Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Keep Your Minhagim or Forget Havdala
(or, It's Not A Bright Idea to Change Your Minhagim)

I just came across this תשובה in ר' דוד צבי הופמן's, David Zvi Hoffman's, (1843-1921) מלמד להועיל. It is the last תשובה in או"ח. He gives a very interesting reason for keeping one's מנהג even after deciding that it makes more sense to change one's practice after careful analysis.

At first it seemed to me that he decided to keep his old מנהג for capricious reasons. However, after some thought I think I see what his reasoning was.

I will write down my thoughts after the text of the תשובה.

שאלה: במוצאי שבת חנוכה איזו יקדים, הבדלה או נר חנוכה.

תשובה: הלא ידעתי כי זה הוא פלוגתא בין הרמ"א והט"ז /או"ח/ בסי' תרפ"א דלרמ"א מדליק ואח"כ מבדיל ולט"ז הבדלה קודם לנר חנוכה והסכים עמו הפרמ"ג ובעל החו"ת דעת בדרך החיים ועוד פוסקים ובאשר כי הדרך החיים נתפשט במדינות אלו כבר נתפשט המנהג כט"ז, אולם המ"א הסכים לרמ"א, רק בלא הבדיל בש"ע =בשמונה עשרה= פסק דיבדיל תחילה והאליה רבה פסק דאפילו לא הבדיל בחונן הדעת יאמר המבדיל וידליק תחלה; וגם בחיי אדם פסק כרמ"א וכא"ר. והנה אני מתחילה כאשר באתי הנה לבערלין התחלתי לנהוג כט"ז וכן נהגתי כ"ה שנים, ואח"כ ראיתי בעיון בספר אליה רבא שדחה דברי הט"ז בטוב טעם ודעת, והסכמתי בדעתי לנהוג כרמ"א ולהדליק תחילה, בשגם שבמוצאי שבת תמיד עד שבאתי לביתי והבדלתי היה יותר מחצי שעה אחר לילה, וע"כ חשבתי כי טוב להדליק תחילה, כי אז אפשר שאדליק טרם יעבור חצי שעה משחשכה. אולם כאשר העליתי זאת על לבי איתרמי ששכחתי הבדלה בחונן הדעת, וגם הצבור האריכו במעריב עד שבין כך ובין כך הייתי מוכרח להדליק חצי שעה אחר הלילה, וכיון ששכחתי להבדיל בש"ע הוכרחתי כדי לצאת ידי דעת המג"א להבדיל תחילה ולהדליק אח"כ. ע"כ אמרתי בלבי שמן השמים הוא שלא אשנה את מנהגי והסכמתי לנהוג כמקדם כדברי הט"ז, כי קושיות הא"ר יש ליישב אחרי עיון היטב ועי' שאילת יעב"ץ ח"א סי' נ"ב.

I think that there are two parts to his reasoning to keep the מנהג. The fact that he ended up coming home after the 30 minutes means that one of the factors that went into his original reasoning was wrong. The fact that he forgot to say havdala in his tefilla - which I am sure was a rare occurrence for him - put him into a position which would force him to say havdala first, suggesting possible hashgachic intervention forcing him (or giving him another chance) to reconsider his decision (and sure enough he saw that the reasoning of the א"ר was not impenetrable). Or it might suggest that he wasn't so confident about his own reasoning, or felt uneasy about changing a minhag he had kept for 25 years - think Freud (1856-1939). Of course, I am not trying to 'psychologize' R' Hoffman; I only mean to suggest that he was sensitive to his own reservations that were revealed through his forgetfulness and acted in an intelligent way.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


The following are some of my thoughts on the word תולדות which is arguably the מילת מנחה, leitwort (see this chapter from Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom's book, Between the Lines of the Bible also see this article concerning Prof. Yehuda Elitzur's methodology)
of ספר בראשית.

אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ
What does the תורה mean when it uses the phrase "אלה תולדות"1? An analysis of most of the examples of this word in תנ"ך would suggest that it introduces the genealogy of a particular person (for future reference, we will call these the "simple cases"). However, one only need look as far as the first appearance of this word in the חומש (B'reishit 2:4) to recognize the shortcomings of this translation.

ד אֵלֶּה תוֹלְדוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְהָאָרֶץ, בְּהִבָּרְאָם: בְּיוֹם, עֲשׂוֹת ה' אֱלֹקים--אֶרֶץ וְשָׁמָיִם.
These are the תולדות of the heavens and the earth: on the day Hashem, God made, earth and heavens.

Simply put, Heavens and Earth do not have children. It can be suggested that in this case, תולדות is being used poetically - true, Heavens and Earth do not have children in the literal sense, but, figuratively, Adam and Chava are children of the Earth - being formed from the ground - and children of Heavens - G' "blew" the breath of life into their nostrils2. However, this only begs the question - why use this figure of speech?

I believe the point is to take our focus off Adam and Chava and place it on the "grand scheme of Creation". The תורה is trying to tell us what here is most significant. The story of גן עדן is not fundamentally about Adam and Chava. Rather, it is the story of how the Heavens and Earth develop into their most excellent product, mankind - even with all its shortcomings.

This gives us a new insight into how to understand this word in the "simple cases". "אלה תולדות" points to the most significant products resulting from a man's efforts - children (and, in every case, at least, grandchildren). What about all of a person's great deeds? Can they not be more significant than children? The truth is, as great as a person's deeds might be, if he has no child to inherit him and continue in his ways all his great deeds will be but a memory. As our father Avraham says (15:2-3),

ב וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם, אֲדֹנָי ה' מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי, וְאָנֹכִי, הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי; וּבֶן-מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי, הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר. ג וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם--הֵן לִי, לֹא נָתַתָּה זָרַע; וְהִנֵּה בֶן-בֵּיתִי, יוֹרֵשׁ אֹתִי.
Avram said, my Master, Hashem, what shall you give? I go about barren and the steward of my house, he is the Damascene, Eliezer. And Avram said, "Behold, to me you have given no seed, and a member of my household will inherit that which is mine.
תולדות אברהם?
One major question is why are there no תולדות אברהם? Throughout ספר בראשית shortly after the תורה mentions the death of an "אב תולדות" it begins the next "אלה תולדות"3. The תולדות תרח must end when he dies (11:32). I believe the answer is simple. At that point in the narrative אברהם is, in fact, a different person אברם. This אברם can not have תולדות because his wife is barren:

כט וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים: שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת-הָרָן אֲבִי-מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה. ל וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי, עֲקָרָה: אֵין לָהּ, וָלָד.
Avram and Nachor took for themselves wives; the name of the wife of Avram, Sarai; the name of the wife of Nachor, Milka, daughter of Haran, father of Milka and father of Yiska. And Sarai was barren; she had no offspring.

It is interesting to note that the תורה redundantly uses the expression, " אֵין לָהּ, וָלָד", translated here as, "she had no offspring" as opposed to the equally meaningful "אין לה בן" . The word used for offspring is " וָלָד" from the shoresh, י.ל.ד, the same shoresh of תולדות, reinforcing our suggestion that אברם has no תולדות. This begs the question, once again - why not begin תולדות אברהם once his name is changed and he has children4? I believe the תורה is teaching a significant idea about אברהם. All of the other אבות5 in ספר בראשית are biological אב to their children and as an outgrowth of this role the spiritual/intellectual אב of his children and grandchildren and so on. The phrase "אלה תולדות" includes within its scope those events that directly bear upon his biological descendants and bear the stamp of his intellectual/spiritual אבהות/מנהיגות, fatherhood/leadership. Those תולדות end when the next אב becomes independant of his own father. Concerning אברהם, however, the תורה does not want to limit his impact to only his biological descendants. This seems to be indicated in Hashem's first ברכה of אברהם(B'reishit 12:3):

ג וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.
And I will bless those who bless you and he who curses you, I will curse; and through you will be blessed all the families of the earth.

"All the families of the earth" are to be blessed through אברהם through his intellectual/spiritual legacy - this is not limited to his biological descendants. The רמב"ם discusses this idea in one of his תשובות to עובדיה הגר, Ovadia the Proselyte (here is a link to the complete תשובה)
פריימן, הוצאת "מקיצי נרדמים", התרצ"ד, סימן מב
...נמצא שאברהם אבינו ע"ה הוא אב לזרעו הכשרים ההולכים בדרכיו ואב לתלמידיו וכל גר שיתגייר. לפיכך יש לך לומר "אלוקינו ואלוקי אבותינו", שאברהם ע"ה הוא אביך. ויש לך לומר "שהנחלת את אבותינו", שלאברהם ניתנה הארץ, שנאמר "קום התהלך בארץ לארכה ולרחבה, כי לך אתננה" (בראשית יג,יז)
(My paraphrase/translation:)
Avraham, our father, is the father of his uncorrupted children who follow his ways. He is the father to his students and to every convert. Therefore, in your prayers you should say, "Our G' and the G' of our forefathers", because Avraham is your [referring to Ovadia] father. You should also say (in the Birkat HaMazon), "Who caused your forefathers to inherit...", because the land was given to Avraham, as it says, "Get up, traverse the land by its length and width, for I give it to you." (B'reishit 13:17).

1And in one case, "זה ספר תולדות אדם" (B'reishit 5:1).
2This possibility is suggested in the דעת מקרא.
3See, B'reishit 6:9, 10:1, 11:10, 11:27, 25:12, 25:19, 36:1, 36:9, 37:2. 2:4, the introduction to the story of Gan Eden and 5:1, the introduction to the genealogy of Adam down to Noach obviously can not bear this characteristic.
4It is not unusual for תולדות to begin even after all or some of an אב's children are mentioned - see, 5:1, 10:1, 11:10 and most notably, 6:9, 11:27 and 37:2.
5I use this term in its broader sense to include not only Yitzchak and Ya'akov, but also, Noach, Shem, Cham, Yefet, Terach and Yishmael and Eisav.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Mishna as Teacher's Resource

The following is from the Rambam's introduction to the Mishne Torah. In this selection he discusses what R' Yehuda HaNasi did and why. I will paraphrase each halacha and make note of some of the significant ideas. (The paraphrases will be in blue; the notes in black)

יב רבנו הקדוש חיבר המשנה. ומימות משה ועד רבנו הקדוש, לא חיברו חיבור שמלמדין אותו ברבים בתורה שבעל פה; אלא בכל דור ודור, ראש בית דין או נביא שיהיה באותו הדור, כותב לעצמו זיכרון בשמועות ששמע מרבותיו, והוא מלמד על פה ברבים.

The Rambam explains that before Rabbeinu HaKadosh, R' Yehuda HaNasi, wrote the Mishna none of the ba'alei mesora wrote a chibur, a compilation, that they used to teach Torah Sh'ba'al Peh to the public. In every generation the ba'al mesora would write his own private notes to remember what he learned from his own teachers. He, then, would give oral instruction to the public - meaning, no "official" text was used when he delivered his lessons. [Note that the Rambam never construes the Mishna as a book that would simply be read. Rather, he refers to it as a compilation that would be published for public use, to serve as the basis for public lessons. In other words, the Mishna was never meant to be a written version of the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh.]

יג וכן כל אחד ואחד כותב לעצמו כפי כוחו, מביאור התורה ומהלכותיה כמו ששמע, ומדברים שנתחדשו בכל דור ודור, בדינים שלא למדום מפי השמועה אלא במידה משלוש עשרה מידות והסכימו עליהן בית דין הגדול. וכן היה הדבר תמיד, עד רבנו הקדוש.

And so, every single ba'al mesora would write his own notes recording the explanations of the Torah and the halachot that he learned, and any new laws that were derived using one of the 13 midot. This is the way it was until the time of Rabbeinu HaKadosh.

יד והוא קיבץ כל השמועות וכל הדינין וכל הביאורין והפירושין ששמעו ממשה רבנו, ושלמדו בית דין של כל דור ודור, בכל התורה כולה; וחיבר מהכול ספר המשנה. ושיננו ברבים, ונגלה לכל ישראל; וכתבוהו כולם, וריבצו בכל מקום, כדי שלא תשתכח תורה שבעל פה מישראל.

He gathered all of the traditions, laws and explanations that were heard from Moshe Rabbeinu and that each beit din taught in each generation. He taught publicly and revealed it to all of Israel (he published it). They all wrote it down and it spread to every place, such that the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh would not be forgotten.

I can not emphasize enough, that even though Rabbeinu HaKadosh published the Mishna he continued to teach. In brief:

The Mishna was never meant to be a stand alone text.

Is this a critique of the study of Mishna as an stand alone text? Yes.

Can the Mishna still be used in-line with Rabbeinu HaKadosh's original intent? I am not sure.

In another post, I will take up the next halakha in which the Rambam explains why Rabbeinu HaKadosh had to publish the Mishna.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Who Is The Mishna For?

I would like to share some thoughts I have had while preparing the first chapter of Mesekhet Pesachim for the class I was supposed to teach this year.

General Observations

The general topic of the first three mishnayot of Mesekhet Pesachim is bedikat chametz, searching for chametz. Let us consider the specific issues that are dealt with in each mishna:

First Mishna

1) When, 2) With what tool, 3) What places require bedika

4) Bedika of a wine cellar: a) kind of cellar, b) extent of bedika

Second Mishna

5) That we are not concerned that a weasel dragged chametz from a non-baduk place to a baduk place

Third Mishna

6) The requirement of Bedika beyond the time of biur

7) How to handle the chametz that remains after bedika

The Problem

When a student opens up to the first page of Mesekhet Pesachim he is confronted with a host of issues. I will try to present some of the issues he might grapple with - though perhaps never actually put into words. 1) This mesecheta begins with the topic of bedikat chametz. Why does Mesekhet Pesachim begin with this topic? 2) The Torah says nothing about doing bedika - why, then, is bedikat chametz required at all? 3) Are there books that I should have read before this Mesekhta? 4) How does bedika fit into the general system of Pesach? 5) Most of the topics (1-3 and 5-7) discussed in the first three mishnayot are very general principles of bedika or at least easily lend themselves to generalization; only one of them (4) seems to delve into a very specific issue. Is the goal of the mishna to teach general principles or deal with specific problematic cases? 6) Who is the Mishna's intended reader?

The Mishna does not provide us with any way of answering the above mentioned questions. As a book, the Mishna seems greatly lacking. How can this be? This question would not be as bothersome if we were talking about some other book; we would simply say that it is a poorly written book. However, the Mishna is considered the seminal work of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh! How could such a book be so lacking?

The Solution

The problem is with our assumption. The mishna is not a regular book. It was never meant as a complete presentation of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. Its purpose was to save Torah Sh'ba'al Peh from being forgotten. R' Yehuda HaNasi achieved this by providing the ba'alei mesora with a tool, not by writing a complete presentation. We should not expect comprehensiveness from such a book just as we would not expect comprehensiveness from a great professor's class notes. Let me explain:

Imagine a great professor - let us say, the greatest of his generation - of physics, mathematics, psychology, etc., faced with the following imaginary (though possible) scenario. After hundreds of years of professors teaching the subject to countless numbers of students the day comes - for whatever reason - that many students lose interest. Lecture halls that were once filled to capacity with hopeful graduate students lie mostly unused. Semesters pass without enough students to offer many of the graduate level classes. The would-be professors can not get the experience needed to become master-teachers. Even some elements of the field face the real possibility of being forgotten or misunderstood without the infusion of young talented minds.

This professor observes this dreadful situation and sets himself about the task of saving his beloved discipline from oblivion. He is fortunate because he still has colleagues who are masters of his field. What he decides his colleagues need are lecture notes covering every area of his field. With these notes his colleagues will have a resource with which they can guide their lectures, but more importantly they will have a way of checking that they have not omitted, in these lectures, any element necessary for a complete knowledge of their field.

As for sources, the great professor would use his own notes to form his compilation but would also make use of other master teachers' notes. If he possessed a copy of his own teacher's notes he would most likely make extensive use of them in the formulation of his compilation. The great professor would also be sure to include the major debates current in his field.

Of course, the great professor's compilation would find its main use in the hands of his colleague professors. Being a compilation of notes they are sketchy and incomplete by design - their intention being a guide for professors (this, of course, does not mean that the students would not get a copy, or at least have access to a copy). If a professor were to merely dictate these notes to a student - or if the students were to simply read the notes - very little would be understood. Teacher's notes serve as a guide for instruction not as the instruction itself. The job of teaching would still be in the hands of the professor.

This is, in effect, exactly what R' Yehuda HaNasi did. In another post I will complete this comparison using selections from Rambam's introduction to the Mishne Torah.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Insight
Part II

Finally, here is the rest of "the insight".

I would like to clarify two terms before I begin.

1) Demonstration is the name of the art of true reasoning (which includes deduction and induction).

2) Dialectic, or argumentation, is the art of reasoning from reputable opinions.

Places For Dialecticians

Why are the schemes used in argumentation called places more than any other thinking skills that one commits to memory? Think of the difference between the shopping list and the characteristics of dogs. The shopping list is unordered by nature and must artificially be given an order through the 'place' technique. The characteristics of dogs are naturally ordered - as the mind grasps the abstract nature of the dog each characteristic finds its place in the mind and is, consequently, remembered.

The Topics is concerned with reasoning from "reputable opinions". One is not naturally investigating an object of thought - one is arguing the merits of reputable opinions. By and large, those engaged in argumentation are not 'natural thinkers'. Thought is still artificial - the best that the arguer can hope for is to train himself to follow proper technique as given by a master (Aristotle, Ralbag or Ramchal) - a well ordered shopping list of argumentation, if you will.

In other words, the dialectician - not being a 'natural thinker' is in need of guidance. The purpose of the topoi and m'komot is to provide that guidance. The master provides his student with a topology of mind, a map, to guide him along the path to truth.

Topics and M'komot

In this post, I wrote what my first thoughts were after the scholar told me that makom is the translation of topos:

Ralbag's m'komot were topoi - argumentative schemes enabling the reader (who is in a sense a dialectician, building his arguments out of authoritative statements) to construe an argument for the conclusion that a specific mitzvah or shoresh can be placed on (or emerge from) a specific text.

I believe this was in essence true though lacking. What was I missing? The fundamental role of m'komot in the development of a talmid being guided by his Rav - in this case the Ralbag. Just as the topoi were the schemes by which Aristotle, as expert reasoner, guided his students to become better reasoners, so too, the m'komot are an expression of the chesed of the Ralbag, as master m'pharaish, to his talmidim guiding them through the process of peirush.


Please forgive me if I go back and make some changes. I have been a bit harried as of late which is not the best state to engage in the reflection necessary to write a good post. However, I did want to get this post up already. As usual, all critiques are welcome and greatly appreciated.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Ruach HaChein Chapter IV

Chapter IV of my Ruach HaChein translation is now up:

Chapter IV

I have also added titles to each chapter. Please, as usual, let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Insight
Part I

So what was the new insight into the nature of the m'komot as well as memory and learning that Rabbi Sacks helped me see? Due to the length of this piece I will present it in two separate posts - additionally, I believe each part is worth considering on its own (I hope to hear the results of your consideration in the comments - thank you very much).

The Question

First I will restate the question. Why does the Ralbag call his methods m'komot? When the scholar told me that he is just using the Hebrew translation of the appropriate Aristotelian term, topica/topoi I should have asked the same question on Aristotle: why does Aristotle call an "argumentative scheme which enables a dialectician or rhetorician to construe an argument for a given conclusion" a topic? The following is written in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The word ‘topos’ (place, location) most probably is derived from an ancient method of memorizing a great number of items on a list by associating them with successive places, say the houses along a street one is acquainted with. By recalling the houses along the street we can also remember the associated items...

Aristotle himself compares his topics with this memory technique:

For just as in a person with a trained memory, a memory of things themselves is immediately caused by the mere mention of their 'places', so these habits too will make a man readier in reasoning, because he has his premisses classified before his mind's eye, each under its number. (163b:28-31 trans. W.A. Pickard-Cambridge)

What exactly is the analogy? Learning different schemes of argumentation certainly will improve one's ability to argue well, making him "readier in reasoning". But how is this at all similar to the 'place' technique? I believe the key is the following phrase: "because he has his premisses classified before his mind's eye, each under its number." However, let us first consider why 'places' are useful to memory.

Places and Memories

First, one does not just use any 'places'. One uses a familiar place and preferably a place that can easily be associated with what one needs to remember. For example one might imagine the different places within one's cupboard and refrigerator to memorize a shopping list or the houses on one's block to remember the phone numbers of each family in each respective house (take a look at this excellent article to see how this method can be extended).

Additionally, and more importantly, the 'place' technique works because it is in line with the natural function of our imagination/psyche. Thought progresses from sensory experience of particulars to a general mental image. From that general mental image the intellectual faculty abstracts out the true universal nature that was embodied in the in the original sensory experience. For example, one sees, hears, feels and feels things about a dog; a general mental representation of the dog is formed which combines the different sensory experiences; after many such experiences the mental representation becomes more refined; the mind abstracts a universal formula of 'dog' out of the refined mental representation. These are the steps, in brief:

1) sense;

2) represent;

3) refine;

4) abstract.

Of course, every step must be checked by all the previous steps; i.e. one must make sure that their formula for 'dog' does not equally describe people.

As one progresses along the path of abstraction one's memory of particulars improves. In other words, at first it is difficult to remember all of the different kinds of dogs, the anatomy of dogs, all the varied behaviors of dogs, etc.; but, the more I study dogs the simpler it gets to remember all of the varied details. What once seemed like a mess of random details suddenly gains coherence, now that my "mind's eye" has 'dog glasses'. Another way of saying this is: everything has found it place. Our memories do not work well with chaos, when our thoughts become "classified", "each under its number" what was once difficult to remember becomes simple.

The purpose of Aristotle's topics is to give one familiarity with general schemes of reasoning to improve one's skill to, as he writes in the beginning of the Topics, "reason from reputable opinions about any subject presented to us, and also... when putting forward an argument, avoid saying anything contrary to it" better known as dialectic or argumentation. The more one familiarizes oneself with these topics - the more each one falls into its mental 'place' - the greater one's facility at argumentation.

In my next post I will discuss: 1) why these dialectical schemes should be called places more than any other thinking skill and 2) what this teaches us about Ralbag's Makomot.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Ralbag on Translation
(Or, Think Before You Translate)

In this comment Isaac wrote:

Refreshing post, really! Yet, maybe I missed... what exactly was the reconciliation between topos and maqom? Further, is the etymological relationship between the two words an agreement, or disagreement, between the epistemological approaches of Ralbag versus Aristotle? The latter of the two could sufficiently be explained by reading from a poor translation... did the Ralbag read in Arabic, Greek or French? Many things to consider.

I always enjoy when Isaac leaves a comment. I will hopefully have the insight ready for posting soon. I have decided to make my reply to Isaac - though it does not answer all his questions - into its own separate post.

It seems Ralbag's knowledge of Arabic, Latin and Greek were very limited. He was born in Bagnols, died in Perpignan and he lived in both Orange and Avignon so most likely he spoke whatever language was spoken there at that time (some form of French?). However, Ralbag was very, very sensitive to language and was very sensitive to the difficulties involved with reading translations. In his introduction to his commentary on Iyov (which is renowned for its difficult language) Ralbag spells out the fundamental principle of translation (I will do my best to translate/paraphrase):

When a work employs equivocal terms, it is proper for an interpreter/expounder (m'va'air) to guide the explanation of terms (milot) and words (teivot) according to the intention/meaning of the matters which were intended based on the general context (asher kivnu b'khlal haD'varim). If he does not first consider the meaning he will not be able to understand the proper interpretation of the terms - unless he was lucky. This is all very clear.

Nima Adlerblum writes in her, "A Study of Gersonides" (1926) pp. 32-33:

Though he had no knowledge, or at best a limited knowledge of Latin and Arabic, he often discovered both errors of expression and misinterpretation in the Aristotelian commentators. Hillel de Verona had already before Gersonides attempted to analyze and discuss the Aristotelian vocabulary. But his chief aim in this was to ply Aristotle to his own views. In Gersonides the motive was only the discovery of the objective scientific truth.

Dr. Adlerblum's comment perfectly describes the difference between a scholar and an Oheiv Hashem.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Place of Scholarship

A number of years ago I was studying the Ralbag's introduction to his commentaries on the Torah. One of the most impressive sections is his nine m'komot (see these posts for my translation of the first two). The purpose of these m'komot is to serve as ways of linking the mitzvot of the Torah and the root principles of those mitzvot (shorashim) to the words of the written Torah.

I wondered why the Ralbag would call such methods m'komot, which literally means places. Why not call them midot (which literally means measures), the term used by the Sages - as in, midot sh'haTorah nidreshet bahem? I reflected on the meaning of the word makom and came to the conclusion that a makom is not just a physical place. In its broader sense it can be thought of as that which enables placing, s'micha. So, I concluded the Ralbag must have called his methods m'komot because they enabled him (and the reader) lismoch, to place, or rest, the principles of the mitzvot on the simple meaning of the text. In English we could think of m'komot as "placers" - they help us place the principles on the best textual "places", or m'komot.

Shortly after my musings on this question I spoke with a well known Ralbag scholar. He told me that m'komot is actually a translation of the Greek word topos, meaning place - this Greek term is the source of the title to one of Aristotle's works: The Topics. The online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (this is the link to the specific article) gives the following definition of topos:

Generally speaking, an Aristotelian topos (‘place’, ‘location’) is an argumentative scheme which enables a dialectician or rhetorician to construe an argument for a given conclusion.

This scholar's explanation seemed to put the question to rest and as nice as my theory seemed to me the facts were the facts. Ralbag's m'komot were topoi - argumentative schemes enabling the reader (who is in a sense a dialectician, building his arguments out of authoritative statements) to construe an argument for the conclusion that a specific mitzvah or shoresh can be placed on (or emerge from) a specific text. I was very happy after this discussion and was thankful that the scholar had identified that a makom was a topos - I will refer to this kind of explanation as saying "a this is a this".

I let the matter rest for a number of years until this past Shabbat Nachamu. Rabbi Rambam System recently moved into my neighborhood and he was at my house learning with me. As can be seen from his blog, he is currently very focused on the Ralbag's m'komot. He helped me see a fundamental error that I made and also gave me new insight into the nature of the m'komot as well as memory and learning. In this post I will discuss my error.

My Error

The scholar had shown me that a makom is a topos (a this is a this) but this still leaves one begging the question: why is a topos called a topos, a place in the first place (sorry for the bad pun)? What does place have to do with dialectical argumentative schemes? When the scholar told me that a this was really a this my mind became closed to any further investigation. After all, the scholar told me that a this was a this, what more need be said? To give scholars some credit, scholars are in doubt about this very question (as can be seen here on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Perhaps my original theory was not so bad. However, it clearly needed refining based on the new facts that the scholar provided. Unfortunately, once I heard that a this was a this I stopped thinking.

I often find this problem with "scholarship". Scholarship is very good at establishing facts, saying this is a this but when it comes to asking, "what of it?", it often falls short. It is as if once things have been placed into neat categories, and identifications have been made, and data has been put into patterns nothing more need be done or said. Is the amassment and organization of facts the totality of intellectual investigation? Sadly, that which should be a boon to investigation often becomes its pallbearer.

In a upcoming post I will discuss the new insight.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Improved Translation of the Four Levels of the Theoretical Intellect in the Ruach HaChein

As you can see from the lengthy title of this post, I have improved the translation of the four levels of the theoretical intellect in the third chapter of the Ruach HaChein. I made these improvements as a result of Rabbi Maroof's critique that the second level was unclear. I believe that I have improved that entire section. I can not emphasize enough the value of your critiques. Additionally, I have made some minor improvements to the second chapter - such as the break down of the sections.

Check it out:

Ruach HaChein

As always, please be generous with your critiques and suggestions. I want this translation to be as effective as possible.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Introduction to Torah Sh'ba'al Peh

I am currently preparing for the Talmud class that I will be giving this coming school year. I always like to start with a general introduction to Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. I believe the best introduction is the Rambam's introduction to the Mishna. Though the introduction to the Mishne Torah is also an excellent introduction to Torah Sh'ba'al Peh it is tailored to act as an introduction to Rambam's particular presentation of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. If one's task is to learn/teach the other texts of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh then it would seem that the introduction to the Mishna should be one's primary choice.

My method will be to go through the text and paraphrase or translate each mini-unit/paragraph and provide whatever explanations are necessary to understand what the Rambam is doing. The Hebrew text I will be using is from the "daat.ac.il" web site (I will supplement the translation given there with R' Sheilat and R' Qafich's translations). For now, I will be skipping over the Rambam's introductory "song". Skipping over it is not meant to indicate that it is not important just that I need to think about it some more.

The Rambam begins by stating the most basic idea one must have about Torah Sh'ba'al Peh, the Oral Law, before study can begin. However, before discussing it, let me just clarify what the Rambam is not doing:

1) He is not telling us the most basic idea that the Torah (and reason) demands we have. The Rambam presents the most basic ideas we must have in his Hakdama to Chelek and Hilchot Y'sodei HaTorah, The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah (really, all of Sefer HaMada, The Book of the Knowledge). To begin studying the Torah one must already possess the y'sodot, the foundations (after all, you are only allowed to teach Torah to a Yisrael who is a Talmid Hagun - we will assume for now that my students meet those criteria).

2) Additionally, the Rambam is not telling us the most basic ideas we need to study Torah Sh'bichtav, the Written Law.

He is, however, telling us the most basic idea of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh: what it is.

דע, כי כל מצווה שנתן הקב"ה למשה רבנו ע"ה, נתנה לו בפירושה: היה אומר לו המצווה, ואחר כך אומר לו פירושה ועניינה, וכל מה שהוא כולל ספר התורה.

All the mitzvot that God gave to Moshe Rabbeinu, A"H, were given with peirush, explanation. God would tell Moshe the mitzvah and afterwards would tell him its peirush, explanation.

As Rav Sheilat writes in his commentary on the Hakdama to the Mishna (my paraphrase/translation): "The Torah Sh'ba'al Peh transforms the mitzvah from a vague/intangible (Artila'i) idea to a practicable teaching/instruction." This is why the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh is properly called Mitzvah, command in the Hakdama to the Mishne Torah:

א כל המצוות שניתנו לו למשה בסיניי--בפירושן ניתנו, שנאמר "ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן, והתורה והמצוה" (שמות כד,יב): "תורה", זו תורה שבכתב; ו"מצוה", זה פירושה. וציוונו לעשות התורה, על פי המצוה. ומצוה זו, היא הנקראת תורה שבעל פה.

All the mitzvot that were given to Moshe on Sinai -- they were given with their peirush, explanation. As it says, "And I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and the Mitzvah. "Torah" - this is Torah Sh'bichtav. "Mitzvah" - this is peirushah, its explanation. We are commanded to do the Torah in accordance with the Mitzvah. This "Mitzvah" is called Torah Sh'ba'al Peh.

In other words, only the peirush which facilitates "doing" is called Torah Sh'ba'al Peh - "This "Mitzvah" is called Torah Sh'ba'al Peh" - and no other. Without the "do" it is just an "explanation".

This is not an ad. for Mountain Dew/Do but it's a good mnemonic nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Part I

In preparation for an essay in which I would like to explain the meaning of some of the midrashim about Og, I would like to go through what the Torah has to say about this "giant". My method will be to go through the verses and paraphrase each mini-unit/paragraph of text. Along the way, I will try to make note of some the more interesting elements that could easily be missed in a cursory reading.

Disclaimer: please consider this as a rough first reading. Any critiques or suggestions will be appreciated.

It seems, as with many of the events in the Torah, that it all goes back to the B'rit Bein HaBetarim. At the conclusion of that B'rit, God assured Avraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. However, this inheritance had to be delayed until the "sin of the Emori is complete" (not to exclude the other reasons it was delayed).

וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי, יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה: כִּי לֹא-שָׁלֵם עֲו‍ֹן הָאֱמֹרִי, עַד-הֵנָּה. (בר' טו.טז)

Finally, in the twenty-first chapter of B'midbar (vv. 21-35) the day seems to have arrived:

כא וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל מַלְאָכִים, אֶל-סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ-הָאֱמֹרִי לֵאמֹר. כב אֶעְבְּרָה בְאַרְצֶךָ, לֹא נִטֶּה בְּשָׂדֶה וּבְכֶרֶם--לֹא נִשְׁתֶּה, מֵי בְאֵר: בְּדֶרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ נֵלֵךְ, עַד אֲשֶׁר-נַעֲבֹר גְּבֻלֶךָ.

Israel sent messengers (note the similarity to B'reishit 32:4: "וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו "אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם) to Sichon king of the Emori requesting passage through his land - giving him their word that they would stay on the King's Highway and not tread on anyone's field, or vineyard, or drink from any wells. However, he did not consent:

כג וְלֹא-נָתַן סִיחֹן אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עֲבֹר בִּגְבֻלוֹ, וַיֶּאֱסֹף סִיחֹן אֶת-כָּל-עַמּוֹ וַיֵּצֵא לִקְרַאת יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה, וַיָּבֹא יָהְצָה; וַיִּלָּחֶם, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.

Even more shockingly he seemed to perceive Israel as a threat and gathered "his entire nation" to the desert and waged war against them! However, he was not triumphant:

כד וַיַּכֵּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִי-חָרֶב; וַיִּירַשׁ אֶת-אַרְצוֹ מֵאַרְנֹן, עַד-יַבֹּק עַד-בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן--כִּי עַז, גְּבוּל בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן. כה וַיִּקַּח, יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֵת כָּל-הֶעָרִים, הָאֵלֶּה; וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל-עָרֵי הָאֱמֹרִי, בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן וּבְכָל-בְּנֹתֶיהָ.

Israel soundly defeated them and took possession of his entire land to the border of Amon. They also took hold of the cities and settled in them - this included Cheshbon and all its provinces. In high poetic style the Torah proceeds to explain how Cheshbon came to belong to Sichon:

כו כִּי חֶשְׁבּוֹן--עִיר סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי, הִוא; וְהוּא נִלְחַם, בְּמֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-כָּל-אַרְצוֹ מִיָּדוֹ, עַד-אַרְנֹן. כז עַל-כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים, בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן; תִּבָּנֶה וְתִכּוֹנֵן, עִיר סִיחוֹן. כח כִּי-אֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן, לֶהָבָה מִקִּרְיַת סִיחֹן: אָכְלָה עָר מוֹאָב, בַּעֲלֵי בָּמוֹת אַרְנֹן. כט אוֹי-לְךָ מוֹאָב, אָבַדְתָּ עַם-כְּמוֹשׁ; נָתַן בָּנָיו פְּלֵיטִם וּבְנֹתָיו בַּשְּׁבִית, לְמֶלֶךְ אֱמֹרִי סִיחוֹן. ל וַנִּירָם אָבַד חֶשְׁבּוֹן, עַד-דִּיבֹן; וַנַּשִּׁים עַד-נֹפַח, אֲשֶׁר עַד-מֵידְבָא.

After this poetic interlude the Torah repeats that Israel settled in the land of the Emori (I consider this the beginning of the second half of the story.):

לא וַיֵּשֶׁב, יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּאֶרֶץ, הָאֱמֹרִי.

Now, the Torah shifts its focus from Israel (note that only Israel has been mentioned up to this point) to Moshe. Moshe sent spies - most likely they were spies, however, the Torah leaves out the indirect-object leaving us to fill it in based on context (I can only wonder why the Torah would not want to mention spies (m'raglim) - hmm) - on a reconnaissance mission to gather information on Ya'zeir and "they" (most likely Israel - again, the Torah is somewhat ambiguous) captured all of its provinces and uprooted the Emori that were there:

לב וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לְרַגֵּל אֶת-יַעְזֵר, וַיִּלְכְּדוּ בְּנֹתֶיהָ; ויירש (וַיּוֹרֶשׁ), אֶת-הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר-שָׁם.

Next, "they" turned and went up by way of Bashan:

לג וַיִּפְנוּ, וַיַּעֲלוּ, דֶּרֶךְ, הַבָּשָׁן; וַיֵּצֵא עוֹג מֶלֶךְ-הַבָּשָׁן לִקְרָאתָם הוּא וְכָל-עַמּוֹ, לַמִּלְחָמָה--אֶדְרֶעִי.

Og, the king of Bashan came out to "greet them" - he, and his entire nation for war. (Note how the Torah emphasises Og's presence at the battle by singling him out with the word "הוא (he)", "he, and his entire nation" went out to battle.)

לד וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַל-תִּירָא אֹתוֹ--כִּי בְיָדְךָ נָתַתִּי אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-כָּל-עַמּוֹ, וְאֶת-אַרְצוֹ; וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ--כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ לְסִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי, אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן. לה וַיַּכּוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-כָּל-עַמּוֹ, עַד-בִּלְתִּי הִשְׁאִיר-לוֹ שָׂרִיד; וַיִּירְשׁוּ, אֶת-אַרְצוֹ.

Before the battle, God instructed Moshe to not be afraid of him (meaning Og) because He had delivered him (Og) and his entire nation and his land into his (Moshe's) hand. God assured Moshe that he would do to him (Og) what he did to Sichon, king of the Emori, who dwells in Cheshbon (The Torah's use of the "present tense" is most probably explained by the fact that, technically, there are no tenses in BH. As in bonei Yerushalayim, the "present tense" can also be used as a noun - this is called a participle, meaning, it participates, or partakes, in the nature of both a noun (as an adjective) and a verb. Check out this article for a nice, simple explanation of tenses in BH). Indeed, Moshe struck Og and his sons (who we hear about, now, for the first time) and his nation to the point that no one remained. And they took possession of Og's land.