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)


  1. Nice post.

  2. I do not understand how you are building a machlokes here - wouldn't the Ramban also agree that post-chasimas hatalmud there is no longer any authority empowered to make derashos, or even to create gezeiros? Even if the text tolderates a multiplicity of meanings, it is not completely elastic - only interpretation sanctioned by B"D haGadol is considered valid, for all practical purposes the same conclusion which the Rambam draws.

  3. I have always understood the Ramban differently. It seems to me that his point is that Torah Shebal Peh can never be anything more than the conceptual understanding and interpretation that is maintained by the Baale Hamesorah. They establish the field of Torah Shebal Peh in the sense that it is their formulation of it that is the "state of the art" understanding in any given generation.

    By definition, there is no way to supercede or move beyond the most advanced understanding held by the Baale Hamesorah, unless one were to make recourse to supernatural intuition - which would violate "lo bashamayim hee".

    The Rambam says a similar thing in Hilchot Mamerim - the Bet Din Hagadol is "Iqqar Torah Shebal Peh", they literally embody Torah Shebal Peh.

  4. R. Chaim and RJM, I was not trying to imply that we can, after the sealing of Talmud develop new derashot, Takanot and Gezeirot - though there are exceptions as Rabbeinu Gershon and others. I believe however that because of Ramban's view of the ba'alei mesora having more than one correct interpretation he would arrive at different conclusions on whether there is a definite psak in the gemara while Rambam believes there is only one correct psak. See R. Shimshon of Sens on the mishna in Edyot 1:5 re why the minority opinion is accepted. I will expand more on this. Posts have length limitations and it is hard to cover a subject fully in one.

  5. >Bet Din Hagadol is "Iqqar Torah Shebal Peh", they literally embody Torah Shebal Peh.
    True but rather as transmitters not interpreters. the 13 Midot allow for dimuy milta lemilta not novel interpretations.

  6. Yet the Rambam acknowledges that later Batei Din can completely overturn the interpretations of previous Batei Din, even on basic deyorayta principles. Take, for example, the question of pre-shemittah plowing - a prohibition universally accepted by Tannaim until the pesukim were reinterpreted to preclude it - or the Gemarot that state that procedural rules in Bayit Rishon differed from Bayit Sheni.

    I am not suggesting that Rambam thinks there is more than one truth. I just think that he maintains that the Bet Din's overall vision of the corpus of halacha can differ from generation to generation, and that we don't judge by an unattainable standard - we accept Torah Shebal Peh as it exists at a given time as the Torah Shebal Peh, which is either closer or further away from the absolute truth than previous conceptions.

  7. I am not versed in hilchot shemitah but does Rambam consider the a de'oraita or arther a gezeira derabanan that has an asmachta?

    I just glanced at Hil Shemittah Veyovel 3:1 have a look at the Ri Korkos. It would seem on a fast look that Rambam sees this as Halcha Lemoshe at the core (30 days bizman hamikdash) with derabanans the rest of the way.