Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The 772nd Yahrzeit

Tonight is the 772nd yahrzeit of Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. He was a fascinating figure with many dimensions, but of particular relevance to this website is his Maamar Al Derashos Chazal, where he discusses the Sages' knowledge of the natural world:

...we are not obliged, on account of the great superiority of the sages of the Talmud, and their expertise in their explanations of the Torah and its details, and the truth of their sayings in the explanation of its general principles and details, to defend them and uphold their views in all of their sayings in medicine, in science and in astronomy, or to believe them [in those matters] as we believe them regarding the explanation of the Torah, which they had completely mastered and which it was their role to teach, as it says, "According to the Torah that they teach you" (Deuteronomy 17:11).

You can see the full section in Hebrew and English at this link. Actually, it's a pity that the idea that Chazal were not infallible in science has come to be known as "Rabbeinu Avraham's view," since, as shown in my monograph "The Sun's Path at Night," this was a normative view amongst the Rishonim. Labeling it as "Rabbeinu Avraham's view," as Rav Aharon Feldman does, downgrades it from a normative view amongst Rishonim and Acharonim to the minority view of an obscure figure. The probably cause of this attribution is that Rabbeinu Avraham's discussion of this idea is so explicit and well-known.

Another assault upon the treatise of Rabbeinu Avraham has been to claim that it is a forgery(!). This claim was made by Rav Moshe Shapiro and will soon be published by Rabbi Moshe Meiselman in his book "The Torah of Science" (along with some spectacular revisionism of the Rav). Again, it is strange that anti-rationalists take this strategy, since even getting Rabbeinu Avraham out of the way does not help with the fact that the fallibility of Chazal in scientific matters is a perfectly normative view held by dozens and dozens of Rishonim and Acharonim. But, since these rabbonim are apparently unaware of this fact, they see it as valuable to dismiss Rabbeinu Avraham's treatise as a forgery.

Needless to say, there are absolutely no serious grounds for considering it to be a forgery. In the past, I have been in touch with Professor Paul B. Fenton, who is probably the world's greatest expert on Rabbeinu Avraham, about this. Today, I noticed that he recently published a seminal article entitled "Maimonides—Father and Son: Continuity and Change" in Traditions of Maimonideanism (Ed. Carlos Fraenkel), where a footnote reveals that additional genizah fragments of the Kifâyat al-‘abidîn (Rabbeinu Avraham's original work from which the treatise on Aggadah was extracted) are continually coming to light:

One particular chapter of the Kifâya, that dealing with the interpretation of the Midrash, came to be considered as a separate composition and was thrice translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages and in the sixteenth century, with the title Ma'amar al ha-aggadôt.(39) In recent times fragments from the original Arabic have been discovered in the genizah.(40) Let us not forget that Maimonides also intended to compose a special work on the interpretation of the midrash from a philosophical standpoint, but this desire too remained unfulfilled. Perhaps this chapter by Abraham is to be also perceived as the son’s realization of his father’s wish, although, as we shall see presently, in a specific paragraph of this section, Abraham inveighs against philosophy.

39 An ancient anonymous translation is to be found in ms. Neubauer 1649, copied in Poland in 1465. It was published and printed several times from this manuscript, for example in Kerem Hemed 2 (1836), pp. 7–61; Maimonides, Qôbez II, pp. 40–43, and recently in R. Abraham Maimonides, Milhamôt ha-shem, pp. 81–98. A second translation was made in the East in the sixteenth century by Abraham Ibn Migash (See A. Harkavy, Hadashim gam yeshanim 10 (1896), p. 87) and a third, in the same century, in the Maghreb by Vidal Sarfati of Fez in the introduction to his commentary on the Midrash rabba, Imrey yôsher, Warsaw, 1874.

40 See E. Hurwitz, Ma'amar al ’ôdôt derashôt Hazal, Joshua Finkel Memorial Volume, New York, 1974, pp. 139–168. To the fragments discovered by the latter scholar, can be added the following two Genizah fragments we have identified: Westminster College, Arabica II.39 and AIU, Paris IIA 1, which originally belonged to the same manuscript.

If you haven't yet studied Rabbeinu Avraham's treatise, the 18th of Kislev would be a great day to do so!

(Thanks for Menachem Butler for inspiring this post and showing me various source material.)


  1. I hope that you realize, Rav Slifkin, that the more successful you are in bringing about in the way Torah-observant Jews view Torah and history (b'Ezrat HaShem), then the more chance there will be of opponents hundreds of years from now suspecting your works to be forgeries as well...


  2. The idea of Rav Avraham having a yahrzeit is utterly preposterous.

    At most it could be an Azkara.

  3. Zohar -

    Is it really worth such harsh language over what essentially amounts to semantics?

  4. Asher

    It's not just semantics. (is "preposterous" really harsh language?)

    A yartzeit is done for the benefit of the departed soul. An azkara is for the benefit of the living, that we should take this occaision to reflect back on the departed and what their life and teachings meant to us.

    I strongly suspect that Rav Slifkin meant to tease us with this header, but I suspected that his wit may have been lost on some of the more gentle readers, such as...


  5. I never heard of a differentiation between a Yahrtzeit and an Azkara (coming from Chareidi circles). So, if there was wit here, it was lost on me.

    In Yeshivish circles they celebrate the "Yahrtzeit" of Rachel Imeinu. I am still wondering how they know the date she died. Where does it say what the date was?

  6. If anyone is looking for it in print, it is printed in hebrew by Mosad Rav Kuk, in collection of essays under title "Milchamot Hashem by Rav Avraham ben Rambam". It is the first essay in the book.

  7. Michapeset, I think Rachel's yahrtzeit is mentioned in Yalkut Shimoni, Shemos 162.

    This answers your question, but not the statement before the question.

  8. Oh, and of course there's a machlokes about the date:

  9. Two corrections are in order.
    1) No-one I've heard or read condemns people as heretics for merely saying Chazal were not infallible and never made mistakes.

    The unique shitta of Rav Arvaham was that WE can determine based on OUR understanding that Chazal erred. This explains why Rav Feldman singled out Rav Avraham.
    This is a most unique shita and certainly not normative!

    (I know you deny this but you have yet to produce the relevant texts which support your contention otherwise)

    2) No-one thinks the entire treatise on Aggados by Rav Avraham is a complete forgery.
    The claim is that there were later insertions-- including the controversial passage you quoted in the post. To this there is overwhelming evidence for and no-one whose seen the various stages of manuscript questions it.

    Sorry to always be so critical of your posts, but the truth needs to be heard.

  10. No-one I've heard or read condemns people as heretics for merely saying Chazal were not infallible

    Well, I guess you've never heard Rav Moshe Shapiro or Rav Wachtfogel, or read Chaim B'Emunasam.

    The unique shitta of Rav Arvaham was that WE can determine based on OUR understanding that Chazal erred.

    What he says is that Chazal's statements about the world were not based on mesorah/ruach hakodesh. What the Gedolim say is that they were ALL based on mesorah/ruach hakodesh. Clearly, all the Rishonim and Acharonim in my list align with his position, not that of the Gedolim.

    To this there is overwhelming evidence for and no-one whose seen the various stages of manuscript questions it.

    Are you claiming that the manuscript experts agree that this passage was not written by Rabbeinu Avraham? That's simply nonsense. Just ask Paul Fenton. Or did you mean something else?

    Sorry to always be so critical of your posts, but the truth needs to be heard.

    The truth is that you are a rabid anti-Slifkinite and fanatical Gedolim supporter. There's no other explanation for how, in a year of commenting, you post 131 objections to what I write and not one positive thing.

  11. Wouldn't that be his Hilula.


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