Netziv on the Historical Development of Torah Learning
MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT
This shiur is
dedicated in memory of
our beloved father Harry Meisels (Elchanan ben Yitzchak) z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar the Meisels family.
Shiur #16: Netziv on the Historical Development of Torah Learning
Netziv repeatedly emphasizes the significance of talmud Torah in his writings. He portrays the study of Torah as an omnipresent aspect of Jewish life dating back to the time of the patriarchs. A critic might justifiably see the insertion of Torah study into the biblical narrative as a historical anachronism. On the other hand, R. Berlin exhibits an acute sense of historical development in his theory regarding the history of Torah learning. He discusses these ideas several times in his Torah commentary, but the most extended treatment appears in the first part of Kidmat Ha-emek, the introduction to his commentary on the Sheiltot of R. Achai Gaon. We shall outline that general presentation and then utilize selections from Haamek Davar to help to complete the picture.
I. Accepted Laws and Debated Laws
According to R. Berlin, the biblical phrase eish dat (Devarim 33:2; literally, fiery law) refers to two types of Torah content. Dat represents the clear and unambiguous laws of our tradition. Eish, fire, an element that dynamically spreads, stands for the more creative analysis that produces new rulings. Over the course of time, the sages sometimes reach a consensus on an issue previously in doubt, and what was eish becomes dat. Once that definitively occurs, the rejected position can no longer be utilized even during times of duress.
This theory enables Netziv to offer an innovative interpretation of the Talmudic phrase, gemara gemiri la. This unclear phrase appears many times in the Talmud. As an example, in Yoma 32a the gemara uses this term to explain how we know that the High Priest immerses himself five times on Yom Kippur. Rashi comments that this phrase implies a tradition going back to Moshe at Sinai. Rashis approach generates some difficulties since, the gemara also derives the number of immersions from a biblical verse. Tosafot wonder why we need both a tradition from Sinai and a biblical derivation. Netziv explains that gemiri does not refer to a tradition from Sinai, but rather to a halakhic position that became dat over the years. Since it is now a fixed and clear position, it resembles a law from Sinai. However, it could have been derived from a verse at an earlier point in Jewish history when the ruling was still subject to debate.
R. Berlin argues that his interpretation helps elucidate Rambams position on this matter. When Rambam discusses laws from Sinai in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishna, all his examples are cases where the gemara applies the terminology halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai or be-emet amru in reference to the law. Rambam cites no examples where the gemara uses the term gemiri. According to Netziv, Rambam does not cite any gemiri examples because they do not reflect rulings dating back to Sinai.
This idea also explains how Rambam can say (Hilkhot Tumat Met 2:16) that ritual impurity caused by different parts of the stone structure of a tomb is divrei soferim (words of the Sages), even though one opinion in the gemara (Chullin 62a) says that we know about such impurity because hilkheta gemiri la. According to Netziv, the rabbis established this law, but it subsequently became so widely accepted that we could apply the term gemiri to this ruling.
This idea also explains a difficult gemara in Gittin (60a-b) that records a debate whether the majority of Torah is written or oral. This debate seems spurious, since it is obvious that the quantity of Oral Law far outstrips the halakhic material explicitly stated in the Chumash. R. Berlin suggests that this gemara does not consider all of Torah, but only those parts of Torah that have become clearly determined law, or dat. Regarding such material, we can debate whether the oral or written component is larger.
II. Modes of Torah Study
The difference between eish and dat finds expression in two modes of learning. One method does not engage in painstaking and creative analysis. Rather, practitioners of this approach emphasize received traditions. When a new case emerges, they rely on divine inspiration to make an ad hoc ruling. The second approach lacks divine help and may be less well-versed in the traditional material, but is deep and creative in its reasoning. It employs the rabbinic hermeneutical principles to arrive at novel conclusions. Obviously, each approach has advantages and disadvantages.
The tribes of Levi and Yehuda reflect these two methodologies. Levi teaches the laws to the Jewish
people (Devarim 33:10) through the first method. The
In contrast, when Yaakov blesses Yehuda, he mentions the lawgiver between his feet (Bereishit 49:10). This alludes to Yehudas Torah decisions, the product of ongoing intellectual investigation. Success in this method requires intellectual discourse with peers and students who sit on the floor near the legs of the teacher. Not coincidentally, those involved with the Ark of the Covenant, which symbolizes Torah, stem from these two tribes. Betzalel from the tribe of Yehuda fashions the ark, and the Levites carry it.
The Torah passage about rabbinic authority and the rebellious elder also mentions these two models, as it alternates between referring to the judge and to the priest (Devarim 17: 9, 12). Rabbinic authority encompasses both the intuitive inspired rulings of the priest and the analytic creativity of the judge. If the category of rebellious elder applies to someone who publically rejects either kind of ruling, then both methods of deciding are clearly authoritative.
III. Different Methods in Different Historical Periods
reigned during various eras in Jewish history. The
This all changed at
the time of King Yoshiyahu. He
understood that exile was imminent and that the old method of learning would not
be feasible outside of the
The rebuilding of the
This divide explains
some of the differences between the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud
Yerushalmi. The former is more
complex due to a heavier emphasis on the analytic method. Since each approach has advantages, the
gemara can indicate a preference for scholars from the
This divide does not end with the sealing of the Talmud. Gaonic works tend to summarize definitive halakhic rulings. In the Middle Ages, the French and German Tosafot picked up the mantle of the Babylonians and excelled in analytic creativity. Both approaches are worthy contributions to Torah study, but Netziv does seem to wax more eloquent about Tosafots contribution. He mentions religious persecutions as a factor that prevented the Geonim from continuing the Babylonian method.
IV. Additional Insights
In Haamek Davar R. Berlin adds quite a few important points. God gave Moshe the more creative analytic method at Sinai, but Moshe did not initially transmit this method to the entire Jewish people. Lacking this method, the people could only deal with novel scenarios through the method of analogy. They would have to compare a new case with a definite ruling in the tradition. They did not yet have the creative resources that come with the hermeneutical principles.
On the plains of Moav, in Sefer Devarim, Moshe explains this second method to the people as well. The verse ke-khol asher tziva Hashem oto aleihem (Devarim 1:3) conveys this notion. What was once only taught to Moshe (oto) will now be given to the entire nation (aleihem). When the gemara (Chagiga 6b) refers to the Torah being repeated at the plains of Moav, it was not merely a review session but rather the addition of a new dimension to Torah study. The sins of the golden calf and the spies clarified that the Jewish people would experience exile, and therefore they would need the creative method to survive. Netziv contends that the forty years in the desert prepared the people for future exiles. Apparently, that preparation culminated in the acquisition of a different approach to Torah learning.
Why does the Levi
approach not work in exile? We have
already mentioned one answer, namely, that outside of the
As mentioned, the sins of the desert motivated the diffusion of the creative method. R. Berlin argues that this is manifest in the difference between the first and second set of luchot (tablets of the Law). The first were fashioned by God alone, but the second were engraved by Moshe (Shemot 34:1). This does not just mean a change in construction strategy but a dramatic shift in the entire method of Torah study. The creativity of the new method demands greater human ingenuity and input.
This interpretation helps Netziv explain an enigmatic Gaonic comment. Ibn Ezra cites one of the Geonim as saying that the second luchot were more significant than the first. This seems difficult, as the first were made by God. Indeed, Ibn Ezra vociferously rejects the Gaons position. Netziv explains this by distinguishing between types of evaluations. We can compare the two sets of tablets either from the perspective of sanctity (kadosh) or from the perspective of honor (mechubad). Sanctity depends upon God, so the first luchot are clearly more kadosh. However, that does not make them more useful or more significant. It is only the greater human involvement in the Oral Law, represented by the second set of luchot, that enables us to survive during many years of exile. Thus, the Gaon had good reason to give prominence to the second set of tablets.
In the Kidmat
Ha-emek, Netziv implies that the beginning of the
historical point deserves mention.
The characters of Tanakh seem to spend less time studying Torah
than do their counterparts in later Jewish history. One traditional response argues that
Tanakh does not feel the need to explicitly report such study. Netzivs theory opens up an alternative
explanation. Since in the
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:1.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:2.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:3.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:4.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:5.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:4.
 KiIdmat Ha-emek 1:7.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:8.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:10.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:11.
 Kidmat Ha-emek 1:12,13.
 Haamek Davar, Devarim 1:3.
 Haamek Davar, Devarim 8:2.
 Harchev Davar, Shemot 13:16.
 Ibn Ezra, Shemot 34:1.
 Haamek Davar, Shemot 34:1.
 Harchev Davar, Devarim 1:3.