R. Berlin and R. Hirsch

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



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

whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar – the Meisles family.



Shiur #17:  R. Berlin and R. Hirsch


 R. Berlin and R. Hirsch were historical contemporaries who lived in very different worlds.  One was the quintessential community rabbi of Western Europe, while the other was the Rosh Yeshiva of the most significant yeshiva in Eastern Europe.  A contrast between the views of R. Berlin and R. Hirsch regarding reasons for the commandments, secular wisdom, and the relationship between Jews and Gentiles proves instructive.  While significant differences exist between these two rabbinic thinkers, those differences are often more subtle and nuanced than we might imagine.    


Reasons for the Mitzvot


R. Berlin argues that every mitzva has a “chok” quality to it, manifest in two ways.  First, a mitzva remains binding even when the reason we attribute to it does not apply.  Second, we cannot rationally explain all the details of the commandments.[1]  The latter position is similar to, but not identical with, Rambam’s theory in Moreh Nevukhim (3:26).  Rambam argues that logic necessitates a certain arbitrary quality with regard to the details of mitzvot.  For example, the Torah must select some number of bullocks for a given sacrifice, but the specific number is arbitrary.  For R. Berlin, the apparently arbitrary nature of the details stems not from logical necessity but from the desire to include a “chok” element in each commandment.  Human beings should feel incapable of fully understanding the teleology of mitzvot.


At the same time, Netziv did seriously engage in the endeavor of suggesting rationales for mitzvot and often did so in an illuminating fashion.  He offers an insightful explanation for certain anomalies in the korban toda, the thanksgiving offering.  Even though this offering is a subset of the korban shelamim, the peace offering, it differs from the normal procedures.  Regarding the standard shelamim, the owner has two days to eat the sacrifice, but only one day when it comes to the toda.  Additionally, the toda is accompanied by loaves of chametz bread, something unusual in the world of sacrifices.  R. Berlin explains that the person bringing this sacrifice experienced divine salvation that obligates expression of gratitude.  Halakha wants this person to make a festive meal with many invitees who will hear about the salvation.  Limiting the amount of eating time forces the sacrifice’s owner to include more people in the meal, and the bread helps enhance the festivity.[2] 


In this vein, R. Berlin adds a novel reading of two famous verses in Tehillim.  Lekha ezbach zevach toda u-veshem Hashem ekra. Nedarai la-Shem ashalem negda na le-khol amo” (“I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the name of the Lord. I will pay my vows unto the Lord, yea, in the presence of all His people” Tehillim 116:17-18).  The verses clearly refer to bringing a thanksgiving offering.  According to the simplest translation, “negda” means “toward” or “in the presence of.”  R. Berlin suggests an added level of linguistic resonance, with “negda” alluding to the word “lehagid” (to tell).  A person obligated to bring the toda must tell the story to many members of the Jewish people.[3]


Sometimes, R. Berlin locates two separate themes in a single mitzva.  His analysis of the nazir differentiates between different possible motivations for taking on this vow.  Some take the vow as a striving for extra sanctity.  Others feel endangered by sexual temptation and take this vow as a way of curbing their impulses.  R. Berlin argues that both these motivations explain the need for prohibitions against drinking wine and cutting hair.  On the other hand, only the motivation of striving for greater sanctity explains the prohibition against coming into contact with a corpse.  The person struggling with temptation might actually find support in the gloomy atmosphere of human mortality.  Nevertheless, Halakha applies all three prohibitions to standard nezirut, irrespective of which of these two motivations inspired the vow.   Only the distinct legal category of nezirut Shimshon reflects a model that includes the wine and hair prohibitions but lacks the tum’at met component.[4]


Whereas R. Hirsch works out an extensive theory of Jewish symbolism and frequently explains mitzvot based on such symbolism, R. Berlin does that on a more occasional basis.  The consecration of priests involves sprinkling blood on their ears, hands, and feet to illustrate the commitment of their hearing and understanding (the ear) and their actions (the hands), and their internalizing the message until it becomes second nature (the feet).[5]  The tefillin shel yad and the tefillin shel rosh represent the dedication of heart and mind.[6]  R. Hirsch offers a similar interpretation of tefillin, but R. Hirsch focuses on the hand as symbolizing action, whereas Netziv’s understanding emphasizes that tefillin shel yad faces the heart.


R. Hirsch was highly critical of Rambam situating certain mitzvot in a historical context.  For Rambam, many prohibitions, including that of cooking or eating meat and milk together, wearing a mixture of wool and linen, and eating orla, are directed against pagan practices of the day.  This approach runs the risk of denying ongoing religious meaning in these practices absent the ancient pagan context.  In contrast to R. Hirsch, R. Berlin does understand some mitzvot as intended to counter Gentile practices of the ancient world.  In his writings, mutilating the body upon losing a loved one, cooking milk and meat, and eating next to blood all reflect pagan practices that the Torah prohibits.[7]


One factor may have enabled Netziv to feel more comfortable than R. Hirsch in making these types of suggestions.  In general, R. Hirsch offers reasons for mitzvot with great confidence that he has understood correctly the basis for these mitzvot.  Netziv, on the other hand, frequently stresses that each mitzva has multiple reasons.  If we assume many rationales for each mitzva, the danger of excessive historicizing recedes, since the historical component reflects but one facet of the mitzva.


R. Berlin relies on a narrative section of Torah to illustrate his conception of the multiple reasons for each commandment.  God says that the Jewish people did not go up on the mountain at Sinai because they were afraid of the fire.  Netziv points out that this does not exhaust the reasons for their remaining below.  After all, God explicitly instructed them not to ascend the mountain.  Apparently, when the Torah gives a reason for an action or policy, it does not intend to comprehensively list each and every reason.  The same principle applies in the broader realm of Halakha.[8]


Netziv also contends that we do not think about reasons at the time of the mitzva performance.  At that time, the only relevant factor is the divine command per se.  The Torah tells us that Ya’akov’s sons brought his dead body out of Egypt because he had commanded them to do so.  For Netziv, this exemplifies the proper standpoint for loyal commitment.  A person can speculate about reasons, but at the time of action, he does what he is commanded to do. [9] 


The principle that the mitzva remains in force even when the reason no longer applies appears in many places in Ha’amek Davar.  We wait thirty days before redeeming a first-born son to insure that the baby is viable, but we do so even if we know that the pregnancy was full term.  The price of five coins reflects the economic evaluation of a baby, but that price stays intact even when redeeming an adult.[10]   We provide the Levites with ma’aser rishon (a tithe of the produce) partially because they lack their own real estate, but the obligation of that tithe remained in force during the Second Temple period, when the Levites owned their own land.[11]   


In another example, a guardian is exempt from paying for the loss of an object if the owner of that object was working with him at the time of the loss.  In halakhic terms, we call this “ba’alav imo.”  R. Berlin explains this exemption based on the special dynamic unique to the borrower, the sho’el.  Nonetheless, he asserts the halakha that the same exemption applies to other types of guardians as well.[12]    


All the examples up to this point relate to extended scope.   Even though the basic rationale no longer applies, the mitzva remains binding.  Netziv also mentions another type of “chok” element.  The mitzva of honoring parents would seem to reflect the rationally understandable mitvza par excellence.  Regarding rational commandments, we do not anticipate finding any differences between the Land of Israel and the Diaspora.  Such distinctions seem more appropriate in the realm of mitzvot less accessible to human reason.  Yet the Torah promises long life on the land which God swore to give us as a reward for honoring parents.  Netziv infers that honoring parents takes on a special quality in the Land of Israel.[13]  The fact that even rational mitzvot are affected by location imparts an element of chok to these mitzvot as well.


An important exception to the above exists in Netziv’s thought.  There are mitzvot that depend fully upon human reasoning.  The Torah commands gemilut chasadim in a very general fashion and the rabbis filled in the details with specifics regarding visiting the sick, burying the deceased, and so on.  Regarding such mitzvot, no chok element exists, and the details fully follow human reasoning.[14] 


Secular studies


The popular account states that R. Berlin closed the yeshiva of Volozhin rather than accede to the demand of the Russian authorities to introduce secular studies.  In an extensive study, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter shows that the reality was more complicated and that other factors also contributed to the yeshiva’s closing.[15]  At the same time, it is true that Netziv, though not categorically against secular wisdom, opposed combining Torah study with other intellectual pursuits.  To truly achieve the status of a halakhic decisor, Netziv thought it essential to focus exclusively on Torah.  In a passage in Ha’amek Davar, Netziv states that one must study Torah before turning to secular studies.[16]  In a responsum, he says that the secular wisdom could also come before Torah learning, but that some years need to be dedicated fully to Torah study.[17]


Strikingly, the passage in Ha’amek Davar makes a parallel point about the relationship between Talmud study and other branches of Torah knowledge.  Netziv argues that intensive Talmud study must precede heavy involvement in Tanakh or Aggada.  The Talmudic dictum, “Keep your children away from higayon” (Berakhot 30b), means that one should not pursue Tanakh (at the expense of Talmud) in one’s formative years.  Here, we have another strong contrast between R. Berlin and R. Hirsch.  R. Berlin’s emphasis on the primacy of Talmud study was not shared by R. Hirsch.


R. Berlin does offer some moderate support of secular wisdom.  He explains the seven branches of the menora as representing the seven branches of human wisdom.  All the lights point toward the center to indicate the primacy of Torah, but the other forms of wisdom do make a contribution.  R. Berlin notes areas of Halakha, such as kil’ayim and calendar calculations, where mathematical knowledge proves helpful to understanding Torah.[18]


This contrasts strongly with the approach of R. Hirsch.  R. Berlin offers a limited endorsement of secular wisdom, while R. Hirsch expresses far more robust support.  R. Berlin emphasizes the need for periods of exclusive Torah study, whereas R. Hirsch does not.  Finally, R. Berlin writes of a sage’s ability to extract broader wisdom from Torah itself, whereas R. Hirsch indicates that some things can only be found in non-Jewish literature.[19]


Relation to the Gentile World


R. Hirsch expresses enthusiasm about emancipation and thought that, given such rights and freedoms, the Jews could flourish in their role of a “light unto the nations.”  R. Berlin also writes of this role, but argues that its success depends upon a strong degree of Jewish separatism.  The very same covenant in which Avraham receives the commandment of circumcision that distinguishes Jewish males also includes his taking on the role of “a father of many nations.”  Netziv explains that up until that point, Avraham’s educational ventures among the Gentiles encouraged full-scale conversion.  However, this covenant introduces the concept that Avraham would not proselytize, but instead would try to educate away from paganism to more refined monotheism.[20]  This reflects an ongoing Jewish goal.  Yehoshua writes the Torah down in seventy languages because the Torah includes a universal message.  One positive outgrowth of the exile is the opportunity to teach the other nations about our religious ideals.[21]  


According to R. Berlin, attempts at integration and assimilation actually bring about an anti-Semitic backlash. It is only a proud separatist approach that earns us respect.  Hen am levadad yishkon u-vagoyim lo yitchashav” (“It is a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” Bemidbar 23:9).   R. Berlin interprets the verse as contrasting our two possible postures. If we remain “badad,” alone, we dwell securely.  On the other hand, if we try to live interwoven “ba-goyim,” then “lo yitchashav,” they do not grant us respect.[22]


Ya’akov Avinu symbolizes this trait.  He settles outside of Shekhem to maintain his distinctiveness.[23]  He makes it clear to Esav that he does not desire ongoing integration between their two families.[24]  When Ya’akov’s family moves to Egypt, they arrange to live in an area that is geographically distinct from the Egyptians.[25]  On the other hand, Ya’akov cries in a genuinely heartfelt fashion when meeting Esav.  If Esav indicates willingness to recognize Ya’akov for who he is, then Ya’akov responds with authentic feelings of brotherhood.[26]




R. Berlin presents some important and nuanced positions.  He favors Jewish separatism, but still maintains a universalistic message that includes concern for non-Jews.  He emphasizes intensive Talmud study, but sees value in some secular wisdom.  He offers suggestions regarding the reasons for mitzvot, while stressing the “chok” element in every commandment.  Such positions merit careful study and appreciation.


[This is our final shiur on the thought of Netziv.  Next week, we will begin looking at the thought of the Meshekh Chokhma, R. Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk.]

[1] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 15:16.

[2] Ha’amek Davar Vayikra 7:13.

[3] Harchev Davar Vayikra 7:13.

[4] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 6:8.

[5] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 29:20.

[6] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 13:9.

[7] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 23:19, Vayikra 16: 28, 19:26.

[8] Ha’amek Davar Devarim 5:5.

[9] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 50:12.

[10] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 3:47.

[11] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 18:23.

[12] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 22:14.

[13] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 20:12, Devarim 22:7.

[14] Ha’amek Davar Shemot 18:16, see also Bemidbar 15:16.

[15] Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter “Haskalah, Secular Studies and the close of the Yeshiva in Volozhin in 1892,” The Torah U-Madda Journal, vol. 2 (1990), pp. 76-133.

[16] Harchev Davar Devarim 32:2.

[17] Meishiv Davar 1:44.

[18] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 8:2.

[19] Harchev Davar Bereishit 45:16.

[20] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 17:4.

[21] Harchev Davar Bereishit 17:4.

[22] Ha’amek Davar Bemidbar 23:9.

[23] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 33:18.

[24] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 33: 15.

[25] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 46:34.

[26] Ha’amek Davar Bereishit 33:4.