Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Eliyahu Segal can learn a Yerushalmi better than Rav Chaim Kanievsky

Summary: As a possible illustration of the importance of knowing realia. And that this does not detract from knowing gemara and halacha, but might in fact bolster it.

Post: I will lead off with a bit of aggadah, about a halachic dispute, which appears in Bava Metzia 84b:
One day R. Johanan was bathing in the Jordan, when Resh Lakish saw him and leapt into the Jordan after him. Said he [R. Johanan] to him, 'Your strength should be for the Torah.'13  — 'Your beauty,' he replied, 'should be for women.' 'If you will repent,' said he, 'I will give you my sister [in marriage], who is more beautiful than I.' He undertook [to repent]; then he wished to return and collect his weapons, but could not.14  Subsequently, [R. Johanan] taught him Bible and Mishnah, and made him into a great man. Now, one day there was a dispute in the schoolhouse [with respect to the following. Viz.,] a sword, knife, dagger, spear, hand-saw and a scythe — at what stage [of their manufacture] can they become unclean? When their manufacture is finished.15  And when is their manufacture finished? — R. Johanan ruled: When they are tempered in a furnace. Resh Lakish maintained: When they have been furbished in water. Said he to him: 'A robber understands his trade.'16  Said he to him, 'And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.'17  'By bringing you under the wings of the Shechinah,' he retorted. R. Johanan therefore felt himself deeply hurt,18  [as a result of which] Resh Lakish fell ill. 
While this was possibly said humorously, and while it is certainly so that as a result Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish was deeply offended, the statement might well be true, and intended as true. In order to paskin, one needs to know the metzius. As a former gladiator (not literally a robber), or as an attendant to gladiators, Resh Lakish may well have been aware of the steps in the manufacture of knives, and so knew that it was not at this earlier stage, when they are tempered in a furnace, but at a later stage, in which they cool and thus temper the blade in water, that the manufacture is finished. Only then would they become ritually unclean. And so, even though Rabbi Yochanan taught Resh Lakish everything, Resh Lakish could disagree and give insight as to the meaning of this earlier statement.

Other, explicit examples, of Chazal seeking "secular" knowledge to allow them to pasken better would include Rav, in Sanhedrin 5b:
 But did not Rav himself say: I spent eighteen months with a shepherd in order to learn which was a permanent and which a passing blemish?
As well as Shmuel, in Niddah 47a:
Shmuel said: Not that the wrinkle actually arises {=appears}, but rather, when she puts her hand behind her, it appears as if the wrinkle below the breast appears.
Shmuel examined his slave and gave her four zuz as payment for her embarrassment.
A few years back, I was learning Yerushalmi with my (single, handsome, intelligent, and available) friend Eliyahu Segal, using a Yerushalmi with commentary provided from the shiurim of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita. Here is the Yerushalmi, in Berachot daf 60b:

מסכת ברכות פרק ח

דף ס, ב פרק ח הלכה ה גמרא  ואילו הן הסימנין אמר רבי יהודה כל שאזניו קטנות אמו סוס ואביו חמור.  גדולות אמו חמורה ואביו סוס.  רבי מנא מפקד לאילין דנשיאה אין בעיתון מיזבון מוליון תהון זבנין אילין דאודניהון דקיקין שאמו סוסה ואביו חמור.

To translate: "And these are the signs: Rabbi Yehuda said: Anything which has small ears, its mother was a horse and its father was a donkey. Large, its mother was a she-donkey and its father was a horse. Rabbi Mana took pains to instruct those of the house of the Nasi: If you wish to purchase mules (that is, donkey/horse hybrids), purchase those whose ears are small, for their mother was a horse and their father was a donkey."

Why should he insist upon this? Why should Rabbi Mana care? The meforshim on the daf suggest that it is because of kilayim. Obviously not kilayim of mating them, because we know (via science) that these offspring are sterile, but rather in terms of having them pull the plow together. This is how the Yedid Nefesh translation / commentary puts it:

The problem is thus kilayim. So too, IIRC, Rav Kanievsky suggested that the problem was kilayim. I understood this to mean working them together in the same yoke.

(Pnei Moshe just says the problem is kilayim, which could mean either mating them or, more distant, working them under the same yoke. Other meforshim on the daf clarify this means working them together. A difficulty is that, as we see in Rambam, mideOrayta only mating a kosher and non-kosher species is forbidden, with two kosher or two non-kosher species being miDivrei Soferim. And then there is the question if it is identical pairs of species in play for working together. Ayin sham)

What would arise from this is a practical halacha. Cross-breeds of this sort cannot be worked together, we would derive from Rabbi Mana's instruction. Maybe there is another source from this as well.

Eliyahu, for some reason, had been reading recently, about cross-breeding donkeys and horses. Where the mother is a donkey, it is called a hinny. Where the mother is a horse, it is called a mule. The Wikipedia articles I linked to give reasons for the rarity of hinnies, but Eliyahu had read testimony that farmers did not like hinnies, as they were not as useful for work as mules. Therefore, they would prefer to have a mule, where the mother was a horse and the father was a donkey.

With this extra piece of information from the world, we can gain a new perspective on this gemara. Who says that Rabbi Mana's concern was halachic? He might well have been giving good business advice to those in charge of the Nasi's house, on the basis of this maamar identifying hinnies and mules. Indeed, perhaps we could add the following: look back at the continuation of the gemara, brought in the image from Yedid Nefesh, and see that it is specifically the hinny that Tzivon and Ana created via hybridization, which displeased Hashem and brought Him to create his own hybrid.

Now, this does not mean that this must be peshat in this gemara. But it certainly could be peshat in this gemara. And if so, it could well resolve a lot of the difficulties and complications I briefly mentioned above.

(Eliyahu wanted to write to Rav Kanievsky to suggest this peshat, or something similar, though I don't think he ever did. So I don't know that Rav Kanievsky would necessarily agree. But I like to think that he would.)

Note that of course this does not mean that Eliyahu can learn every Yerushalmi better than Rav Kanievsky. Just that in this particular instance, an extra piece of knowledge of the metzius can yield a drastically different peshat in the gemara.

I meant to write this up years ago, but what brought this to the fore was a post by Avakesh, on how secular education can be an impediment to learning correct peshat in gemaras:
One would  ask,  "Why is more knowledge worse"? The answer is that Talmudic thinking is predicated on such a different way of seeing so many processes and facts that an over-educated mind is at a serious disadvantage, for it must first free itself from its pre-conceptions and then twist itself into what is a new and foreign way of perceiving relaity, whereas a mind never exposed to secular knowledge, does not.
And (or, though):
Note that I am not arguing for the superiority of one or another way of looking at the natural world. I am simply saying that for an aspiring Talmudist, secular knowledge may, in fact, be an impediment to quick and accurate understanding of talmudic sugyos. It may be a advantage in understanding Aggada.. but that's another discussion.
I think that even for understanding Talmudic sugyos, since they often touch on reality, a better grasp of reality can often (though not always) provide an advantage. Of course, one must realize that in different eras, there were different ways of looking at the world, and overcome any biases which would involve retrojecting our own attitudes backwards. But I don't think this is limited to secular knowledge, and furthermore think that one might be more likely to make such a careful distinction if one is more broadly trained.

Update: An update, courtesy of Eliyahu:
apparently jamaican breeders dispute the comparative hardiness of mules and prefer hinnies as opposed to other breeders. http://books.google.com/books?id=iB_OAAAAMAAJ&pg=PA345&lpg=PA345&dq=mules+hardier+than+hinnies&source=bl&ots=LatqUJ7z8g&sig=LuCXiJolWGMhozJhJmkNNMIWfbI&hl=en&ei=1QTjTOTjO4L98AbQ-7SbDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=mules%20hardier%20than%20hinnies&f=false
also see: http://books.google.com/books?id=4XgXAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA90&lpg=PA90&dq=mules+hardier+than+hinnies&source=bl&ots=OFBwiw9gLk&sig=s1OdkubRjBZfbHVJAf_Bvrrj8mg&hl=en&ei=1QTjTOTjO4L98AbQ-7SbDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CFIQ6AEwCA#v=onepage&q=mules%20hardier%20than%20hinnies&f=false

where hinnies are betters than horses but worse than a donkey and mule.
The book link discusses how hinnies are worse than donkeys and mules. See inside.

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