Friday, December 25, 2009

Mesorah According To Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol

While learning Massechet Negaim I came across a fascinating Pirush Hamishna. There are different types of Negaim – skin abnormalities – that can cause Tume’ah and each has its peculiar rules. A Nega (Baheret) that appears within a wound or a burn becomes Tameh if after a week of segregation, it expands within the wound or if it grows a white hair. If it remains stationary and does not grow a white hair the person is sent home and is Tahor. Furthermore, the expansion must be within the wound. If it expands outside the wound into healthy skin, it does not count. The Mishna 9:3 posits a situation where there is a wound and a Nega within it, covering completely the wound both as large as a sela, located in the palm of a hand. Hair does not grow nor can expansion matter as it would have to be outside the wound as the Nega covers the whole wound. At first blush, it would seem that this kind of Nega could not ever become Tameh. Rabbi Eliezer was asked what the Halacha would be in such a case. To segregate the person for a week to see if any change may occur does not seem to be practical as there apparently is no possibility of Tume’ah. He answered that you do segregate that person for observation. At their surprise, he explained that it is possible that after a week, the Nega would shrink and the person would be sent home and a few days later the Nega would increase in size. Such a case makes the person a definite Tameh (Vaykra 8:35-36). They then asked him what if the wound and the Nega were exactly a Griss (a smaller size, the minimum size of a Nega) in which case shrinking would mean no Nega at all. A further enlargement back to a Griss would be seen as a new Nega and keep the person in limbo without ever becoming a definite Tameh. And here things become interesting –

אמרו לו, והלוא מקומה כגריס. אמר להן, לא שמעתי.

They said to him [Rabbi Eliezer] what if its size is a Griss? He answered I did not hear.

A little background is needed here. Rabbi Eliezer was the greatest pupil of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, the leader of the Sanhedrin during the destruction of the second temple. RE was a survivor of the war and took part in the immense effort organized by RYBZ to collect and organize the whole Masorah of Torah up to their time. They foresaw the spiritual upheavals facing the nation and worked to protect our spiritual heritage. RE had a brilliant memory and never forgot anything (Avot 2:8). He also claimed that he never said anything that he did not hear from his teachers. (Much has been written about the meaning of this statement see Rav Reuven Margulies in his Olelot and recently Professor Gilat published a book on R. Eliezer where he addresses the issue). His answer here therefore is quite meaningful.

אמר לו רבי יהודה בן בתירה, אלמד בו. אמר לו, אם לקיים דברי חכמים, הין.

Rabbi Yehudah Ben Beteira offers “Alamed” [to use logical and exegetical tools] to deduce the Halacha for this case. RE responds that if it will support the Chachamim yes, go ahead.
Rambam in his Pirush Hamishnah comments – (my translation/paraphrase)

When RE said I did not hear, he meant that he did not hear a good reason why the person in this case should be segregated. When RYBB suggested that he would give a reason, he told him that if, his reasoning will support segregation and explain the logic for it, to go ahead. However, should he reinforce the question and give more reasons why he should not be segregated, RE did not want to hear it. RE had a kabala that in this case the person has to be segregated but did not know what could happen at the end of the segregation for a conclusive Tume’ah to be decided.

Not being able to think of a reason why a Halacha should be so is not enough to reverse a Mesora of a Halacha. I am not sure to what category of kabala this belongs to, whether the Pirushim Hamekubalim from Sinai or some later Takanah or Gezeirah. The reason I place this Halacha in one of these two categories and not as a precedent decided by an earlier Sanhedrin based on the hermeneutic rules of logic, because those can be reversed by later Sanhedrin. In any case, this gives us a clearer picture of what RE meant when he said he would not say things that he did not learn from his teachers. He meant that he would not second-guess an authentic Mesora and even if he could not figure out the reasoning and come up with a plausible application, he would not amend it. In fact, RYBB came up with a possibility that made sense of the Halacha.

אמר לו, שמא ייוולד לו שחין אחר חוצה לו, ויפסה לתוכו. אמר לו, חכם גדול אתה, שקיימת דברי חכמים

RYBB pointed out that it is possible for the segregated Nega to expand beyond the wound it was covering to an adjoining one that may spring up during the segregation period. That would satisfy the requirement of expansion within a wound as opposed to healthy skin. I am not sure, why this was so far fetched that Rabbi Eliezer could not come up with it, but be it as it may, it is an interesting insight into his thinking. It is also notable, the effusive praise RE gave RYBB for coming up with this possibility, calling him Chacham Gadol.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. When RYBB suggested that he would give a reason, he told him that if, his reasoning will support segregation and explain the logic for it, to go ahead. However, should he reinforce the question and give more reasons why he should not be segregated, RE did not want to hear it.

    This would only seem to make sense as the "Halacha Limoshe Misinai"

    sub-category of Peruhsim Mekubalim.

    Why else would Rabbi Eliezer not want to hear questions that went against the Halacha? Questions against a normal halacha can only be good, the first step toward resolution.

  2. Rabbi Sacks, There is no question that it is a Kabbalah but it could also be a mesorah of a takanah or gezeira that would need a beit that is greater beminyan and Chichma to be overturned.

    BTW Halacha Lemoshe Misinai is quite complicated and is not necessarily Perushim hamekubalim. How would you deal with Shiurim for example that are HLM but are set by the chachomim? Much to talk and a very complicated and difficult subject.

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  5. 1. A kashya is an instrument of Limud, not a first step to overturning. One assumes that the statement is consistent with the system of knowledge and seeks to formulate one's premise on the way to resolution. Why would RE want to avoid this process?

    2. Shamati from R. Chait that a Halacha l'moshe m'sinai, is a logical phenomenon, not a historic one. Such a halacha (Moshe Misinai) serves the function of extending halacha to all cases where it is beyond our hasaga to define the necessity of such extension based upon the system of premises. As such, Halacha Limoshe Misinai types of Halacha can be in Drabanan as well.

    3. In my opinion, if R. Chait's idea were not true, Rabbenu and Bahag would be the same in their misunderstanding of Taryag- Chas Vishalom.

  6. The author seems to have been a Palestinian rabbi; this appears not only from the fact that some of the customs to which he refers (in ch. xiii. and xx.) are known only as Palestinian customs, but also from the fact that nearly all the authorities he quotes are Palestinian, the exceptions being Rav Mesharshia and Rav Shemaiah. In no case can this work be ascribed to R. Eliezer (80-118 C.E.), since he was a tanna, while in the book itself the Pirḳe Abot is quoted. Late Talmudic authorities belonging to the 3rd century C.E., like Shemaiah (ch. xxiii.), Ze'era (ch. xxi., xxix.), and Shila (ch. xlii., xliv.), are also quoted. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!

  7. Duddy- very enjoyable; on your noticing
    "... praise RE gave RYBB for coming up with this possibility, calling him Chacham Gadol" -is that term suitable for comparison to REs own title as HaGadol ?

    Rabbi Sacks if R. Chait was correct; then why pray tell are so many Halachos l'moshe m'sinai seemingly illogical?

    Oh and thank you Vincent Waitzkin for lifting your comment straight from wikipedia,sans your spam at the close.

  8. Amshinover

    What do you mean by illogical?

    If by illogical you mean contradictory to true premises- I do not believe this could be said of Halacha Limoshe MiSinai. Chalila. Ha-Shofet Kol Haaretz, lo yaase Mishpat?

    If by illogical you mean contradictory to common beliefs- so what?

    If by illogical you mean cannot be reduced to first principle- that is my understanding of Rabbi Chait's point. The purpose of HLMM is to enable human action, intelligent action consistent with first principles, in areas where the lack of knowledge of a mind such as ours, reflects itself in the symptom of inability to give an interpretation of necessity to first principle in a particular,limited, area of applications.

    Reb David

    Welcome back!

    1. Your Chacham doesn't sound much like a Chacham to me. Sounds like a potential Chacham.

    2. The Chacham Gadol sounds like a Chacham, of the kind you previously said was impossible.Have we now found an instance of the mythical entity?

    3. What now of the Chasid? Is he greater or less than a Chacham?

    Could it be that the a HLMM in an area of Chok to begin with, in the area of readiness to enter Mikdash, is itself the instrument of transformation?

  9. Rabbi Sacks, I erased the earler comment and reposted a corrected one.

    Thanks Amshi, Chacham according to rambam is one who follows the middle path exactly as opposed to Chassid who is still working on his midot and straying to either directions. So it is an aglomerations of all the Ma'alot and all without extremes. This would fit the situation here well as RYBB was not a revolutionary nor too conservative to avoid questioning, thus finding the answer.

    Gadol and Hagadol are not the same. Gadol in my mind is primary in a hierarchy.There are different so called Midot that have their own hierarchy and Gadol would place one in the top ranks of that hierarchy for example knowledge, Chessed etc... Hagadol connotes the greatest in the hierarchy. HKBH is Hakel Hagadol, which connotes First Cause. RE Hagadol was the greatest Chacham in his time while RYBB was a great Chacham among possibly many others.

  10. Reb David

    1. Are all those who truly, follow Mitzvot, ie as they are taught in a true Mesorah such as Rambam, necessarily Chasids as you define a Chasid?

    2. Are Mitzvot the necessary and sufficient means of being a Chassid?
    ( Extraordinary cases like Avraham, have no impact on the general truth of
    statements 1 and 2).

  11. In 1 and 2 I refer to the beginning of study, until a person becomes a Chacham?

  12. Rabbi Sacks, Re your 1 and 2 see Shemona Perakim perek 4

    וזה, שהתורה לא אסרה מה שאסרה, ולא צוותה מה שצוותה, אלא מפני הסיבה הזאת. רצוני לומר: כדי שנתרחק מן הצד האחד יותר על דרך ההרגל. שכן איסור "המאכלות האסורים" כולם, ואיסור הביאות האסורות, והאזהרה מן הקדשה, וחיוב כתובה וקידושין, ועם כל זה לא תהיה מותרת תמיד, אלא תיאסר בעתות הנידה והלידה, ועם זה סייגו חכמינו למעט התשמיש, והזהירו מזה ביום, כמו שבארנו בסנהדרין - הנה לא צווה אלוהים אלא כדי שנתרחק מקצה "רוב התאווה" ריחוק רב, ונצא מעט מן המיצוע אל צד "העדר הרגשת ההנאה", עד שתתיישב בנפשותינו תכונת הזהירות.

  13. 1. If the shift necessitates a motion to the extreme through the havayot of mitzva, in what sense is Halacha a maase Chassed- an excess of Tov- it is simply the needed tov for havaya.

    2. How can Mitzvot, in essence, both be maase chessed, as well as the middle way of Derech Hashem commanded - ki yidaativ...