rules the above-mentioned idea will be firmly established in the hearts of men, viz., that we are always before God, and it is in the presence of His glory that we go to and fro. The great men among our Sages would not uncover their heads because they believed that God's glory was round them”. (MN 3:52)

What I described above is what is referred to as Yra’at Hashem – fear of God. The purpose of the rituals is to train us to translate the intellectual into our daily life. The Mitzvot have no meaning other than that. It is only after having internalized this fear and awe of God that our keeping the Mitzvot become real service of God, having Him in us and being aware of His presence. A person that is in such a state and feels the imperative to act in a certain way beyond the prescribed, that act becomes a true Chumra and not just a mechanical reaction to guilt.

I believe that this is what the meaning is when we find in Halacha that certain chumrot are considered inappropriate for everyone because of “Yuhara” - conceit. Those are not to be kept mechanically but only when a person feels an internal compulsion to adhere to them. One who is obviously not up to that level comes across as a fake.

Chag Kasher Vesameach. May we all perform Mitzvot and chumrot as true servants of God.