Category Archives: Learning Torah

And Introduction to Halachic Pluralism – The Introduction to the Tanya

The introduction of the melaket to the Tanya (who was the author but he chose to publish in anonymously) explains the reason why he chose to put the sefer out. In truth, he writes later (in the part we will not discuss) that he did so because the letters which constitute the Tanya had already been published widely but the published versions contained mistakes and therefore he felt that he needed to set it right. This is supported also by the haskamos at the beginning of the sefer. However, before he explains that detail, he explains why he felt these were things which needed to be published at all, let alone in a scrupulously correct text.

הנה מודעת זאת כי מרגלא בפומי דאינשי בכל אנ”ש (אנשי שלומנו) לאמר כי אינה דומה שמיעת דברי מוסר לראייה וקריאה בספרים שהקורא קורא לפי דרכו ודעתו ולפי השגת ותפיסת שכלו באשר הוא שם ואם שכלו ודעתו מבולבלים ובחשיכה יתהלכו בעבודת ה’ בקושי יכול לראות את האור כי טוב הגנוז בספרים אף כי מתוק האור לעינים ומרפא לנפש

The Tanya starts with a statement that books are inadequate for teaching because they rely on a certain level of background knowledge and ability to understand in advance. They can then build on that base. On the other hand, they allow for knowledge to be widely disseminated. Here he is only talking about mussar which can be found in Sefarim but I think that this is a more expansive comment as well will see presently.

ובר מן דין הנה ספרי היראה הבנויים ע”פ שכל אנושי בוודאי אינן שוין לכל נפש כי אין כל השכלים והדעות שוות ואין שכל אדם זה מתפעל ומתעורר ממה שמתפעל שכל חבירו וכמו שארז”ל גבי ברכת חכם הרזים על ששים ריבוא מישראל שאין דעותיהם דומות זו לזו וכו’ וכמ”ש הרמב”ן ז”ל במלחמות שם בפירוש הספרי גבי יהושע שנאמר בו איש אשר רוח בו שיכול להלוך נגד רוחו של כל אחד ואחד וכו’. אלא אפילו בספרי היראה אשר יסודותם בהררי קודש מדרשי חז”ל אשר רוח ה’ דבר בם ומלתו על לשונם ואורייתא וקב”ה כולא חד וכל ששים רבוא כללות ישראל ופרטיהם עד ניצוץ קל שבקלים ופחותי הערך שבעמינו ב”י כולהו מתקשראן באורייתא ואורייתא היא המקשרת אותן להקב”ה כנודע בזה”ק הרי זה דרך כללות לכללות ישראל ואף שניתנה התורה לידרש בכלל ופרט ופרטי פרטות לכל נפש פרטית מישראל המושרשת בה הרי אין כל אדם זוכה להיות מכיר מקומו הפרטי שבתורה: והנה אף בהלכות איסור והיתר הנגלות לנו ולבנינו מצאנו ראינו מחלוקת תנאים ואמוראים מן הקצה אל הקצה ממש ואלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים לשון רבים על שם מקור החיים לנשמות ישראל הנחלקות דרך כלל לשלשה קוין ימין ושמאל ואמצע שהם חסד וגבורה וכו’ ונשמות ששרשן ממדת חסד הנהגתן גם כן להטות כלפי חסד להקל כו’ כנודע וכ”ש וק”ו בהנסתרות לה’ אלהינו דאינון דחילו ורחימו דבמוחא ולבא דכל חד וחד לפום שיעורא דיליה לפום מה דמשער בליביה כמ”ש בזה”ק על פסוק נודע בשערים בעלה וגו’:

Here we see that although the primary interest is the mussar potential in sefarim, he presents us with a model for pluralism in Torah in general, including an explicit discussion about machlokes in halachah. Why do people disagree about halachah? Because the way in which individual Jews connect with Torah in the abstract leads them to different manifestations of the same principles. It is important to note that this is based on a particular understanding of Torah which is that the general principles do not inform the details. Rather, the details need not reflect at all on the principles in a way which I personally can perceive. Many thinkers assume this to be true (the most famous is of course the Rambam). Because the Torah in the abstract contains a system known as a specific mitzvah, but different people perceive it differently, they will arrive at sometimes radically different conclusions which are all true. It should also be noted that this is not the same as a perspective that says that each thinker perceived only part of the mitzvah and therefore their different perspectives can be combined into one unitary whole. The advantage which this perspective holds is that it allows not merely for different perspectives, rather it allows for those which are mutually exclusive without saying that our perception that they are mutually exclusive is inaccurate or incomplete.

This lies in sharp contrast to two other perspectives. The Chinuch in his mitzvah 78 states as follows:

ספר החינוך מצוה עח 

ומשרשי מצוה זו, שנצטוינו בזה לחזק קיום דתינו, שאילו נצטוינו קיימו התורה כאשר תוכלו להשיג כוונת אמיתתה, כל אחד ואחד מישראל יאמר דעתי נותנת שאמיתת ענין פלוני כן הוא, ואפילו כל העולם יאמרו בהפכו לא יהיה לו רשות לעשות הענין בהפך האמת לפי דעתו, ויצא מזה חורבן שתעשה התורה ככמה תורות, כי כל אחד ידין כפי עניות דעתו. אבל עכשיו שבפירוש נצטוינו לקבל בה דעת רוב החכמים, יש תורה אחת לכולנו והוא קיומנו גדול בה, ואין לנו לזוז מדעתם ויהי מה, ובכן בעשותינו מצוותם אנו משלימין מצות האל, ואפילו אם לא יכוונו לפעמים החכמים אל האמת חלילה, עליהם יהיה החטאת ולא עלינו. וזהו הענין שאמרו זכרונם לברכה בהוריות [דף ב’ ע”א] שבית דין שטעו בהוראה ועשה היחיד על פיהם, שהם בחיוב הקרבן לא היחיד כלל, זולתי בצדדים מפורשים שם.

The perception here is that of course Chachamim can makes mistakes in Torah and say things which are categorically not true, and for all that we really on their words because without that behaviour the system could nto survive. Everybody would simply do whatever they wanted however a united body of Jews with (more or less) united practice would not exist. The allowance for a plurality of views here is not because we think they are all equally correct, it’s because all of them have an equal chance of being correct, but in truth only one can be right.

חידושי הריטב”א מסכת עירובין דף יג עמוד ב 

אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים. שאלו רבני צרפת ז”ל היאך אפשר שיהו שניהם דברי אלהים חיים וזה אוסר וזה מתיר, ותירצו כי כשעלה משה למרום לקבל תורה הראו לו על כל דבר ודבר מ”ט פנים לאיסור ומ”ט פנים להיתר, ושאל להקב”ה על זה, ואמר שיהא זה מסור לחכמי ישראל שבכל דור ודור ויהיה הכרעה כמותם, ונכון הוא לפי הדרש ובדרך האמת יש טעם וסוד בדבר.

This sounds like all the different shitos which comes up are partly true. They each are true in of themselves but fail to capture the entire truth. You need to understand it all to get to the truth. This is as opposed to what we saw in the Alter Rebbe that each of the shitos accurately portrays the truth and the details are the result of a modification necessitated by that person’s individual inclinations, understanding and experiences.


Some Thoughts from, and about, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Many of my friends and teachers have been posting memories and reflections on the passing of Moreinu V’Rabbenu Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. I’m not sure I’m ready to do that quite yet, nor am I sure I have something profound to say. While there will be eulogies here in Yeshiva tomorrow, today we are having several shiurim focusing on R. Aharon’s Torah, allowing his lips to continue to move even after his passing, as the Gemara so beautifully captures here: Continue reading Some Thoughts from, and about, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Should we Stand while Learning Torah?

Should we stand while learning Torah?  The Gemara in Megillah 21a says that people used to always stand while learning (as learning is fundamentally similar to Matan Torah itself).  However, after Rabban Gamliel died, people became weak and stopped.

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף כא עמוד א

 תנו רבנן: מימות משה ועד רבן גמליאל לא היו למדין תורה אלא מעומד, משמת רבן גמליאל ירד חולי לעולם והיו למדין תורה מיושב. והיינו דתנן: משמת רבן גמליאל בטל כבוד תורה. כתוב אחד אומר ואשב בהר, וכתוב אחד אומר ואנכי עמדתי בהר! – אמר רב: עומד ולומד, יושב ושונה. רבי חנינא אמר: לא עומד ולא יושב אלא שוחה. רבי יוחנן אמר: אין ישיבה אלא לשון עכבה, שנאמר ותשבו בקדש ימים רבים. רבא אמר: רכות מעומד, וקשות מיושב.

Does this have any implication nowadays?  Continue reading Should we Stand while Learning Torah?

Learn and Receive Reward: An Educational Statement

I have argued that the notion of derosh vekabel schar, learn and receive a reward, should not be taken to mean that certain laws were only given so that we could learn them lishmah.  Rather, these cases carry with them particular educational messages, either regardless of, or due to the fact, that will never happen.  My explanation of this in the context of ben sorer u’moreh can be found here.  I found that Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch understood this phrase the same way.  It is always nice to have some support.  This is the relevant passage.

His full discussion is available here.

The fact that these rules appear in the Torah constitutes an important educational measure. “Expound and receive reward”—one who studies these laws cannot fail to be seized by fear and trembling and will almost certainly be so deeply influenced that some of the perversity in his heart will be cured. Continue reading Learn and Receive Reward: An Educational Statement

A Methodological Point in Reading Aggadeta

BY: Alex Tsykin

I was recently reading an article by Geoffrey Herman (someone who has greatly advanced the study of Persian influences on the writing of the Gemara) called “Ahasuerus, the Stable-Master of Belshazzar” where he advances the following interpretation of a famous gemara in Megillah. The Gemara says as follows:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף יב עמוד ב

ויקצף המלך מאד, אמאי דלקה ביה כולי האי? אמר רבא: שלחה ליה: בר אהורייריה דאבא! אבא לקבל אלפא חמרא שתי ולא רוי, וההוא גברא אשתטי בחמריה.

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “the son of the stablemaster of my father! father would drink wine in front of one thousand people and would not be satisfies and you are drunk from wine!”

The second insult, that Ahashverosh could not hold his liquor, seems to be a relatively clear insult to his manliness that we can still understand today, but the first is very strange. Herman points out that the stablemaster was the least important member of the Persian court at the time of the Gemara and therefore to be addressed as his son emphasizes that not only was Ahashverosh a usurper but he was of low birth as well. Additionally, there was a very well known myth in Persia about a king who started off as a stablemaster’s assistant and rose to rule by killing the previous occupant of the throne. This myth seems to have informed the Bavli’s statement. If so, the passage from the Gemara should read:

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “(insult about llineage)! (insult about virility)!”

It would seem that Rava did not really mean that Ahashverosh occupied a specific position, for how could he know that? Instead, Rava intended that Vashti insulted Ahashverosh, for she was descended from the old Persian line. This poses two points as food for thought. Firstly, we see here the importance of knowing the cultural background of Chazal. By knowing some Persian legends you understand better a story that they relate. Instead of looking for symbolic value to the office of stable master and his son, you can understand the true intent behind the statement. Secondly, given this understanding of the story (which seems to me quite persuasive), is there any Talmud Torah value left in the literal statement that Ahashverosh was the son of a stablemaster, given that the term has lost the particular cultural valence it once possessed. Perhaps instead we should say “Son of my father’s garbage collecter!”

Policy and Psak – The Rav on Women’s Learning (Halachic Methodology 7)

This shiur is a case study in how a psak acts to set communal policy, focusing on the issue of women’s learning.  The shiur and sources are available: here.

The Rav wrote two letters when asked whether girls should be taught Gemara.  The second, which is much more famous, affirms that we should open the halls of תורה שבעל פה  to women.  However, in the first letter, which I think is critical to understanding the letter, first requests assurance that his answer will be accepted as binding.  Continue reading Policy and Psak – The Rav on Women’s Learning (Halachic Methodology 7)

The Rich, the Poor, and the Evil? Chazal on Yosef

It’s been many years since I gave shiur in Hebrew, but tonight I gave an agadata shiur for the Kollel Gavoah.  As it happens to also relate to this week’s Parsha, and what Chazal wanted us to learn from Yosef, I’m posting a quick summary and a link to the shiur: here.  An English summary shiur is: here.

The Gemara on 35b tells the of 3 figures who will prevent people from having excuses for not learning Torah.  Hillel prevents the poor, R. Elazar ben Charsom the rich and Yosef the reshaim.  What seems to drive the Gemara, from my perspective, is the lack of parallelism with the third line.  The Gemara should have said baalei taava, etc.  It seems that it is polemicizing – people who have desires already think of themselves as having lost the battle.  However, what they don’t realize is that overcoming desire is possible, and it is that struggle that makes them tzaddikim.  Continue reading The Rich, the Poor, and the Evil? Chazal on Yosef

The Complexity of Psak

This week I dealt with the complexity of pesak.  After having spoken about some of the factors poskim weigh when making a decision, it was important to deal with how difficult it is to assess Halachic questions.  This is true on several levels.

The first is on the level of theory.   Complex issues deal with a range of Halachic issues and it takes someone who has 1)master of all relevant texts, 2) the ability to analyze those texts, and 3)the imaginative capacity to figure out all potential relevant questions to bring the material together.  I have written about R. Lichtenstein’s description of the ideal posek before: link.

The second is on the level of reality.  Even once one has determined the theoretical issues, one needs to assess the facts.  They can often be difficult to understand, and may change from place to place and time to time.  As an example, I mentioned Rav who spent 18 months with a shepard to figure out the difference between temporary and permanent blemishes (relevant for pidyon bechor).  [See sources for Chasam Sofer and R. Aharon Kahn who deal with the Talmud Torah status of the necessary fact finding for Halachic issues.] Continue reading The Complexity of Psak

Why a Siyum is a Simcha

In honor of the upcoming siyum daf yomi on Eruvin – a quick rundown of the sources for the minhag to celebrate the finishing of a מסכת.

The Gemara in Shabbos (118b-119a) quotes Abaye as saying that he would make a celebration for the rabbis when he saw a young scholar finish a masechta.  [There is a discussion in Rashi, Yam Shel Shlomo and Chavos Yair cited below why it was Abaye who made the celebration.]

  Continue reading Why a Siyum is a Simcha

The Bar Ilan Responsa Project and Rebbeim

A friend of mine asked my several years ago what the role of tools like the Bar Ilan Responsa Project had on the role of poskim.  With unprecedented access to (searchable) classical sources through Bar Ilan, Otzar HaChochmah, Hebrew Books, as well as countless summary works, articles, and shiurim that are easily accessible, the classic role of Rebbe and posek has doubtless changed.

The truth is that this question has been dealt with many times by poskim, as these changes are not more drastic in nature than those that happened after the advent of printed books.  The Lechem Mishnah (Hilchot Talmud Torah 5:4) is often cited as saying that the prohibition of moreh halacha bifnei rabbo is no longer in effect as we learn most of our Torah from sefarim.  In truth, this position long precedes the Lechem Mishnah.  It is cited in the Semak MiTzurich (Mitzvah 111) citing the Ri.[1]  (The Semak MiTzurich is not to be confused with the Semak.  The Semak refers to the Sefer Mitzvot Ketanot written by Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yosef of Corbeil, who lived at the end of the thirteenth century in France.  The Semak MiTzurich was written by Rabbi Moshe who lived in the middle of the fourteenth century in Zurich.  The Semak MiTzurich is a commentary on the Semak  See Baalei HaTosafot by Efarim Urbach, Vol. 2, pages 574-5.) Continue reading The Bar Ilan Responsa Project and Rebbeim