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Shiur #6a: Halakha and Gemara

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Understanding Aggada
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #6a: Halakha and Gemara


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


It was taught: "The Tannaim (scholars of the Mishna) destroy the world." Could one truly think they destroy the world? Ravina explains that the above source refers to those who make halakhic decisions based on mishnayot. We also learned this idea in a beraita: Rabbi Yehoshua said, "Are they destroyers of the world? Do they not build the world...? Rather, we are talking about those who decide halakha straight out of mishnayot." (Sota 22a)


What is the problem with making halakhic decisions based solely on mishnayot? Rashi explains that such a methodology invariably leads to mistakes. A scholar who does not know the Gemara's rationale for a mishnaic ruling could not possibly apply that ruling correctly. The ability to extend or limit the scope of a particular halakha depends on knowledge of the talmudic argumentation that led to that halakha. For example, if someone knows that we light Shabbat candles before reciting the berakha but does not know the rationale for this practice, he might easily assume that the same sequence applies for lighting Yom Tov candles. Only the person who understands the reason for our Shabbat practice (namely, that making the blessing might constitute accepting of Shabbat, and thereby prohibit the subsequent lighting) would realize that this rationale does not apply to the festivals. On the festivals, it is permissible to light from a pre-lit fire.


Furthermore, we do not always decide in accordance with the mishna, as there may be other tannaitic evidence that overrides a particular mishna. There are situations in which our tradition follows a beraita, rather than the opinion recorded in the Mishna. Finally, those who attempt to bypass the Gemara will frequently rule incorrectly in the cases where a mishna incorporates multiple positions. Thus, Rashi explains how several pitfalls will cause those who derive pesak (halakhic ruling) from mishnayot to lead their adherents astray.


The Maharal offers quite a striking alternative explanation in his Netivot Olam (Netiv HaTorah, 16). He rejects Rashi's explanation on linguistic grounds. The Gemara refers to those who derive "halakha" from mishnayot. The Maharal argues that the term "halakha" implies a correct ruling, and not a mistaken ruling. If so, the Gemara expresses negativity about those who rule out of the mishna, even if they get all their rulings right. The problem is not just about the correct pesak, but rather about the entire endeavor of Torah learning. Authentic Torah is not just a fixed set of rulings, but a whole system of learning. Apparently, we are not meant to experience Halakha as a set of arbitrary commandments and prohibitions. Instead, we are to follow the halakhic argument through its Talmudic pathways, until we understand the thought process that led to a given conclusion. Learning the full depth of a Talmudic topic enables us to see that halakha emerges from a rigorous, serious and profound system of analysis. It is not arbitrary at all.


Many students wonder why we emphasize Gemara study when we could seemingly accomplish more pragmatic religious goals by focusing our energies on practical halakhic conclusions. The sources we have seen suggest a dual counter-argument. If one learns only the conclusions, he would invariably generate mistaken conclusions, and would also have a misleading impression of God's Torah. The constant quest for growth in learning should combine the ideas of Rashi and the Maharal. We learn both in order to know what to do in a particular case, and to understand the profound nature of Torah.