Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ben Bag Bag

It never ceases to amaze me how certain concepts are taught as being fundamental, traditional and unequivocal in Judaism, and yet careful study reveals them to be very recent and/or based on a single perspective that is opposed by others. Examples discussed here previously include the notion that one can learn Torah to elevate the soul of the departed. Today, I'd like to discuss another example.

There is a well-known and much-cited statement in Pirkei Avos as follows: "Ben Bag Bag says, Delve into it [Torah] repeatedly, for everything is in it." Hafoch ba v'hafoch ba, dekula ba. This statement from Pirkei Avos is widely cited in popular Orthodox literature in order to show that Chazal themselves were of the view that all knowledge is in the Torah. Everything is in it - including all scientific knowledge. Thus, those who are expert in Torah can derive this knowledge and tap into Divinely sourced information about the natural world.

But is this necessarily what the Mishnah in Avos is saying?

If you look at Seforno's commentary on Avos, and particularly the ArtScroll edition, you'll see something very interesting. Seforno explains the "everything" of the Mishnah as referring to "intellectual arguments regarding true and authentic opinions of Godly matters and the immortality of the soul, and similar things, which represent the essential subjects of theological research." In other words, it refers to matters of theology and religious truth - not science. The ArtScroll edition points out that "Considering that the Sforno himself was extremely well versed in science and medicine, we must understand his interpretation as referring only to philosophical and theological works."

How many people would consider this the explanation of the Mishnah, and how many would be very surprised to learn of it

(Note: I have a big backlog of emails, so please forgive me if you have written to me and not received a response. I am currently on the road, in Los Angeles, which makes it even harder for me to keep up.) 

45 comments:

  1. And they'll most likely say, 'We don't hold of Seforno', or '[insert Rabbi here] says differently' and that will be the end of the conversation *sigh*

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  2. I have never understood those who claim that "all scientific knowledge" is in the Torah. We all know that scientific knowledge has changed and evolved over time. Examples that have been pointed out here in the past including cosmology ("where does the sun go at night") and spontaneous generation. Does this mean that at one time the Torah taught that spontaneous generation is true, but today that it teaches that it is false? At one time people thought the earth was flat, now most people (maybe not all) know that it is round. Did the Torah teach one thing and then teach something else later?
    Can someone give examples of the latest scientific discoveries that were actually known about in the Torah generations ago?

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    1. in aseh le ha rav, rav chaim david halevi does try to do just that. his attempts (and i say this with great sadness as otherwise i think he is a great Rabbi with a capital R) are just pitiful. its in volume five, his kuntris letorah min hashamayim.
      if you want a better example of why rabbis who are not qualified to debate issues should stay out of such debates, then i dont lnow any better places to look than this.

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  3. I know you like to assume that all charedim are ignorant (or choose to ignore) these types of sources, but I, as a charedi, have known of this seforno for a long time. And you can also check out the tashbetz in magen avos, where he says כולה בה means that you will always find new חדושים in Torah (nothing to do with science).
    But you seem to be ignoring a few sources yourself:
    The Rambam simply writes התהפך בה ודבק בה שהכל בה.
    Rabbeinu Yonah writes שכל חכמת העולם כלולה בה.
    Rabbeinu Matisya includes חכמת הטבע and חכמת התכונה and חכמת הרפואה.

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    1. I guess you are a newbie to these discussions, so I will fill you in on how they work.
      Step 1: The Chareidi camp says: Chazal say "x."
      Step 2: The R' Slifkin camp says: You can't say "Chazal" say "x," because peirush "a" has a different peshat in that ma'amar chazal.
      Step 3: The Chareidi camp says: But you can't compare the greatness of perush "a" to the majority of sources, who learn like us (e.g., how could you compare the Seforno to Rabbeinu Yonah, we have halachic works from Rabbeinu Yonah, etc.).
      Step 4: The R' Slifkin camp says: But you can't apply normative rules of pesak to hashkafa matters.
      Step 5: The Chareidi camp says: Yes we can.
      Step 6: The R' Slifkin camp says: But peirush "b" says that pesak does not apply to hashkafa.
      The Chareidi camp says: But you can't compare the greatness of perush "b" to the majority of sources, who say that there is.
      Rinse, repeat.

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    2. i think that step 4A would be "you are quoting source A literally, but you have to interpret source A's words in light of what he says in three other places".

      then step 4b would be "no we don't". rinse, repeat.

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    3. While many if not most chareidim are not ignorant, the average high school rebbe and mashgiach will take the expression "דכולו בה" and extend it to ALL knowledge, including the most banal of particles of information, like who won the World Series and what I ate for breakfast. Yes, they will say ' "everything is in the Torah", or, "Chazal knew everything". "EVERYTHING, rebbe? Yes, EVERYTHING".
      The average person will leave high school and eventually realize that his high school rebbe was over the top, but this is what is taught as da'as torah. The rationalist school is attempting to lessen this type of indoctrination for two simple reasons. One, it is ridiculous. Two, it is dangerous to claim something that down the road may cause severe disillusionment and ultimately, leaving the fold altogether.

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    4. I guess you are missing my point. My point was that Rabbi Slifkin paints all charedim with the same brush, and I would like to protest and say that we are not all that way.

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    5. I guess you are missing my point. My point was that Rabbi Slifkin paints all charedim with the same brush, and I would like to protest and say that we are not all that way.

      1) You claimed that he ignored sources. No evidence of this.

      2) Nothing in the post says anything about ignorance by any group. He points out that we sometimes take for granted the certainty an explanation or principle due to its "popularity" when in fact the principle is a matter of dispute or one of recent origin. R Slifkin mentions "popular Orthodox literature" not "group X".

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    6. 1) Rabbi Slifkin expresses amazement at how certain concepts are taught as being fundamental, tradition and unequivocal, yet careful study reveals them to be very recent and/or based on a single perspective that is opposed by others. His expression of amazement ignores the fact that Rabbeinu Yonah and Rabbeinu Matisya espouse that very concept, and they are not recent.

      2) Rabbi Slifkin is clearly opposing the charedi view of Ben Bag Bag's statement, even though he refers to them as "popular Orthodox literature", much in the same way that Rabbi Meiselman wrote his entire book to oppose Rabbi Slifkin, although he intentionally does not name him.

      So basically, Rabbi Slifkin is rejecting the view of popular charedi opinion, popular charedi opinion rejects the view of Rabbi Slifkin, and I'm just saying that everybody should stop fighting about it, and admit that it's a machlokes rishonim.

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    7. Yehoshua,kudos to an awesome post.spot on.

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  4. I remember reading an essay by R. Solomon Schechter, where he quotes this Mishnah as trying to show how one part of Torah can help elucidate another part which is otherwise not understood clearly.

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    1. I've heard this from other sources too- that it's not even referring to hashkafa but to halakha. That is, to decide halakha, we only need the Torah.

      Except even the most charedi person wouldn't say that. :-)

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  5. I have been of the opinion that this whole charidie business of pretending all knowledge is found in the torah is an acknowledgment of the small value that the tirah seems to have vs the large value that much secular knowledge has

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  6. The statement that that all knowledge is in the Torah does not necessarily mean that this knowledge is open to us. It may be hidden and may need to be discovered. Vilna Gaon by the way also said that everything that was, is and will be is included in the Torah. It does not mean of course that Vilna Gaon claimed he knew everything that was, is and will be.

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  7. But you seem to be ignoring a few sources yourself:

    It is understood that there are those that maintain the view that the Torah contains all knowledge. The question is whether or not this is some kind of settled postulate of orthodox judaism that can't be questioned. For this it is sufficient to point out that others learned differently.

    The Rambam simply writes התהפך בה ודבק בה שהכל בה.

    This is a wonderful example of R. Slifkin's point. This is a repetition of the language of the Mishnah an so doesn't imply anything about finding science in the Torah. The parallel language in the poetic repetition is that you won't find מידה טובה יותר ממנה which doesn't sound like it has to do with finding general relativity somewhere in the Torah. the Tosafos Yom Tov takes to mean that you should stick with the Torah and not look to the works of the "Greeks" for learning how to live properly, since the Torah is superior in that respect. http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=37946&st=&pgnum=404

    Rabbeinu Matisya includes חכמת הטבע and חכמת התכונה and חכמת הרפואה.

    And yet the Rambam explicitly mentions that he looked to the "Greeks" for astronomy, and rejected much of the medicine of the Talmud, as everyone does today in all cases except for few areas like Chillul Shabbos and Bris Milah where there was a specific halachic tradition; in those areas, sometimes we accept and sometimes we don't with respect to the Halachah (but never with respect to the actual medical advice).

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    1. I agree with you. I know that the Rambam's view is that of Rabbi Slifkin. I was just pointing out that others explain like the popular view among many charedim. My point, as I noted above, was that not all charedim are as Rabbi Slifkin paints them.

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    2. Just for the record, the Rambam holds that we once DID have complete knowledge of astronomy, but it was lost, and thus he had to turn to "works of the Greeks".
      See http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%208%20Buchman.pdf.

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    3. Ironically, in the Berel Wein animated biography of the Rambam, at the very outset of the film, the Rambam as a little boy bombards his father with a lot of questions about nature. He then protests, "But father, you didn't answer any of my questions!" His father then answers: "In the Torah! All the answers are in the Torah!"

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    4. Just for the record, the Rambam holds that we once DID have complete knowledge of astronomy, but it was lost, and thus he had to turn to "works of the Greeks".
      See http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%208%20Buchman.pdf.


      What he says is that they had enough knowledge to predict with some accuracy the visibility of the new moon, because they needed that for Kiddush HaChodesh. He doesn't say that this knowledge was "encrypted" in the torah, nor does he say that they had a "complete knowledge of astronomy". You don't need to know about black holes (as one of a million examples) to know when to expect a moon sighting.

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    5. "What he says is that they had enough knowledge to predict with some accuracy the visibility of the new moon, because they needed that for Kiddush HaChodesh. He doesn't say that this knowledge was "encrypted" in the torah, nor does he say that they had a "complete knowledge of astronomy". You don't need to know about black holes (as one of a million examples) to know when to expect a moon sighting."

      I didn't mean that they had complete knowledge of the universe. I was just pointing out that your reference to the Rambam looking to Greek astronomical knowledge is an invalid rebuttal to yeshivaguy’s quote of Rabbeinu Matisya, as the Rambam himself says that whatever astronomy he got from the Greeks was originally part of our mesorah from the times of the nevi’im.

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  8. While I do not believe the statement is meant to encompass science, the universe, and everything, the simple reading can definitely be construed that way without doing much finagling. Charedim can sometimes be accused of torturing the pshat, but this happens to be a case where the simple reading can easily be interpreted at face value.

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  9. ... in the same way as an entire tree (roots, trunk, branches, leaves) is contained within the seed, both mere potential and actual DNA code

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  10. In pre-Holocaust Europe, the famous "Rogachover Rav" (Rav Yosef Rozin-[sp?]) was called "The Einstein of the Talmud" and he carried out correspondence with prominent scientists because it was said he could find allusions to modern scientific discoveries in the classic Jewish sources, even though presumably he had no secular education. Does anyone have any information on this?

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  11. Does every discussion of everything Rav Slifkin writes necessarily have to turn into ploni vs. the charedim? Kudos to Rav Slifkin on a short & sweet article.

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  12. Oh great. Now you've gone and gotten Artscroll in trouble! They'll either have to yank the Sforno Avos or issue a revised edition.

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  13. Firstly, what was Ben Bag Bag referring to as Torah.
    Does it include the Gemara and the Midrash and all the words of the sages, and to delve repeatedly in the same text or only that of the sages ?
    If so the evidence clearly shows that his statement is not true. That everything i.e. all knowledge is not in it.

    If he was referring to the Torah literally as in 'Teachings' and as a never ending process, to delve repeatedly as in everyday in new learning, then everything is included in it, even all secular studies.
    Then I must admit that he was correct.
    In this case however the charedim fall far short in their Torah learning.

    Or, even though unaware of, perhaps he was referring to the 'Torah Codes.'
    o

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  14. Ramban in his introduction to Chumash writes that that the 49 gates of wisdom which were revealed to Moshe (and was known by Shlomo) were different branches of knowledge including scientific knowledge,
    and all this knowledge is hidden in the Torah. However, he does not say to what extent, if any, Chazal had access to this knowledge.

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  15. A few years ago someone told me that his son came from home school and said that his Rebbe had told him the following. We shouldn't think that we are better nowadays because we have modern technology. In fact, the Rebbe said, Shlomo Hamelech was the wisest man who ever lived and he knew everything the scientists know and he could have created cars, phones, etc., anything that we have from modern technology. Why didn't he do it? He felt that a simple non-technological lifestyle was better. Similarly a few years back YAted Neeman published the following:
    "At the time we heard from R' Leib Ratick zt"l (who I think heard it in the name of the Mashgiach from Kletzk R' Yosef Leib Nandick zt"l), that the reason that the greats of our nation, like the Rambam and the Rashba, and the Goan (the Gra)did not invent with their great minds inventions such as trains, planes, or the telegraph, is because they measured these things against the gain that would come from them, these things that allowed a tremendous growth in the ability to kill and destroy, which was expressed in the terrible wars of the 20th century. As opposed to Torah knowledge which can only produce good things free from any potential bad."

    See my posts http://jewishworker.blogspot.com/2006/01/could-shlomo-hamelech-have-invented.html and http://jewishworker.blogspot.com/2007/07/could-shlomo-hamelech-have-invented.html for a full discussion.

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    1. Yated seems to have selective historical memory. Were there no terrible wars before the 20th century?

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    2. To be fair the number of people killed in the wars of the 20th century was probably more then all the wars in history up to that point because of technology.

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    3. bluke
      Firstly, who is this Rebbe you talk about, and how did he know what Shlomo Hamelech was capable of doing?
      o

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  16. Which proves my point in my reply above to yeshivaguy. The point is not that all chareidim think this way, it is that this approach is part of the chareidi curriculum, dogma, da'as torah, or any other description one would like. Knowing this, I simply cannot take any of these rebbes or mashgichim seriously. Maybe yeshivaguy can wake them up and explain to them that this nonsensical hashkafah is self-defeating.

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  17. yeshivaguyMay 26, 2014 at 5:56 PM
    1) Rabbi Slifkin expresses amazement at how certain concepts are taught as being fundamental, tradition and unequivocal, yet careful study reveals them to be very recent and/or based on a single perspective that is opposed by others. His expression of amazement ignores the fact that Rabbeinu Yonah and Rabbeinu Matisya espouse that very concept, and they are not recent.


    In this case he brought one source to show that the "encryption theory" is not unequivocal. The "recency" issue comes up with his analysis of "learning for the dead".

    2) Rabbi Slifkin is clearly opposing the charedi view of Ben Bag Bag's statement, even though he refers to them as "popular Orthodox literature", much in the same way that Rabbi Meiselman wrote his entire book to oppose Rabbi Slifkin, although he intentionally does not name him.

    You are trying to make a false equivocation. I think that wording of the post is pretty precise. Many/most orthodox people are taught that this is the plain unequivocal meaning. There is no one to name.

    R. Meiselman, justified or not, refers to specific authors and calls them "amateurs" and worse. This is not equivalent in any way.

    So basically, Rabbi Slifkin is rejecting the view of popular charedi opinion, popular charedi opinion rejects the view of Rabbi Slifkin, and I'm just saying that everybody should stop fighting about it, and admit that it's a machlokes rishonim.

    You must not be familiar with R. Slikin's works. You might want to start with In Defense Of My Opponents - An essay by Rabbi Natan Slifkin (PDF).

    BrownMay 26, 2014 at 9:39 AM
    While I do not believe the statement is meant to encompass science, the universe, and everything, the simple reading can definitely be construed that way without doing much finagling. Charedim can sometimes be accused of torturing the pshat, but this happens to be a case where the simple reading can easily be interpreted at face value.


    Nothing in the post is in conflict with what you say.

    But, in my opinion, what you refer to as the "face value" interpretation was perhaps easier to believe when the sum total of the worlds "knowledge" of science and medicine was actually largely incorrect and small enough to be understood by a single genius for the most part.

    With the explosion of knowledge and the increase the amount that is actually correct, this "face value" interpretation becomes more difficult to believe as the intention of the Torah. Perhaps this is why Rav Herzog and Rav Hirsch explicitly disclaimed such an interpretation.

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    1. You are trying to make a false equivocation.

      Ugh, I meant "false equivalence" of course.

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    2. I think we are pretty much in agreement, except for one point. I disagree that most Orthodox people are taught that this is the plain unequivocal meaning. I grew up charedi, still identify as charedi, yet I was never taught that Ben Bag is unequivocally referring to all of science being hidden deep in the Torah. I was taught that there are 2 valid approaches to the matter.
      And no, I am not an anomoly in the charedi world. There are many like me, including many Roshei Yeshiva and Rebbeim. We just don't publicize our views (by name at least) for fear of turning into the next Slifkin affair.
      Also, I have read Rabbi Slifkin's defense of his opponents, but based on his more recent postings, I think his views may have changed. Lately his posts are condescending and imply complete rejection of charedi approaches. Unless he means to say "I'll give you the right to choose your own beliefs over mine- after all, everyone should have the right to be foolish!"

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    3. And no, I am not an anomoly in the charedi world. There are many like me, including many Roshei Yeshiva and Rebbeim. We just don't publicize our views (by name at least) for fear of turning into the next Slifkin affair.

      So you think that you are part of the "silent majority" :). Anyhow, what you are saying seems to reinforce the point of the post.

      Lately his posts are condescending and imply complete rejection of charedi approaches.

      Better to post that criticism on those posts, IMO. But it seems that you actually agree with R. Slifkin in some of his more pointed critiques, unless you think that your reluctance to express your honest opinion for fear of being branded a heretic is a situation that is acceptable.

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    4. I'm not part of a silent majority. I'm just saying that we're not a tiny fraction of the charedi world. I would actually conjecture that the majority of the charedi world simply don't think about the topics that Rabbi Slifkin posts about. They just go with whatever their Rebbeim say.
      I do agree with many of his pointed critiques, I just disagree with the way he goes about it. If you actually want to improve charedi society, you will have to change it from within. Ripping on charedim on a blog won't do anything, because everybody knows that blogs are assur anyways. (sarcasm for those that won't pick up on it ;) )

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    5. If you actually want to improve charedi society, you will have to change it from within.

      To make this a bit more general: If you want any group to change internally, external pressure can make a huge difference, even if the group has to process the change internally. Witness the various abuse scandals which did not garner sufficient internal attention until external pressure was applied. There is no hard and fast rule. If nothing else external pressure has an effect on funding, and, as we well know, וְהַכֶּסֶף, יַעֲנֶה אֶת-הַכֹּל.

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  18. It matters not whether or not Ben Bag Bag thought that the torah contained all knowledge, as long as no one has revealed how to extract this information. All the evidence points to the sages being unaware of such hidden information about the world given their numerous errors and fanciful (to a modern view) explanations of supposedly natural phenomena. While one may retrospectively infer some correct physical ideas from torah allusions, no one to my knowledge has inferred a prediction of an as yet unknown phenomenon that was later shown to be correct. It is the latter which is the benchmark of success in science and the basis of having a credible methodology. Otherwise, it's just words and assertions with no support.

    Y. Aharon

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  19. Some food for thought: It's entirely possible that Ben Bag Bag was not referring to Torah (you'll note that he never says explicitly what he is discussing). A rav I know told me that he is referring to derech eretz, since the end of his statement is "ein lecha mida tova heimenah". When is Torah referred to as a midah?

    It does make the flow of the mishna better.

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  20. Does anyone have an explicit source that says Ben Bag-Bag was NOT including all wisdoms like science. It seems R Slifkin made an assumption that just because Sephorno wrote "intellectual theology" it doesn't mean he excluded science- he just happened not to be talking about science. Maybe he would include science as being "everything". There is no statement that says otherwise, yet we have many statements from Rishonim and Achorinim that sayscience is included in the Torah (Ramban, Gaon MeVilna, Rabbenu Bachye).

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    1. the tashbatz writes that הפוך בה דכולה בה means continue learning, as you will always find a chidush in your learning. I understand that to mean that the Torah contains the answer to every matter of halacha (and hashkafa) if you dig deep enough. For example, the Torah never tells us explicitly how to deal with new technology, but a Torah approach can be found through understanding how the new technology works, and digging deep into the Torah to understand how the Torah would approach the situation.
      That is also how the maharatz chajes understands the medrash that Moshe accepted כל מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד לחדש: not that Moshe actually knew how to kasher a microwave, but that contained in the Torah that Moshe had accepted lies the potential to answer such a sheila. Theoretically, if microwaves existed back then, and somebody asked Moshe if he could kasher it, I'm sure he could have come up with an answer, but as it happened, we had to wait for the other R' Moshe to come around.

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    2. It is disturbing to see nobody has answered my question. R Slifkin this is a challenge to you too!

      Does anyone say (Rishon or Acharon) that "everything" does NOT include science? Or are you R slifkin the first one to make it up?

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