Netziv on the Historical Development of Torah Learning

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



This shiur is dedicated in memory of
our beloved father Harry Meisels (Elchanan ben Yitzchak) z"l

whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar– the Meisels family.


Shiur #16:  Netziv on the Historical Development of Torah Learning



          Netziv repeatedly emphasizes the significance of talmud Torah in his writings.  He portrays the study of Torah as an omnipresent aspect of Jewish life dating back to the time of the patriarchs.  A critic might justifiably see the insertion of Torah study into the biblical narrative as a historical anachronism.  On the other hand, R. Berlin exhibits an acute sense of historical development in his theory regarding the history of Torah learning.  He discusses these ideas several times in his Torah commentary, but the most extended treatment appears in the first part of Kidmat Ha-emek, the introduction to his commentary on the She’iltot of R. Achai Gaon.  We shall outline that general presentation and then utilize selections from Ha’amek Davar to help to complete the picture.


I. Accepted Laws and Debated Laws


           According to R. Berlin, the biblical phrase “eish dat” (Devarim 33:2; literally, “fiery law”) refers to two types of Torah content.  Dat” represents the clear and unambiguous laws of our tradition.  Eish,” fire, an element that dynamically spreads, stands for the more creative analysis that produces new rulings.  Over the course of time, the sages sometimes reach a consensus on an issue previously in doubt, and what was “eish” becomes “dat.”[1]  Once that definitively occurs, the rejected position can no longer be utilized even during times of duress. 


            This theory enables Netziv to offer an innovative interpretation of the Talmudic phrase, “gemara gemiri la.”  This unclear phrase appears many times in the Talmud. As an example, in Yoma 32a the gemara uses this term to explain how we know that the High Priest immerses himself five times on Yom Kippur.  Rashi comments that this phrase implies a tradition going back to Moshe at Sinai.  Rashi’s approach generates some difficulties since, the gemara also derives the number of immersions from a biblical verse.  Tosafot wonder why we need both a tradition from Sinai and a biblical derivation.  Netziv explains that “gemiri” does not refer to a tradition from Sinai, but rather to a halakhic position that became “dat” over the years.  Since it is now a fixed and clear position, it resembles a law from Sinai.  However, it could have been derived from a verse at an earlier point in Jewish history when the ruling was still subject to debate.


            R. Berlin argues that his interpretation helps elucidate Rambam’s position on this matter. When Rambam discusses laws from Sinai in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishna, all his examples are cases where the gemara applies the terminology “halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai” or be-emet amru” in reference to the law.  Rambam cites no examples where the gemara uses the term “gemiri.”  According to Netziv, Rambam does not cite any “gemiri” examples because they do not reflect rulings dating back to Sinai.


This idea also explains how Rambam can say (Hilkhot Tum’at Met 2:16) that ritual impurity caused by different parts of the stone structure of a tomb is “divrei soferim” (words of the Sages), even though one opinion in the gemara (Chullin 62a) says that we know about such impurity because “hilkheta gemiri la.”  According to Netziv, the rabbis established this law, but it subsequently became so widely accepted that we could apply the term “gemiri” to this ruling.[2] 


            This idea also explains a difficult gemara in Gittin (60a-b) that records a debate whether the majority of Torah is written or oral.  This debate seems spurious, since it is obvious that the quantity of Oral Law far outstrips the halakhic material explicitly stated in the Chumash.  R. Berlin suggests that this gemara does not consider all of Torah, but only those parts of Torah that have become clearly determined law, or “dat.”   Regarding such material, we can debate whether the oral or written component is larger.[3]  


II. Modes of Torah Study


            The difference between “eish” and dat” finds expression in two modes of learning.  One method does not engage in painstaking and creative analysis.  Rather, practitioners of this approach emphasize received traditions.  When a new case emerges, they rely on divine inspiration to make an ad hoc ruling.  The second approach lacks divine help and may be less well-versed in the traditional material, but is deep and creative in its reasoning.  It employs the rabbinic hermeneutical principles to arrive at novel conclusions.  Obviously, each approach has advantages and disadvantages.


            The tribes of Levi and Yehuda reflect these two methodologies.  Levi teaches the laws to the Jewish people (Devarim 33:10) through the first method. The Temple and the presence of the High Priest help inspire divine aid, which enables successful intuitive rulings. 


In contrast, when Ya’akov blesses Yehuda, he mentions “the lawgiver between his feet” (Bereishit 49:10).   This alludes to Yehuda’s Torah decisions, the product of ongoing intellectual investigation.  Success in this method requires intellectual discourse with peers and students who sit on the floor near “the legs” of the teacher.[4]  Not coincidentally, those involved with the Ark of the Covenant, which symbolizes Torah, stem from these two tribes.  Betzalel from the tribe of Yehuda fashions the ark, and the Levites carry it.[5]


The Torah passage about rabbinic authority and the rebellious elder also mentions these two models, as it alternates between referring to the “judge” and to the “priest” (Devarim 17: 9, 12).  Rabbinic authority encompasses both the intuitive inspired rulings of the priest and the analytic creativity of the judge.[6]  If the category of rebellious elder applies to someone who publically rejects either kind of ruling, then both methods of deciding are clearly authoritative.


III. Different Methods in Different Historical Periods


Different methods reigned during various eras in Jewish history.  The First Temple period was a time for intuitive and inspired Torah decision making.  The miraculous nature of Jewish life, with a fully functioning Temple and the dwelling of the divine presence, made this the operative method.  In contrast to his general portrait of the First Temple period, R. Berlin depicts King Shelomo as someone who used the creative pilpul method to derive new laws and to understand the basis for laws known through tradition.  He points out three advantages to using this method for a halakha that we already know. First, sharp analysis can illustrate the authenticity of the tradition.  Additionally, remembering a law proves far easier when we know the basis for that law.  Finally, this method enables us to address new cases for which we lack a tradition.[7]  Nevertheless, usage of creative analysis was not the mainstream approach during the First Temple.


This all changed at the time of King Yoshiyahu.  He understood that exile was imminent and that the old method of learning would not be feasible outside of the Land of Israel.  Thus, he took steps to insure that the pilpul method could flourish.  The Men of the Great Assembly understood this need for a shift in emphasis and all three of their essential messages recorded in Avot (1:1) relate to this shift.  “Exercise patience in judgment” means adopting a more step-by step and less intuitive approach.  “Establish many students” conveys the need for the intellectual give-and-take crucial for this other method to prosper.  “Make a fence around the Torah” also alludes to an analytical gesture that attempts to determine precisely which aspects of halakha are biblical and which rabbinic.[8]


The rebuilding of the Temple initially indicated a return to the older emphasis on intuition and inspiration.  However, the Second Temple lacked the spiritual grandeur of the first.  The High Priests were unworthy and the divine presence was less clearly manifested.  Even with a Temple, the method of the tribe of Yehuda was needed.  A Babylonian by the name of Hillel moved to Israel and brought this method with him.  The fact that Hillel comes from the tribe of Yehuda fits Netziv’s thesis, as does the fact that he comes from Bavel.  Outside of the Land of Israel, the scholars could not rely on a flash of inspiration and they adopted the more analytic method.  According to a Tosefta in Sanhedrin (7:5), Hillel utilized seven hermeneutical principles.  Let us recall that, for Netziv, such principles reflect the creative tools of the analytic school.[9]


This divide explains some of the differences between the Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi.  The former is more complex due to a heavier emphasis on the analytic method.  Since each approach has advantages, the gemara can indicate a preference for scholars from the Land of Israel (Menachot 42a) and a preference for scholars from Babylonia (Ketubot 75a).  The Land of Israel scholars have greater access to authentic traditions.  When they learn some of the Babylonian methodology, they function with a greater assurance that their pilpul is rooted in the authentic traditions.  Conversely, if the Babylonians can access the Land of Israel traditions, then their greater reasoning ability will generate more understanding.[10]


This divide does not end with the sealing of the Talmud.  Gaonic works tend to summarize definitive halakhic rulings.  In the Middle Ages, the French and German Tosafot picked up the mantle of the Babylonians and excelled in analytic creativity.  Both approaches are worthy contributions to Torah study, but Netziv does seem to wax more eloquent about Tosafot’s contribution.  He mentions religious persecutions as a factor that prevented the Ge’onim from continuing the Babylonian method.[11]  


IV. Additional Insights


In Ha’amek Davar R. Berlin adds quite a few important points.  God gave Moshe the more creative analytic method at Sinai, but Moshe did not initially transmit this method to the entire Jewish people. Lacking this method, the people could only deal with novel scenarios through the method of analogy.  They would have to compare a new case with a definite ruling in the tradition.  They did not yet have the creative resources that come with the hermeneutical principles.


On the plains of Moav, in Sefer Devarim, Moshe explains this second method to the people as well.  The verse “ke-khol asher tziva Hashem oto aleihem” (Devarim 1:3) conveys this notion.  What was once only taught to Moshe (“oto”) will now be given to the entire nation (“aleihem”).   When the gemara (Chagiga 6b) refers to the Torah being repeated at the plains of Moav, it was not merely a review session but rather the addition of a new dimension to Torah study.  The sins of the golden calf and the spies clarified that the Jewish people would experience exile, and therefore they would need the creative method to survive.[12]  Netziv contends that the forty years in the desert prepared the people for future exiles.[13]  Apparently, that preparation culminated in the acquisition of a different approach to Torah learning.


Why does the Levi approach not work in exile?  We have already mentioned one answer, namely, that outside of the Land of Israel and in the absence of the Temple we cannot count on divine inspiration.  In a different passage, Netziv argues that the battleground of exile requires the full arsenal of Torah.  The sword of this type of Torah can be sheathed during times of flourishing prosperity but not during times of tension.[14]  Perhaps Netziv means that it is only the deeper involvement of the analytic approach to Torah that keeps us connected to Torah during the travails of exile.


As mentioned, the sins of the desert motivated the diffusion of the creative method.  R. Berlin argues that this is manifest in the difference between the first and second set of luchot (tablets of the Law).  The first were fashioned by God alone, but the second were engraved by Moshe (Shemot 34:1).  This does not just mean a change in construction strategy but a dramatic shift in the entire method of Torah study.  The creativity of the new method demands greater human ingenuity and input.


This interpretation helps Netziv explain an enigmatic Gaonic comment.  Ibn Ezra cites one of the Geonim as saying that the second luchot were more significant than the first.  This seems difficult, as the first were made by God.  Indeed, Ibn Ezra vociferously rejects the Gaon’s position.[15]  Netziv explains this by distinguishing between types of evaluations.  We can compare the two sets of tablets either from the perspective of sanctity (“kadosh”) or from the perspective of honor (“mechubad”).  Sanctity depends upon God, so the first luchot are clearly more kadosh.  However, that does not make them more useful or more significant.  It is only the greater human involvement in the Oral Law, represented by the second set of luchot, that enables us to survive during many years of exile.  Thus, the Gaon had good reason to give prominence to the second set of tablets.[16]


In the Kidmat Ha-emek, Netziv implies that the beginning of the Second Temple period was a time of return to the older method until it broke down and Hillel provided an alternative. In his Torah commentary, Netziv suggest that the Second Temple period never included a return to the older intuitive method.  At the time of the building of the Second Temple, the prophet Malakhi instructs the people to remember the Torah of Moshe, including the “chukim u-mishpatim” (Malakhi 3:22).  According to Netziv’s understanding, “chukim” represents laws derived via the thirteen hermeneutical principles and “mishpatim” stands for intellectual speculations.  The prophet instructs the people returning from Bavel not to relinquish the more creative elements of the Oral Law as they return to the land.  The Second Temple will not resemble the first and the return to Zion is more of a temporary break before the resumption of exile.  Therefore, there is no return to the older method.[17]


One striking historical point deserves mention.  The characters of Tanakh seem to spend less time studying Torah than do their counterparts in later Jewish history.  One traditional response argues that Tanakh does not feel the need to explicitly report such study.  Netziv’s theory opens up an alternative explanation.  Since in the First Temple period Torah study was more about received traditions and intuitive rulings, it did not require the same depth of involvement or time commitment.  Thus, Torah study became a more central part of the religious Jew’s daily routine during the Second Temple period.  Those of us who experience the joy of Torah study on a daily basis can certainly express gratitude about this development.

[1] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:1.

[2] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:2.

[3] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:3.

[4] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:4.

[5] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:5.

[6] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:4.

[7] KiIdmat Ha-emek 1:7.

[8] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:8.

[9] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:10.

[10] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:11.

[11] Kidmat Ha-emek 1:12,13.

[12] Ha’amek Davar, Devarim 1:3.

[13] Ha’amek Davar, Devarim 8:2.

[14] Harchev Davar, Shemot 13:16.

[15] Ibn Ezra, Shemot 34:1.

[16] Ha’amek Davar, Shemot 34:1.

[17] Harchev Davar, Devarim 1:3.