Thursday, September 16, 2010

Explaining Halachot is Problematic (or Not?)

As I mentioned earlier, I'm reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People and finding it remarkably unconvincing. Perhaps the single weirdest thing about it is that Sand is offering a revolutionary new reading of Jewish history, yet he never - not once - cites the relevant Jewish sources. If there's one thing Jews did throughout their history it's read and write books; some of the more important of them relate directly to his subject matter: say, the Talmud, for example. He seems never to have glanced at them, nor even to have any idea what's in them via the ample modern academic literature about them. I cannot stress enough how truly bizarre this is.

Admittedly, learning history from the Talmud requires some careful scholarship, since its creators were in no way recording the annals of their times, nor were they interested in what modern historians do. So what? Lots of historians spend lots of time and effort deciphering past issues from oblique sources.

An example of a matter the Talmud never actually tells us, though it would have been of major significance, is the relationship between their scholarly efforts and the broad, non-scholarly Jewish public. The rabbis haggled endlessly over the tiniest minutiae of countless matters; how did this relate to the daily life of the general public?

Today I passed an interesting hint. The topic is a convoluted discussion about which cheeses produced by pagans can be eaten by Jews, if at all, and what are the Biblical sources for the different positions. Back in Mishnaic times there had been an early discussion between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Ishmael (2nd century); it was cited by Rav Dimi when he moved from Eretz Israel to Babylonia (4th century). At one point in the original discussion Rabbi Yehoshua had admonished Rabbi Yishmael not to explain: "Yishmael my brother! Keep your lips sealed!"

The Gemara asks why Rabbi Yishmael wasn't allowed to explain his position, and answers that it was a new, recent rule. The Gemara interrupts itself and insists: so what was the reason for the proscription, and gives a technical explanation about the method of cheese production. Having clarified that, the Gemara goes back to ask what was special about new rules that it was forbidden to explain them, and cites a report from Ulla (a 3rd century rabbi who lived in the Galilee but traveled frequently to Babylonia): the rabbis in the west (=Eretz Israel) never explained their halachic rulings for 12 months, fearing that if they did the people might decide they weren't convinced and not act as instructed; after 12 months people would have gotten used to the new instruction and there would no longer be any harm in explaining it.

Avoda Zara 35a. This thread starts and is explained here.


Anonymous said...


you could a management bestseller on that wisdom

did it ever happen that a new rule was allowed to lapse quietly when it proved to be too dangerous for daily life?


Anonymous said...

English translation:
I think I have the correct folio. Yaacov's explanation is much easier to follow than the original.

Avigdor said...


Actually, yes. A law that is unenforceable - meaning, the vast majority of Jews do not consent to keep it - is null and void.

There have been cases of this, although I'm too far away from the "old books" at the moment to give a specific source. For example, from what I remember, at one point a decree was made that a Jewish man should go to mikveh before (or was it after? or both?) every instance of sexual intercourse with his wife.

The point was to discourage having sex for the purpose of satisfying lust and pleasure by imposing barriers that slowed the process down. So, if you want to nook your wife next shabbos, you have to prepare in advance, give it some thought, take out time to hike two miles to the nearest lake (a natural mikveh), etc.

The reasons for doing so are beyond the scope of this comment, but relate to the sanctity with which Jewish tradition treats sexual relations between husband and wife, and the physical and spiritual process of conceiving a child.

Anyway, a chorus of opposition rose throughout the land and the decree was... not enforced, shall we say. However, Jews who go beyond the letter of the law (hassidim), who are into spirituality or developing fine character traits (midos), have adopted similar stringencies voluntarily.

Avigdor said...

The inventions of ignorant Jewish people

Anonymous said...

thanks Victor,

I remember your anti-Sand eloqui or should it be eloquency ;-) quite a bit.

Sending the husband bathing before "it" sounds like quite a good idea and most likely conducive to the health of the couple. In the interest of women I therefore hope that the "religious" bath was replaced by a good wash-up. ;-)

and how smart not to have supplied all the reasoning right away - it would have made it so much harder to back off.

As to your Andrew Sullivan Watch: be prepared that your former admiration for the man will fizzle out. At least that's what happened to me when I found out about the disdaining humans (menschen-verachtende) haughtiness of some of my beloveds. When it happened I thought I could keep that separated but I can't they soured on me, it took its time but then it felt like I'd been had. With others I can be quite forgiving, maybe the difference is in the haughtiness, if I feel duped because they tried to pass themselves off for being too knowledgeable and too little into searching.


Lee Ratner said...

It never ceases to amaze me that morons like Sand are taken seriously. The only reason to read his "scholarship" is if you want to read political porn for anti-Zionists. "See the Jews aren't real Jews and therefore, the entire Zionist project is based on a lie." Only people interested in garbage like the above would like Sand's work. And they wonder why most Jews think that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism?

On the subject of the post, Folk Judaism is another way in which the Rabbis and Jewish public diverged. Many common-Jews like their non-Jewish neighbors had elaborate beliefs about demons and other monstrosities and rituals and fetishes to counter them. The Rabbis really didn't like this and spent generations trying to counter these beliefs. It didn't really work out that well for the Rabbis and most ordinary Jews kept amulets about to fight Lillith and other demons.

Kevin Brook said...

"The Invention of the Jewish People" is partly false as demonstrated by the evidence for Jewish continuity since ancient times that I gathered into The Jews of Khazaria, Second Edition.

Anonymous said...

The book was being sold in quality London bookshops.

Sylvia said...

In just a few hours, all vehicles, trains, planes, buses, will stop running in the country. Radio and TV will go mute. All will be peaceful and silent, except for the chants mounting from the synagogues and the excited voices of children who on their bicycles and roller skates, become kings of the highways for one day.

I wish everyone a safe, serene, spiritually productive Yom Kippur. And to those fasting, an easy fast.

Lee Ratner said...

Anonymous, "controversial" books like this often sell a lot but are quickly forgotten.

One reason for this entire phenomenon is Koestler's moronic advocacy of the false Khazar thesis, that states that Eastern European Jews are descendants of the Khazars despite all historical and scientifc evidence to the contrary.

Like Sylvia, I wish eveybody have a reflective Yom Kippur and an easy fast.

Anonymous said...

Surely ignoring all primary sources is all part of the methodology of Middle East History. Apart from the fact it is time consuming and hard, it tends to provide a list of facts that more often than not interferes with the historians preconceived notions.


Anonymous said...

Actually, it`s possible for a historian to make primary sources say what he wants. At least to a certain extent. If David Irving can do it, what`s wrong with Shlomo Sand. Intellectual laziness?

Anonymous said...

Yaacov -

Do you have any speculation into what makes a guy like Sand tick? I'm trying to understand it.


Anonymous said...

Sands book is extremely interesting, unlike the drivel printed on this page by his detractors.

Anonymous said...

Yaacov Lozowick - don't you realize that your wretched religious musings just don't measure up to Sand's scholarship.

You are a silly parochial ass.
THree cheers to Sand for casting light on Jewish history.