Sefer Ha-Hayim Blog
Monday, February 28, 2005
The Limits of Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture
One of the contributions to the Open Access Project is an essay by Dr. Joshua Golding titled "On the Limits of Non-Literal Interpretation of Scripture from an Orthodox Perspective" (here). I posted a review of some of the Rishonim on this topic here.

Friday, February 25, 2005
The Open Access Project
Yashar Books is finally ready to launch an online free Torah resource center and discussion forum called "The Open Access Project."

At the Open Access Project page you can download free articles, essays, dissertations and (soon) entire books online. But that’s not all. You can also post your own reviews and critiques and join discussions. You can even submit your own papers for consideration. The idea is to make quality source material available in an Open Access virtual Bet Midrash and stimulate a give and take of ideas. It is an experimental project in collaborative scholarship.

The Open Access Project is still growing. You might say it’s in “Beta” format. Join now and help it grow and spread. Read, learn, respond. And tell your friends to join too!

For an exciting adventure in free online Jewish scholarship, go now: "The Open Access Project." Your interactive Journal offering "Open Source Learn-Ware": free articles, essays and books, and an open discussion forum to add your own ideas.

Monday, February 21, 2005
R. Joseph Zundel of Salant
Menachem Butler on his ancestor R. Joseph Zundel of Salant.

Thursday, February 10, 2005
Seforim Sale: Night 1
I got to the Seforim Sale after 10pm and quickly found my contact there, whom I had not previously met in person. The sale was moved to the first floor of Belfer this year and is set up very nicely. It is very easy to find books and there is plenty of staff walking around and offering assistance.

So, of course, I looked around to find my books. R. Daniel Feldman's book is upfront on the YU table, next to R. Aharon Lichtenstein's. R. Nosson Slifkin's books are prominently displayed and, from what I heard, selling quickly. R. Eli Schochet's book The Hasidic Movement and the Gaon of Vilna is in the English language Kabbalah/Hassidus section and is priced really cheap. You will never find it this cheap anywhere else.

After a lot of searching, with help, we determined that the Salanter books were not out on the tables. Hopefully, they will be out by tomorrow night. Because of the late hour and the long search for the Salanter book, I did not check on R. Yehuda Henkin's books. His newest volume of responsa (Bnei Banim 4) is available at the sale.

I will, IY"H be back at the sale tomorrow night and will be checking on Bnei Banim then.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Buying Books from Yashar
A note to those interested in books that are currently available from Yashar. If you want to help out the new company, instead of buying the book online go to your local Jewish bookstore and ask for the book. Chances are that the store already has our catalog but, if not, direct them to They will order it for you and sell it to you cheaper (i.e. without shipping costs) than if you buy it online. And it will open up a new store to Yashar.

Rabbi Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker
R. Nosson Slifkin, Rabbi Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker

I just received the first copies of Rabbi Israel Salanter:Religious-Ethical Thinker, a reprint of a little-known academic biography of R. Yisrael Salanter from 1953, and I am blown away by how great the book looks. I know, don't judge a book by its cover. But this has a great cover and, if I may say so with full prejudice, great insides as well.

When I first contacted Prof. Shaul Stampfer of Hebrew U for a blurb, I didn't think he would even respond to my e-mail. He is, after all, probably the world's foremost expert on the yeshiva world of the nineteenth century and has better things to do than to respond to e-mails from someone out to make a buck off his name. But he was so enthusiastic I could sense his excitement over the book. Here is his blurb that graces the back cover of the book:

Menahem Glenn's classic study, Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker, was a pioneering biography of one of the most creative and influential thinkers in the East European world of Torah scholarship. In his sober and carefully documented study, Glenn carefully described the life and ideas of R. Israel in their historical context as well as in the context of Jewish thought. By doing so, he opened the world of the East European Musar movement to the English speaking reader. Even after the publication of subsequent important works on R. Israel, Glenn's work remains a valuable resource and contains materials and information not available elsewhere.
And, not to be outdone, here is Zalman Alpert of Yeshiva University's blurb:

This volume is a classic in the study of the 19th century Musar movement and its leader Rabbi Israel Salanter. Not only is the reader presented with a critical study of the life and teachings of R. Salanter in English, but we also get a critical English translation of Salanter's major work the Iggereth Ha-Musar, the Epistle of Musar. The book fills an important lacuna in English for the serious student of the Musar movement. As this movement gains prominence in 21st century America, this classic volume gains new importance as a valuable tool in understanding Salanter and his teachings.
A colleague of mine referred to this book as a "Making of a Godol"-style biography, in that it is full of fascinating historical tidbits that you simply will not find anywhere else. Interestingly, the book contains the only biography I have seen of Rabbi Jacob Joseph (chief rabbi of New York) that focuses on his time in Europe. He was a student of R. Yisrael Salanter and, along with other students, is biographied (is that a word?) in this book.

More info on the book here. You can buy it here. A few copies will be available at the Seforim Sale.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005
Meet the Author
R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations  buy it now

Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, author of the newly published The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations, will be signing books and speaking at the SOY Seforim Sale in conjunction with the Yeshiva College Alumni Association.

The topic of the talk will be "Why Should We Learn About Mitzvot Bein Adam L'Chaveiro? -- Interpersonal Relations and Halacha"

Sunday, February 13, 2005 12:30 pm
Yeshiva University, Belfer Hall, 5th floor
2495 Amsterdam Ave. (at 184th Street)
New York City

Buy the Books
R. Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures

Due to heavy demand, we are temporarily out of Mysterious Creatures. A shipment is already on the way from Israel and should arrive by the end of February.

In the meantime, you will be able to purchase copies of the book at the SOY Seforim Sale.

The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax is still available.

First Book
R. Daniel Z. Feldman, The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations  buy it now

I am pleased to announce that Yashar Books has published its first book, and it is a great one. A paperback, expanded edition of The Right and the Good: Halakhah and Human Relations by R. Daniel Z. Feldman is now officially available for purchase.

These books are *hot off the press*. They will be available at the Seforim Sale but you can order them now and receive them before the sale begins here.

While we have been distributing other books, this is the first that we have published ourselves. Another book, Rabbi Israel Salanter: Religious-Ethical Thinker will be ready next week.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005
Of Books and Bannings IV
R. Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures & The Camel, the Hare, & the Hyrax  buy them now

The issue of Hazal and science is more difficult than the others that we have tackled in this series simply because the literature is so vast. Where do I begin? As I stated originally, the main point of these series of posts is to make the argument that these are issues of contemporary debate, i.e. there are rabbis on both sides of this debate. However, because history is so important to us, I have quoted and will continue to cite ancient sources as well as contemporary.

Additionally, this current essay is omitting discussion of how we are to relate to this topic. If Hazal made scientific errors, how are we to relate to them? This is extremely important but space constraints force me to omit such a discussion. See the bibliography listed towards the end of this post for discussions of this important matter.

The issue for this post is the science of Hazal. Did they use their contemporary science, much of which has been disproven, or did they have Sinaitic traditions for all their scientific views?

On this matter, the medieval sources are quite prevalent. Let me make it clear that there was no single, unanimous opinion on this matter and that I am intentionally only citing sources on one side of this issue. There were certainly those on the other side as well. Be that as it may, the point still stands that there were rishonim whose views are important for this discussion.

Primary among the rishonim on this subject is the Rambam. In his Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Kiddush Ha-Hodesh 17:24), the Rambam wrote:

The reasons behind all these calculations... and the methods by which they are derived belong to the science of astronomy on which the sages of Greece have compiled many books
The scientific and mathematical bases for the calculations of Kiddush ha-hodesh were, according to the Rambam, determined by the science prevalent during the times of the Sages. They were not, writes the Rambam explicitly (read further there), received traditions. Similarly, he writes in his Moreh Nevukhim (3:14):

You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science. (Friedlander translation)
Before the Rambam, too, R. Sherira Gaon (or possibly his son, R. Hai Gaon) wrote similarly of the medical knowledge of Hazal (Teshuvos Ha-Geonim ? Harkaby, no. 394):

Our sages were not doctors and said what they did based on experience with the diseases of their time. Therefore, there is no commandment to listen to the sages [regarding medical advice] because they only spoke from their opinion based on what they saw in their day.
R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam wrote similarly in his Ma'amal Al Aggados Hazal (in Margoliyos edition of Milhamos Hashem, pp. 84-88), as did many other rishonim. For example, as one reader sent me, the Meiri to Horiyos 13b writes that Hazal's advice on how to avoid memory loss was based on what they found in "the books of the doctors." I am sure that a thorough review of the Meiri's writings will reveal many similar statements. Abarbanel, in his introduction to part 2 of Yeshu'os Meshiho (p. 17b), writes that Hazal's knowledge of science was based on their experience in their particular climate and time which might not apply to our climates and times (a forerunner of the "nishtaneh ha-teva" approach). That is in the rishonim, although there are certainly those who disagree (e.g. Rashba and Rivash).

The debate on this issue continued throughout the ages and remains to this day. For example, the Gemara (Pesahim 94b) records a debate between the sages of Israel and the sages of the nation over the sun's movement. The sages of Israel took the pre-Ptolemaic view that the sun travels from east to west under the sky during the day and back again from west to east over the sky at night. The sages of the nations maintained the Ptolemaic view that the sun travels above the earth during the day and below (i.e. around) the earth at night. While the simple reading of the continuation of this passage is that the sages of Israel submitted to the proofs of the sages of the nations, Rabbeinu Tam was of the view that the sages of Israel never conceded their stance. Indeed, his entire approach to the onset of night is based on the pre-Ptolemaic understanding of the sun's movement. While those who maintain that Hazal had received traditions for their scientific views will side with Rabbeinu Tam that the sages never conceded their position, the Maharam Al-Ashkar (no. 96) wrote explicitly that Rabbeinu Tam's position is based on incorrect astronomy. Even the Minhas Cohen (4:10), a great advocate of Rabbeinu Tam's position, admitted that its basis is on incorrect science but argued that this was irrelevant to the argument. (Note that Copernicus disproved both the pre-Ptolemaic and the Ptolemaic views; and see the citations from R. Yosef Qafah further.)

Moving to more current times, again skipping large sections of the literature due simply to its vastness, it is worth noting that R. Israel Meir Levinger, in his Sefer Ha-Ma'or Le-Masekhes Bekhoros (7b), corrects a Baraisa that states that bats lay eggs. In actuality, writes R. Levinger, the retired rabbi of Basel and a world-renowned expert on shehitah, bats do not lay eggs. I am sure that there are more examples but this one was pointed out by R. Shlomo Sternberg in his review of R. Levinger's book in B.D.D. 4, Winter 1997 (p. 82).

R. Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote an essay titled "Trusting the Torah's Sages" that was first published by Dr. Mordechai Breuer in 1976 in the journal Ha-Ma'ayan. It was translated into English by Yehoshua Leiman for Light magazine and then published in a booklet titled "Two Giants Speak" in 2002 by Neve Yerushalayim. R. Hirsch explained that Hazal relied on the science of their contemporaries and that many of their scientific statements have their origin in those sources. An example he brings is the statement in Bava Kama 16a that seven years after a person's death, his spine turns into a snake unless he bowed at modim. This seems quite outlandish but is mirrored in the writings of Pliny. Clearly, R. Hirsch says, Hazal's source for this statement of fact was their contemporary science.

R. Eliyahu Dessler was of the following view, according to his close student and editor, R. Aryeh Carmell (B.D.D. 6, Winter 1998, p. 57):

Rabbi Dessler, with his commonsense approach, sought neither to deny scientific facts nor to assume drastic changes in nature since the time of Hazal. He accepted that Hazal did not get their ideas on nature from revelation, but from their cultural environment.
This approach is seen in Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. 4 p. 355 n. 4 in which R. Dessler is quoted as stating that, contrary to the claims of the Gemara, wildcats do not contain venom in their nails, streams are not warmer at night because the sun passes under the earth and lice are not generated spontaneously.

One of the most recent debates of this nature revolves around DNA testing. The Gemara (Nidah 31a) states that a person's blood comes from his mother. Therefore, one could conclude that a DNA comparison of a child's and his father's blood cannot determine relation. And so do some posekim rule (e.g. Tzitz Eliezer 13:104). R. Yitzhak Herzog (in a letter published in Assia 5), however, argued forcefully against this position because science has clearly demonstrated that such matching works. Hazal, he states, had no received tradition on this matter and science has disproven the Gemara's statement.

R. Yosef Qafah, in a number of places, also argues similarly. In his notes to Moreh Nevukhim 2:8, he comments that the above-mentioned debate between the sages of Israel and the sages of the nation is of interest mainly to "Archaeologists of Astronomy" because the science is outdated (see also his notes to 2:24). He writes similarly in his notes to Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Yesodei Ha-Torah ch. 3 n. 1). In his notes to MT Hilkhos Shabbos (ch. 11 n. 4), R. Qafah states that the Gemara was incorrect about the spontaneous generation of lice.

R. Eddie Reichman, in the most recent issue of Jewish Action, wrote a glowing review of Mysterious Creatures (reprinted here with permission) and provided a good bibliography on this topic. I would only add to it R. Yehuda Levi's Ha-Mada She-Ba-Torah, recently translated as The Science in Torah (Feldheim: 2004). Also, see my essay here.

To summarize this long but insufficient post, there is a clear history to claims that Hazal's scientific knowledge was based on the theories current in their time and can be disproven by later scientific discoveries. This debate continues to our time, with scholars on both sides of the disagreement.

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