History, Academic Talmud and R. Lipschutzӳ Intellectual Breadth

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Lecture #05:

History, Academic Talmud and

R. Lipschutz’s Intellectual Breadth



R. Lipschutz’s intellectual breadth extends beyond scientific interests to math and history, as well as to a range of Talmudic issues wider than that of most rabbinic scholars.  According to the stereotype, academics focus on issues of history, authorship, textual transmission, and etymology, while rabbis emphasize analysis of halakhic content.  While this stereotype includes a good deal of truth, it should not be overstated.  Many rabbanim were interested in some of the “academic” questions, with R. Lipschutz serving as a prominent example.


            More consistently than other classic commentators, R. Lipschutz points out Greek and Latin roots for words that appear in Mishna or Gemara.  In masekhet Sanhedrin, he notes the foreign roots of the terms Sanhedrin (Yakhin 1:43), kubiya (Yakhin 3:14), pitom (Yakhin 7:68) and hedyot (Yakhin 7:82).  In masekhet Gittin, he explains that tofes, toref (Yakhin 2:27), niyyar (Yakhin 2:29), diftera (Yakhin 2:31) and apotiki (Yakhin 4:26) all come from Greek or Latin.  It is noteworthy that he brings foreign sources even where Chazal offer a Hebrew etymology for these words.


            Stylistic questions of composition and placement also interest our author.  The last two mishnayot of the first chapter of Nega’im are mirror images of each other.   These mishnayot discuss a case in which the seventh day of a metzora’s “hesger” period falls on Shabbat.  A kohen is supposed to evaluate the metzora’s blemish on the seventh day, but if the seventh day is Shabbat we push off the priestly evaluation to Sunday.  This move generates both leniencies and stringencies.  The first mishna outlines all the leniencies; the second lists all the stringencies.  As the latter scenarios simply reverse the former, there seems to be little need for two lengthy mishnayot.  R. Lipschutz asks this question and explains that Nega’im is a particularly complex topic.  Therefore, the mishna repeats seemingly unnecessary details so that we can carefully internalize the basics at the beginning of the tractate (Boaz, Nega’im 1:12).


            The second chapter of Rosh Ha-shana discusses the giving of testimony to establish the start of the new month.  The third chapter of the masekhet addresses issues pertaining to shofar blowing.  The division seems neat until one realizes that the first mishna of the third chapter still focuses on the sanctification of the new moon.  R. Lipschutz wants to know why this mishna is not the concluding mishna of the second chapter.  While his answer is not fully satisfying, to the best of my knowledge R. Lipschutz is the only major Mishna commentator who asks this question.


            R. Lipschutz proves that tractates were structured and organized before the final redacting work of R. Yehuda Ha-nasi.  At the very end of Kelim (30:4), R. Yossi says, “Fortunate are you, [tractate] Kelim, that you entered with impurity and leave with purity,” thereby noting that the tractate begins with a list of the sources of ritual impurity and ends with a case where a glass vessel is pure.  R. Yossi lived before R. Yehuda HaNasi and yet his comment refers to Kelim as a defined work with a beginning and an end.  Apparently, a work called Kelim had achieved a structured form before Rebbi’s finishing efforts (Boaz 30:2).  Here, it must be admitted that R. Lipschutz’s awareness is not unique, since R. Akiva Eger and others took note of this as well.


            In several places in the Talmud, the gemara solves a problem by arguing that “chasurei mechasera,” the mishna is missing some words.  What does this answer truly mean?  In some cases, we can interpret the phrase literally: some mishnaic words got lost in the copying process over the years.  However, it is difficult to say this each time the phrase appears.  After all, supplying missing words is too easy a way to solve every difficulty.  Tosafot (Shabbat 102a) suggest another model in which we do not emend the text of the mishna but contend that the missing words are actually implicit in the text.  According to this understanding, missing words reflect not a scribal error but a concise mishna that assumes the reader will fill in the blank.  Another understanding appears in the introduction to R. Yisrael from Shklov’s Pe’at Ha-shulchan.  He cites his teacher, the Gra, who explained that the gemara wanted to rule in accordance with another Tannaitic source which contradicts the mishna and it chose to forcefully read the halakhically correct position into the mishna as well.


            R. Lipschutz adds his own unique contribution to this question.  He suggests that mishnayot were recited in a concise form to help create a rhythmic pattern that facilitates memorization.  Added words would just complicate matters for those trying to memorize.  Interestingly, he adds that the same reason could also explain some extraneous words or superfluous cases, since additions can also serve to preserve the musical rhythm of the mishna (Boaz, Arakhin 4:1).  I do not know whether this theory is correct as an understanding of chasurei mechasera but it does show a sharp understanding of oral culture.  Walter Ong writes: “Protracted orally based thought, even when not in formal verse, tends to be highly rhythmic, for rhythm aids recall” (Orality and Literacy [London, 1982], p. 34).


            Another novel area of R. Lipschutz’s commentary relates to historical questions.  He utilizes Josephus to help explain various mishnayot and always cites precise references for a reader who would want to look up Josephus in the original.  A mishna in Chagiga (2:2) mentions that Hillel’s first rabbinic partner was a sage named Menachem, but when Menachem “left,” Shammai replaced him.  Where did Menachem go?  The gemara (16b) explains that he either left to go on an evil path or to enter the service of the king.   R. Lipschutz posits that Menachem left to work for King Herod.  He bases this interpretation on a story told by Josephus (Antiquities 15) in which an Essene named Manaemus predicted Herod’s rise to power when Herod was still a small boy quite distant from kingship.  R. Lipschutz’s approach involves a good deal of speculation, as Josephus never says that Manaemus ultimately worked for Herod.  However, the very utilization of such sources to interpret the Talmud is noteworthy.   


            Historical awareness also motivates his rejection of Rambam’s interpretation of a mishna.  The third chapter of Bikkurim describes the joyous reception that those bringing the fruit received as they approached Jerusalem and the Temple.  One mishna (3:4) says that even King Agrippas himself would take a basket on his shoulder and carry fruit to the Temple courtyard.  Why did the mishna select this specific king to illustrate the point?  Rambam explains that Agrippas was a monarch of great authority and stature, and even such a royal personage did not consider it beneath his dignity to transport the fruit.  R. Lipschutz objects, claiming that Agrippas was king at a time of dwindling prestige for the monarchy, since the Romans exerted their power and influence during his reign.  He offers an alternative explanation.  Agrippas should not have been king, as his ancestry was not fully Jewish.  Perhaps a person precariously holding on to royalty like Agrippas should avoid doing anything that might cause him to lose face.  Nevertheless, he took basket to shoulder and participated in this mitzva.


            R. Lipschutz also utilizes Josephus to alter understanding of another gemara.  The Temple of Onias was a replica of the Temple in Jerusalem built in Alexandria during the Second Temple period and destroyed by Vespasian in 73 CE.  One gemara (Menachot 109b) attributes its construction to the son of Shimon Ha-tzaddik.  Due to a complex historical calculation, R. Lipschutz determines that the Temple of Onias was built later in Jewish history, and he endorses Josephus’ attribution of the construction to the grandson of Shimon Ha-tzaddik.  He then returns to the gemara and argues either that “son” can mean grandson, or that the elder Onias started the project while the younger one completed it (Boaz, Menachot 13:2).  It is important to point out that R. Lipschutz does not declare the gemara historically erroneous, but he does think that knowledge of Josephus enables correct understanding.[i]


            Citing chapter and verse of non-traditional sources indicates a certain valuing of those sources, as it encourages others to look them up in the original.  In addition to Josephus, R. Lipschutz cites chapter and verse for Euclid.  He mentions the Pythagorean theorem and correctly informs the reader that this theorem can be found in the first book of Euclid’s Elements, proposition forty-seven (Boaz, Ohalot 16:9).


            Three more sources illustrate R. Lipschutz’s intellectual curiosity.  A mishna in Sanhedrin (10:1) says that a person who reads the “external books” forfeits his share in the World to Come.  R. Lipschutz explains that this refers to the works of Homer or books of pagan religion.  Yet he adds that such harsh language refers only to someone who reads these works regularly.  A believer can occasionally peruse these works to know how to refute the heretic (Yakhin, Sanhedrin 10:8).  Minimizing the extent of the prohibition reveals a worldview which seeks knowledge in a broad range of places.


            A similar attitude emerges from the last mishna in the third chapter of Avot.  The mishna says that calculating the seasons and geometry are “dessert” to wisdom.  In other words, Torah is the main course, but these other studies add flavor to the meal.  R. Lipschutz (Yakhin, Avot 3:145) provides two explanations for how such additional areas of study help.  Understanding astronomy helps the halakhic endeavor of calculating the calendar.  Furthermore, such wisdom enables us to appreciate the grandeur of God’s created order.  While the first reason is utilitarian and narrowly focused on a particular halakhic topic, the second reason significantly widens the scope of the benefit to be gained by pursuing secular wisdom.


            R. Lipschutz compares these others wisdoms to butter which a person spreads on the bread of Torah.  This imagery helps counter a standard critique of Torah U’Madda.  If we posit that Torah is more valuable than other wisdoms, then whenever presented with a free moment one should choose Torah study.  R Lipschutz’s imagery reveals the fallacy of the argument.  All things being equal, we would prefer a piece of bread to a stick of butter.  Yet, we would opt for nine pieces of bread and the stick of butter over ten pieces of bread.  In the same way, the other wisdoms can find a place at our table.


Concluding Thoughts


On Shabbat Chol Ha-moed Pesach in 1842, R. Lipschutz delivered a remarkable sermon that he later published as a lengthy essay entitled Derush Orach Chayyim (printed after masekhet Sanhedrin).  In this essay, he defends the concept of immortality, providing several arguments on behalf of resurrection.  He also connects midrashic and kabbalistic ideas about earlier worlds with some of the fossil finds of the nineteenth century.  He enumerates a list of some of those findings and cites the works of Georges Leopold Cuvier and Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, two important paleontologists.  For R. Lipschutz, the return of life after the destruction of these earlier worlds parallels the notion of resurrection.


            Those readers interested in this essay have some fine scholarly resources to draw upon.  Yaakov Elman has translated and annotated the entire essay in a work by Aryeh Kaplan entitled Resurrection, Immortality, and the Age of the Universe: A Kabbalistic View (Hoboken, 1993).[ii]  Raphael Shuchat discuses parts of this essay in an article published in The Torah U-Madda Journal, Volume 13 (2005).[iii]  I will not discuss the essay in depth but merely highlight one interesting feature.


Many commentators wonder why the Torah emphasizes reward and punishment in this world and seems to not mention the World to Come.  Abravanel lists seven answers to this question in his commentary on Bechukotai.  One of the answers is that this doctrine actually does appear in the Torah.  This is an important claim, as some academics argue that belief in immortality is a late entry into the list of accepted Jewish beliefs.  If several sections of Tanakh testify to the existence of the afterlife, then this argument becomes less tenable. 


R. Lipschutz attempts to show that each parasha supports the belief in the World to Come.  He brings support from the first three parshiyot of the Torah.  The voice of the deceased Hevel calls out from the grave (Bereishit 4:10).  If the Torah threatens to punish the suicide (Bereishit 9:5), then there must be life after death.  Finally, the karet punishment for a person who never circumcised himself (Bereishit 17:14) could only take effect after death.  In addition, he cites some of the classic verses used to support life after death, such as Devarim 32:39, Daniel 12:2, Yeshayahu 26:19, Kohelet 12:7, and Tehillim 16:10, 17:14 and 31:20. 


Accepting this line of reasoning does not answer the question of why the Shema and the two versions of the tokhecha focus on the mundane rewards and punishments of this world.  However, it would help put an end to the claim that the Jews received the idea of immortality from their encounter with the Greeks.  If so, R. Lipschutz adds yet another contribution to the world of Jewish thought.  This wide-ranging commentator deserves much more scholarly and popular attention than he currently receives.  The recent efforts of two doctoral students should make some inroads in the academic community.  In the world of the beit midrash, I hope that more students will open what once was the standard version of the mishna with the commentary Tiferet Yisrael.


[i] It should be noted that Josephus himself gives contradictory information regarding which Onias built this temple.  See Victor Tcherikover’s Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Philadelphia, 1959), p. 276.