Why Do Rabbis Just “Make Stuff Up?”

rabbilearningtorahDear Jew in the City,

Can you explain how the basic Biblical commandments re: such subjects as the kosher laws have been vastly elaborated and expanded on by post-Biblical rabbis? For example, the kosher laws as spelled out in the Bible (in which God simply says “don’t eat this”) have morphed into a mammothly elaborate set of laws requiring separate sinks, dishes, etc. Since God didn’t order this in the Bible, the only explanation can be that Orthodox Jewish believers accept as just as definitive as God’s word the teachings of their own post-Biblical authorities. Yet where in the Bible does God say that he will set up a teaching authority that can expand upon and vastly increase the requirements of the commandments?

Or to cite another example, God says to do no “work” on the Sabbath — yet the rabbis have ruled that this means you can’t tear off a piece of toilet paper on the Sabbath. I understand that the rabbis believe that this logically follows, but do Jews believe that these opinions carry divine authority? Catholics believe that Jesus specifically handed over authority to the apostles and their successors and that this is documented in the Gospels. (“Whatsoever you bind on earth is bound in heaven.”) Hence our doctrine of “infallibility.” But are the rabbis likewise considered to be “infallible” and how do you know this? Could they ever be wrong in their interpretations?

Thanks so much for any light you can shed on this,

Catholic Mom

Dear Catholic Mom,

This is a terrific question in need of a complicated answer, so I just want to preface the response with one point. Most people have a general sense of what goes into becoming a doctor or a rocket scientist. Fields such as these require intelligence plus years of study in order to master both a breadth and depth of information. Understanding the halachic process – the process through which Jewish law operates – is not unlike the aforementioned fields.

The Talmud, or the Oral Law, comprises 63 volumes, with so many pages that if one studied one two-sided page every single day, it would take over seven years to complete! And the Talmud is just the beginning. The amount of books that have been written and expounded on about Jewish law go on and on.

I don’t mention this in an effort to evade the question, but rather to put the question into context. As with all the content on this site, we try to make it accessible to total beginners, but total beginners just need to keep in mind that the topic is anything but simple. In fact, my husband who grew up religious, went to Jewish day school his whole life and then an extra year of yeshiva after high school did not begin to appreciate the halachic process until he spent two additional years, post-college, studying Jewish law specifically, full-time (in kollel). He went on to law school after that and could see how the complexities of the American legal system had their basis in Jewish law.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz (the JITC educational correspondent) is actually working on a book now on this exact topic, so I asked him if he could put together some preliminary thoughts on the subject. Here’s what he had to say:

There are actually two forms of extra-Biblical law in Judaism. One is called the Oral Law and the other is called rabbinic law. I will explain each.

The Oral Law (Torah sheb’al peh in Hebrew) contains the explanations of the Written Law, which we call the Torah and you might know as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. The Oral Law was given together with the written Torah and it constitutes an integral part of the Torah. Without the Oral Law, the written Torah is virtually incomprehensible, or at the very least, impossible to obey. I’ll give you several examples:

* The Torah tells us (Exodus 31:14, et al.) that performing acts of labor on Shabbos (the Sabbath) is a capital offense. Wouldn’t it be helpful if “labor” was defined, so we’d know what not to do?

* The Torah also tells us (Deuteronomy 6:8) that Jewish men are to put on “totafos.” The word “totafos” is what’s called in Greek a “hapax legomenon.” What that means is that it’s a word that appears nowhere else in the entire Bible. It’s not defined by the Torah and there’s nowhere else one can turn to figure it out. How can we put them on if we don’t know what they are?

* As far as I’m concened, this next one’s the clincher: in the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:21), G-d says that when we want to eat meat, we must “slaughter it… in the way I have directed.” The laws of ritual slaughter appear nowhere in the Torah and yet G-d specifically says that He told them to us!

In truth, the definition of labor and of totafos, as well as the process for performing the kosher slaughter of animals are all part of the Oral Law. These laws were communicated to Moses by G-d and He taught them to the Jewish people, but they were always transmitted orally until Talmudic times, when persecutions threatened the preservation of the oral tradition. Then, the unprecedented step was taken to commit the Oral Law to writing. This was first done in an abbreviated form as the Mishna (circa 200 CE – what you would call AD) and later in an expanded form as the Gemara (circa 500 CE). The Mishna and the Gemara are collectively known as the Talmud. (Actually, there are two Talmuds, the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud, but we are straying too far from our topic to discuss that.)

Getting back to the Oral Law, what the Rabbis of the Talmud did was to search the text of the Torah for “hints” to orally-transmitted laws. These were not the actual source of the laws, so much as they were mnemonic devices meant to “attach” an oral law to the text. So we knew from oral transmission that labor on Shabbos means the 39 categories of creative activities used in building the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The linchpin in the text was the juxtaposition of the discussion of building the Mishkan (Exodus 31:1-11) with a discussion of Shabbos (31:12-17). Just as the text “takes a break” from the subject of construction for Shabbos, we “take a break” from these activities when we observe Shabbos.

This is why, for example, Orthodox Jews will walk a mile to the synagogue in 90-degree weather on Shabbos but not drive; it’s about specific acts, not about effort or exertion. Driving a car involves ignition, combustion, etc. and lighting a fire is one of the 39 categories of labor. Similarly, you asked about tearing toilet paper on Shabbos; separating on scored lines is also one of the 39 categories of labor. (For a complete list of the 39 categories of labor, and a brief description of each, see my book The Taryag Companion.)

Similarly, we know from the Oral Law that “totafos” are black leather boxes with four compartments that contain specific passages from the Torah. The Rabbis expounded that the word “totafos” is made up of two words from ancient languages, each if which means “two.” (Two plus two equals four.)

The totafos are part of a mitzvah we call tefillin but there are many other aspects of tefillin that have no basis in the text whatsoever. (For example, the Hebrew letter “shin” is embossed in two different ways on either side of the tefillin.) Laws that have no “hook” in the text are called “halachos l’Moshe miSinai” – laws that were transmitted to Moses at Sinai. There are only a few such laws. The Rambam (Maimonides) lists 31, which he says is most, if not all, of them. (The Rambam’s list of halachos l’Moshe miSinai is also found in The Taryag Companion.)

So much for orally-transmitted laws. Rabbinic laws can come in two types: laws they derive from expounding the Torah and laws they institute themselves.

A famous example of the Rabbis expounding a law has to do with the prohibition against a Moabite convert entering the general marriage pool (Deuteronomy 23:4). The word “Moabite” in Hebrew can mean exclusively the male or it can also include the female. Some of the Rabbis interpreted that to mean that only a male Moabite may not marry in, while others took it also to exclude a Moabitess. Now this may seem like a strictly academic exercise to you and me but it was extremely relevant in the time of the Judges, when Boaz married Ruth, who was a female convert from Moab.

I’ll give you another example. When it comes to Temple sacrifices of birds, the Torah tells us (Leviticus 5:8), “lo yavdil.” This means “not sever” but the exact meaning is unclear. It could mean that the kohein (a descendant of Aaron, i.e., a Jewish “priest”) need not sever the bird’s head (but he may), or it could mean that he may not sever it. In Hebrew, these two directives are grammatically identical but they would lead to two very different outcomes because in one case a bird with a severed head would be acceptable as a sacrifice and in the other it would not. It was the job of the rabbis to interpret the Torah.

The power of the Rabbis (by which I specifically mean the members of the Sanhedrin and their successors, the Men of the Great Assembly and the Sages of the Talmud) is granted to them by the Torah. G-d tells us quite clearly (Deuteronomy 30:12) that the Torah is no longer in Heaven; it has been given to man and the decisions reached by the Rabbis are binding.

Aside from interpreting the laws of the Torah, the Rabbis were empowered to institute new laws. There were two types of laws: takanos were things that were instituted to be done in order to enhance communal life. Gezeiros were things that were prohibited in order to distance people from the possibility of sin. Using their legislative powers, the Rabbis instituted such holidays as Chanukah and Purim. (Rabbinic laws are not exclusively post-Biblical; they were instituted even in Bible times! For example, the Book of Esther describes how the holiday of Purim was instituted, while the seventh and eighth chapters of the Book of Zechariah talk about the various fast days, which were also rabbinically-instituted.)

You asked about Jewish dietary laws. Some things are Biblical but orally-transmitted, such as how to properly slaughter meat so that it should be kosher and how to remove the blood. (Eating blood is prohibited in Leviticus 7:26 and elsewhere.) Other things were instituted by the Rabbis using their legislative powers. This includes prohibiting such things as eating poultry with dairy. (Some people can’t tell a veal cutlet from a chicken cutlet. Errors are inevitable, so they prohibited milk-and-fowl combinations to remove the possibility of inadvertent sin.)

The decisions made by the Rabbis are binding. They are empowered by the Torah with both a positive commandment (a “Thou Shalt”) and a negative commandment (a “Thou Shalt Not”). The “Thou Shalt” is found in Deuteronomy 17:10-11, “…do as they shall instruct you, following every decision; keep the Torah as they shall interpret it for you and follow the laws they shall institute for you.” The “Thou Shalt Not” follows in the latter half of verse 11, “do not stray right nor left from the matter they shall tell you.”

The fact that the duly-ordained Rabbis were so empowered by the Torah, and that their decisons were binding, does not mean that we consider them infallible. Even the greatest people are human and prone to error. Our greatest leaders – people like Moses, Aaron, David and Solomon – were human beings who made mistakes. We consider no one to be incapable of error. The Torah (Leviticus 3:13-21) actually gives the process to be followed when the Sanhedrin discovers that it has made a mistake in a matter of law. This is the topic of an entire Talmudic tractate, called Horayos. This is not to say that such errors were common (I can’t think of a single such case offhand), just that the Torah acknowledges the reality of human fallibility, even from our greatest scholars. Accordingly, G-d provides us with the steps necessary to rectify things should such an error occur.

There’s a lot of information here and it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. As Allison mentioned, I am currently  working on an in-depth review of this topic. I expect it to take a year or so to collate all the data, but I hope to be able to offer a far more thorough take on the Oral tradition and rabbinic law for those who are interested.

All the best,

Allison (aka JITC) and Rabbi Abramowitz

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Allison Josephs About Allison Josephs

Allison is the Founder and Director of Jew in the City. Please find her full bio here.


  1. This is fantastic! I really look forward to your articles each Thursday, and this one did not disappoint.

  2. This is a very clear and helpful explanation in response to the question asked about rabbinic interpretation. However, I feel it is unfair to the questioner “Catholic Mom” to have included in the title the phrase of why do the rabbis “just make things up.” Surely most readers will take this to mean that this was how the question was worded. Yet this phrase appears nowhere in that questioner’s letter which I thought was worded intelligently and respectfully. I wondered about this same issue in another title several weeks ago which implied that a person at a party had referred to all orthodox Jews as “crazy,” although this word did not appear in the conversation as recorded. I think this type of thing detracts from your useful website.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Thanks for your comment, Monica. I’m glad you liked the explanation. In terms of the title for this post and the other one, title choosing and image choosing is becoming a VERY big part of running a successful blog these days. There is SO much content being disseminated online that a website needs to find titles and images that draw a reader in and make them curious to click.

      Before we put up each post, the marketing director and I come up with several titles and then try to pick the one that will pique most people’s interest. We’d never do anything lewd or inappropriate just for the sake of clicks, but we’re certainly looking to choose a title that a) is short – we only have 60 characters, b) sums up the bigger topic in just a few words, and c) will get people interested to click.

      Also the title is important for Google searches. I grew up thinking and have heard MANY people throughout the years talk about the rabbis “making stuff up.” I didn’t understand how the halachic process worked until I learned about it in depth. But we want people who are searching for that question, who have that misconception to find our post and see the answer in depth.

      Hope that clears things up!

  3. Catholic Mom says:

    Oh my gosh! I think I asked this question a long time ago and I had given up all hope of ever seeing an answer! As I was reading this, I was thinking — for the first paragraph — “right — good question, just what I always wanted to know.” 🙂

    I must say this is far and away the most complete explanation of this question I have ever read. So, since no good deed goes unpunished, can I ask a follow-up question? Since the Sanhedrin does not exist today, how do rabbis reach consensus today, or don’t they? Who designates (and how do they do so) which rabbis are “authoritative” so to speak? Is there ever a serious division of opinion that threatens to split the Orthodox world? (I’m not talking about difference between Reform or Conservative and Orthodox opinion). I’m curious because in Christianity we have basically two models: the Catholic model in which an explicitly defined “magisterium” (teaching authority) makes definitive rulings from which no dissent is possible (“Rome has spoken, the case is closed.”) and the Protestant model which proclaims the “perspicuity” (inherent clarity) of the Bible but in practice results in endless schism. It has always seemed to me that you pretty much have to have one or the other.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      Sorry for the delayed response, Catholic Mom! I started my part of the answer years ago, but since as you can see a lot is needed for the actual answer, I sort of procrastinated until I realized that Rabbi Abramowitz would be the perfect person to answer it. I’ll pass him your question too!

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I’m so glad you saw the (extremely-belated) answer to your question! I hope it helped.

      The next part of your question is more about Jewish history. The Sanhedrin may have had differences of opinion, but things were put to a vote and the majority ruled. When the Talmud was codified, it was also based on the opinions of all the authorities of the times and the Talmud is the last thing that is universally binding. After that, the Jews were further dispersed in their various exiles and communication between communities became difficult. Jew in Spain and Portugal became “Sefardic Jews” and Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe became “Ashkenazic Jews,” each with their own authorities who further defined the law for those communities. The term for this post-Talmudic law is “minhag,” usually translated as “custom.” Personally, I can’t stand that translation because “custom” suggests optional and each group’s rulings are binding for members of that community; I prefer to refer to minhag as the Sefardi or Ashkenazi “practice.”

      Nowadays, there are different levels of rabbis. (Not as rigid a distinction as between priests, bishops, cardinals, etc., though that might give you a frame of reference.) There are different levels of ordination and the higher a “degree” one has, the more areas he can rule on. More important is the personal brilliance and insight of certain individuals, which is really what qualifies them for the title of “gadol” (major authority). There’s a big distinction between answering questions, ruling in matters of law, and actually establishing a law. I answer plenty of questions but I also know when something is “above my pay grade” and I take it to a higher authority. And sometimes they take the matter to a still-higher authority! Not everyone with the title “rabbi” has the same qualifications. It’s the difference between your family doctor and an oncologist. Your doctor may be great but you need a specialist to make certain calls. It’s the same thing with Jewish law. One’s local synagogue rabbi can answer basic questions, but it takes a “posek” to rule on matters of law. (To rule is to poskin; one who is qualified to make such rulings is called a posek.) A posek’s ruling may be specific to the needs of the person asking the question; they do not necessarily constitute a blanket ruling for all, but the cases may be used as precedent by later rabbis, much the same as in civil law.

  4. Catholic Mom says:

    I’m getting a little dizzy here, but I think I’m still following you. 🙂 Thanks very much for this information. Essentially my questions are about the nature of authority in Judaism, because that is the basic issue that divides Christianity so I’m always curious about how it works in other religions. The Catholic Church was exactly accused by Protestants during the Reformation of “making stuff up” (to use Allison’s title) – that is, to have arbitrarily developed novel doctrines and practices. Of course, the Catholics have a whole counter theology about this. But the end result is that, 500 years later, Christendom is still hopelessly fractured. By contrast, Orthodox Judaism seems to have been able to develop different “minhags” without everyone excommunicating each other — or maybe it just looks more unified from the outside than it does from the inside. 🙂

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      In terms of how the Orthodox world deals with different minhagim and also different halachic rulings, there’s an idea in Jewish law that there can be more than one right answer. There’s a certain point when something is out of bounds of Jewish law, but it’s very progressive IMO how there’s an ancient tradition in Judaism that there is more than one way to be right. That doesn’t mean every group is always as respectful of other group’s differences as they could be. But ideally, we’re supposed to recognize that there is more than one right way.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      The model I use is like this:

      * The Torah is like the US Constitution – it sets the entire framework upon which the legal system is based. If something is unconstitutional, it’s out.

      * The Rabbinic laws of the Talmud are like Federal laws – they’re not part of the Constitution but they apply to everyone.

      * Post-Talmudic laws and minhagim are like State laws – what’s legal or illegal in New York may be different from Texas, Alaska, California or Hawaii. The fact that different states make their own laws is their prerogative and does not invalidate the conclusions reached by any other state.

  5. awesome article, it really helped clarify some of my own questions.

    I just have one question about the following paragraph:
    “Getting back to the Oral Law, what the Rabbis of the Talmud did was to search the text of the Torah for “hints” to orally-transmitted laws. These were not the actual source of the laws, so much as they were mnemonic devices meant to “attach” an oral law to the text. So we knew from oral transmission that labor on Shabbos means the 39 categories of creative activities used in building the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The linchpin in the text was the juxtaposition of the discussion of building the Mishkan (Exodus 31:1-11) with a discussion of Shabbos (31:12-17). Just as the text “takes a break” from the subject of construction for Shabbos, we “take a break” from these activities when we observe Shabbos.”

    Does this mean that the foundation for the 39 melachos of Shabbos is from a hint that the Talmudic rabbis found? Or are you saying that it had already been established that way from Har Sinai and that the Rabbi’s later on simply understood it as originating from a hint in the text?
    Thanks and keep up the good work!

  6. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Most people think that the Rabbis established the rules based on their interpretation of the verses. As with so many things, conventional wisdom is mistaken. The Rabbis knew the laws because of the oral transmission from Sinai. What they did was to attach it to a Biblical verse to strengthen it and make it easier for people to remember. I’ll give you another example:

    The Torah tells us that on Succos we are to wave “pri etz hadar” – the fruit of a nice tree. Everyone agrees that it’s an esrog (a citron). The Talmud (Succah 35a) asks how do we know this. In a three-way difference of opinion, one authority says that hadar is related to ha-dir – a sheep shed. Just as sheep sheds come in different shapes and sizes, it has to be a fruit that comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, i.e., the esrog. The next opinion is that it’s ha-dar – the one that dwells. In other word, a fruit that remains on the tree and doesn’t fall off – an esrog. The third opinion is that hadar is from the same root as hydro – it’s a fruit that requires a lot of water – the esrog.

    In reality, all three Sages knew from oral tradition that a pri etz hadar is an esrog. They each interpreted the verse as a mnemonic to reinforce the oral tradition in people’s minds. The interpretation of the verse supports the oral tradition, it doesn’t generate it.

  7. Thanks so much for that I actually had no idea about any of that! My whole view of Halacha has changed now! Thanks!

  8. First off, I appreciate you’re insights and it looks like a lot of others do as well! But it seems to me, and maybe this is the academic side coming out because I was a religious studies major, that there’s a lot of rules being made to explain rules that cannot be explained. Maybe the fact that there are so many holes and loopholes in the first place means that there are holes and loopholes in real life. The Torah and all subsequent books were written in a certain time and in a certain culture. Maybe the fact that the terms are broad allows the flexibility for these laws to live forever, so to speak, and adapt as cultures and times change and definitions change. Fighting these changes appears to be counter productive, especially since it seems as though some of these rules are just blindly followed without thinking about how they might not apply in the same way anymore. For example, wearing a wig as a modern way to cover your hair. Your wig is way more ‘sexy’ than my natural hair. Yes, it’s not your real hair and so part of you is technically private. But your hair is still much more overtly sexual than mine and to most men would be perceived that way. Which seems to defeat the purpose of trying to be modest. And in that sense, wouldn’t it be more applicable to just wear your own hair in a modest way such as pulled back? Especially, if the ultimate goal is in fact modesty and saving intimate and sexual moments for marital experiences. Forgive me, I understand the principles but I don’t understand the practice. There seems to be a disconnect.

  9. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    I don’t really agree with you about so many loopholes. I wrote an article a while back called “Judaism is Too Stringelenient” (http://www.ou.org/life/inspiration/judaism-too-stringent-lenient-jack-abramowitz/). The idea is that some people complain that we heap stringency upon stringency. Others complain that we have loopholes to avoid our responsibilities. Which is it? It can’t be both! In truth, an honest evaluation of situations will lead to some cases where we are lenient and others where we are stringent. The Talmud tells us that to rely upon every leniency is wicked but to accept every stringency is foolish.

    Torah is adaptable to different cultures. I may not wear long sidelocks but I also observe the law not to cut off my “payes.” I don’t wear a gartel – the special belt Chasidim wear when they pray – but I also separate between the upper and lower halves of my body. Similarly when it comes to women’s hair covering. Some communities would never accept a wig, feeling that it violates the spirit of the law. Others only permit it with a hat on top as a visual cue that it is a wig. And, of course, many do wear wigs, which is in compliance with the law of covering hair even if they’re attractive.

    Similarly, I wear a black leather yarmulke. My grown son’s is velvet. My good friend’s is a small crocheted job. My cousin’s is this huge woven thing. There’s the rule, then there are umpteen ways people put it into practice based on their personalities, their upbringing and the standards of their communities. Life’s much more interesting that way.

    So, when it comes to wigs (for example), someone who feels that it violates the spirit of the law has many other options available – hats, snoods, scarves, tichels, turbans, etc. The covering is the law, not the wig.

  10. Wondering if I can ask a related question – if Orthodox jewish people feel the Torah is the word of god and is unchangable – cannot adapt to modern times because it is literally the word of god and that is why they like the ancient laws – how do you explain the ban of poligamy, no longer stoning people to death, no longer being allowed to issue the death penalty for shabbat desecration, etc. Why is it okay to adapt to modern times in some areas (like multiple wives) but NOT okay to adapt to modern times in terms of women’s roles, shabbat technology use, gay rights, etc. Why are some things allowed to change??

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Great question but I’m afraid I’m going to have to re-frame it because you’re working under some misconceptions. It has nothing to do with antiquity or modernity, it only has to do with what the Torah requires vs. what it merely allows. I’ll explain.

      The Torah is sort of like the US Constitution in this matter. As far as the Constitution is concerned, you can marry your first cousin and turn right on a red light. How can some states outlaw these things that the Constitution allows? Isn’t that by definition unconstitutional? Not at all! Just because the Constitution permits something, that doesn’t make it a right, let alone an obligation. But if a state said, “From now on, everybody has to let soldiers sleep in their house and we can take all your stuff for no reason” – well, THAT would be unconstitutional because it actually contradicts what’s in the Constitution.

      Now let’s apply this to the Torah. The Torah allows us to eat chicken with milk but it’s not an obligation to do so. It doesn’t contradict the Torah if the Rabbis say to ban such combinations as a preventive measure. The Torah allows a man to have more than one wife but it does not require him to do so. If the Rabbis prohibit polygamy on societal grounds, it doesn’t contradict the Torah.

      If we wanted to allow same-sex marriage or using technology on Shabbos, that would be a problem because now you want to permit things that the Torah prohibits. That actually contradicts the Torah and we are not permitted to legislate such things.

      Capital punishment is different. That’s not practiced today for procedural reasons: because capital punishment is only in effect when we have the Temple and the Sanhedrin, neither of which we have today. But I want you to know that even in Biblical times, capital punishment was exceedingly rare. The deck was stacked in the defendant’s favor in many ways. For example, the high court was 71 judges. They could acquit based on a simple majority (36 to 35) but they needed at least two judges more to convict (37 to 34). In the case of a hung jury (36 to convict, 35 to acquit), they would deliberate. Those who voted to convict could change their votes but those who voted to acquit could not. There’s more. The Talmud tells us that any Sanhedrin that executed two people within a 70-year span was considered a “bloody court.” Again, this is not unlike civil law, where many states have execution on the books but it is rarely practiced.

      I hope this helps!

  11. Thank you, but to clarify – if the Torah allows for more tha one wife, but the rabbis say no, isn’t that contradicting the Torah wherein it is specifically allowed? If the Torah (ie, god) says its okay to eat chicken and dairy, where do the rabbis come to say you can’t? Isn’t your belief that the Torah is the word of god? So if god said it was okay to do something, why do the rabbis think they have the authority to rule otherwise? I don’t get how that is any different from the rabbis ruling that you can do something the Torah says you can’t. In either exmaple, they are changing the directive from the torah…. or am I just missing something? Many thanks for your help…

  12. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    By your logic, there could never be any laws other than those in the Torah! “How can you prohibit driving 65 mph when the Torah allows it?” “Why should I pay income tax when G-d doesn’t require it?” Now you may say that civil law is different but in Biblical and Talmudic times, the religious leaders and the secular leaders were the same. And, as I mentioned in the article above, we even see Rabbinic laws in the Bible. For example, the fast days that the Sanhedrin established that are mentioned in the book of Zechariah. “But G-d didn’t say we can’t eat on those days!” And yet, when the people asked the prophet if they still had to fast on those days since the Temple was rebuilt, G-d Himself upheld the practice! The reality is that man prohibiting something that G-d permits does not contradict G-d. It’s a safeguard.

    The Torah tells us in several places to enact safeguards. For example, Leviticus 18:30. (A knowledge of Hebrew would be useful here, since the English translation normally says something like to “watch” or to “observe,” but “safeguard” is actually correct.) And, as mentioned in the article above, the Torah tells us, “…do as they shall instruct you, following every decision; keep the Torah as they shall interpret it for you and follow the laws they shall institute for you” (Deut. 17:10-11), so even if you thought a safeguard was completely off-base, how would you justify not observing it based on the Torah’s command to listen to the rabbis in these matters?

    So we can enact laws for a variety of purposes, either to enhance community life or to safeguard Torah laws. But these laws can only prohibit things otherwise permitted. That’s not a contradiction any more than mom saying no when dad says yes. Dad isn’t saying that you MUST eat candy before dinner or go to a party on a school night, he’s saying that, as far as he’s concerned, you may. If mom says no, she’s vetoing his yes and dad doesn’t care because he didn’t particularly desire that you do these things, he just wasn’t stopping you.

    But permitting something the Torah prohibits? No human has that authority. If we were to claim it, that would be assuming a power the Torah does not grant.

  13. How do you know that the Oral Torah is accurate? After all its “Oral” and wasn’t originally written down. Some of the oral teachings could have been changed, forgotten, or misinterpreted when transmitted from one generation to the next before it was written down.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      In a famous story, a man asked Hillel to teach him only the Written Torah, not the Oral Torah. Hillel said, “Okay, but first you have to learn how to read Hebrew. This is an alef, this is a beis. Come back tomorrow and we’ll continue.” The next day, the man returned. Hillel said, “Let’s review what we covered yesterday: beis, alef…” The man objected, “Yesterday you said this was the alef and that was the beis!” “You see?” said Hillel, “You can’t even learn the alphabet necessary to read the Written Law without relying on oral tradition!”

      Without an Oral Law, the Written Law is meaningless. We don’t know what tefillin are, how to keep Shabbos, or how to slaughter kosher meat. If there were varying opinions as to the basics, you might rightly ask which is correct. Seeing as the Sages of the Talmud are in universal agreement about the “big picture” stuff, we have a pretty good idea that they knew what they were talking about. If it was going to be a game of telephone, it would have fractured into umpteen different religions in the 1,500 (+/-) years between the Torah being given and the Mishna & Gemara being written down.

      Yes, the Talmud is full of differences of opinion, but it’s all detail-oriented stuff. For example, if my brother has two wives, one of whom is my daughter, and he dies childless, can I marry the widow who is not my daughter? That’s a famous argument between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, and you can imagine it didn’t come up too often in practical application. Nevertheless, such questions for which there was no clear tradition were decided by the Sanhedrin, as per the Torah’s directive.

      I hope this helps.

  14. David Stein says:

    “The power of the Rabbis (by which I specifically mean the members of the Sanhedrin and their successors, the Men of the Great Assembly and the Sages of the Talmud) is granted to them by the Torah. G-d tells us quite clearly (Deuteronomy 30:12) that the Torah is no longer in Heaven; it has been given to man and the decisions reached by the Rabbis are binding.”

    With this statement you are declaring that the decisions reached by those Rabbis are binding forever and ever. (Yes, I went to Yeshiva and know exactly what you are saying here with this) This is wrong and grossly miss assumed. It is only binding for that generation or as long as the Rabbis, aka mam of current generations deem it applicable. For it has been given to all mankind, not to only of one certain generation and they should decide for all generations. That would not mean “giving it to man.” How can Rabbis who lived 2000 years ago in primitive times dictate laws to a more civilized society. And you can not say because God had so stated so in the Torah, because “the Torah is no longer in Heaven.” When the members of the Sanhedrin and their successors died, they went to heaven and left the Torah to man, because it has been given to man and with man it shall stay.
    Many halachos must be changed or be modified to make compatible with current society. E.g. halachos on divorce cause unnecessary suffering for many women. These halachos were not originally designed to make women suffer. There are many more examples which I am sure you are aware of.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I’m afraid you are making several factual errors. First, rulings of a Sanhedrin could potentially be overturned by a later Sanhedrin but we don’t have a Sanhedrin nowadays, so we lack any mechanism to do so. (Even in the time of the Sanhedrin, overturning an established law was no small thing. It’s not like it happened every day!) Use the Supreme Court as an example. They can declare laws unconstitutional. What about when they’re in recess? Can any judge just toss out laws they don’t like just because the Supreme Court isn’t available? Of course not; they lack the authority. Same here: absence of a Sanhedrin does not magically qualify other people for the task.

      The same is true of Talmudic law. The close of the Talmud represents “sof horaah” – the last time all the relevant authorities could be consulted and universally-binding law implemented. After that, we factioned into Sefardic, Ashkenazic, Yemenite, Hasidic, etc. and our individual rulings (called “minhag”) were only binding on our individual communities. Talmudic law, however, continues to be binding on everyone and that is non-negotiable.

      Finally, the fact that a man must give a get is a Torah law. In previous generations, there may not have been a “get crisis” but there was still an agunah problem, such as if a husband disappeared overseas. Since time immemorial, the authorities have grappled with this issue but no one – not the Sanhedrin, not the rabbis of the Talmud, and certainly not us – has the ability to ignore the Torah’s requirement in this matter.

      • David Stein says:

        You are in essence stating that there are no Torah authorities on a ruling level alive today. I disagree. The Torah has been given to man. Between us, this has been established and agreed upon. ‘Man’ here means ‘the living.’ I am sure we can agree on this too.
        I do not believe you can compare constitutional law with the rulings of the Sanhedrin. For we all know that God’s constitution is the Torah and from the Torah is where halacha is derived, not the other way around. Nor can you compare being “in recess” with being dead. But regardless, many precedents had been set, as many Talmudic as well as Torah laws had been changed.
        E.g. Soft matzos was eaten for Passover for over 1000 years at first, and now hardly anyone has heard of it. See, http://www.realmatza.com,
        Chicken at first was considered as non-meat, and was eaten with dairy.
        Even though available, a blue thread on Tzitzith is no longer practiced by most.
        Rice had been ruled by the Talmud to be kosher for passover, but many Rabbis declared it chametz. etc.
        Call it minhag, call it what you may. Halacha had been changed many times and many of the Talmudic rulings today are ignored. Making your statement “Talmudic law, however, continues to be binding on everyone and that is non-negotiable.” unsubstantiated. The concept being, if it does not work for our generation, changes must be made.
        Question, From where do you know that the Sanhedrin declared that their rulings are eternal? The Rabbis from the Talmud themselves were uncertain of this.
        We have now amongst the living far more qualified scholars in all fields of Education with more intelligence and knowledge then all the Rabbis in history combined. The later the generation the more intellect.
        E.g. The Talmudic Rabbis constantly disagreed.
        Their knowledge of the natural world, medicine, etc. was extremely fallible. The new moon was only made known upon the testimony of 2 witnesses, is why there are 2 days yom tov.
        It was believed by all the Rabbis that the world was flat. Even the Rambam believed so.
        That the world was covered by a dome. That the sun moved from east to west by day and back to the east above the dome at night.
        This was derived from Genesis 1:6, How much more wrong could they have been. Many more halachos and beliefs were derived from mere assumptions and a spin on Scripture,
        They were death penalties by the Rabbinic courts for minor infractions such as stoning, burning,
        beheading, strangulation, and the penalty of lashes. Animals being brought for slaughter to atone for peoples sins. Which proves, primitive justice for primitive societies.
        The Rabbis believed that they were capable of bringing the dead back to life, when in fact was merely a resuscitation they were performing. Confucius preceded Pirkei Avot by 100s of years. Many more examples.
        As a mitzvah leads to another mitzvah and a sin to more sin, so too is for falsehood and truth. The pursuit of truth is of the utmost importance, for without it, what is there other than stagnation at best and declining of the intellect at worst. Today we have obtained more truth then ever before, and with this truth descended from heaven , we can establish a true Torah way of living, with true joy in the now, not in the past. The Torah teaches us to live with the Torah. ‘Live’ here means in joy. The Jewish nation is bleeding the loss of many a fellow, we must act, and do as our Rabbis did, not as they said, (for what they said was for their generation) and mimic their strong love for the truth. This my fellow Jew is the true lesson we learn from the Talmud. (pun intended)
        Your allegiance to and pride for the Rabbis though admirable is not tantamount to the seeking of truth. For allegiance to God is more admirable.

        • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

          No, what I’m saying is that there is no body with universal legislative power today. There are individuals with localized power.

          I have described how halacha actually works. You have described how you would like it to work. You can disagree and rail against it all you like but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation.

          • David Stein says:

            Your statement is a misrepresentation of what I said. And you have described how you would like the halachic process to work.
            I have laid out an historical and undisputed account of the direction halachic rulings have taken. A unified body of scholars has universal legislative power to get the ball rolling. Only their will and courage, is what is lacking. Majority rules even when at odds with the Torah. See Bava Metzia 59b.
            We learn from Torah scholars throughout the ages that when engaged in deep study, new insights and understandings are obtained and applied. This is the purpose and definition of learning Torah. For you, it means (according to your statements) learning the Torahs of past generations without obtaining any new insights and understandings that will be made applicable for change.
            If we are not meant to evolve, reach higher levels of awareness, as well as in practice than of those that preceded us. Then why are we so deeply involved in the study of Torah. What is it that we are trying to understand, only the rulings of past Rabbis, or the Torah as well. And if we reach a higher level of insights, would that be for naught. Does not our Torah learning mean something. Or do we adhere to the false premise that we will never reach and bypast the levels of our Sages.
            As I have pointed out and as anyone can see for themselves, when comparing the Talmud to reality, that the Rabbis were wrong on many occasion. We barely know of them, who they were, what they were about. And they will never know of us nor of our generation. For they have long passed and of their memories are held by only a few, for they had not contributed anything meaningful to the world at large. At least, anything that the world truly recognizes as meaningful.
            If our perception of halacha has to remain stagnant to suit others, then we have nothing eternal, to hold onto. ( for we do not inherit nor possess the Torah as our own, but rather we are slaves to the will of other’s interpretations)
            It becomes meaningless, and we are then just paying lip service.

  15. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    How have I misrepresented what you said? You wrote a small chapter, I replied with two sentences, and I didn’t even quote you.

    Much of what you wrote was thoroughly irrelevant. (Confucius predated Pirkei Avos? So what?)

    The fact that chicken is treated as meat by rabbinic enactment doesn’t contradict the Talmud. And nobody says rice is chometz; we know it isn’t and choosing to proscribe it doesn’t contradict the Talmud, either. Just because something was permitted in Talmudic times doesn’t mean it can’t later be restricted. (“Permitted” does not mean “required!”) If anything, this demonstrates that law evolves, albeit locally. (Sefardim eat both rice and soft matzah on Pesach. That supports my initial point.)

    You have many inaccuracies in your arguments. For example, Chazal did not all think the world was flat (though some no doubt did). Rabbi Yehuda knew it was round in Pesachim 94b. Talmud Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 3:1 describes the world as a ball when seen from space. Bereshit Rabbah 63:14 and Esther Rabbah 1:7 both describe the world as round. The Zohar knows that the world is round AND that it rotates! It says, “In the book of Rav Hamnuna Sava it is explained that the world rolls in a circle like a ball… There are places in the world that when it is light for those on one side of the sphere it is dark for those on the other.”

    Similarly, you misrepresent why we celebrate two days of yom tov and many other details. I’m not going to go through them one by one.

    You suggest that my allegiance is to the Rabbis and that yours is for God but you erroneously claim that there “were death penalties by the Rabbinic courts for minor infractions.” The capital punishments are dictated by the Torah. By your reasoning, chicken should be parve, we should all eat rice on Pesach, and we should stone people for violating Shabbos. Similarly, you mention “[a]nimals being brought for slaughter to atone for peoples sins. Which proves, primitive justice for primitive societies.” Aside from the fact that sacrifices have nothing to do with jurisprudence, those, too, are Torah law. By your logic, we should be practicing them.

    I have no interest in arguing with you, which is why I didn’t go into all of this in my last response. Your “undisputed account” is replete with errors. You have not laid out the way the halachic process works because, looking at halachic authorities, you can tell they do not share your disdain for the words of the Sages.

    Halacha is not stagnant, nor is it lip service. But it is also not capricious. There is a process and it is still active. But it is built on the foundation of giants; it does not evolve by tearing them down.

  16. David Stein says:

    You misrepresented me by stating “You have described how you would like it (halacha) to work.”
    When in fact I had described the historical account of the direction halachic rulings have taken.

    “”(Confucius predated Pirkei Avos? So what?)”” Your quotes are in double quotation marks.
    Confucius predating Pirkei Avos, is to point out the possibility that the Sages may had gained wisdom other then from the Torah.

    “”The fact that chicken is treated as meat by rabbinic enactment doesn’t contradict the Talmud.””
    I agree, chicken being treated as meat does not contradict the Talmud, for it was what the Talmud rules, but it does contradict the Torah.

    “”And nobody says rice is chometz; we know it isn’t and choosing to proscribe it doesn’t contradict the Talmud, either.””
    Chometz, kitniyot, an issue of semantics. However, Ashkenazi Rabbis has ruled rice forbidden on Passover. If the Talmud ruled rice to be Kosher for Passover, how is forbidding it, deemed not contradicting the Talmud.
    “”(“Permitted” does not mean “required!”)””
    Of course not, who says it does.

    “”Just because something was permitted in Talmudic times doesn’t mean it can’t later be restricted.””

    You can not be more wrong with this statement. In a ruling in the Jerusalem Talmud, (as well with many Rabbinical authorities that concor) states ‘something that is permitted, may not be ruled as forbidden.
    Inscrutable and unreasonable demands may not be imposed as well. In general, each according to the generation’s state of affairs.

    “”For example, Chazal did not all think the world was flat (though some no doubt did). Rabbi Yehuda knew it was round in Pesachim 94b.””
    You are misinterpreting the Talmud in Pesachim 94b, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi simply stated that he agrees more with the non-Jewish Sages then he does with the Jewish Sages, in that the sun continues on a course under the earth rather then travel back over the dome. One of the Rabbis even said of this phenomena, is why he finds the ground so warm at night. Maybe it was Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi himself.
    As for these other sources you quote, I am unfamiliar with, but given your inaccurate take on Pesachim 94b, I may assume you did the same with these others. For everyone who is seriously engaged in the study of the Talmud is very much aware of the fact that the Rabbis believed the world was covered by a dome and the sun traveled from east to west and back. As for the Zohar, It was written about 700 years ago, at a time closer to when everyone had realized the world was not flat. I was referring to the Sages of the Talmud not the Zohar.
    Rav Hamnuna Saba maybe the only one from that era that recognized the world as round, Being I have not read his works, I will give you the benefit of the doubt on this one, even if the odds are not in your favor to being correct, given you track record. But the other Rabbis including the Rambam, did not concur nor was he recognized for this by history.

    “”Similarly, you misrepresent why we celebrate two days of yom tov and many other details. I’m not going to go through them one by one.””
    Here you fail to give an alternative explanation for the 2 days yom tov.
    The Talmud clearly discusses that the reason for the 2 day yom tov is due to the fact that the Sanhedrin did not know the day of the new moon without witnesses. In the same discussion the Rabbis question, if the Sanhedrin declared the 2 day ruling to be eternal. I do not remember where in the Talmud, but I’m sure you can ask Rav Dovid at MTJ. As far as going through my comments one by one. I very much so challenge you to do so, if you really think they are wrong.

    “”You suggest that my allegiance is to the Rabbis and that yours is for God but you erroneously claim that there “were death penalties by the Rabbinic courts for minor infractions.” The capital punishments are dictated by the Torah.””
    Firstly, not so clear as to all death penalties that the Rabbis had ruled is directly from the Torah, some were based on assumptions, but those Rabbis were the authority to inflict such penalties. Why did they not rule an eye for an eye literally. All in their understanding of their generation.
    As the Rambam teaches, that the sacrifices mandated by the Torah was commanded by God to appease the masses of Israel. For without the commandment for sacrifices the B’nai Yisrael would have worshiped avodah zarah with sacrifices. In the same sense and understanding, God had deemed barbaric capital punishments to be suffice for such a generation. As all can see, no one Rabbi can nor will condemn anyone to a death penalty.

    “”By your reasoning, chicken should be parve, we should all eat rice on Pesach, and we should stone people for violating Shabbos.””
    Yes chicken should be parve, It was only ruled as meat because people were confusing the real meat, believing it was chicken, then cooked it with milk. Only to avoid this mistake, the Rabbis declared it as meat. And if one wishes, they should be permitted to eat rice on Passover, but no one shall be stone for any violation they may have committed. Are you for real? You twist my words.

    “”Similarly, you mention “[a]nimals being brought for slaughter to atone for peoples sins. Which proves, primitive justice for primitive societies.” Aside from the fact that sacrifices have nothing to do with jurisprudence, those, too, are Torah law. By your logic, we should be practicing them.””

    My statement “Which proves, primitive justice for primitive societies.” was referring to the capital punishments metered out in those days as well.
    How do you figure sacrifices have nothing to do with jurisprudence.
    Do you not believe animal sacrifices are primitive by today’s standards.
    By my logic, we should not be harming innocent animals to atone for our own sins.

    “”I have no interest in arguing with you, which is why I didn’t go into all of this in my last response. Your “undisputed account” is replete with errors. You have not laid out the way the halachic process works because, looking at halachic authorities, you can tell they do not share your disdain for the words of the Sages. Halacha is not stagnant, nor is it lip service. But it is also not capricious. There is a process and it is still active. But it is built on the foundation of giants; it does not evolve by tearing them down.””

    You have every interest in arguing with one whom will disagree with your interpretation of the halacha process, which is why you are responding with such misrepresentations of my comments.
    Can you provide one proof in support of the Rabbis being giants. And who is tearing them down, just putting their words in their proper perspective, no disrespect intended, just going through the learning process. Do you think that they themselves would take offense. If their words are of a fallible nature, how are they corrected by turning a blind eye.
    By your own explanations you prove halacha is stagnant. You state it is forever binding.
    You state that halachic authorities will not agree with my take on the halacha process, but by your own explanations you prove again that there are no halachic authorities living today. For someone to be an authority on halacha should have no problem making any changes deemed fit and proper.
    You are the one that has many inaccuracies in his arguments. You have not successfully cited one error I had presumably made. You can’t argue with the truth of my statement, but rather must twist my words. Your conclusion to your statement makes it very clear where your allegiance lie.
    As one Jew to another, I strongly suggest, that you be very diligent in your response, for your reputation as a Rabbi is at stake. Good luck.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I’m not real worried about my reputation, thanks. And I have neither the time nor the inclination to go through your points one by one any more than I have already done because you will simply continue to disagree. I have already spent more time on this than I intended and I’m not going to let you bait me into continuing. If that means you get the last word on some points, so be it. I will leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions from our discussion.

      I will say this: I never said there were no halachic authorities. There are, of course. I said there was no halachic body with universal legislative authority. And that’s true: there isn’t. But there are halachic decisors. And even someone of the magnitude of Rav Moshe Feinstein (or, if you prefer, the Lubavitcher Rebbe – feel free to fill in your own) did not have sole authority like a Jewish pope. Each person will follow their own authority and legitimate authorities may differ.

      The fact that we don’t overturn the rulings of the Talmud does not make halacha stagnant. Halacha is a rich, vibrant field, abundant with new situations. We constantly apply the same principles as the rabbis of the Talmud to reach decisions on modern-day issues. (May one donate a kidney? MUST one donate a kidney? Can my web site take orders on Shabbos? Am I allowed to give a discount if a customer pays cash instead of using a credit card? etc., etc., etc.) Halacha grows. We don’t tear it down and start again.

      What Chazal thought of astronomy (for example) is irrelevant to any of this. One must separate the halachic (legal) and aggadic (non-legal) portions of the Talmud. Even if they were all wrong on heliocentrism – and it’s not so clear that they were – it would only potentially affect any laws that were predicated on that mistaken belief. To my knowledge, there aren’t any.

      Finally, the proof of my statements is that we still have two days of yom tov, treat chicken as if it were meat, etc. If halacha worked the way you posit, we would have “reformed” Judaism and “reconstructed” it. (See what I did there?) Have people done such things, reframing halacha to suit their modern sensibilities? Of course. But we don’t do that because such an approach would be “unorthodox.” (Oops, I did it again!) So, yeah. Orthodoxy believes in the mesorah (chain of transmission) and in the authority of the Sages. Those who differ have historically broken away and started their own movements.

  17. If I may get in on this conversation between Rabbi Abramowitz and David. I have been following this debate.
    I have so far only been able to check up 2 of the references the Rabbi gave, Pesachim 94b, and Esther Rabbah 1:7.
    on Pesachim 94b I had found David’s account very accurate, and on Esther Rabbah 1:7, I find no reference of any mention of the world’s shape. Perhaps you have made a typo on the Midrash’s location. Can you check on this.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Thanks for writing. The Gemara in Pesachim is a very complicated piece with a gazillion commentaries on it. It’s tied in with a whole bunch of stuff, including the shape of the world and heliocentrism but there are different ways to understand it and, probably, everyone thinks it agrees with what they’re trying to prove.

      The Midrash in Esther Rabbah describes the world as round like a crown. The Midrash in Bereishis Rabbah is more compelling because it describes the world as shaped like a lentil. One could say that a crown is circular – i.e., round but flat – while a lentil is more spherical. (The Yerushalmi is clearer still, describing the world as a ball.)

      I don’t have access to the texts today (I’m out of the office) but I can try to look them up tomorrow if need be.

      The idea that the world is round was known to the ancients, if not universally accepted. I’m not saying G-d whispered in the Rabbis’ ears that the world was round, just that it’s unsurprising that some of the Sages of the Talmud may have thought the world was round and others may have thought it was flat, as was the case in other educated societies of the time.

  18. Thank you for your quick reply and I will be looking forward to your answers tomorrow, in the interim, I had remembered that I have some portions of the Bereshit Rabbah and they do contain chapter 63;14, again I find no reference of any mention of the world’s shape in it. I learn Gemara from the artscroll, and the artscroll in Pesachim gives a clear and straightforward accounting of what the Gemara is saying. It does not describe the account according to your description at all. Are you referring to perhaps a different location in Pesachim. And can you also, while you’re at it, check up on the location in Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah, just to be certain. Thank you. Jay

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I’m sure that ArtScroll gives a very clear description but I’m also sure that it’s not exhaustive. There’s a lot of discussion on that piece, quite a bit of it in recent years. (I’m pretty sure that Rabbi Natan Slifkin and Rabbi Moshe Meiselman use the same piece to “prove” diametrically opposing points.)

      I will do my best to look up the sources tomorrow in the office.

  19. Dear Rabbi, I had googled the 2 Rabbis you mention and find them in some sort of a conflict. I hate seeing this between fellow Jews, we have enough enemies from without.
    With all due respect, I am not at all interested in what was discussed recently, it is all opinionated.
    My curiosity lies only in what the Holy Rabbis had said on this subject. Thank you. Jay

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I agree; I have no interest in going into any unpleasantness that may have occurred. I was merely demonstrating that radically different approaches both cite that piece of Gemara as a support. That didn’t come from nowhere; it’s based on the history of understanding that dictum, from the time it was stated until today.

  20. Here is some information that may shed some light on the subject of the Sage’s view of the shape of the world, that I had discovered online.
    in Pesachim 94b.
    The sages of Israel say, “During the day the sun travels below the sky and at night it travels above the sky.” The wise men (Gentiles) of the nations say, “During the day the sun travels below the sky and at night it travels below the earth.” Rabbi [Yehuda HaNassi] said, “Their words seem [more correct] than ours because the underground streams are cold during the day and warm at night.”
    It would seem at this point that the majority of Jewish sages believed that the earth is flat. However, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi – Rebbe – said that the Gentile wise men had a better proof and, presumably, were correct. Most commentators, with the notable exception of Rabbeinu Tam, understand Rebbe agreeing with the Gentile wise men. As Rashi, Rosh, Rambam, his son (Abraham ben Moses), and many others read this passage, Rebbe was convinced by a scientific proof that the Jewish sages were incorrect and therefore changed his view and sided with the Gentile wise men. Rabbeinu Tam, as quoted in Shita Mekubetzet in Ketuvot, claims that Rebbe only conceded that the Gentile wise men had a better proof, not that they were correct.
    Rebbe’s proof is that underground streams are warmed at night. This could mean that Rebbe followed the view – that the world is round and the bottom half is immersed in water (rendering the bottom half uninhabitable). Therefore, when the sun rounds the earth at night, the water is warmed and the warmth quickly travels throughout the attached water bodies.
    This very argument between the Jewish sages and the Gentile wise men was raised again in Bereshit Rabbah 6:8, only this time between R. Yehuda bar Ilai and the sages. One side argued that the sun sets going up, implying that the sun at night goes above the sky. The other side argued that the sun sets going down, implying that the sun at night goes around the earth. (Who said what depends on the edition. Compare the Venice and Vilna editions.) R’ Yochanan then said that there is a proof to either side and R’ Shimon bar Yochai is quoted as saying that we cannot determine which side is correct. In other words, R’ Yochanan and R’ Shimon bar Yochai were not sure whether the earth is round or flat.
    We find the following in the Talmud Yerushalmi, Avoda Zara 3:1:
    R’ Yonah said: When Alexander the Macedonian wanted to go back, he flew [on the back of an eagle] higher and higher until he saw the earth as a ball and the sea as a plate.
    R’ Yonah quotes a Greek legend and accepted the fact that the earth is round. The seas, however, are flat according to R’ Yonah, similar to the water in a bowl that flattens out on top despite the roundness of the bowl. This would be the fourth view we mentioned above. Alternatively, he may have believed that the ball of the earth is enclosed in a bowl of water like the third view. This Yerushalmi is quoted approvingly by Tosafot, Avoda Zara 41a sv kakadur. That is why, Tosafot explain, there were some pagans who worshipped balls. The ball represented the earth, and we know that the earth was a common theme in ancient paganism. Bamidbar Rabbah 13:17 says that the world is like a ball. Ramban on Numbers 7:12 quotes this midrash and seems to add that the world is surrounded by water, like the third view above.
    In Bereshit Rabbah 63:14 we find the following anonymous statement. “‘Then Yaakov gave to Esav bread and lentil stew.’ Just like a lentil is made like a wheel, so the world is made like a wheel.” While the term “wheel” could mean that the earth is flat but round like a wheel, the comparison to a lentil tells us that the implication is that the world is spherical. Similarly, in Esther Rabbah 1:7 R’ Pinchas tells us, “The world is made like a crown.”
    All said and done, this would teach us that the Rabbis were not scientists, but were Torah scholars.
    When we have a question about the natural world, we should refer to the Scientists, just as Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi did.
    When we have a question on Halacha, we should consult the Rabbis.
    Jay, let us know if this was helpful. All the best. Laibel

  21. Thank you Laibel, with much appreciation. However I think you left out some information. You mention the third and fourth views, but did not include “views” in your comment, and can you share the website you found this on.
    After a more diligent search, I did find the references in Bereshit Rabbah 63;14 and in Esther Rabbah 1:7. Being fairly new at this I had confused them with another chapter.
    There is another inquiry, this info does not elaborate on the Bamidbar Rabbah 13:17, that says that the world is like a ball, in the same way it scrutinizes R’ Yonah’s claim, which he says, that the world is round .
    Even though majority rules on matters of halacha and not on matters of fact, all this evidently raises concern that halachos that do involve matters of fact were not reached in error, being the majority obviously had some big facts totally wrong. Making science very important in understanding the Torah.
    How do you and Rabbi Jack sees all this.

  22. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

    Thank you, Laibel, for the thorough review of the literature.

    While there are some who believe that the Rabbis’ knowledge of science is G-d-given, I am not among them. I believe that they worked with the best available information at the time, just as rabbis today do.

    Of course, not everything they said – or even most things or many things – were based on the science of the day. The question of halachic revision based on outdated science arises surprisingly infrequently. The only practical case I can think of is the ability to kill lice on Shabbos because they supposedly spontaneously generate. Even there, the halacha remains true: spontaneous generation is proposed as an explanation for the tradition that we’re allowed to kill lice on Shabbos, it’s not the source of the law. We now know that lice don’t spontaneously generate, so that must not be the reason but the law is still the law. (And, aside, at least one rabbi in the Talmud said that lice also reproduce.)

    Anyway, Jay, here are the sources. I’m only reproducing the key phrases and not the whole paragraphs, but this should help you locate them in the original sources:

    Bereshit Rabbah 63:14:
    מה עדשה זו עשויה כגלגל כך העולם עשוי כגלגל
    Just as a lentil is round, so the world is round.

    Esther Rabbah 1:7:
    אמר ר’ פנחס העולם הוא עשוי כעטרה
    R. Pinchas says the world is shaped like a crown (i.e., round)

    Yerushalmi Avodah Zarah 3:1:
    וסלק סלק עד שראה את העולם ככדור
    He ascended higher and higher until he saw the world like a ball

    My comment above the sources is how I see things. There are precious few cases where modern scientific knowledge impacts Talmudic law at all. The Rabbis did say a lot of things about medicine that sound absolutely bizarre to us but those are largely Aggadic (non-legal) statements and they have not been observed for centuries irrespective of the state of medicine. For example, we’re not real big on blood-letting nowadays, and if you want to donate blood, don’t worry too much about the day of the week or the weather.

    There are some kashrus issues where Talmudic statements differ from our modern observable reality, largely having to do with kinds of injuries that animals can or cannot live with for a year. The law doesn’t change if an animal beats the expected deadline; there were occasional exceptions in Talmudic times as well.

    Things that people fight about nowadays – evolution, the age of the universe, etc. – don’t impact halacha at all.

  23. Sorry for leaving that info out, here are the 4 views.
    1) The earth is flat and is resting on some sort of foundation.
    2) The earth is flat but is floating in the air or nothingness.
    3) The earth is round but its “bottom” half is immersed in water.
    4) The earth is round and both sides are inhabitable.
    You can google “according to the talmud the world is flat” and it should be the first link to that website.
    What I think about all this, and I’m sure, judging by the contents of Rabbi Jack Abramowitz’s remarks, that he would disagree. I hope he agrees to disagree.
    First, It was well known that, any Rabbi who disagreed that the earth being the center of the universe, would have been considered foolish and ignorant. Furthermore, it is self evident that it is not at all clear that any of the Rabbis believed that the world is round in the way we know it to be. And not in anyway, as a unified body of Torah scholars in mutual agreement , to say the least.
    I see the Gemara as not necessarily teaching all and true facts in all matters, after all, it is not a science manual, but it does described the sequence of how their conclusions were derived at. We learn how they incorporated all sources of knowledge in their decision making. Be it from Scripture, Gentiles Scientists, or even Greek legends. An augmentation of the idiom, “Who is wise, one who learns from all…”
    Being that our sources of knowledge are of a more advanced intricate level. Our understandings, insights and conclusions may be in par with our knowledge derived from said resources, and reach higher levels of intellect. As all Rabbis proclaim, it is a commandment that we, ourselves must learn. Couple this with the knowledge obtained from the past to grow and build upon. We therefore cannot help but to reach higher levels wisdom.
    In my version of Esther Rabbah there is a chapter preceding chapter 1, this may have been what confused you. Bereshit Rabbah is quite massive and easy to confuse one chapter with another.
    Jay, let us know how you find this. All the best. Laibel

  24. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says.
    “Even there, the halacha remains true: spontaneous generation is proposed as an explanation for the tradition that we’re allowed to kill lice on Shabbos, it’s not the source of the law. We now know that lice don’t spontaneously generate, so that must not be the reason but the law is still the law. (And, aside, at least one rabbi in the Talmud said that lice also reproduce.)”

    Laibel asks.
    Where in the Gemara can the statement of spontaneous generation of lice and the Rabbi that said “lice also reproduce” be found?
    First you say the reason given for being permitted to kill lice on Shabbat is, spontaneously generation, than you state “it’s not the source of the law” & “so that must not be the reason” From where and how is this latter conclusion derived?
    And being that you mentioned the subject, what are your views on evolution, the age of the universe?
    Are you a Slifkin fan or a Meiselman fan.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      Talmud Shabbos 107b: Rabbi Eliezer says that killing lice on Shabbos is the same as killing a camel on Shabbos. The Rabbis disagree, saying that the law is different in the case of lice, which do not reproduce. Abaye asks “Don’t lice reproduce?” To support the idea that they do, he cites a dictum that G-d supports all creatures from the eggs of lice (beitzei kinim in Hebrew) to the horns of the reem (which is very large). The Rabbis say, “Lice reproduce? Nah… that can’t be! That statement must refer to some species of insect called ‘beitzei kinim.'”

      So we see that Abaye cites an earlier rabbinic source that lice lay eggs. The Rabbis dismiss the idea because, so far as they knew, lice spontaneously generate. That does not necessarily change the halacha because people often misunderstand how the flow of the Talmud goes. I mention in an earlier comment that various rabbis give different “proofs” that the “pri eitz hadar” is an esrog. In reality, these are not proofs at all. They knew from the Oral Tradition that it was an esrog and they were looking to support the idea. Similarly, it could be that the Rabbis here had a received tradition that lice could be killed on Shabbos. Their statement about lice not reproducing could be intended as a reason to distinguish between lice and other creatures, an explanation of and support for their received tradition. If that’s the case, then if the support fails, it does not take the tradition with it.

      My thoughts on Torah and science are closer to Rabbi Slifkin’s than they are to Rabbi Meiselman’s. I believe that Chazal worked with the best available information (though the law is not necessarily based on misinformation because, as stated, sometimes the science of the day is only cited as explanation after the fact).

      When it comes to evolution, the age of the universe, etc. – I really don’t care! It affects my life not one iota! Did the six days of creation have to be six 24-hour periods? I don’t believe so. A “day” could have been a billion years. But whether it was a billion years or 24 hours, I still have to get up and go to work. Similarly, the Midrash describes G-d creating a series of successive worlds, wiping them out and building more advanced worlds on top of them. When archaeologists started digging up dinosaur and caveman bones, the rabbis of the time said, “We’re not surprised. The Midrash tells us to expect such a thing.” But whether that explanation or Darwin’s is literal history, I have to pay my rent and go to the gym. So why should I get freaked out about something that none of us will ever know for a fact?

      In the Rambam’s day, people believed the universe always existed. The Jews were “anti-science” for believing that it was created. In Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed), Rambam says that if there were iron-clad scientific proof that the universe always existed, he would have no problem accepting the creation account as an allegory, the same as we do for such terms as “hand of G-d,” “throne of G-d,” etc. Nowadays, we all agree the universe was created and did not always exist. Well, 13 billion years (a large but finite number) is a lot closer to 6,000 years than “always existed.” If the Rambam wasn’t concerned about the science in his day “ruining” the Torah, we should be a lot less concerned about the science in our day, which agrees on the major point: the universe was created, just like we said. (There are a number of scientific approaches that nicely reconcile the discrepancy. I recommend “Genesis and the Big Bang” by Dr. Gerald Schroeder.)

  25. Dear Rabbi, and Laibel, Thank you for the sources. Laibel, yours were very rational.
    Rabbi, and Laibel if you wish to weigh in. About killing lice on Shabbos. Why is it so important to believe it is a real halacha, i.e. from Sinai, we do not kill lice on Shabbos unless it becomes a threat. What difference does it make in that case. If any animal, insect, or even man becomes a threat to our lives. We are permitted to defend ourselves, by killing them if need be, even on Shabbos.
    How do we know that Abaye’s argument that due to the fact that lice do lay eggs, is a case for not being permitted to kill lice on Shabbos coming from Sinai.
    If you will say not so, then why did he oppose the ruling. And if you say he was not opposing the ruling then why does it not state he is in agreement.

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I don’t think it’s * important * that we believe the lice law is an oral law from Sinai, I’m saying that one way of looking at it is that it * happens to be * an oral law from Sinai. If that is the case, Abaye is not disagreeing with the rule itself, only with the reason the Rabbis are hanging on it. As a matter of practice, we don’t do it because we may have misidentified the insect in question. Lice eggs can be seen with the naked eye, so surely they knew that lice laid eggs. Flea eggs, however, cannot be seen with the naked eye, so maybe they meant that we can kills fleas on Shabbos. Out of doubt, I suggest refraining from killing either.

  26. Dear Rabbi, Thank you. I very much appreciation your answer, but. To be more clear, I will rephrase my question.
    How do we know that the ruling of the killing of lice is permitted, was from Sinai or was the ruling of the killing of spontaneous generated creatures are permitted, was from Sinai.
    If you say that killing of spontaneous generated creatures, are permitted was from Sinai. Abaye’s argument would then have been in disagreement with the ruling.
    If you say killing the lice is permitted, regardless of the reason, was from Sinai, then obviously the Rabbis had incorrectly identified their insect. Making this entire ruling highly questionable. In both situations, I would be compelled to rule, only for my own behalf, that this halacha to be invalid and unbinding. Unless you can provide any additional information that would change the realty of these facts. Thank you. Jay

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I don’t know that it *was* from Sinai; I’m saying that it *might have been.* The intention of the Talmud could be understood either way. I don’t, however, believe such a rule would have been that “spontaneously-generated creatures may be killed on Shabbos” because there aren’t any. (I didn’t mention an opinion that some people have to the effect that lice *used to* spontaneously generate but now they don’t. To be polite, I find such a position too untenable even to discuss. People who believe that, however, could possibly understand things that way.)

      • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

        Thank you Rabbi Abramowitz. Just a note for the comments moving forward – this got WAY off topic. Please let’s stay closer to the topic of each post. Thanks!

  27. Hi Allison, Nice to know that you are over seeing and are on top of things. But quite the contrary. This discussion is right on topic. Why Do Rabbis Just “Make Stuff Up?” I for one, if I may, am trying to discern exactly that. In this particular exchange with the Rabbi, my questions are in essence, was the statements by the Gemara on the killing of lice determined (as the title of your post reads) as Just “Make Stuff Up? or not. Thank you for a job well done. Your fan. Jay
    PS. Good job on your remake of your video on Shabbat. Were you inspired by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s essay on Shabbat.
    Dear Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, There is not any scientific evidence that lice *used to* spontaneously generate. Without any supporting evidence, I can never entertain such a possibility. Thank you. Jay

    • Rabbi Jack Abramowitz says:

      I don’t agree with it, either, which is why I didn’t mention it initially. But there are people who believe the Rabbis’ knowledge of science was G-d-given. Those people would posit that if the Rabbis believed in spontaneous generation, it must have once existed. So, I originally offered two possible answers: (1) the Rabbis used their belief in spontaneous generation to generate the law about killing lice on Shabbos and (2) they used the belief in spontaneous generation to explain a tradition about killing lice on Shabbos. You asked about the possibility of a tradition about killing spontaneously-generated creatures on Shabbos. I must reject the possibility of such a thing on the basis that there never were any such creatures but those who believe there once were might accept such a hypothesis. You and I, however, are on the same side in rejecting it.

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