Friday, January 20, 2012

Is Talmudic Science Rated As Torah?

When Chazal discuss their views on matters relating to the physical world, which have now been rendered obsolete, is this still considered to be Torah? May one study it in the bathroom? Must one say birchas haTorah before studying it? Or is it bittul Torah to spend time on it?

There are different categories to discuss here. One is scientific information that does not relate to Scripture, halachah or theology in any way; for example, the medical remedies in the Gemara. If the medical texts of Rambam are not considered Torah, why would the medical texts of Chazal be considered Torah?

Another category would be scientific information that Chazal attempt to derive from Scripture - for example, the exegeses from Scripture via which Chazal deduce that the sun travels behind the sky or along the horizon at night, and the exegeses via which they deduce the nature of the "firmament."

Of course, the answer to this question depends on how you define "Torah." Is Torah that which was given at Sinai? Or is "Torah" man's attempt to understand and develop that which was given at Sinai? The first definition seems a little narrow; but the second definition is somewhat ambiguous.

Rav Moshe Shapiro commented to a number of people that if anything in the Gemara was nothing more than obsolete scientific beliefs, it would be bittul Torah to learn it. Since we know that people such as the Vilna Gaon were virtually never mevattel Torah, it must be that Chazal were never merely discussing science. Accordingly, everything in the Gemara is discussing metaphysical matters, and is Torah.

But this, of course, stands in contrast to the opinion of most (and perhaps all) Geonim and Rishonim. 

Rabbi Moshe Meiselman claims that when Chazal related mistaken beliefs about cosmology or spontaneous generation, they were merely offering their own opinion on scientific matters, which were therefore fallible, rather than expounding the Torah. I'm not sure if he therefore considers that these things are not Torah. But in any case, his position is inherently flawed, because Chazal did indeed invoke derashos for their views on cosmology and spontaneous generation.

So what's the bottom line? Personally, I have no idea.

35 comments:

  1. since the nafka mina you list is bittul torah or making a blessing, one must recall that in hazal there are various opinions about what learning requires a blessing -- how 'torah' is defined. that is under the hood of your question.

    obsolete scientific knowledge is still 'wisdom' and worthy of study as 'talmud' -- one must learn not only how the world was and how it is perceived today. we must understand how the world was perceived by the sages in order to fully grasp their message.

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  2. Is stuying a refuted hava amina in the gemara bitul torah?
    I don't belive so. Same goes for this.

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  3. Rav Shapiros arguments seem very flawed.
    We know that the vilna gaon wasn't reading hello magazine, but that has no bearing on whether excerpts of the gemara he never took his eyes away from were considered real torah.
    Only someone who has been to heaven can decide if he was mevatel torah!.
    Essentially rav shapiro is taking one definition of bittul torah (what we observed about the vilna gaon), and using it to prove a point using another defintion of bittul torah (the sin of bittul torah).
    Flawed logic.

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  4. Is it possible that the truth lies somewhere in between? That chazal were not necessarily always speaking about metaphysical matters when they discussed science (although maybe at times they were), but that their status as chazal endows their scientific discussions with a special importance, even if at times they were mistaken? That by studying their views on science, we can extract something about the minds of chazal, which means the minds of people imbued with Torah, even if the actual scientific facts turn out to have been mistaken? After all, much of what we consider to be the heart of the gemora consists of legal matters that non-Jews would consider mundane, but we consider holy. Why should scientific discussions be considered any less holy? The difference between science and law is that science can be disproved, but law just is. It can be changed, but it really isn't subject to proof. This brings us to a difficult point - we believe that legal statements in the gemora derive from divine revelation, but do we believe the same of the gemora's scientific statements? I think, however, that even if the answer to the latter question is no, the fact that these scientific discussions are wrapped up in the discussion of chazal about matters with their origin in divine revolution imparts to these discussions a certain kedusha, whether or not some of the facts at issue represent empirical truth.

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  5. Much like studying "obselete" halachos , I think the abovementioned discussions are nevertheless real Torah is most respects. Just my opinion…

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  6. You MUST say anything in the Talmud is considered Torah. For if you start drawing distinctions, there is no end to the matter. What about all the passages discussing the merit of learning Torah - is that, itself, Torah? How can it be, if it is discussing Torah as though it were something separate?

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  7. I just added the following question to the post:

    If the medical texts of Rambam are not considered Torah, why would the medical texts of Chazal be considered Torah?

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  8. See Shabbat 41a: Rav Zeira listens to Rav Yehudah give medical advice in a bathhouse. The conversation is recorded in the Talmud. Yet, since it was spoken in a bathhouse, it obviously does not qualify as Torah – as the Gemara makes clear.

    For full quotation, see http://torahandscience.blogspot.com/2006/04/shabbat-41a.html.

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  9. If the medical texts of Rambam are not considered Torah, why would the medical texts of Chazal be considered Torah?

    I think DF's comment makes a lot of sense, and applies to this question as well. It's just not practical to start separating the gemora into koddesh and chol components. Moreover, I believe the process of "canonization" of the gemora endows all of its contents with kedusha - not in some metaphysical way, but because the editorial decision to include something in the final version indicates a value judgment by the editor that the content is worthy of being considered "Torah." A separate book on medicine would not be subject to the same considerations, even if written by the Rambam. But I don't think anyone would argue that studying the halachas on health and fitness found in the Rambam and the subsequent codes is not Torah study.

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  10. I agree that canonization may play a role.

    (Baruch, by the way, please e-mail me.)

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  11. but because the editorial decision to include something in the final version indicates a value judgment by the editor that the content is worthy of being considered "Torah."
    ========================
    so studying the statement "ushmartem et nafshoteichem" and it's halachic implications is torah, studying how to implement through diet and excercise is not? By the intermediate value theorom, how do you know when you've passed out of the realm of torah?
    KT
    Joel Rich

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  12. Okay, we get it.
    Your rabbis in your ancient book were discussing their superstitions and ignorance. Now can we move on?

    Just kidding.
    Gut shabbes.

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  13. See Shabbat 41a: Rav Zeira listens to Rav Yehudah give medical advice in a bathhouse. The conversation is recorded in the Talmud. Yet, since it was spoken in a bathhouse, it obviously does not qualify as Torah – as the Gemara makes clear.

    For full quotation, see http://torahandscience.blogspot.com/2006/04/shabbat-41a.html.


    On this surface, I'm not sure that this proves your point. Presumably one is allowed to give commands in a bathhouse that are implied by Torah requirements without being considered to learn Torah in a bathhouse.

    For, consider this hypothetical alternative to the Gemara: Rav Yehudah walks into the bathhouse, sees his son there, and asks his son to leave so that Rav Yehudah can undress. R' Zeira overhears this and learns that a son should not use the bathhouse with his father. Undoubtedly that is Torah, and yet the story would play out the same way.

    In writing this, I am assuming that the text from בשלמא onward is editorial commentary added later and was not part of the original conversation at the bathhouse. If I am wrong about that, then your point is stronger.

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  14. " Rabbi Meiselman's idea is inherently flawed..."

    Rabbi Slifkin, Very often, the confusion begins with one's assumptions. The problem is the understanding of Torah" & "non-Torah" as two incompatible spheres that never meet, or even overlap. If you start with that presumption, and take it (as some Ashkenazic traditions have done) to it's extreme logical conclusion, you of course wind up with some far fetched notions.

    If I read a book or attend a lecture on child-rearing, can't I just say I want to learn to be a better parent? Do I really have to say that this is be be "mekayim the mitzvah of ve-shinantam le-banecha" in order to justify the time spent?

    Additionaly, keep in mind that one may easily quote Tanach while being fully engaged in a secular activity - for example, Israeli archaeologists use Sefer Yehoshua to locate promising dig sites.

    Are they engaged in "Torah"? No! But then again, they don't have to be engaged in Torah 24/7! That's silly.

    Ezra

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  15. "If the medical texts of Rambam are not considered Torah, why would the medical texts of Chazal be considered Torah?"

    That was my very first thought when I saw the title. I would add the first chapter of Sefer Daniel, which has more advanced scientific methodology than the secular world would have until the 18th century!

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  16. This is a very intersting issue that I've wondered about for some time. I think it can framed without any neccesary link to rationalism or otherwise.
    That being said, is it possible that at the chasimas hashas the gemara was "cannonized" and thereby rendred torah? E.G. When we read Pharoh's idiotic claims, I'm pretty sure it's torah, even if he sounds like Ghaddafi or something.
    Like you though, I'd like to find a 'bottom line' and I'll be interested to see what others think.
    I think this would make for a good Hirhurim post.

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  17. The Mishna itself, Pirkei Avos 3:23, notes the difference:

    רבי אלעזר בן חסמא אומר, קנין ופתחי נדה הן הן גופי הלכות, תקופות וגמטריאות פרפראות לחכמה.

    Rabbi Eliezer ben Chisma said: The laws of bird-offerings and the laws regarding the beginning of menstrual periods - these are the essential laws; astronomy and mathematics are like the seasonings of wisdom.

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  18. You're left in the same cleft stick I've already remarked on.

    If Torah is true and eternal you are left with a bad choice. You can cut away every bit which is falsified as not being "real" Torah and come up with increasingly convoluted reasoning to make the distictions while preserving the tradition of infallibility. Or you can become increasingly harsh and shrill in your denials of reality.

    If Torah is protean enough to withstand every advance in knowledge and continual reinterpretation, then where is that solid rock on which you can build faith?

    If it is both immutable and conveniently changeable, then what is it but the reification of human prejudice?

    And if it is neither, then it can hardly be said to be anything at all.

    With a tip o' the hat to Epicurus of Samos

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  19. Canonization is a tricky historical matter. Talmudic writings were not all canon when they were written. The canonization of gemara did not happen until centuries after the fact. And at that we only get to see the sanitized results, the winners who were granted the status of Divinely guided when the human process was finished.

    Even the canonization of Tanakh and Neviim took hundreds of years and was the subject of intense, sometimes violent controversy at the time.

    So what do we have? We have a tradition of scholarship and a number of texts, each of which is at least partially the product of dedicated effort and truth-seeking over the course of many lifetimes. An approach which emphasizes the active search for truth might serve Jews better than passive acceptence of increasingly error-riddled arbitrary authority.

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  20. Here's the more important question: Did Chazal consider their scientific discussions Torah?
    I mean, think about it: the Tanaim and Amoraim were having conversations that wound up making up the bulk of the Gemara. Just like the most intense physicists in the world will occasionally discuss non-physics matters so too the most intense Torah scholars in the world also mentioned other stuff from time to time. Did they consider it Torah?

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  21. Rav Moshe Shapiro commented to a number of people that if anything in the Gemara was nothing more than obsolete scientific beliefs, it would be bittul Torah to learn it. Since we know that people such as the Vilna Gaon were virtually never mevattel Torah, it must be that Chazal were never merely discussing science. Accordingly, everything in the Gemara is discussing metaphysical matters,
    and is Torah.

    Then, what to do with this?

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  22. The word "Torah" is translated as teachings, and Torah as we all know, is called the "Torah of truth."

    Any teaching that is rendered incorrect i.e. false, is not Torah.

    Why would it matter where it comes from?

    Furthermore, any halachah derived from a false assumption is like the "Fruit of the poisonous tree."
    I.e. Whatever comes from falsehood is falsehood.

    All this is realy a no brainer.

    The real problem is that too many Yeshiva students are taught to believe that anything and everything in the the Gemara is true, no matter what.
    And when faced with the real truth, they instantaneously put a spin on it, saying, e.g. you don't understand, you have to look at it standing on your head and scratch your nose with your big toe, and then if you hold your breath, then maybe you'll see that their mistake was realy intentionally to teach us something that we will first only see in a future time.Or something to that nature.
    o

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  23. I asked Rav Hershel Schechter this exact question, and he told me unequivocally that it would not be considered talmud torah.

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  24. re: Baruch Gitlin's comment "that their status as chazal endows their scientific discussions with a special importance, even if at times they were mistaken"--Cf. R. Kook's comment about the Rambam's Aristotelianism (Ma’amarei ha-ra’ayah vol. 1, p. 105): חלילה לנו להוציא לעז של חיצוניות וקל וחומר של יוניות וזרות על אלה הדעות אשר קדשתם רוחו הקדוש של רבינו הגדול הרמב"ם ז"ל

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  25. See Shabbos 82a for the answer to your question

    אמר ליה רב הונא לרבה בריה מאי טעמא לא שכיחת קמיה דרב חסדא דמחדדן שמעתיה אמר ליה מאי איזיל לגביה דמותיב לי במילי דעלמא [פירש״י מושיבני לפניו בדברי חנם שאינו תורה]

    The gemorrah proceeds recording medicinal advice that Rav chisda would relate in his lecture which rabbah referred to as מילי דעלמא.

    At the conclusion of examples, Rav Huna replies - הוא עסיק בחיי דברייתא ואת אמרת במילי דעלמא כ״ש זיל לגביה.

    One could understand this statement in a variety of ways. It seems that he agrees with the notion that it is not Torah, but might have even greater value than Torah since it is related to preservation of life itself -חיי דברייתא.

    So then, כל שכן, obsolete science is not Torah.

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  26. I also heard Rav Schachter say that the medicinal advice in Gitin is bitul torah to learn.
    I think that any learning which deepens your understanding of reality is to be considered Torah in that Torah is the ongoing enterprise of understanding reality, NOT the study of ancient texts.
    Rambam Deot 3:2
    צריך האדם שיכוון לבו וכל מעשיו כולם לידע את השם ב"ה בלבד ויהיה שבתו וקומו ודבורו לעומת זה הדבר
    In that context the Woody Allen film, Match Point, that I watched last night,brushed up on my Dostoevsky on wikipedia and had a discussion with my wife about the nature of Judgement, was most certainly Torah!

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  27. Learning non-torah material that has value is neither talmud torah nor bittul torah. No one can possibly learn torah 24/7. Is shopping for food or clothes bittul torah? Or talking to one's family members? Or paying one's bills? These are required life activities so cannot be considered sinful (bittul torah) but there is no mitzvah of talmud torah being perfomed. So too with learning obsolete medical or scientific information. If there is value in learning what the ancients believed - it is not bittul torah or talmud torah, if there is no value - it is bittul zman (and bittul torah if it comes at the expense of learning torah).

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  28. Mordechai Gordon, I don't think everythiing you do is Torah. This is twisted. In Hakdoma Laperush Hamishnaious Rambam interprets the maamar Chazal 'Ein LaKadosh Boruch Hu beolomo ela arba amos she'll halocha bilvad' as conceptually refering to all wisdom. Here we are discussing the Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu. No bircas haTorah can be made on readig Epicurus or Wikipidia. This, I think, is pshita. I don't know the answer to the question posed here.

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  29. David Ohsie -- Your point about Shabbat 41a is well taken.

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  30. Rabbi Slifkin,

    The solution in regard to birchat hatorah is simple according to the Rambam.

    Rambam in Hilchot Tefilah,7:11, says that one should make birkat hatorah on either Torah She'bekesav or Torah she'bal peh. Rambam in the beginning of his Hakdama to Mishna defines Torah She'bal peh as the 613 mitzvot with its details. Nothing more than the detailed halachot that were handed down to Moshe on Sinai are considered Oral Law. The logic or the derashot behind them are not considered Oral Law. In Hilchot Talmud Torah, 1:11-12, he repeats this. All discussions of the reasoning behind a mitzvah, derashot, and even philosophy are considered gemara and not included in the Oral Law. The beracha according to Rambam is solely on the Written and the Oral Law. Just as philosophy is excluded from requiring a berachah, so would all gemara. This would solve the problem you pose in regard to Birchat Hatorah.

    In regard to bitul torah, the Ramabm's position is less simple. It is surely not bitul torah to study philosophy. According to Rambam,you should spend as little time on the Written and Oral Law as possible and spend as much time as possible studying gemara (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:12). I would suggest that he is referring to philosophy rather than derashot. This is apparent from his Introduction to Mishna Torah. There he states that once his Mishna Torah is written, you don't need to spend time learning Talmud. The reason is simple. All you need to know is the Written and the Oral Torah. Rambam has put all of the Oral Torah in his Mishna Torah. Pardes is included in gemara. Pardes includes all the natural sciences and divine science (philosophy) as stated in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, 4:13. There is no bitul torah when studying science or philosophy according to the Rambam. It is forbidden to spend time on anything which does not further knowledge. Sifrei Minim (How To books on Avodat Zarah, poetry, history, and fiction would be bitul Torah according to the Rambam if they did not add to your overall knowledge of the workings of the universe and the Divine (Chaper five of Shemonah Perakim and Hichot Avodat Kochavim 2:2). Of course, the Rambam states that he spent an enormous amount of time studying How To books on avodat zarah for the purpose of learning the taamei hamitzvot. For him, this was not bitul torah. For us, it might be. It would seem obvious that discredited science, whether found in the Talmud or in your old high school textbook would fall into the same category. If this allows someone to have some insight into the workings of the world, including the workings of the human mind (one of G-d's creations), then it is time well spent. Otherwise, it is a waste of time. Unless, of course, that is how you relax and recharge your batteries so that you can enhance your learning. That has a benefit as well (Capter five of Shemonah Perakim).

    As far as studying it in the bathroom, I would think that philosophy, science, discredited science of the talmud and everything that does not include any Written or Oral Torah would be allowed in the bathroom.

    Halacha lemaaseh would follow the Shulchan Aruch and the Rema. In Siman 47:2, the Beis Yosef states that we make a beracha on gemara. The Rema adds Medrash. I would guess that neither of the two would ever contemplate the possibility of anything in the Talmud being completely discredited. If you follow your logic in regard to killing lice on Shabbat, that the halacha does not change even though the science is discredited, the only conclusion you could make is that we must still follow the pesak of the shulchan aruch and treat those parts of the Talmud as full fledged Torah in regard to birchat hatorah. As a result, its study would not be bitul torah and it would be forbidden to study it in the bathroom.

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  31. "Histakel beoraita uvara alma" - if so then how can we say that science is not Torah?

    (I personally don't really identify with this quote, but clearly some of Chazal did)

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  32. I'm confused - I thought R' Meiselman holds that Chazal never make mistakes?

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  33. No, he is claiming that Chazal were wrong about some things, but that in those cases they never claimed to be speaking definitively in the first place. (which does not work, for the reasons I explained.)

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  34. כתב הגרח"ק שליט"א בהקדמה לס' "שקל הקודש" וז"ל, ואומרים בשם מרן החזון איש זצ"ל שאע"פ שהרמב"ם העתיק החשבונות שבפרקים האחרונים של קה"ח מהגוים כמ"ש בפי"ז מ"מ אחר שהרמב"ם כתבם *נעשה *תורה *ממש והלומדם לומד תורה (וגם אמרו שכל הפתקאות שכתב עליהם את החשבונות של קה"ח צוה לגונזם כי אמר שיש עלהם קדושה וכו') עכ"ל.

    I.e. a rishon, or at least the Rambam, can canonize in a Torah book. (It doesn’t seem that [astronomy related] knowledge which happens to be in the hand of gentiles is automatically and inherently not Torah, only that we can assume it wasn’t Torah.)

    --

    A determining factor might be the intent and purpose. If one reads a science book to understand a halachah, or an anatomy book to understand Chullin, or if a Poseik speaks on the phone with a physician before recommending, say, birth control - that might be considered Torah at that time; IF one is looking, FLOABE, to measure a room[?] and looks up a Gemarah to help him do so, that’s not Torah but measuring.

    @Shlomo, if everything is in the Torah, must you turn off your mind in the bathroom?

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