Rabbi Meir’s Rhetoric

Rav Meir disagrees with the other sages on a number of topics involving logic.

1- When framing a tenai, a condition on a business dealing, an oath, a pledge or the like, the majority opinion and the halakhah is that for a condition to be binding, it must be stated in both the positive and the negative. In other words, the person or contract must state what will happen if the condition is met, and what will not happen if the condition is not met. So, an example conditional oath might be, “I will donate this cow to the Temple if my child arrives home in the next day, and I will not donate it if my child does not arrive by then.” Rav Meir holds that the tenai is binding even without the second, negative, clause.

It would seem that Rav Meir is a believer in the dictum that “the exception proves the rule”. That if I say “I would never eat a garlic bagel” it implies that in general I would eat bagels, which is why I singled out the particular kind I wouldn’t eat. Whereas from a strict logical point of view, if I didn’t eat bagels at all, it remains true that I wouldn’t eat garlic ones either. Rav Meir is basic himself on a rule of rhetoric — I wouldn’t have phrased it as an exception if the rule (that I generally do eat bagels) wasn’t true. So to Rav Meir, the positive implies the negative condition.

The Chakhamim, on the other hand, are being more formal about it. Not judging it by laws of rhetoric, but by laws of logic. And therefore the negative clause DOES need to be spelled out explicitely.

This dispute in oaths and contracts. When it comes to interpreting Chumash, all the sages do deduce the negative case from the positive one. Perhaps because the Torah’s parsimony with words makes it even more compelling to assume that the conditional wouldn’t be there if the case weren’t the exception to the rule. (The exception thus proving the existence of the rule.)

The pasuq states (Shemos 22:10)

שְׁבֻעַת ה תִּהְיֶה בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם אִם לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ בִּמְלֶאכֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְלָקַח בְּעָלָיו וְלֹא יְשַׁלֵּם.

The oath of Hashem will be between the two of them, if he did not put his hand against [i.e. break] his peer’s work, then the owner shall accept [the oath] and he need not pay.

If a rentor takes an oath that he didn’t damage the rented item, he need not pay the owner. But what if he didn’t take an oath? For example, what if he were someone already suspect of making false oaths, and the court doesn’t want to tempt him into lying again to make an oath that isn’t trustworthy anyway? The Yerushalmi Shavuos 7:1 (vilna 33b) opens by assuming that Rabbi Meir would have to conclude that the verse implies that in that case, the rentor would indeed have to pay. After all, stating a condition implies that if it isn’t met, the reverse conclusion holds. But Rabbi Chiya concludes that in when it comes to verses, the Chakhamim and R’ Meir would agree.

Perhaps because rules of rhetoric only apply to how people speak. And so, when we talk about the exception proving the existence of the rule, this is only when a person bothers making a condition. The rules of rhetoric for the chumash are the rules of derashah – they operate somewhat differently. Even under Rabbi Yishma’el’s “diberah Torah belashon benei adam – the Torah is written in human language. That rule speaks to what kinds of things are subject to derashah, the meanings of phrases, not analyzing syntax. {Although, Rabbi Meir is a student of Rabbi Aqiva, Rabbi Yishma’el’s disputant on this point.) Rabbi Yishmael says that the meaning of a word includes idiom; Rabbi Meir goes further and says it even includes usual intent.

2- A second case is when there is a list of clauses in an oath, or a number of contracts on one parchment with one set of witnesses’ signatures (Yerushalmi Shavuos 26b). Rabbi Yehudah holds that if a person swears not to eat “wheat and barley and spelt”, with the connecting vav meaning and between them and he happens to eat all three, he sinned only one time. However, if the grains were simply listed with no conjunctive — “wheat, barley, spelt” — then each of three is its oath, and therefore eating all three types of grain would be three violations. Rabbi Meir says the reverse — with the vavs eating all three would be three sins, and without, one sin.

Similarly, consider the case of when two contracts are written on the same parchment, but the whole thing is only signed once, on the bottom. Rabbi Yehudah says that if the second contract begins “Ve-” (and) then the signatures apply to both contracts, but without it, the second contract is valid but the first contract is not signed and unenforceable. Rabbi Meir again says the reverse: with the ve- the witnesses only validate the second contract, and without it — both.

This also appears to be a question of logic vs rhetoric. Rabbi Yehudah feels that since the vav means “and”, it inclusion explicitly binds the two parts into one whole. Otherwise, they remain independent. Rabbi Meir is using rules of rhetoric. The fact that the person didn’t even bother pausing to connect the clauses verbally shows how tightly coupled they are in his intent. Thus, without that ve-, R’ Meir feels they are more connected.

3- There is a notion in the halakhos of contracts called an asmachta, where the clause is so outrageous, it clearly wasn’t made seriously, and since one clause of the whole contract is invalid, the contract as a whole is void. (This is a problem that needs to be avoided if a prenup were added to the kesuvah. Is the groom promising something that he had no intent of honoring because the odds of divorce seemed so outrageous at the time of marriage?)

In Sanhedrin 3:2 (mishnah, not Y-mi), the chakhamim rule that if someone promises to accept a ruling of a court that includes his father, the other party’s father, or even three cow hands, the court’s ruling is valid. Rabbi Meir says that the person can indeed reneg.

Because Rabbi Meir looks to how people talk rather than what was actually said, he has a much broader scope to the rule of asmachta than the majority opinion. Such a claim would clearly be a boast about the strength of his case, and not an actual promise to accept the ruling, and therefore Rabbi Meir takes it as such. This too is beyond “belashon benei adam” of Rabbi Yishma’el, where we are talking about idiom, not intent.

4- A case that may not seem related is whether one may neglect a minority possibility. In general, we say that if the permitted is more likely than the prohibited we can neglect the minority and assum the item is permitted. Such as if three pieces of fat were mixed up, two from areas in the animal where the fat is permissible, one a prohibited fat, one may pick a piece up and eat it. However, “Rav Meir chayash lemi’utei — Rav Meir does worry about the minority.”

This doesn’t sound like a logic issue, except that I have already suggested that Rabbinic logic doesn’t deal in true-false black-and-white questions. (In technical terms: it’s multivalent, not boolean.) So that questions of more vs. less likely would be viewed by our sages as logical ones.

It would seem that while the sages can rule that a halachic state depends on an item’s more likely physical state, but Rabbi Meir, dealing in rhetoric rather than logic, would have to worry about a person’s niggling “what if?”

More on this topic:

In The Semitic Perspective I listed a number of differences between what I called the Yefetic perspective and the Semitic one.  Differences that are sometimes so fundamental, they can group the various schools of Western, Yefetic, philosophy — whether we speak of Aristotle to Derrida — into one camp by comparison.

One of these differences is that in general, it doesn’t appear that Chazal embraced simple true-false all-or-nothing logic. In Aristotle’s world, something is either true or false, and ideas like exactly where the line is between red and purple are addressed as secondary, exceptions to the norm. It was only in the 20th century that Western Logic started exploring systems where sets have blurry edges. Like “tall” in “a tall man”. Someone who is 6’6″ is definitely tall, someone who is 5’4″ is certainly not. But what about people just around at the edge?

In Jewish Thought, it is quite the reverse — everything is a matter of degree, and all-or-nothing situations are the degenerate case where the options happen to lay at the ends of the spectrum. And this runs from Leah being called the “senu’ah”, the “hated” wife of Yaaqov, all the way through history to the Yiddishism of calling someone “not dumb” or “not ugly”. In reality Leah was not hated, although certainly less loved than Rachel. Attributes are always meant in a relative sense, it is taken for granted that the reader who sees a contrast between “beloved” and “hated” would see them as comparative, not absolutes. In my second example, the person who attempts to avoid an ayin hara by voicing a compliment in the negative is basing it on the idea that the listener will assume that their calling someone “not stupid” is because their bright, but technically the words include also the average and so no conspicuous bravado is uttered. In halakhah we find this idea recognized when we have rules telling us when we can ignore the chance that something came from the minority of possibilities (e.g. a piece of meat in a store where nearly all the butchers are kosher) or simply improbable.

Note, though, that if we were concerned with minorities, as R’ Meir does, there would be only two logical states — definitely permitted, and everything else.

This might even be connected to Rabbi Meir being willing to learn from Acher, the sage Elisha ben Avuyah after he chose Greek wisdom over Torah. Is it that Rabbi Meir’s logic ends up being the Greek two-valued sort, which gave him an affinity to Acher’s spin on things? Was it his like of rhetoric over abstract logic that made him more immune to the negative elements in Acher’s teachings? More likely it was both — the constant awareness that comes from seeing the world slightly differently than the sages made him alert to Acher’s divergences.


Toward a Torah Definition of “Ethics”

A short thought, maybe a conversation starter…

There is a paradoxic obligation: it is prohibited to conform in all ways only to the letter of the law. One must stay well within it (lifnim mishuras hadin; or using the contrasting English metaphor: “beyond the letter of the law”) both in ways that prevent violation through error, habit or negligence and in ways that implement the law’s ideals.

So, to give an example from Bava Metzi’ah 83a:

רבה בר בר חנן תברו ליה הנהו שקולאי חביתא דחמרא. שקל לגלימייהו. אתו, אמרו לרב. אמר ליה, “הב להו גלימייהו.” אמר ליה, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — “למען תלך בדרך טובים.’ (משלי ב)” יהיב להו גלימייהו, אמרו ליה, “עניי אנן, וטרחינן כולה יומא, וכפינן, ולית לן מידי!” אמר ליה, “זיל הב אגרייהו.” א”ל, “דינא הכי?” אמר ליה, “אין — ‘וארחות צדיקים תשמור’ (משלי ב)”:

Rabbah bar bar Chanan had some porters who broke his barrel of wine. He grabbed their cloaks. They went and told Rav. Rav said to [Rabbah] “Give them their cloaks.” He said to [Rav], “Is this the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘so that you will walk in the ways of the good’ (Mishlei 2:20)”. He gave them their cloaks. They said to him, “We are poor, and we labored all day, and now we are exhausted, and we don’t have anything!” [Rav] said to Raba, “Go give them their wages.” He said to [Rav], “Is that the law?” [Rav] said to Rabbah], “Yes — ‘and the way of the righteous you shall observe’ (ibid)”.

(In the parallel Yerushalmi [6:6 27a-b], the employer is R’ Nechemiah, who hires a single person to carry a pot [qadar]. R’ Nechemiah seizes his shirt, and the question comes before R Yosi bar Chanina.)

We also have the prohibition that is paradoxically phrased by the Ramban as banning being a “naval birshus haTorah — disgusting with the permission of the Torah.” Such as someone whose life revolves around the quest the next glatt kosher mehadrin min hamehadrin gourmet meal. Since it’s a prohibition implied by “Qedoshim tihyu — be holy”, you don’t really have the Torah’s permission. But there is no express specific halakhah. Usually I put a bracketed “[otherwise]” when translating this Ramban.

But that prohibition can be seen specifically in terms of a person’s relationship to their own souls, or to the Creator. Later in parashas Qedoshim the Torah lists interpersonal mitzvos and caps the specific duties with “ve’asisa hayashar vehatov – and you will do the upright and the good.” The Ramban explains that this is because the full scale of human interaction cannot be spelled out in a specific list of laws, so the generality is given.

The Rambam would refer to these mitzvos — the obligation to become holy, upright and good (as opposed to acting those ways) as hilkhos Dei’os.

\Start with the natural ethic, as described by Hillel — “that which you loathe do not do to your peers, that is the whole Torah”. But many of the things we think we or others would loathe, we would reassess if we had more complete insight into the human condition and foresight to know what would be best in the longest run. Realizing that, we continue Hillel’s words, “Now go learn!” further the ethic as implied by halakhah and described in aggadita.

I would therefore suggest that a definiton of Ethics compatible with the Torah’s worldview would be going lifnim mishuras hadin in a manner aimed at furthering the ethics of the Torah. The Torah’s ethics are in line with the ethics Hashem planted in our soul, but reflect His knowledge of situations and people, giving us more to rely on than our own understanding of the context.

Your thoughts?

Temimus and Deveiqus

The mitzvah of Beris Milah is introduced with the words, “אֲנִי קֵל שַׁקַּי, הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים — I am Kel Shakai, walk yourself before Me, and be whole.”

To me, this pasuk addresses the focus of the most basic open question in Jewish philosophy. Clearly the attention of Yahadus is on keeping mitzvos. But what is the goal of following mitzvos? What is the goal of life, that mitzvos are to help us accomplish?

How are we supposed to read the quote? Is the walking before G-d that is primary, and being whole a side-effect? Or, is being whole the focus of the pasuq, and walking before G-d is a means to reach that temimus? On a deeper level, these two approaches are different aspects of the same idea. A person lives in tension between his spiritual and physical sides — neshamah vs. guf. To achieve wholeness, so that the entire person is working harmoniously, he would necessarily be serving his spiritual goal, and walking in Hashem’s path. In reverse, if one strives for deveiqus to a singular G-d, how could he be a chaotic battleground of warring urges? Cleaving to G-d forces His priorities to be yours, leaving temimus.

This is not to say that there is no distinction in approach. By stressing different elements, there are profound practical implications. For example, consider the debate between Chassidim and non-Chassidim on the importance of davening in the appointed times. We should be clear that the Chassidic position is that one must invest time to prepare for davening, even if this is at the expense of timeliness — it is not blanket permission to ignore the clock.

Chassidus is a deveiqus-based hashkafah. Therefore, when weighing the relative merits, it is more important to be able to invest time to prepare one’s mind and heart for the act of tephillah, for relating to Hashem, than when the tephillah actually begins.

To someone with a temimus orientation, however, zehirus, meticulousness, care in how each facet of the mitzvah is done, is the more important consideration. Zerizus, haste to do what’s right, is an important middah (personality trait). Both come into play when considering the timeliness of tefillah.

Both Mussar and Chassidus saw a predecessor in the Ramchal. I think this too is possible because the Ramchal appears to echo the Torah’s dialectic. For example, they have two contrasting ways of understanding the beginning of the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim:

יסוד החסידות ושרש העבודה התמימה הוא שיתברר ויתאמת אצל האדם מה חובתו בעולמו ולמה צריך שישים מבטו ומגמתו בכל אשר הוא עמל כל ימי חייו. והנה מה שהורונו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה הוא, שהאדם לא נברא אלא להתענג על ה’ ולהנות מזיו שכינתו שזהו התענוג האמיתי והעידון הגדול מכל העידונים שיכולים להמצא. ומקום העידון הזה באמת הוא העולם הבא, כי הוא הנברא בהכנה המצטרכת לדבר הזה. אך הדרך כדי להגיע אל מחוז חפצנו זה, הוא זה העולם. והוא מה שאמרו זכרונם לברכה (אבות ד): העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור בפני העולם הבא.


The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is in a person obtaining clarity and realizing the truth of what is his duty in the world, and to what he has to set his sights and aspirations in all of his activities all the days of his life. This is what Chazal taught us, that a person was created for nothing but finding pleasure in God and enjoy the splendor of His Presence; for that is the true pleasure and greatest joy of all forms of enjoyment that can be found. The true place where this pleasure may be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avos 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”

So the question becomes what is the nature of this “corridor”? We cannot get the full pleasure of Hashem’s presence in this world. So, do we try our best to achieve deveiqus, connection to Him, in this world and thereby earn success in the world to come? Or is the purpose of this life to refine oneself to be capable of as much connection — and therefore as much enjoyment — in the next world, and that refinement is significantly different than connecting itself?

I would suggest that Chassidus sees itself in Mesilas Yesharim because they take the former stance, whereas Mussar sees itself because of the latter interpretation. This ambiguity is possible also because the middos listed in the beraisa of Pinechas ben Yair which the Ramchal uses as his list of topics for the rest of the text is on the one hand an exercise in self-refinement, but on the other hand framed as a latter up to holiness, Divine Inspiration (Ruach haQodesh) and the revival of the dead (Techiyas haMeisim).

As the Ramchal writes later in the chapter:

ואמנם ראוי לו שתהיה כל פנייתו רק לבורא יתברך, ושלא יהיה לו שום תכלית אחר בכל מעשה שיעשה אם קטן ואם גדול אלא להתקרב אליו יתברך ולשבור כל המחיצות המפסיקות בינו לבין קונו, הן הנה כל עניני החומריות והתלוי בהם, עד שימשך אחריו יתברך ממש כברזל אחר אבן השואבת. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא אמצעי לקורבה הזאת, ירדוף אחריו ויאחז בו ולא ירפהו. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא מניעה לזה, יברח ממנו כבורח מן האש.


It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Creator, may His Name be blessed, and that his every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near to the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthy elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until he is pulled towards the Blessed One just as iron to a magnet. Anything that might possibly be a means to acquiring this closeness, he should pursue and clutch, and not let go of; and anything which might be considered a deterrent to it, he should flee as from a fire.

Deciding what is of value in this world in terms of what brings us closer or further from G-d became the centerpiece of Chassidic thought. Whereas the Mussarist would see a couple of sentences later:

…כיון שביאתו לעולם אינה אלא לתכלית הזה, דהיינו, להשיג את הקירבה הזאת במלטו נפשו מכל מונעיה ומפסידיה.


… Since our coming to [this] world is for nothing but this goal, which is to obtain this closeness by rescuing his soul from all the deterrents to and detractors from it.

And so they can conclude that no, the Ramchal is talking about dealing with those issues now, in the corridor, to enable true cleaving to G-d in the World to Come.

Perhaps this plurality is the whole point of the Torah’s doubled phraseology. Because there are two groups of approaches to the same ends, we don’t want to eliminate one in favor of the other. Each person can pick out a derekh that best suits him — as long as he aims for the proper goal.