Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Healthy Capacity for Self-Awareness

My friend David Bar-Cohen pointed me to a remarkable Gemara in Megillah 12b. It is an Aggadah about Megillas Esther, discussing the events following Vashti's refusal to appear at Achashverosh's party. The Gemara recounts how Achashverosh consulted the Jewish sages for advice on how to treat her, which placed the rabbis in a quandary:

They said [to themselves], What shall we do? If we tell him to have her executed, tomorrow he will demand her from us when the effects of the wine wear off. If we tell him to ignore her, there is a disregard for the kingship. So they said to him, "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, and we were exiled from our land, counsel has been taken from us, and we can no longer judge capital crimes. Go to Ammon and Moav, who are dwelling in their place like wine upon sediment."

In case someone is going to say that Chazal were not telling the truth and were just said this to avoid being put in a tight spot, but that it's not really true, the Gemara continues to confirm that they were speaking the truth:

And what they said is reasonable (Rashi - it was well said and certainly true that Ammon and Moav had more settled minds), as it is written, "Moav has been at peace since his youth, and in tranquility upon his sediment; he has not been poured from vessel to vessel, and has not gone into exile; therefore, his taste stands in him, and his scent has not changed."

This is remarkable! Chazal are attesting that, due to the tribulations of exile, rabbinic judges and scholars lack peace of mind, and are less capable of judging serious matters than their non-Jewish counterparts! Can you imagine anyone saying such a thing today? They'd be slifkinned alive!

Like R. Yehudah HaNasi's acknowledgment in Pesachim 94b of the superiority of the non-Jewish scholar's views, we see that Chazal did not suffer from the "siege mentality" of Jews today. They did not see any reason to automatically deny the possibility of non-Jews possessing certain wisdom that they lacked - even in matters relating to moral and legal judgment, let alone science.

The gulf that separates Chazal from later generations is truly remarkable.


  1. You are leaving out a lot of important information. Sanhedrin did not stop judging capital crimes do to having a less settled mind. There are other gemaras on the topic.

    Just because the gemara quoted a possuk about the maalos of amon and moav does not mean that due to the tribulations of exile, rabbinic judges and scholars lack peace of mind, and are less capable of judging serious matters than their non-Jewish counterparts.

    I intend on commenting later today with the relevant gemaras (unless someone else will have already done so).

  2. Slifkin wrote: "Chazal are attesting that, due to the tribulations of exile, rabbinic judges and scholars lack peace of mind, and are less capable of judging serious matters than their non-Jewish counterparts!" Not exactly. Chazal told the truth, but not the whole truth, because they were in a tight spot. I agree that "Chazal are attesting that, due to the tribulations of exile, rabbinic judges and scholars lack peace of mind" and possess a particular handicap. I do NOT agree that they are attesting that rabbinic judges and scholars are "less capable of judging serious matters than their non-Jewish counterparts." Had they really believed themselves less capable, they would not have considered the possibilities of telling Achashverosh to execute or ignore Vashti.

    I agree, however, that Chazal, as opposed to many Jews today, did not suffer from a "siege mentality."

  3. I didn't intend it as a blanket statement. Of course there are other statements and situations. My point was that they did see this as true to a certain extent. Whereas most people today would not see it as true at all.

  4. A new verb: to slifkin [alive]. It's wonderful, so onomatapoeic.


  5. The gulf that separates Chazal from later generations is truly remarkable.

    Is this sarcasm? I thought you don't believe in yeridas hadoros.

  6. Of course the difficulty with this aggada is that another maamar Chazal states that Sancheriv discombobulated the entire region removing everyone from their own land which means the folks in Moav and Ammon were not really Moabites or Ammonites by the time of the store of Esther.

  7. Is this sarcasm?

    Not at all!

    I thought you don't believe in yeridas hadoros.

    It depends how you define it.

  8. Garnel, the point is not the historicity of it - it's what Chazal were willing to say.

  9. I think Chazal were fudging the truth a bit here. As Cynical Charedi pointed out, Chazal seemed more than willing to offer their advice and only didn't do so because they feared the reprecussions.

    As for Chazal being much different than us: I wonder. Of course it's possible, but sometimes I think that perhpas then, too, there were rationalists, non-rationalists, nationalists, non-nationalists etc. etc.

    Don't various aggadata stories about different rabbis perhaps demonstrate this point (at least to some degree)?

  10. possibly related to this is the following yerushalmi, sanhedrin 1b:
    תני קודם לארבעים שנה עד שלא חרב הבית ניטלו דיני נפשות ובימי שמעון בן שטח ניטלו דיני ממונות. אמר ר"ש בן יוחי בריך רחמנא דלינא חכים מידון.


  11. Hazal's capacity for self-awareness is also demonstrated in comments indicating the superiority of the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, the Talmud Yerushalmi over the Talmud Bavli. See the following excerpts from an article by Rabbi David Bar-Hayim:

    In the Talmud HaBavli (Sanhedrin 24a) we read: "He has placed me in the dark, like those that are long dead" (Eicha 3:6) - Rav Yirmiyah said "this refers to the Talmud of Bavel [Babylon]"! On this, our teacher Rashi leaves us in no doubt as to its meaning: "Their learning is uncertain."

    It is worthwhile to note that Rav Yirmiyah was born in Bavel and came to Erets Yisrael as a young man. He was thus uniquely qualified to discriminate between the Torah of Bavel and that of Erets Yisrael. We are therefore not surprised to find the same Rav Yirmiyah, upon hearing a certain explanation given in Bavel, remarked: "Those foolish Babylonians! It is because they dwell in a land of darkness that they make such dark (incorrect) statements!" (Talmud Bavli, Pesahim 34b). Once again, Rashi is very forthright: "When they do not know the true explanation for something, they come up with incorrect explanations".

    Rav Yirmiyah was not alone in his view of the Torah of Galuth. His teacher, Rav Zera, who was also originally from Bavel, fasted 100 fasts upon coming to Erets Yisrael in order to forget his learning from Bavel (Talmud Bavli, Bava Mezia 85a). Rashi states plainly that this refers to the Babylonian Talmud's methodology. We should also note that these statements about the Torah of Bavel are found in the Talmud HaBavli itself. There is no attempt to hide this information (!).

    All of the above can only be understood in light of the observation of our Sages on the verses "And the gold of that land is good (Bereshith 2:12) and "There is no Torah like the Torah of Erets Yisrael, and no wisdom like the wisdom of Erets Yisrael" (Bereshith Raba 16,4). The words of Rav Yirmiyah, Rav Zera, and Rashi make it clear that the difference is very real; that this is in no way an exaggeration

  12. Bereishit Rabba is the aggada of the amoraim of Eretz Yisrael as well. So we have a group of Amoraim who wound up in Eretz Yisrael, and thus felt they were in possession of the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, who said this. that the Talmud Bavli does not hide this information is not surprising. i would expect Chazal to have the intellectual integrity to report statements such as these, in the name of those who made them, even if it were insulting or even if other Amoraim of Bavel would disagree with the sentiment.

    kol tuv,

  13. a better example would be that of a scholar who remained in Eretz Yisrael yet admitted that the Torah of Bavel was better.

    for example, Rabbi Yochanan in Bava Kamma 117b, who after seeing the Torah of Rav Kahana remarks: 'What I had believed to be yours was In fact theirs.'

    yours = the scholars of Eretz Yisrael
    theirs = the scholars of Bavel

    note: i actually am a big fan of Yerushalmi, and made a siyum on shas Yerushalmi a few years back. and i really think that *both* Bavli and Yerushalmi have much to contribute to our knowledge. i dislike the triumphalist pro-Yerushalmi attitude, though, and so responded as i did.

    kol tuv,

  14. Hey Rabbi! This is the student you met at Shabbos dinner. I decided to make a blogger account and start posting comments now.

    This is a very intriguing gemara, but having never learned mesechet megillah, I have no clue as to what context this was written and therefore I'm having a hard time evaluating its contents objectively.

    Can you please elaborate on the context in which this dialogue was cited? And furthermore, you know as well as I do that there have been rishonim who have openly attested to the wisdom of non-Jewish nations in certain contexts, for example, the Rambam.

  15. Yehudah - as I pointed out, the continuation of the Gemara with the drashah shows that Chazal genuinely acknowledged that they were at a disadvantage.

    "Collective Antics" - it's good to speak to you again! How about using a name instead of a moniker? You can use a fake name if you prefer. In answer to your question - there doesn't seem to be a significant larger context here. And the reason why this is significant beyond the statements of the Rishonim is that this is not about scientific matters.

  16. One can find various statements about the relative merits of the Bavli and Yerushalmi talmudim and their respective styles of learning. Certainly the Bavli is more complete than the few Yerushalmi manuscripts that we possess. The Yerushalmi style of learning is far less argumentative and dialectical than the Bavli (As Rav Ashi remarked in perek Hatecheilit about Ravina who had just come from Judea, " one of them is like two of us"). It is more transmission of the accepted halachot and rationales from generation to generation than the independent analysis and dialectics of the Bavli. Yet, Rav Yehuda insisted that the quality and breath of Oral Torah study in Bavel was superior to that in Judea. That was why he adamantly opposed students leaving Bavel for Judea (end of T.B. Ketubot).

  17. Rabbi,
    The breakdown of the gemara seems to be like this.
    Achashverosh asked the Jewish Scholars to judge Vashti. they did not want to answer so as not to be liable for the outcome, since either way they could end up being hurt. Therefore they told Achashverosh that they no longer have the wisdom to judge capital punishment, and reccomended asking the scholars of Ammon and Moav (see Tosfos for a textual ammendmant)
    Till here we all pretty much agree.
    Now is the next part.
    The gemara continues to cite a passuk showing that the rabbis answer was correct because people that are not in their own land wil not have the same wisdom as those who are in their own land. (Rashi explains it more blatantly "yafeh...")
    I do not see that the rabbis are agreeing that other scholars are greater than them, rather the gemara is stating that their answer makes sense since people on the run can not think as clearly as people who have tranquility (sheket).
    That does not mean that the scholars of Ammon and Moav were clearer headed than one who studies Torah, rather that the answer the rabbis gave is true as a general rule(perhaps and therefore believable).
    I do honestly believe that Torah makes one wiser. I also believe that Daas Torah is a part of Orthodox Judaism. Though I also believe that it has come to mean something other than it really means. Daas Torah is not a person's view, no matter how great he is. The Torah is our moral guide, and therefore should be used as a way of telling us what to do outside of what is clearly halachik. Of course since we are dealing with a vast Torah, different opinions arise due to complex questions and empahsis on different Torah morals. That is what Daas Torah ideally means. Somewhere along the line it became rabbis statements and leverage used to pull rank.
    Back to Achashverosh, "Daas Torah" was the smartest view. It told the rabbis to stay out of it.

  18. Harazieili: Mateh Dan [Cuzari Sheni] [hebrewbooks 22434; in english as "The Rabbis' Advocate", Yashar books] 2:151-156 insists that R. Yirmiya didn't literally consider the Babylonians fools. A "fool" is someone who thinks illogically. But R. Yirmiya finds fault with them for their not knowing a Beraita. That is not being a "fool"; besides, an Amorah is not responsible to know every Beraita. Rather, R. Yirmiya was speaking 'derech sechok vechibah'. He adds proof to this from Bava Kama 117 as quoted by Josh.

    Garnel: your difficulty is compounded by the fact that Sanherebian combobulation is invoked to allow marriage specifically to a resident of the lands of Amon & Moab; IIRC in the Mishna in Yadayim and in Gemara Berachot 29 regarding the deposing of R. Gamliel.

  19. Sorry about that Rabbi! I'll be posting using my name now. Oh, and Rabbi Arram says hello.

    And back on topic, I see now why this is significant. Thanks for your response.

    Could you perhaps give a more elaborate response to ephraim's question regarding yeridas hadoros? I'm interested in your perspective on this. I'm guessing you've already written something with your views though... So if you have could I have a link please? Thanks!

  20. It says that Amon wasn't affected vis-a-vis the people of Israel that were. Where does it say they were superior?

    The Rashi seems to adress why they chose those nations over others.

    You didn't discover this Gemara. Eched min Ham quotes it several times.

  21. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I do not at all read the gemara that way. The continuatuion of the gemara is explaining why what Chazal said is "reasonable," or why it was true enough so as not to constitute a lie.

    It seems clear to me from the beginning of the gemara that Chazal seemed confident in their ability to give advice and would have done so if they weren't scared of the repercussions.

    (Rabbi Slifkin, I have no axe to grind here. I agree with your general approach and have no problem with Chazal admitting that someone else could give better advice. I just don't think this gemara says that.)

  22. I took a look at the rashi today. He doesn't say anything about Ammon and Moav having more settled minds than the minds of the sages of Israel. All the gemara and rashi is saying is that Amon and Moav had very settled minds.

    When the gemara explained the Sages' thought process, it made it very clear that the sages were capable of judging this case but chose not to for fear of repercussions. They made up an excuse to get out of judging the case (counsel has been taken from us). They sought to prove their excuse from the fact that they had stopped judging capital crimes since the golus. However this was not the actual reason that they stopped judging capital crimes.

    The gemara in Avodah zorah 8b learns out from a posuk that no bais din may judge capital crimes when the sanhedrin are not in their place on the har habayis.

  23. Rashi explicitly states that what the sages said to Achashverosh was true i.e. it was not just said to brush him off.

    וטעמא אמרו ליה - ויפה אמרו לו, דודאי כן הוא, שמתוך שהאדם שקט דעתו מיושבת עליו, שנאמר שאנן מואב מנעוריו ושוקט הוא אל שמריו וסיפיה דקרא על כן עמד טעמו בו וריחו לא נמר:

  24. Josh,

    Regarding Rabbi David Bar-Hayim's comments on the Talmud Yerushalmi:

    All of Hazal's literature is precious and needs to be studied with an open mind, taking into account historical and political contexts. However, there is no question that the Torah of Eretz Yisrael is on a higher plane and of a different order of magnitude, and this is indicated both by sources in the Bavli and Yerushalami.

    Your citation of R' Yochanan simply indicates that R' Yochanan was duly impressed by the scholarship of R' Kahane when he was exposed to his level of learning. This does not buttress an argument against what I have stated regarding the Torah of Eretz Yisrael being on a higher plane, etc.

    I should also note in order to not misrepresent Rav Bar-Hayim's teachings that regardless of what I have stated-intellectual honesty is of supreme importance and thus regarding those issues for which it can be conclusively shown that the Bavli's argumentation is more cogent than the Yerushalmi's then the Rav's approach is not to dismiss the Bavli just because the Yerushalmi states otherwise.

  25. Rabbi,
    "Rashi explicitly states that what the sages said to Achashverosh was true i.e. it was not just said to brush him off."
    yes, that it is true that settled people think more clearly. not that the scholars of Amon and Moav are better.

  26. What do you mean "better"? The point is that they had a certain advantage that the Jewish sages lacked, which put them in a better position to judge capital crimes.

  27. Sorry, that anon is me,in a better position maybe, but not that they are clearer.
    there are many aspects of getting a better (for lack of word. clearer, more accurate, true, etc.) answer.
    one of them is being a settled person. That does not have to mean that the wisdom of a settled person who has no Torah wisdom would give a better answer than that of an unsettled person who has Torah wisdom.

  28. "However, there is no question that the Torah of Eretz Yisrael is on a higher plane and of a different order of magnitude, and this is indicated both by sources in the Bavli and Yerushalami."
    i think that there is such a question, and that one cannot take partisan statements and swallow them unquestioningly. we should take into account who said it, in what tone they might have said it, and in what context.

    but i think what really bothers me is that it is the first (indeed concrete) step towards a partisan rewriting of halacha, in ways that appear to me to often not have firm basis. and since other poskim are operating on a different plane (that of Bavli), it is easy for someone to state the halacha is X, while dismissing every existing baal plugta bizman hazeh on methodological grounds. i would be more confident doing it myself than have others doing this. ;)

    case in point, my dispute with rabbi bar chaim about birkat hachama. see here and then here. I feel that he unfairly dismisses the Bavli as being corrupt, and then proceeds to misunderstand what the Yerushalmi is saying, taking a statement which is to modify טיהרו and wrongly applying it to תקופתו.

    But it seems part of a general theme of dismissing Bavli in favor of Yerushalmi.

    Historically, various Rishonim came
    up with (perhaps partisan) reasons to dismiss Yerushalmi in favor of Bavli. For example, Rif at the end of Eruvin that since the Bavli was redacted later, the Bavli surely knew all of Yerushalmi more than us, and if they don't cite it, it is not to be relied upon. Of that the Yerushalmi was written under shmad, and they are justifying practices. This counterargument strikes me at least as partisan.

    But really, it just gets me annoyed. Much like when people tell me (as they have) that we have to listen to the Gedolim of Eretz Yisrael over the Gedolim in America because it is Toras Eretz Yisrael and Ki Mitziyon Teitzei Torah.

    kol tuv,

  29. Josh-I hope to comment more later, but in the meantime I would note that Rav Bar-Hayim's position on birkath hahama has nothing to do with automatically dismissing the Bavli, but everything to do with the fact that none of the Geonim make any mention whatsoever of birkath hahama being said every 28years. This is at least one of the reasons that Rav Bar-Hayim believes that the current version of the Bavli reflects a corruption of the text\later interpolation.

    I personally am not familiar with the Yerushalmi which you state that Rav Bar-Hayim misunderstands, but I will state that I have yet to see someone upshlug the Rav (though it is not my hashqafa to believe that he is perfect.)

    Rav Bar-Hayim is not an advocate of dismissing the Bavli. He simply wants to put the Yerushalmi back in the center after this status was lost for historical reasons.

  30. " but everything to do with the fact that none of the Geonim make any mention whatsoever of birkath hahama being said every 28years."
    yes, i am aware. but as someone who *often* engages in mechkar, i can state that it is highly irregular to write out a statement by a *named* Amora as a late interpolation. you would need to either posit deliberate lying by the stamaim, or give a mechanism by which the named Amora (Abaye) would be accidentally associated with a stammaic statement.

    the lack of geonic mention could readily be accounted for, on the basis that by their time, the calendar had already shifted past Rav Ashi's estimate, and so they did not feel they could accurately apply it lehalacha, since that time was not the coeecrt tekufa.

    "I personally am not familiar with the Yerushalmi which you state that Rav Bar-Hayim misunderstands,"
    read my second linked post. it quotes the yerushalmi and analyzes it.

    "but I will state that I have yet to see someone upshlug the Rav"
    without knowing your level of expertise and those around him engaging him, i am not certain that this is so meaningful. of course, you don't know me either.

    from my own perspective, of course, i am a big baal gaava and would assert that my own credentials match his, and that i have come up with reinterpretations of gemaras on the basis of yerushalmi's at least as well... :)

    kol tuv,

  31. "The point is that they had a certain advantage that the Jewish sages lacked"

    That's your point, not Rashi's.

    Rashi expicitly states his point,שמתוך שהאדם שקט דעתו מיושבת עליו,

  32. Right. So Ammon and Moav had yishuv hadaas, but the Jews didn't.

    I.e., they had a certain advantage that the Jews lacked.

  33. "Right. So Ammon and Moav had yishuv hadaas, but the Jews didn't."

    Nowhere did Rashi say that the Jews did not have yishuv hadas.

    The Jews were in exile which is definitely a disadvantage but we don't know how the sages were affected by it. They may have still had more yishuv hadas than Amon.

    "they had a certain advantage that the Jews lacked"

    And if you had an artscroll gemara and I did not, would you say that you were more qualified than I to read a gemara because you had an advantage that I lacked?

    Obviously our ability to read a gemara depends on many other factors. Yes, Amon had an advantage that the Jews lacked, a peaceful life which is beneficial for the mind, but this did not make them more qualified as judges.

    Again, it is clear from the gemara that the sages felt that they were qualified to judge this case but chose not to due to fear of repercussions.

    It is also clear that the sages were not being completely honest with their response. They gave an incorrect reason for their decision to stop judging capital crimes.

  34. are you sure you're not overreading/being too literal and what it means is that they're safer and freer to come to a firm conclusion and speak it aloud to achashverosh b/c there are fewer consequences for amon and moav who are not exiled?


    in general, despite the fact that there's a technical reason that they couldn't judge capital cases i.e. b/c the sanhedrin is not in place, still it seems to me that the loss of the powers of sanhederin is part of the golus in jewish thought.
    It seems to me that exile in our thought consists of a) loss of knowledge, greater confusion and therefore greater dialetic (this is IMO what toras e"y vs toras bavel is about, we are in the darkness due to more forgetting, which forces creativity) and b) loss of power and authority snd maybe even moral stature such that we simply can't do what was once done. And see point A - we have less certainty too. And this type of aggadata seems to confirm that the absence of sanhedrin's power is not just a technical result, but represents something about our exiled status.

    However, the contrast with amon and moav may only mean that they are more secure and therefore can settle on what to say to the king, whereas we can't b/c we are at risk. Still, I think the statement about not being able to judge capital cases is a statement about how they perceive themselves - stripped of power/authority/certainty etc in exile.


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