Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Context: How it Plays Out

In the previous post, I noted that a primary difference between traditional and academic modes of Jewish study is that the latter evaluates sources in light of their context - geographical, cultural, intellectual, etc. (I must reiterate that, as with everything, this is not a black-and-white difference, but it is certainly true in broad terms. And I must also reiterate that there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.) Here are several examples of how I myself have used this methodology in previous posts:

Kezayis - The geographical context accounts for why the Rishonim of Sefarad never bothered discussing the size of the kezayis, whereas the Rishonim of Ashkenaz strived to figure it out, and came up with a very large quantity.

Jumping elephants - Why did Rabbeinu Meshulam believe that elephants will jump to obtain food? Because he'd never seen one.

Metzitzah b'peh - If Chasam Sofer was ready to acknowledge that metzitza b'peh was instituted as a medical precaution and should thus be abandoned if dangerous, why did his disciple Maharam Schick describe it as halachah l'Moshe MiSinai? Answer: Because he was following Chasam Sofer's policy of exaggerating the halachic status of things when under threat from reformers, and in his time, metzitzah b'peh was being challenged by reformers.

The Rav and the Immutability of Halachah - Why did Rav Soloveitchik seem to state that it is heretical to base Chazal's rulings on historical circumstances, when so many great authorities did precisely that? Perhaps because of his own historical circumstances!

In a forthcoming post, I will discuss another example that is extremely relevant to this forum.


  1. Umm, I fail to see how any of these examples show a difference between the Academic way of learning talmud and the non-academic way of learning talmud.

    These are all things I was exposed to in Yeshivah.

    It seems that really you are just discussing the way Charedim do things vs everybody else, and in the process are making it sound like the way non-charedim learn Torah isn't really Torah but rather western Academics. (Which it isn't..)

    For example:
    Jumping elephants - Why did Rabbeinu Meshulam believe that elephants will jump to obtain food? Because he'd never seen one.

    Academics would never resort to that line of reasoning. Rather they would provide other sources describing the belief that Elephants jump and trace how those texts became available to Rabbeinu Meshulam. Rabbeinu Meshulam's statement that elephants jump would then be based on a outside Torah documents regarding the behavior of elephants, and those documents might be then further studied to see what influence those documents had on other areas of Rabbeinu Meshulam's work.

  2. Just a note- the link to Metzitzah b'peh takes us to a post titled "Novelty of Orthodoxy."

  3. Great post, however using the academic mode can also be going down a slippery slope.
    If it can be used in a sensible way thats fine, but so many have tried but did not succeed.
    Mendelsohn, Louis Jacobs to name just a few also started using your way in understanding Torah and look where they ended up.
    So one could ask is keeping the status quo which would result in having a large kezayis really so bad when one considers the pitfalls of the other way.

  4. There's value to what you're saying here, especially when it comes to an issue like MBP, where so many are convinced that changing the practice would be like deciding that actually, turns out we can drive on Shabbos. This attitude has real-world consequences.

    I would just point out that the challenge is to not use this approach as an out whenever some shverkeit arises; keep it as a last resort. For example, if you're learning a sugya b'iyun and you have a hard time coming up with an answer for Rishon X to the ha'ara of Rishon Y, it's easy enough to say, "Oh, well, X lived in France and Y lived in Spain so X probably just didn't hear about that question." The better assumption is that X thought of the issue and there's an answer for it.

  5. with R'YBS are you referring to the Agunah issue speech or other sources?
    Joel Rich

  6. "Because he was following Chasam Sofer's policy of exaggerating the halachic status of things when under threat from reformers"

    I think "inflating" is a less inflammatory--and more accurate-- choice of word.

  7. "Mendelsohn, Louis Jacobs to name just a few also started using your way in understanding Torah and look where they ended up."

    I don't want to speak lashon harah about anybody, but look where the opposite has lead as well.

    Women not allowed to walk on streets. People selling charms and avodah zarah with rabbi's names on them. Konoyim, Askanim, and Gabbis destroying the words of Torah Giants.

    The question is not what tools you use to learn Torah, the question is what are your motivations, and what is your desired outcome.

  8. please write a book with these kinds of observations and reasons -- so much of Judaism is so profoundly confusing until/unless the kind of context you provide in this post is brought out.


  9. > The better assumption is that X thought of the issue and there's an answer for it.

    Why is that the “better” assumption? Sure, it’s more interesting to come up with a clever way to explain X in light of Y, but if in fact it is likely that X never heard of Y, why is it better to pretend that he did?

  10. Yehudah Tessler,

    Where exactly did Mendelssohn wind up? Last time I checked, he was a brilliant frum Jew, whose 200th birthday was celebrated by Germany's Orthodox Jewish community just as much as it was celebrated by Germany's Reform Jewish community (according to Rav Schwab's brother in his book on German Orthodoxy).

    Have you ever read his "Jerusalem"? If you have, please tell me what heretical ideas you found within it.

  11. It is immensely frustrating when people write comments without reading the post carefully. To those pointing out that there are dangers with the academic approach - I KNOW THAT, I wrote it in the last post and reiterated it in this one!

  12. You wrote: "there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches."

    You did not state that the academic approach is "dangerous."

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. @Sam - The seicheldik thing would have been for us to self-police and to have ended direct Metzitzah B'peh when the dangers became evident. The continuation of the practice despite infant deaths is irresponsible, not just to their own children but the entire Jewish community by bringing the Brit Milah ritual under scrutiny. If the chassidim had joined the rest of us in using a sterile pipet then we wouldn't be seeing stories of child death/sickness associated with Milah in the newspapers, as fodder for those who might want to ban Milah entirely.

    It's time for their leaders to issue a cease and desist notice to their communities in the interest of their children, and Klal Yisrael. They can't say they weren't warned before.

  15. Would Rabbi Slifkin be open to the following possibility?

    What if the teva changed as per the Schach? Maybe Rabbeinu Meshullam had a mesorah from the Chashmonaim who faced elephants in battle. Or maybe from the more recent era of Charlemagne, an ohaiv Yisroel who had a relationship with the two gedolei hador of his time, Rav Chofni Gaon & Rav Klonymus Gaon. Or maybe he heard from his fellow baalei Tosafos in England who saw the elephant of Henry III that was regularly showed off in public.

    Elephants were widely used to execute prisoners by stomping on them in the East and in the West by Rome, Carthage & Macedon. According to Yosifun, when the Jews of Egypt were condemned to death this way and saved by a ness, it was a turning point in Ptolmey's attitude towards Jews.

    Rabbeinu Psachya (talmid of R' Yehuda heChossid) writes that he witnessed execution by elephants in his travels. This was by the Seljuk empire in Mesopotamia.

  16. http://haemtza.blogspot.com/2012/07/yct-and-psycho-social-method-of-psak.html

    Like him you mean well but if you are an outsider to Science and Academia, you do not see what some trained in that world does.

  17. Rabbi Slifkin;

    Excellent piece on k`zayis. As an aside,it`s interesting how a lot of questions are sidestepped by saying ` Things were bigger-stronger-different in those days`,but the idea of evolution is a big no-no.

    My own take on this is,how applicable is all this measuring in any case ? In those times,there was no real way of measuring anything-not time,not weight,not distance.Fruit or produce were a rough standard , and trying to find a fifth ,or any fraction of these things goes way off course .I was told that the Chafetz chaim`s wine becher was not a revi`is.

    But the problem remains-how do you hold some of the halochos as being inviolate,while saying that others were based on faulty information,or flat wrong ?Some of the more learned ,such as those mentioned in your essays,might be able to split that hair,but many of us have serious problems with this.

  18. To Hypothesis:

    Would you be open to the following possibility? Maybe the Statue of Liberty is green because people were green back then, and teva changed?

  19. Hypothesis,

    "Or maybe he heard from his fellow baalei Tosafos in England who saw the elephant of Henry III that was regularly showed off in public."

    I'm sure that RNS will show again his apikorsus and claim that since this happened more then half a century after his petira, it is therefore very unlikely.

    Can you also please enlighten us about the fascinating history of "Charlemagne, an ohaiv Yisroel who had a relationship with the two gedolei hador of his time, Rav Chofni Gaon & Rav Klonymus Gaon."?

    Also, why can't we say that Rabbeinu Meshulam had a direct messora from Adam HaRishon, who surely knew the anatomy of an elephant?

  20. That's very interesting that R' Chaim Volozhiner holds an olive size of today for achilas matzah. He is the grandfather of the Bais Halevi and Brisk usually poskens like him but I believe they have a larger shiur in this case. It is also brought down in one of the seforim on his psokim (maybe Keser Rosh?) that to be mechuyev to wash on mezonos & say hamotzee, it is required slightly more than 4 k'bayas (egg shiurim).

    As far as what you argue from a botanical perspective, it sounds unconvincing since many things happened on Earth that were botanically atypical, like edible tree trunks suddenly becoming inedible, etc.

  21. Umm, no need to be so snide, rabbi.

    Lady Liberty was erected in 1886, so no, people were definitely not green back then. (And we don't know of many in the category of yerakrokess besides Esther who most learn the green was not literal anyway).

    Various species in the animal kingdom have evolved a certain way either because they were bred for specific purposes or due to other factors. It would not surprise me one bit if elephants were once able to jump but eventually developed a different bone structure. Can you prove otherwise?

  22. Yes, I could prove otherwise, but it's not necessary. The approach of asking "can you categorically prove otherwise" is fundamentally in error. There are two possibilities here: That elephants had an extraordinary physiology and underwent a mysterious devolution, or that the Tosafist simply didn't know that elephants don't jump, because people in medieval France knew very little about the finer nuances of elephant physiology. Which do you think is overwhelmingly more likely?

  23. Shimon S,

    I apologize for neglecting to look up the timeline of the baalei Tosafos. If you say Rabbeinu Meshulam was 50 years earlier, I will take your word for it.

    As far as Charlemagne, I once saw a shtikel Torah from a maggid shiur in YU's "Belz" yeshiva of chazzonus who discussed it because Charlemagne unwittingly had a direct affect on the mesorah of niggunei tefillah. Besides being from the chassidei umos ha'olam, the emperor was an intelligent man who recognized that Jews are good for economic prosperity. His ingenious plan, which worked, was to pay for the relocation of the two gedolei hador at time to his Franco-Germanic empire so that the general Jewish population would follow to be close to them. He brought Rav Chofni Gaon from Bavel and Rav Klonymus Gaon from Italy.

    If I have to answer back tongue in cheek as well about Adam Harishon, I would suggest going through sefer Raziel Hamalach to see if elephants are discussed there.

  24. There are things in Rishonim that can be in error due to shibushim or perhaps for other reasons. But I think it is proper to find any way, if possible, to understand how there is no error because it is we who do not get something.

    I have being mocked as really stretching things by looking for a mesorah so far back in history, but there are precedents for this. One example is in the sefer Kesef Nivchar, whose mechaber was one of the gedolei hador hundreds of years ago. He writes about a question that bothered him for many years. When he had the opportunity to meet the Magen Avrohom and pose the question to him, the M"A gave him a terutz he had seen from Chazal, a sefer of Medrash that was written on a klaff and which we are not aware of today.

  25. "I think it is proper to find any way, if possible, to understand how there is no error"

    Well, if that is your starting position, then there is no point having any discussion.

  26. Natan Slifkin said "Well, if that is your starting position, then there is no point having any discussion"
    Hypothesis was just following the view of Rabbi Avrohom ben Harambam who when encounters a difficult chazal that fish are created from the sea, he goes on to an extreme explanation as to what chazal really meant, and did not just discard it as a mistake by saying chazal were just following the beliefs of the day.(Tshuvos R Avrohom ben Harambam to R Daniel Habavli brought down at the back of Frankel Rambam Sefer Hamitzvoth concerning how many lashes one gets for eating a sheretz)
    So you may have other sources where R Avrohom ben Harambam says that chazal erred in the sciences but since we also have this one that i quoted, shows that the view of Rabbenu Avrohom needs further clarification, and its not so simple to just say he believed chazal would make mistakes in the sciences.

  27. "if that is your starting position, then there is no point having any discussion"

    So if I were able to prove Rabbeinu Meshullam was correct or at least basing his opinion on seemingly correct information, that would be a bad thing?

    By the way, I have compared the skeletal structure of the Dwarf species that once roamed southern Europe with that of the contemporary elephants and there are differences which at least from the impression of a non-scientist like me, makes me believe the extinct European species, which many people have seen intact, was able to jump.

    Between the Dwarf of southern Europe and the related Straight Tusked species that roamed most of northern Europe as well, there have been numerous findings of completely or mostly intact remains. The Royal Society of London has published proceedings regarding one find over a century ago. In Lehringen, Germany, a completely intact one was found with a spear through it. There have been finds even where there is no need for an archaeological dig. Rabbeinu Meshullam could have seen one of these.

  28. So if I were able to prove Rabbeinu Meshullam was correct or at least basing his opinion on seemingly correct information, that would be a bad thing?

    No, it would be great. And you wouldn't even have to prove it - you would just have to make a strong case for it. But you haven't. Rabbeinu Meshullam did NOT see a dwarf elephant! (and they almost certainly couldn't jump anyway)

  29. Hypothesis,

    Luckily, you don't have to take my word on anything. These things are easily verifiable. I'm not claiming an secret oral messora from Chachmei Lunil.

    As for the "gedolei hador" that exist in your oral messora, I'm a bit puzzled.

    I assume you are reffering to the arrival of the Kalonymos family from the italian town Lucca to german towns Mainz and Speyer. Samuel David Luzzato (azoi a maskil) is indeed claiming this happend during the reign of Chalemagne (regarding R' Meshulam head of the Kalonyus family), but others clearly show that the chronology doesn't work, and that the "king Charles" mentioned in the works of Rishonim is most probably Charles the bold. There was no one named Rav Kalonymos Gaon, and Rabbeinu Kalonymus (father of R' Mashulam) mentioned in Tosfos Menachos 109b lived much later - see Rabbeinu Gershon MHG in Shiboles Haleket 18.

    I'm not sure who is Rav Chofni Gaon. Is it a version of Rav Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon, father in law of Rav Hai Gaon (that should give you an idea about the chronology)?

    As for Adam HaRishon, Rabbeinu Meshulam (or anyone else in this case) never claimed any special messora that can't be found in sifrei Chazal. If we are making up imaginary lines of tradition, why not start with the oldest one?

  30. I am fairly certain who "hypothesis" is. I think he is someone I know who considers himself a talmid of the Mayginai Shlomo, the Pnei Yehoshua's great-grandfather who wrote a Sefer to defend against all the challenges against Rashi from Tosfos. He writes in the hakdama that Rashi came to him in a chalom to thank him. Interesting that someone mentioned Rabbeinu Avrohom Ben Harambam & Rabbeinu Doniel Habavli because this fellow had developed a mehalech to answer a shverkeit in maseches Shabbos using a different exchange between those Rishonim. He found it in a very old print of the Rambam's son that was in the otzar of the Lakewood yeshiva. He presented the mehalech to one of the roshei yeshiva there who said he is probably correct. He later met Rav Berenbaum of the Mirrer yeshiva who liked the mehalech.

  31. Zevi, next time you quote a source can you give us an exact page number etc, it took me nearly an hour to find that tshuva of R Avrohom ben Harambam.(for those still searching its first column of page tof kuf mem ches in Frankel edition of Sefer Hamitzvos.
    I feel i approached it in an unbiased way, i did not come with any preconceived mindsets of either Mieselman or Slifkin and it definately does make some interesting reading.
    He definately does go to great length to explain a chazal in not the most simplistic way in order to refrain from saying that Chazal were relying on the science of the day and therefore mistaken.
    This is a Rabbi Avraham that i have not been exposed to before, and it definately puts a spanner in the wheel to say he understood that Chazal could be mistaken on scientific matters notwithstanding the other sources where he does seem to believe such.

  32. I was on this blog for like a day and already people are trying to figure out who I am.

    I looked up the shtikel Torah from the maggid shiur in "Belz" (Chazan Goffin). I erred regarding Rav "Chofni" Gaon. It was Rav Machir Gaon:

    "Desirous of fostering commerce with the nations of the Middle East, and convinced that the Jews would be the conduit to commerce with Babylonia, Persia, Egypt, Turkey, etc., he (Charlemagne) decided to encourage the growth of the miniscule Jewish population in the Rhineland. In order to attract Jewish settlement, Charlemagne imported world-renown rabbinic leaders and their families whom, he correctly surmised, would attract Jews who would move to this new community. He first chose the Kalonymos family of Italy, led by the foremost Italian Rabbinic scholar Rabbi Kalonymos and his son Meshullam, as well as Rabbi Machir of Babylon. He settled the Kalonymos family in Mainz, Germany, and the Machirs in Narbonne, Southern France. Each brought with them numerous Talmudists, poets and theologians in their wake. Their leadership elevated and preserved the Rhineland Kehillah, which gradually became the largest in the early medieval Europe, and established its customs. These oriental rabbis were also chazzanim and paytanim, composing poems and melodies based on the ancient traditions they had brought with them. As we mentioned before, many of these melodies were preserved as our “MiSinai” melodies (primarily of the High Holidays and festivals) guided by the dictum of the Maharil, and formed the basis of our Minhag Ashkenaz to this day."

    On a related topic he adds this:

    "The text of Aleinu was originally composed for Mussaf of Yomim Noroim in the third century C.E., in Babylonia. The hauntingly powerful musical setting of the text was already known during the years of the third Crusade (1187-1192 C.E.) led by King Richard the Lionheart, having developed in the centuries prior to that. During the period of the Nine Crusades (1096-1272 C.E.), many of the communities of the Rhineland were attacked by the marauding Christian army and forced to convert to Christianity. Those Jews who refused were murdered or burned at the stake. In Emek Habacha of Yosef HaKohen (1496-1528) he quotes a letter to the tosafist and last of the Geonim, Rabbi Jacob of Orleans (d.9/3/1189), wherein an eyewitness describes such an event in the town of Blois, France in 1171 C.E. At a mass execution at the stake of many of the Jewish townspeople, the Christian knights listened in awe as the dying martyrs sang a “mysterious song.” When asked, the remaining Jews told them that this was the song of their “Aleinu”. The knight executors and their French collaborators were so impressed, that they incorporated this melody into the French Church Mass, which can be heard to this very day. This disturbing historical fact verifies the ancientness of this melody."

  33. ""I think it is proper to find any way, if possible, to understand how there is no error"

    Well, if that is your starting position, then there is no point having any discussion."

    It's a real shame you wrote that and I hope you clarify, becuase such a position can not be found anywhere in our tradition.

    You are intelectually obligated to figure out a way to understand what they are saying in such a way that the statement which has been passed down from then till now is correct. If you can find no possible way then fine, just say they are wrong, but that should be your last resort not your first.

    Otherwise, what's the point in the whole exercise?

  34. @ ahg - I replied to your comments 2ce, someone refuses to publish my comments.

    Sam D.

  35. You are trying to sound all grown up and intellectual by boasting your 'academic' approach to torah study.
    One day you will mature and not feel the need to make yourself all intellectual, you will come to the realisation that studying the Rashbo and Rif the way orthodox jews have been doing it for hundreds of years has proven itself to be the correct method of attaining kedusha, and also the right method for those aspiring to learn Torah Lishmah bderech yisroel saba.
    Please rabbi, for a cambridge professor you are right in debating the academic approaches to study but intellectuality is relative, and for us orthodox jews, the highest degree of limud torah are those who sweat over a ketzos not those whom debate if elephants can do high jumps....

  36. The Statue of Liberty is copper. Its color is only green because of the chemical reaction with water.

  37. Rabbi Slifkin posits that had a Charedi adam gadol known of the machlokes between RJBS & Rackman, he would not want to say anything that sounds like he is siding with Rackman.

    I was also told directly by an adam gadol (who I am pretty sure was not the same adam gadol who spoke to Rabbi Slifkin) that there is no more concept of Tan Du now that women are financially independent. And I don't think he would care about what RJBS & Rackman have to say. The way Rabbi Steven Weil summarizes the machlokes by the way is that Rackman was trying to use it as a tool to usurp ANY chazaka in the Talmud.

    My adam gadol says that you see in the current shidduch crisis all the thousands of women who are not getting married. Many of them show little or no interest in finding a husband. They are busy out on the town with friends and other "priorities". Even women who are divorced with children can afford to behave this way when they can simply dump their kids by the grandparents for free babysitting.

    There are two types of "disinterested". Those with no interest in getting married whatsoever. And those who have unrealistic expectations when deciding on a composite profile of a husband.

    (There are also girls/women in the shidduch crisis who ARE sincerely interested in getting married but run into many men who are not serious as well)

    Some of the disinterested women will at least go out on dates in "parshos" that they make sure are short lived because they cannot openly show they have no interest whatsoever and because they get free dinners out of it in fancy restaurants and maybe some interesting conversation as well.

    One of the most popular television shows in this era was "Sex & the City" which glorifies the perpetually single working woman. Even the Liberal NY Times criticized the premise of the show in a lead editorial as promoting a hashkafa that is bad for society. (The editorial provoked a silly, misguided girl with a Jewish name to shoot off a poison pen letter to the editors, blasting them along the lines of how dare you criticize the show.)

    I can say about myself that I learned in the top yeshivos, have a pleasant appearance & disposition and above average intelligence. I became a professional earning well into the 6 figures. I was stuck in the shidduch market into my mid-30s due to all the women who were either completely not serious or who could not make a commitment.

    I am married now for almost 10 years and many of the women I dated who mysteriously rejected me are still single.

  38. They asked this question on the blog of Rabbi Feivy Mendlowitz because he was a close talmid of R' Yaakov Kaminetzky. He replied that he is not familiar with the episode:

    "A modern orthodox rabbi named David Walk has been going around koching that Artscroll censored out a story in their book on R' Yaakov Kaminetzky. He says R' Yaakov insisted on watching the lunar landing on TV to see what would happen al pi HaRambam who writes that the moon has no physical mamashus. When men actually bounced off the Moon's surface, R' Yaakov said the Rambam must have been engaging in scientific speculation instead of daas Torah.

    A completely different version of the story was making the rounds for years in some large yeshivos that al pi the nusach of Kiddush Levana, it will not be possible "lingoa bach" on the Moon - so R' Yaakov said farkert, that it must have been an optical illusion* because of course there could not be a "giant step for Mankind" on the Moon's surface. In the yeshivos some disputed this to say R' Yaakov really said something else that was in response to a kashya asked by Shlomo Goren."

    * Not the US govt staged anything but that they themselves were tricked by an illusion.


    Rabbi Walk wrote about it on page 5 of this newsletter from a shul that is about as Left as you can get in the orthodox spectrum. He seems to be using the story to "go somewhere" that is a little "far out" hashkafically.

  39. "Otherwise, what's the point in the whole exercise?"

    Poor Amateur, so naive.

    The point of the whole exercise is to undermine the legitimacy of Chareidi ideology and make their approach to Torah scholarship look poor, agenda driven, and overly simplistic.
    And then prop himself up as the fountain-head of clear, unbiased, rational thinking.

    1. Jewish observer,
      you are so very wrong, chairiedi society does that all by themselves.

  40. Decades ago, Shlomo Goren was being chauffeured past a group of Brisker bochurim. One of them recognized Goren & started taunting him. The limo came to an abrupt halt. Goren's bodyguard got out and flipped the bochur over, breaking one of his limbs. Goren then got out of the limo and uttered a single word to the bodyguard. There are chilufai girsos if it was "tafsik" or "maspik".

  41. I am 100% who Hypothesis is. He would think of sevoros and pirushim that the "know-it-alls" in beis medrash would mock him for. Every single time he was mechaven to something which was eventually found in a Rishon or Acharon even if it took months to find it. Some of his ideas that were based on scientific research, similar to dwarf elephant, he took to an old talmid chochom who was also a PhD who advised him not to speak it up in beis medrash even though he is right

  42. @ Brisker;

    That`s REB Shlomo Goren to you.
    Careful. There are spies everywhere.

  43. Amateur,

    The point of the whole exercise is only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy G-d.


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