Beit Midrash

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To dedicate this lesson
Igrot Hare’aya – Letters of Rav Kook 103 – part III

Connecting Disciplines in Torah Study


Beit Din Eretz Hemda - Gazit

Sivan 15 5782
Date and Place: 21 Tevet 5668 (1908), Yafo

Recipient: Rav Yitzchak Aizik Halevi, the author of a monumental history of rabbinic scholarship, Dorot Harishonim.

Body: [We are in the midst of the development of the idea that halacha is related to wisdom and aggada to prophecy and that the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael (Yerushalmi) excels in brevity.]

Perhaps the distinction between Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi is capsulized by the following disagreement. In the Torah section on zaken mamrei (a Torah scholar who refuses to accept the majority decision of the Sanhedrin), the topic of the deliberation of the Sanhedrin was called davar (a matter). The Bavli explains that this is a matter of halacha, and the Yerushalmi explains that it means a matter of aggada.

In the introduction to [the medieval philosophical work] Chovot Halevavot, the author writes that matters of philosophy (which are the root of aggada) are not included in the section of zaken mamrei, which begins with the words "shall it beyond you." He writes that this is evidence that such matters are not within the expertise of the scholars involved in the transmission of the traditions of the Torah but are matters that can be clarified by means of intellect. There were some great scholars who said, based on this approach, that matters of aggada are not as firmly founded as those of halacha are. However, there were also scholars, apparently including Rav Hai Gaon, in a responsum, who considered aggadic passages in the Rabbinic sources as a co-equal part of Rabbinic tradition.

The distinction is simple. An approach to study that is based on the roots of prophecy and its related tools will experience a unification of the fields of halacha and aggada. According to this approach, embraced by the Talmud Yerushalmi, as opposed to the Chovot Halevavot, there are traditions on matters of philosophy just as there are on matters of practical observance. In contrast, the approach to Torah study that is practiced in the Diaspora, which is not fit for prophecy, is different. It is unable to connect matters of halacha and its analysis, and the notable philosophical principles are only those which one can arrive at by means of logic. Therefore, the philosophical ideas are distinct from matters of practical halacha and are not covered by the prohibition not to stray from the decisions of the majority of the Sanhedrin. This distinction is the most fundamental difference between the Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi.

This distinction is also at the heart of the difference between a kohen and a judge, both of which are mentioned as leaders who are involved in the decision of the Sanhedrin (Devarim 17:9). The kohen represents one whose approach to scholarship in halacha is assisted by Divine Spirit, as the kohen is described: "the lips of a kohen shall guard knowledge … for he is an angel of Hashem, the Lord of Hosts" (Malachi 2:7). This is especially true of the kohen gadol, who needs to speak with Divine Spirit, as part of his usage of the urim v’tumim. In contrast, the judge arrives at his judgment based on logic and an approach to textual study that is based on analysis of the sources and their ramifications.

It is not independently obvious without textual confirmation that each of these leaders is subject to the prohibition not to reject the decisions of the majority. If it had only mentioned a kohen, I would have said that only one who speaks with Divine Spirit is bound to the prohibition not to reject decisions, and if it had said only the judge, I would have said that there is no place for Divine Spirit in trying to arrive at the halacha.
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