Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated to the full recovery of

Lea bat Miryam

41. Torah and Secular Disciplines

The Rabbi describes the breadth of wisdom possessed by Israel, particularly the Sages of Israel. The Sages had to be versed in all of the world's sciences, for all of these disciplines are needed for a proper understanding of the Torah's commandments.


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

We have now reached the point at which the Rabbi describes to the Khazar king the breadth of wisdom possessed by Israel, particularly the Sages of Israel. The Sages of Israel, especially in the days when the Sanhedrin High Court operated in Jerusalem, were required to be versed in all of the world's sciences, for all of these disciplines are needed for a proper understanding of the Torah's commandments. The Sages of the Great Sanhedrin numbered seventy, and they had to be expert in all of the seventy languages of the world in order to be able to listen, without translation, to the various witnesses who would appear before them to give testimony.

These Sages had to be knowledgeable in many aspects of botany, for without such understanding they would be unable to deliver rulings in matters of forbidden agricultural mixtures ("kilayim"). They had to be able to discern between various grain species, to tell whether a certain grain belongs to one species or another – to know, for example, if rye is a type of wheat or if cumin is a type of barley. They also had to be familiar with the nature of each grain and the amount of its expansion in the soil in order to know how far to distance it from other species.

The Sages of the Israel had to be versed to no small degree in biology in order to be able to discern between species of animals relevant to the prohibition against forbidden breeding. They had to be familiar with causes of death in order to tell what sort of injury would render an animal torn by a beast of prey forbidden for consumption. To this end, the Sages had to be familiar with all of the animals' organs and their workings. Without such knowledge, a Sage could not render judgment in laws of injured animals. They similarly had to adjudicate as to which animals were unfit to be brought upon the Temple's altar, and what sort of bodily blemish disqualified a priest from serving in the Temple.

The fraction of this knowledge which the Jewish people continue to possess is in itself astounding.

Incidentally, we possess the following account of an event that took place in one Jewish community: an animal was brought for slaughter, and, after the slaying, the slaughterer inserted his hand to make sure that the animal was healthy. In an instant, he removed his hand and proclaimed that the animal was completely unacceptable. The owner cried out, "How can you disqualify the animal with such ease, do you not realize what a great loss this is for me?" When a veterinarian arrived and checked the animal he declared that the carcass must be burnt immediately because it carried an illness that made its use forbidden for any purpose whatsoever.

Because the Torah's commandments have bearing upon every aspect of life, Torah Sages must be adept in all areas of knowledge. Not for naught did the Vilna Gaon teach that a Jew who lacks one measure of secular wisdom, lacks ten measures of the wisdom of the Torah. The Vilna Goan was himself expert in all of the sciences, as is well known.

The Sages of Israel similarly had to be expert in astronomy in order to calculate the months, years, and leap years. These calculations had to be very exact, for if even a very small mistake was made, it would eventually have great repercussions. And, indeed, we can see for ourselves that their calculations were exact, for they have never had to be amended. However, we find that other peoples have not been exacting enough in creating their calendars, and as a result mistakes and inaccuracies have become apparent with the passing of time.

Even the study of music was not overlooked by the Sages. Music played a very important role in Israel. It was taken up by the nation's elite – the tribe of Levi. Musical performance was one of the sacred tasks which made up the Holy Temple's service. Even spiritual giants such as King David and Samuel the Prophet devoted themselves to musical study.

From the above, then, we can see that a high level of wisdom has been maintained by the Sages of Israel throughout the generations, a level of wisdom which has aroused the admiration and respect of the world's nations.

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