Friday, October 03, 2014

Responses to Letters to the Editors on "Does Psak Apply to Matters of Hashkafa"

In the most recent (Fall 2014) issue of the Journal three letters to the editor were printed. What follows is my response as it appeared in the journal. The contents of the letters will be obvious from my response:

Rabbi Eliezer Eisenberg writes seeking some analysis of the Rambam's position that there is no such concept as a psak hashkafa.

I believe that the Rambam should probably be understood along the lines of the Ramban's statement in his Disputation at Barcelona (a transcript in English is at

He [the apostate friar Pablo Christiani, the major disputant on behalf of Christianity] then cited an aggadah which said that, on the very day the Temple was destroyed, the messiah was born. I then said that I do not believe this, although it is a proof for my view. Now I shall explain to you why I said that I do not believe this. Know that we Jews have three types of books. The first is the Bible, and we all believe it completely. The second is called Talmud, and it is a commentary on the merits of the Torah. For in the Torah there are 613 commandments and there is not one of them that is not explained in the Talmud. We believe in the Talmud concerning explanation of the commandments. We have yet a third book called Midrash, that is sermons. This is analogous to the bishop standing and giving a sermon, with one of the listeners deciding to write it. In regard to this book, those who believe it well and good, but those who do not believe it do no harm. We have sages who wrote that the messiah will not be born until close to the time ordained for redeeming us from exile. Therefore I do not believe in this book, where it says that he was born on the day of the destruction of the Temple. We also call this book aggadah, that is, stories, meaning that these are only things which one person tells another.

To be sure, the Ramban could not mean to detract from the profound wisdom that inheres in Agada, as he himself was one of the great expositors of that wisdom! But what did he mean?

In his commentary on the disputation (Kitvei Ramban vol. 1 pp. 308-309), Rabbi Chaim Dov Chavel considers the Ramban's statement. He begins by citing the position of Rabbi Mordechai Eliasberg (Shvil HaZahav p. 27), who asserts that the Ramban did not mean what he said. Rabbi Eliasberg complains that scoffers in subsequent generations took the Ramban's words as a basis for their dismissal of several fundamental concepts of Judaism, contending that they are “mere” Agadah, which the Ramban evidently does not require us to believe. Rabbi Eliasberg surmises that the Ramban was aware of the potential damage to which his statement might eventually lead, but that seeing himself sorely pressed in his battle to save the entire religion, he determined it worthwhile to make the misleading statement so as to avert the immediate peril.

Rabbi Chavel questions Rabbi Eliasberg's contention. He notes that Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam (in his “Introduction toAgada” – available  at – a  fundamental treatise that is excerpted at the beginning of theEin Yaakov compendium of aggadot) writes words that are very similar to those of the Ramban:

The fourth part contains explanations of certain passages in a poetical style; but their intention was not that every one should believe that this is the meaning of that passage... And think not like those who do not grasp the real truth that every simple Derash or so-called allegorical explanation of the passage uttered by the sages, was handed over by tradition, like the principal parts of the Torah, because the fact is otherwise; that the explanation of such passages which do not involve either a dogma of a religious principle or any law of the Torah, has no traditional bearing, but was explained by the authors, merely according to their own knowledge and feeling. And many of them are used merely as figures of speech in a poetical style, or are explained in that poetical form...

Rabbi Chavel then notes that according to the Shiltei Gibborim (to Avodah Zarah 19b), the position taken by the Ramban and Rabbi Avraham ben HaRambam emergse from the Yerushalmi (Nazir 7:2, 35a in the Vilna ed.). The Shiltei Gibborim therequotes the Riaz (Rabbi Yeshaya Acharon Zaken of Trani), whose version of the Yerushalmi read: וכי המדרשות אמנה הם דרוש וקבל שכר – But are Midrashos a [matter of belief], rather [they are a matter of] expound and receive reward. The Riaz elaborates: “Behold that here it is explained that the Sages did not state Midrashim as matters of Emunah, of fundamental belief, but rather as enhancements of the understanding of Scripture, and as the expounding thereof in any manner to which the scripture can serve as an allusion.”

However,  counters Rabbi Chavel, our version of the Yerushalmi reads:מאי כדון מדרשות אמינא דרוש וקבל שכר – substituting the word amina (which, in Aramaic, means “I say”) for the word emunah, totally changing the meaning of the phrase. The phrase was we have it means: What is the conclusion? I say that these derivations [of Halachic measurements from Scriptural allusions are a matter of] expound and receive reward [i.e., asmachta'ot(Korban HaEdah, see also Maharam de Lunzano and Sha'arei Torat Eretz Yisrael on this passage).

Rabbi Chavel then cites the Sdei Chemed (Klal Aleph #103), who in turn cites the Shoel Umeishiv, Rabbi Yosef Shaul HaleviNathanson, who in his haskamah to the Sidrei Taharot rejects the Shiltei Gibborim, writing: “Although in the introduction to theMenorat HaMaor it is stated in the name of Rav Hai Gaon that aggadot are not matters of belief, it is forbidden to say this, except in cases in which there are no Halachic ramifications. But in cases in which there are Halachic ramifications, it is forbidden to say this.” Rabbi Chavel notes that in negating the blanket application of the Riaz's perspective, the Shoel Umeishiv implicitly endorses its application to aggadot such as the one that the Ramban addresses in the disputation – an aggadah that has no Halachic ramifications.

Thus, what the Ramban is saying ,is that any Agada that does not relate to Halacha may well constitute the personal wisdom of the sage who expounded it, and is therefore not definitive in the sense that a psak halacha is binding.

But what of the “danger” that concerned Rabbi Eliasberg?

Rabbi Chavel posits that this intellectual danger is similar to that which concerned Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai when he said (Kelim 17:16): “Woe to me if I say, woe to me if I do not say.” In that case Rabban Yochanan proceeded nevertheless to “say” matters that might be exploited by criminals, because “the pathways of Hashem are straight; the righteous will walk them, while the wicked stumble upon them.” Although the truth may entail risks, we must nevertheless pursue it. If the Ramban's statement is a true reflection of his thought, it is a legitimate Torah perspective, and should be known and acknowledged as such, despite any potential pitfalls.

The Rambam himself, in his letter on Astrology (available at, elaborates a perspective similar to that of the Ramban:

What we have said about this from the beginning is that the entire position of the star gazers is regarded as a falsehood by all men of science. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. ) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back...

There can be no doubt that the Rambam also does not mean to detract from the wisdom of the sages. He himself writes at great length in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah concerning the profound wisdom that is embedded in aggadah. Rather, on account of such wisdom being the position arrived at by the specific sage who states it, it is not mandatory that someone else whose logic runs counter to that statement accept it unquestioningly.

A statement of the Meiri concerning the aggadah of Zugot (Pesachim 109b-112a) is noteworthy, because the positions of the Rambam and the Meiri are often congruent. The Meiri there writes that in the Talmudic era “the masses were very influenced by popular beliefs and superstitions. The Sages directly combated these beliefs when they were linked to idolatrous practices. If the beliefs were simply foolish but not idolatrous, the Sages would not reject them directly but rather took steps to limit their impact” (see

Rabbi Ezra Schwartz cites a source that seems to conflict with the source cited in the essay as to the precise position that Rabbi Soloveitchik took in regard to the notion of a psak hashkafah. The positions of giants of Torah scholarship such as Rabbi Soloveitchik are often complex and nuanced, and I concede that further analysis of his opinion on this matter is warranted.

Rabbi Micah Segelman correlates a principle that exists in Halachic disputes – viz., that “both opinions retain some measure of halachic validity” – to Hashkafic disputes. This is also an area that warrants further analysis. I have dealt with the principle – which is generally known as Eilu VaEilu – elsewhere (see, and I certainly think it a worthwhile endeavor to compare and contrast notions of “multiple valid positions, sometimes with one generally considered more mainstream” as they pertain to both Halacha and Hashkafah.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Introducing The Shabbos App

The "Shabbos App" may "lighten" the issur to a grama on a d'rabbanan of kosev, which would be muttar l'tzorech choleh etc. But not to tell someone why you are late for kiddush. Moreover, it is a nevalah b'reshus haTorah as defined by the Ramban on the mitzvah of Kedoshim Teheyu. As Kedushas Shabbos is an integral halachic and hashkafic component of Shabbos, it is both halachically and hashkafically objectionable.

The comment by the develepor who said "Shabbos will look the way Hashem wants it to look" is absurd. We are responsible for maintaining the spirit of Shabbos. As I noted in an "ancient" Mail Jewish conversation:

From: <YOSEF_BECHHOFER@...> (Yosef Bechhofer)
Date: Tue, 2 Nov 93 19:45:46 -0500
Subject: Bicycles on Shabbos and Related Issues

I don't wish to comment on the precise Halachic details of bicycles on
Shabbos, rather I would like to use this issue to make a related point.
There is a "reductionist" tendency in some Halachic circles, albeit not
necssarily this one, but others, which is, basically: "If you cannot
prove to me what precise definition of pre-established melacha/issur,
etc. this fits into, it must automatically be permissible. In this
regard it is important to note what the Chazon Ish zt'l says about
umbrellas on Shabbos.

        In Orach Chaim 52:6 the Chazon Ish takes issue with the
conventional wisdom, the Noda b'Yehuda, who bans umbrellas on Shabbos as
temporary tents (ohel). Rather, he says, the opening of an umbrella is
similar to "fixing" (tikkun mana), but even that is not a true
comparison. He goes on to state that the reason one is forbidden to use
an umbrella on Shabbos (even where there is an eruv) is because:

        "It is a very public workaday act (avsha milsa / uvda d'chol)
        and causes a breach in the sanctity of Shabbos... The
        determination of which public acts descrate the Shabbos to too
        great an extent is something that is given over to the sages [of
        each generation, obviously - there were no umbrellas, much less
        a prohibition at the time of Chazal] to erect fences in places
        of possible breaches, and such public matters of Shabbos
        sanctity are more severe than any private specific prohibitons,
        because this is a fence for the entire nation for all times.

My free translation. I always understood the severity of a Jew's opening
his store on Shabbos, despite the relative light nature of the ban on
business transactions on Shabbos, as related to the Chazon Ish's
fundamental concept.