The Torah as a Single Identity

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein

THE VILNA GAON

By Rav Elyakim Krumbein

 

 

SHIUR #04: THE TORAH AS A SINGLE ENTITY

 

 

I.          IS IT POSSIBLE TO REACH CERTAINTY REGARDING HALAKHIC DECISION-MAKING

 

            We have been examining the roots of the Vilna Gaon's position of certainty regarding the Torah. Before continuing with our main discussion, let us take a break in order to consider more closely the great novelty in this position. Let us look back to earlier periods, when the great halakhic authorities who fashioned the Torah model that was passed on to the coming generations were active, and see how far removed from certainty was the Torah that went forth from under their hands.

 

            In the very distant past, there was indeed an "unambiguous Torah." During the Geonic period, the Torah hegemony was centered in the two great Yeshivot of Baghdad. Halakhic questions that were sent from the far ends of the Diaspora received an authoritative answer, which could not be challenged, because there was nobody with authority similar to that of the Geonim, who could have voiced a dissenting opinion. This situation began to change in the time of the Rishonim, and this on several fronts. Independent traditions of learning began to grow in Germany, France, Spain and Provence. These too could relate to themselves with certain exclusivity – until that moment that the local tradition encountered a different opinion that entered from the outside.

 

            Talmud students are familiar with one of the literary arenas for such discussions: the pages of the laws of the "Alfas," which have been printed at the end of the volumes of the Babylonian Talmud. Here the halakhic rulings of R. Yitzchak Alfasi, who was active in North Africa and in Spain, were forced to stand the criticism of two of the Sages of Provence, Rabbenu Zerahyah ha-Levi and the Ra'abad (who were far from being in agreement among themselves). The Ramban exuberantly joined into this contest, which is aptly described in the title that he gave to his work: "The War of God." What is important for our purposes is what the Ramban wrote in the introduction to this book. He turns to the student and asks him not to expect absolute arguments that cannot be challenged, and that are correct beyond any doubt:

 

This is not so, for anybody studying our Talmud knows that there are no absolute proofs regarding the disagreements among its commentators, and usually no definitive objections, for there is no clear demonstration in this science, such as in algebra and geometry.

 

            In other words, the Talmud's knowledge is not like mathematics or astronomy. In these exact sciences there is a correct and an incorrect answer, but regarding Halakhic issues we will never be able to bring an unequivocal proof from the sources available to us.

 

            The Ramban expresses a feeling that according to him was known to "anybody studying our Talmud." Nevertheless, it seems that this awareness developed over a long period of time. For the great Sages of France – Rabbeinu Tam and his nephew, R. Yitzchak (the Ri) the Tosafist – seized control of the halakhic tradition of their land in such a way that it lasted for several generations. The dialectical approach that they invented, perfected and disseminated convinced generations of students of the certainty of its halakhic ramifications. We don't sense in their words perplexity or lack of decisiveness, and the atmosphere that radiates from their words abounds with confidence in their abilities, and with conviction that the knowledge and technique that are required in order to draw clear inferences was theirs. The Tosafot on the Talmud that have come down to us, are built, in the great majority, on the Torah of two giants, even though they were only written generations after their passing. But over time the spread of the Torah of Spain, and the awareness that "it is possible to argue otherwise" shaped matters to the point that the last of the Tosafists – R. Meir of Rotenburg – maintained that one ought not to rely simply on the accepted Ashkenazi traditions.

 

            In many of his rulings and customs, this same Maharam expressed the belief that the Halakha is in doubt, and therefore one should be careful and try to act stringently in accordance with all opinions. Let us take an example from the laws of zimmun. According to the Tosafot, if two people ate bread, and one drank wine or ate vegetables, they may join for zimmun, as opposed to the Rif who requires that they all eat bread. Maharam was careful about the matter when he ate with another person – "he would not allow another person to drink unless he was able to get him to wash hands and eat with them grain in the size of an olive," and only when this was impossible "would he rely on the Tosafot and recite zimmun together with the person who drank."[1] As stated, the same phenomenon is evident in many of his other rulings.

 

            The Maharam applied the same principle in cases of monetary matters, and this caused a major revolution. Until his time, courts would decide the law according to certain judicial traditions, even if the tradition was the subject of a controversy. Maharam made extensive use of the principle of "kim li" ("my opinion is") as an argument that can be made by the defendant in a suit. When the earlier authorities disagree about a certain point, and according to one opinion the defendant is free of liability, he cannot be forced to pay based on judicial tradition, for he can argue that in his opinion the other viewpoint is correct, and we cannot prove that he is in error, and the rule in such a case is that the burden of proof falls upon the plaintiff. In practical terms, money cannot be collected from the defendant unless he is liable according to all opinions, a situation that is very rare. Many today lament this situation, which to a great degree paralyzes Rabbinic courts.

 

            For many generations there was nobody who could challenge this deeply rooted tradition of doubtfulness, until R. Eliyahu of Vilna appeared on the scene. It is easy to understand the feeling of surprise and astonishment that took hold of those who saw before them a person who was convinced, and not for naught, that he knew everything without any doubts whatsoever. As stated, this feeling of astonishment is twofold: First of all – "where do we find such a person?" and second – "we didn't know that the Torah was like this"[2]

 

II.         EVERYTHING FROM ITS SOURCE

 

            Now let us begin to examine one of the firm foundations that support certainty regarding the Torah, according to the Gra's approach. Let us go back to the words of R. Israel of Shklov in his introduction to "Pe'at ha-Shulchan," which we saw in the previous shiur:

 

Afterwards he said that he knew the entire Torah that was given at Sinai in perfect manner, and all the Prophets and the Writings and the Mishna and the Oral Law, how they are concealed within it, and that in his old age…

 

            Let us consider this "concealment" of all the Biblical books as well as the Oral Law in "the Torah that was given at Sinai." Apparently "the Torah that was given at Sinai" refers to the five books of the Torah. There is room to understand that this "concealment" leads to the continuation of the sentence – since he knows where everything is concealed in the Written Law, the Gaon is left with no doubts whatsoever regarding any Torah matter.

 

            Later in the passage, we find a similar remark:

 

He knew all the Toseftas from the entire Talmud where they are alluded to in the Mishna.

 

            We see then that what bestows confidence and certainty in knowledge is knowing the source of each detail – in the Written Law or in the Mishna. This approach is not self-evident. In order to prove the truth of an argument, it would seem that we would have to employ reason and logic, so that if something is proven logically, we are convinced. The Gra, however, anchors his certainty, not in rational necessity, but in a source.

 

            But if the Gaon is going to be consistent, then this very idea – that all the details of the Torah branch out from a source in which they are "concealed" – needs a source! The position that the Oral Law is alluded to in the Written Law is not new; all of the halakhic midrashim are based on it. But the assertion that the Written Law is the source of all the words of the prophets is, on the face of it, astonishing. Surely the prophets voiced their prophecies in particular historical circumstances; why should we assume that there are allusions to their words in the Torah? There is, however, a precedent for this idea of the Gra in Midrash Bemidbar Rabba, parasha 10 (6):

 

You find that Moshe alludes in this section[3] to the naziriteship of Shimshon – to teach you that there is nothing written in the Prophets or in the Writings that Moshe did not allude to in the Torah.

 

            In any event, regarding the Writings, the Gemara in tractate Ta'anit (9a) agrees with the aforementioned midrash:

 

Rabbi Yochanan found the small child of Resh Lakish sitting and reciting: "The foolishness of a man perverts his way: and his heart frets against the Lord" (Mishlei 19:3). Rabbi Yochanan sat and wondered, saying: Is there anything written in the Writings that is not hinted at in the Torah?

 

            What about the Gra's assumption that the entire Tosefta is "hinted at" in the Mishna? We find this idea in the Babylonian Talmud. The Gemara in tractate Ta'anit (21a) tells a story about Rabbi Yochanan's colleague, Ilfa. When Rabbi Yochanan was appointed head of the academy, people said to Ilfa: "Had you sat and studied, you yourself could have been appointed!" Ilfa responded in the following way:

 

He went and suspended himself from the mast of a ship, and said: If there is anyone who will ask me a question from the Baraitas of Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Osha'aya,[4] and I fail to elucidate it from the Mishna, then I will throw myself down and be drowned. 

 

            The Amoraim say something similar about laws taught by the Amoraim themselves:

 

Rabbi Elazar said: Is it possible that there should exist [such a ruling as] that of Resh Lakish and that we should not have learned it in a Mishna? When he went out he carefully considered the matter and found one. (Yevamot 36a)

 

III.        THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE ORAL LAW IN THE TEACHINGS OF R. CHAYYIM OF VOLOZHIN

 

            The Gaon of Vilna turns these short statements into a system and a comprehensive educational approach. This outlook was formulated at length by the Gra's preeminent disciple, R. Chayyim of Volozhin. At this point, the focus of our attentions will be shifted from the Pe'at ha-Shulchan's introduction to R. Chayyim of Volozhin's introduction to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta.

 

            One of R. Chayyim of Volozhin's many talents found expression in his role as an ideologue. His work, Nefesh ha-Chayyim, gave solid expression to a system of beliefs maintained by the Mitnagdim in the two generations following the Gra. We shall analyze one section from his introduction to the Vilna Gaon's commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta.

 

            How does a Mitnaged outlook connect to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta, one of the sections of the Zohar, upon which the Gra wrote a commentary? We cannot yet give a complete answer to this question. At this stage, let us say that R. Chayyim wrote an introduction to his teacher's commentary, and this introduction is dedicated to a description of the Gra. In fact, this is where the disciple went on at greatest length in praise of his teacher. However, before he gets to the Gaon of Vilna, his starting pointing is literary. For R. Chayyim wishes first to explain to the reader the Gra's goal in his commentary to this section of the Zohar, and he maintains that the best way to do this is by drawing a parallel between the study of the esoteric Torah and the study of the more manifest Torah. Therefore, R. Chayyim chooses to describe his approach with respect to the exoteric Torah (an approach that he undoubtedly received from his master), and this will make it easier for him to later explain the Gra's method in his commentary to Sifra de-Tzeni'uta. In any event, our present interest is in R. Chayyim of Volozhin's words concerning the exoteric Torah. This is what he says:

 

Let us see. Regarding the revealed portions of the holy Torah, the teachings of the early generations were arranged for them in 900 orders of Mishna, and when our holy Rabbi, [Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi,] came and saw and understood that owing to the exile, we might, God forbid, lose the Oral Law, because they did not have the strength to study it at length, he examined the matter and acted on behalf of the Oral Law, gathering the Sages of his generation to understand and clarify their reasons and explanations, and they were particular and understood the allusions in the Mishna of the earlier generations, and he arranged six orders of Mishna, which teach the matter in an abridged manner, and by way of the spirit of God which spoke through him included in them all nine hundred orders taught by the early generations, there being nothing that is not alluded to in the Mishna…

 

            R. Chayyim relates to the tradition that in an earlier period there were nine hundred orders of Mishna, which apparently embraced the entire Oral Law. All of this information was condensed by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi into six orders. The particulars found in the original orders were not lost; the Mishna that has come down to us was formulated in such a way that includes them all by way of allusion. R. Chayyim continues:

 

Regarding the Amoraim as well their entire study was devoted to the Mishna that it should be arranged and fluent in their mouths, and by casting the Mishnayot and the Baraitot one against the other, they added knowledge by way of pilpul and reasoning, and they ground them down finely to resolve and clarify them. All the statements that they added are also rooted in the Mishna, which they contemplated and it lit their path…

 

            According to this account, the Amoraim were primarily interested in studying the Mishna and reaching its depths. All of their halakhic insights grew out of this study, such that even today they are anchored in hints found in the wording of the Mishna. The uniqueness of this approach becomes clear when we compare it to the position of the Rambam, who understood the contribution of the Amoraim in a different manner. According to the Halakha, a person must divide his time into three between Scripture, Mishna and Gemara. In this context, the Rambam defines the concept of Gemara as follows (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:1):

 

…understanding and conceptualizing the ultimate derivation of a concept from its roots, inferring one concept from another and comparing concepts, understanding [the Torah] based on the principles of Biblical exegesis, until one appreciates the essence of those principles and how the prohibitions and the other decisions which one received according to the oral tradition can be derived using them. This is called Gemara.

 

            The Rambam describes a fertile and broadening intellectual activity, based on the pillars of logic and the hermeneutic rules by which the Torah is interpreted. There is no mention here of the Mishna as the central text, and whose interpretation and elucidation constitute the primary occupation of the Amoraim, creators of the Gemara.

 

            R. Chayyim continues by describing the work of the Sages of Israel who came after the sealing of the Talmud:

 

And after them, the gatherers, our great Rabbis, following the sealing of the Talmud, when all vision was sealed, and the light was hidden from us, to understand and rule on our own, and their eyes saw that owing to the weight of the exile which was not eased from us, the academies diminished and there are only a few members of the elite who sail on the sea of the Talmuds, to find in it all the actions that must be done. For this reason they stirred themselves to compose works out of many laws to teach our brothers, the house of Israel, the path on which to walk and the act which they are to do. So too every generation should see and do the same, write books until the table is set with all the details and particulars of the laws, so that one may eat to satiety. However, all their holy words are fine flour, dug out and quarried, springs issuing forth from their source in the two Talmuds, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi, and the ultimate source, all of them alluded to in the holy Mishna….

 

            After the Talmud was sealed, the talmudic academies weakened, and the weight of the exile increased, and for the first time we are witness to a detachment of the practical laws from their source. The great Torah authorities understand that the people need practical conclusions that are not connected to their source, and they compose collections of rulings, which reach their climax in the Shulchan Arukh. In truth, even this genre of writing continues to flow like a river from the wellsprings of the Talmud, and what is more, from the holy Mishna, which is "the ultimate source."

 

            At this point, however, Rav Chayyim moves on to establish the ideal, the truly desired, and the most qualitative aspect of Torah study:

 

He whom God has graced and provided with understanding, his rulings come primarily from the depths of the sea of the Talmuds. Study of the halakhic decisors and the Shulchan Arukh serves only as a reminder of the laws, to include them in their source in the sea of Talmuds. And those of the nation who understand, whom God (blessed be His name) has blessed with special understanding, should go up to the highway, and include also all the words of the Amoraim and all the Toseftot and Baraitot which are all alluded to in the ultimate source, the Mishna.

 

            Studying the practical laws from the works of the Posekim is a relatively low level of Torah study. Anyone who is capable should derive his halakhic rulings from the sources themselves – the Talmuds – and use the abridgements of the Posekim only as a reminder. A Torah scholar who is at an even higher level should study the Mishna and see how all the laws are already intimated in its measured words.

 

            We see then that anchoring every law in its source is not only a way of ascertaining its correctness; it is also the ideal method of study. It should be noted that this ideal is very far from the ideas about Torah study prevailing today in the Yeshivot that see themselves as following in the Lithuanian tradition. They glorify abstract study and theorizing, and even distance themselves from practical decision-making. For R. Chayyim, however, it was obvious that Torah study involved study for practice, and he shows no appreciation of clarifying concepts and ideas as an end in itself. The question is only how one is to study those practical laws. At a lower level, one can rely on the collections of laws authored by the Posekim. Ideally, however, one should issue rulings based on "the depths of the sea of the Talmuds": to understand each law based on the source from which it is derived, in the Talmud and even in the Mishna. Here too, R. Chayyim is far removed from the modern ideal regarding study. Whereas modern study focuses on the definition of concepts and elucidation of principles, according to R. Chayyim, the essence of Torah study involves clarification of the law based on precise readings of texts.

 

            An interesting point here is the identification of the text which is the source of all this – i.e., the Mishna. On the face of it, this is surprising, for according to what R. Chayyim himself says, the Mishna was written as a last alternative, in order to allow for the study and preservation of Torah in stressful circumstances. Nonetheless this work seized a place at the top of the Torah pyramid, it being called "our holy Mishna" and "the ultimate source." This achievement – that a work that was written because of duress should become a cornerstone of the edifice of Torah – should apparently be attributed to the circumstances of its writing –with the cooperation of all of the Sages of the generation, and "the spirit of God that spoke through him" (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi), which made it possible to include the entire Torah by way of allusion in the wording of the Mishna. This quality of the Mishna does not exist in the collections of laws that were written after the sealing of the Talmud, which were also composed in answer to stressful circumstances, but not with that same "spirit of God." One can discern in the words of R. Chayyim that there is a great qualitative difference between the early words of Chazal until the sealing of the Talmud, and everything that was written afterwards. He writes that after the Talmud was sealed, "all vision was sealed, and the light was hidden." These expressions seem to assign unique Divine force to the words of the Tannaim and the Amoraim.[5]

 

IV.       CONCLUSION

 

            We opened with an examination of the sources of the certainty regarding Torah experienced by the Gaon of Vilna. We found that this certainty is based on a grand and unified conception – that was disseminated by his senior disciple – regarding the development of the Torah, which involves textual and exegetical development. Included among the ramifications of this outlook is the definition of the desired method of Torah study.

 

            This way of thinking – of something issuing from a certain source, which in turn issues from "the ultimate source" – brings to mind the kabbalistic approach to the world itself. For the kabbalistic approach sees the creation of the world as a process of emanation from one spiritual level to the one below it, such that the world before us is the product of a long chain of spiritual sources resting one above the other.[6] Indeed, this way of looking at the exoteric Torah and its study is connected to a kabbalistic world view, which we shall deal with later in order to better understand the Gra's spiritual world.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] Hagahot Maimuniyot, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Berakhot, chap. 5, no. 7.

[2] A question may be raised: But surely there are disagreements about many Torah issues? Does the phenomenon of controversy allow for certainty? Or did perhaps the Gra deny this reality? In my opinion, there are two possible answers. The first (which seems to me to be the primary one), that the certainty lies in the decision between the two positions, and from here the importance of halakhic decision-making in the Gra's thought. Secondly, we know what the Gemara states in tractate Eiruvin (13b) regarding the disagreements between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel: "These and these are the words of the living God." It is possible that two positions, which are equally plausible according to the sources of Chazal, are both considered "Torah" in an absolute sense.

[3] I.e., the Torah section dealing with a nazirite in the book of Bemidbar.

[4] Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Oshaya were regarded as experts with respect to the Baraitot, and a Baraita that passed through their hands was regarded as authoritative (Chullin 141b). Rashi refers to those Baraitot that they arranged as "Tosefta" (Bava Metzia 34a, s.v. le-Tanna'i.

[5] Once again attention should be paid to the words of the Rambam cited above, which seem to imply that our occupation with "Gemara" is not fundamentally different than that of the Amoraim.

[6] Of course, the hierarchy is conceptual, and not geographic.