Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Techeiles 1 – 'Shtimming" with Chazal

In my previous post, I was honored to receive comments from a single “Anonymous” commenter. This commenter took issue with my statement that my son Eli wears techeiles. He very adamantly stated that it is not techeiles – just blue strings.

He offered no proof but merely relayed that this is the opinion of two very renowned talmidei chachamim. One being mori v’rabi HRHG Rav Asher Zelig Weiss, Shlita and the other is the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, HRHG Rav Yisroel Reisman, Shlita.

I was previously aware of the fact the Rav Asher Weiss, Shlita is not very enthusiastic about the murex trunculus. But, to my knowledge, he hasn’t openly explained his basis for rejecting it. Harav Reisman, Shlita, is much more outspoken. As the anonymous commenter indicated, he has indeed stated that, in his opinion, the murex trunculus has a 0% chance of fitting the bill for the Talmudic chilazon. (Listen to it HERE

My own position is what is probably that of most neutral people – passive acceptance. The murex  could be the correct chilazon and it could be not – at least 50/50, but it is definitely the front running candidate from all the contenders that we know of.  I personally lean toward acceptance since this creature is here and known, it has a confirmed history as a source of dye material and it works. None of this can be denied by anyone.

By flat out rejecting the murex trunculus, Harav Reisman is telling us that the Talmudic chilazon is some phantom creature that is lurking out there but this creature – or its dyeing capabilities – has not yet been “discovered”. Of course, such a thing is possible. But, unless we say that this creature is divinely concealed, it does not seem very likely in today’s world of advanced knowledge about the creatures of the world – be it land or marine.

It looks like Harav Reisman is saying that, in his opinion, the odds of the murex trunculus being the Talmudic chilazon is 0% and the odds of it being some divinely concealed creature is 100%. I think this is what one might call lopsided odds.

Now, the purpose of this post is not to fight for the authenticity of the murex. I have absolutely nothing to add to the existing literature on the subject put forth by the proponents and that is readily available on the Internet.  What is bothering me is the “0%” absoluteness of Rav Reisman’s position (Harav Asher Weiss what not nearly so absolute). This is because this subject brings us into a more existential realm of debate – the absoluteness of the words of Chazal.

Rav Reisman asserts that the murex trunculus has a 0% chance of being the Talmudic chilazon. And why?

Because, in his view, the murex is not a perfect match to the creature described by Chazal. Indeed, most of the literature (or sound-bites) emitted by all sides in the debate focuses on how closely the known candidates line up with the descriptions in Chazal. And the question is: how much do they have to?

Or, in other words, how precise is Chazal?

Before anyone takes a position on the murex trunculus, one must have a position on how to understand Chazal. Rav Reisman says the murex does not “shtim” (concur) with Chazal. The question remains, to what extent must it shtim with Chazal? How far off is it from other things that don’t shtim with chazal? Does the observable condition (metzius) always shtim with Chazal?

Does Chazal always shtim with Chazal?

In my youth, all of the fanciful teachings of Chazal were presented as immutable fact to be accepted at face value. The Leviim, or at least Moshe and Aharon, were 10 amos tall. Batya’s arm stretched out for several yards. HKBH picked up Har Sinai and held it over the heads of the nation like a barrel. 40 days before a baby is born, his destined wife is announced. Etc., etc. This is our tradition. There is nothing to debate.

But as we get a bit older and used to critical thinking we discover that things that Chazal say do not always “shtim”. In some cases they do not shtim with what we can observe – the “metzius”. In other cases they do not shtim with basic logic. And in some cases, they don’t shtim with other things that were said by Chazal. For those who firmly believe that the words of Chazal are immutable, Chazal themselves throw us a few curve balls.

Before we go on, we need to discuss the components of Chazal. The literature of Chazal comes in two flavors: Halacha and Aggadata. Halacha is law and Aggadata is philosophy and legend.

Halacha is relatively straightforward:  You can recite Shema all night long, but the Chachamim have your back and tell you to get it done before Chatzos. The night before Pesach we check our houses using a candle. Reuven’s ox gores Shimon’s ox, Reuven will pay for all of Shimon’s ox or half of Shimon’s ox or none of Shimon’s ox, whatever.

It tells us what we expect to hear.

Aggadata is much trickier and esoteric. It tells us things we would never expect to hear. And it presents us with details and “realities” that we cannot observe or verify. It is the basis of our faith, but, at times, it is also a test of our faith.

The great meforshim – the GR”A, Maharsha, Maharal, Ben Ish Chai, and countless others tell us that we cannot always take the words of Aggadata at face value. Parts of it are exclusively to be seen as allegorical. There is no way to look at them as actual events. Other parts, although perhaps defining a true event, are greatly exaggerated in terms of numerical quantities, sizes and dimensions.

As long as the Halacha and Aggadata do not meet, we can take each variety for what it’s worth. We live by the decrees of Halacha and the teachings of the Aggadata shape our perception and character, but as for its veracity, we can take it or leave it. We don’t have to take it all seriously.

Or do we?

Chazal take the words of Aggadata very seriously. So seriously that it is often used to support concepts of Halacha. And, when this happens, we can get very flustered. There are quite of few examples, but I only want to mention a few.

The first example of Chazal basing a Halacha on an Aggadata is a well-known story in the last perek of Sanhedrin (Cheilek) which is distinguished as being the only perek in Shas which is almost nothing but Aggadata.

The opening Mishna tells us that three Jewish kings lost their share in the World to Come, one of whom is Menashe ben Chizkiah. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 102b) tells us that Rav Ashi was about to teach about these kings. He announced to his students, “Tomorrow we will deal with our comrades who lost their share in the World to Come…”

That night, King Menashe appeared to him in a dream. He chastised Rav Ashi, “Do you dare consider me a comrade to you or to your father? Do you know at what part of the loaf one must cut the Hamotzi?” Rav Ashi conceded that he did not know and if Menashe will teach him, he will say it over in the class in his name. Menashe told him it is from the part that is the first to harden when it is baked.

There is a bit more to the story but this much serves our purposes. The point is that Chazal take this other-worldy communication very seriously and they establish the Halacha exactly as dictated by Menashe – in a dream.

Many meforshim ask numerous questions on this Aggadata. The most common one is: Why did Menashe choose this particular Halacha as his test to Rav Ashi? Both the Maharsha and the Toras Chaim present intriguing hidden messages that this particular Halacha is meant to relay.

But there are numerous questions nobody seems to ask. Primarily, why is there no mention of this story or this Halacha in all of masechet Brachos where these Halachos are discussed? Also, Rav Ashi was from the last generation of Amoraim. Actually, he and Ravina were the final editors of the Talmud Bavli. This augments the above question even more – Rav Ashi “wrote” the Talmud. He wrote this Aggadata in Sanhedrin. Apparently, no sage was aware of it until then. Why did he put it only in Sanhedrin. Why not also in Berachos? Why should anyone study Berachos and make a siyum and not know about this Halacha until he reaches the end of Sanhedrin (assuming he does)? Isn’t Rav Ashi aware that there are many Aggadaphobes who do not study Aggadata and may never really study Cheilek?

More seriously, I mentioned that Rav Ashi was “sof horaah”. He knew all of Shas, even the part that came after Rav and Shmuel and Abaye and Rava. If he didn’t know this Halacha prior to his dream, then nobody did.

Are we supposed to learn Halacha from dreams? Do we not assume that every Halacha stated by a Tanna or Amora was learned from his Rebbe and on upward to Moshe and Yehoshua (despite all the chalukei deos)? How could such a simple – and somewhat logical – Halacha be totally unknown? Where did Menashe get it from? Did he learn it from his rebbe or did he just dream it up (like Rav Ashi)? How did it get forgotten? Why did it get forgotten? 

And what would be if King Menashe would have chosen a totally different subject to test the acumen of Rav Ashi? Does this mean that this Halacha would be concealed from us forever?

I am quite mystified over all of this, but one thing is clear. The lines between Halacha and Aggadata are suddenly very blurry.

The next, and starkest example of these blurred lines, is the sugya in Zevachim 113. The gemara tries to set a Halachic premise on a serious issue – do we need to be concerned about impurity from long deeply buried unknown remains of ancient dead bodies (tumas tahom) that may exist in any part of Eretz Yisrael?  

As usual, this is a Halachic dispute; in this case, between Rabi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. The gemara states that the premise of this dispute hinges on whether the Great Noahide Flood also affected the land of Israel. If it did, we need to assume that the remains of the dead may be buried at any place so there is a concern for tumas tehom. If it did not, then we do not need to assume that any open spot may be a hidden grave. Hence, one sage (Reish Lakish) holds the flood did include Eretz Yisrael and the other sage (Rabi Yochanan) holds it did not.

At one point, the gemara wants to challenge the stringent opinion (Reish Lakish) and it asks: if there was no flood in Eretz Yisrael, we understand how the Re’em survived the flood. It spent the year in E”Y (the “gap” year). But like the opinion that there was a flood in E”Y, the Re’em had no place of refuge. So how did it survive?

What creature are we discussing? Why wouldn’t it be on the ark like all the other creatures?

The gemara itself addresses this question and clarifies that we are talking about the great Re’em (mountain goat) that was described in the tall tales of Rabba Bar Chana in the fifth Perek of Bava Basra.

To answer the survival question, the gemara initially suggests it was only a baby Re’em and Noah could fit it on the ark. But then the gemara rejects this answer because, according to the gemara in Bava Basra, the one day old Re’em was three parsaos at the neck and its head was 1.5 parsaos high (note - a parsah is 8000 amos which, like Rav Chaim Na’eh is about 4000 meters which is 13,123 feet or a drop less than half of Mount Everest). So the gemara finally concludes that it stuck the tip of its nose into the ark and thereby survived the flood.

Reish Lakish has been vindicated! That was a close one!

Of course, one obvious question is why don’t we simply answer that this immense creature climbed up one of the mountains and was able to tower above the 11 amos that the water overlapped the mountains? Actually, by the dimensions given, it would not even need to climb at all. It could stand on the ground and still tower over the water.

Nobody seems bothered by this question. This may be because there is a much bigger question: Is it not the virtually unanimous position of the Rishonim and Achronim that the events and creatures described in the fifth perk of Bava Basra are merely allegorical and parables for hidden insights, and they don’t (and can’t) truly exist?

Rav Yosef Chaim of Bagdad – the Ben Yehoyada – asks this question and he can only conclude that there is no Halachic validity to this segment of the gemara and it was only included to sharpen the wits of students.

This basically means that we need to discount this entire segment as “window dressing”! 
This is not a comfortable concept for those of us who would like to think that Chazal do not pull our legs. What’s more, there is no indication from the text of the gemara that Chazal are anything but totally serious.

My last witness (before we adjourn) is the gemara in Sanhedrin 69b.

Remember my previous posts where I mentioned that if a young lady was molested by a father, brother, or non-Jew, she is invalidated to a Cohen? Well, this gemara goes another step further. If a married woman is unclothed and is “playing” with her young son of about 8 years old and his organ (erect) makes incidental contact with hers, is this considered sexual contact to invalidate her to her husband if he is a Cohen?

This question makes a world of difference in Halacha whenever it happens!

The gemara says that this is a dispute between Bais Hillel (lenient) and Bais Shammai (stringent). The gemara goes on to say that if the child is already nine years old, all sides are stringent because this is called sexual contact. If the child is less than eight, all sides are lenient. They only argue between the ages of eight and nine because, even though Chazal have ruled that in their time (and our time) a boy below nine is not virile, in Biblical times it seems that even an eight year old was virile. Bais Shammai holds that we set the Halacha based on Biblical times and not the times of Chazal. Bais Hillel holds we stick to the present.

But how do Chazal determine that Biblical times were different?

Chazal present a long list of scriptures from Shmuel B that proves that Bat Sheva was the granddaughter of Achitofel and Shlomo was Bat Sheva’s son and that Achitofel only died when Shlomo was seven years old.  All this is proven from scripture. As far as we know from scripture, Achitofel could have been quite an old man.

Then the gemara throws us a bombshell that has no source in the pasuk except from an Aggadic teaching (drashat Chazal) from a vague pasuk in Tehillim 55. This Aggadic teaching says that Achitofel was no older than 33 when he died. If Shlomo was already seven years old, it emerges that Achitofel was 26 when his great grandchild, Shlomo, was born.  Since the minimum gestation period for each descendant (Eliam, Bat Sheva, and Shlomo) would be about 7 months each (21 total) the gemara wants to allow two years for the three gestations which only leave 24 years for the three generations. Thus, the gemara concludes that each ancestor – Achitofel, Eliam, and Bat Sheva was a mere eight years old when they begat the next generation. This proves that in Biblical times a man was virile even at eight and based on this, Bais Shammai would forbid the woman to her husband.

This is all contingent on a Braitha of Chazal that states that Achitofel was only 33 when he died! There is no proof to this in scripture.

The gemara subsequently dismisses this proof by suggesting that one of the ancestors – Bat Sheva – is indeed female and females work differently. Perhaps she was only six years old when she gave birth to Shlomo (Dovid HaMelech was 58, by the way) so the male ancestors may have been a full nine years old like in today’s times. Subsequently, the gemara finds a proof from another source.

But… if not for the fact that Bat Sheva was female, the gemara would have upheld it’s proof based on this Braitha. The Braitha is inviolable. Chazal take their Aggadatas very, very seriously.

We are not finished with this Braitha. This very same Braitha is going to cause us even more trouble in the next segment of this series which in turn, would throw this entire proof to the wolves (if it weren’t anyhow dismissed).

So thus far we have seen that Chazal take their own Aggadatas at face value. So it makes sense that we, and of course, great Torah scholars like Rav Yisroel Reisman, Shlita, do the same.

However the GR”A, Maharal, Ben Ish Chai, Maharsha and others point out that this cannot be relied upon as a given. And, quite often, normal critical thinking forces us to make exceptions. 
All of the above was only the introduction. There is more confusion to come.
Stay tuned…


Yosh55 said...

Rav asher weiss has a 12 page responce עיין שם
Rav moshe sternbuch has 2 response, 1 in his שות and and another you can find on line probably...
The hilazon is trapped (שבת עד-ה) How do trap a snail... it doesnt flee?

Yechezkel Hirshman said...

Thank you for bringing these up. If you have precise marei makomos it would help me. You can email them to me -
As for your last line, I hope to deal with the precise complaints in the closing post of this series (I think another 2 or 3 posts). But you can already guess where I am going with this.

יהודי נאמן said...

The murex truncelus is trapped by nets just as the gemara in Shabbos says, they put bait on nets and wait for the snails to come on to the net and then thay pick it up, that is how thay do it in Greece.

Yechezkel Hirshman said...

To Yehudi,

It appears that you are quite correct. There is a b'feirishe YouTube clip that supports nets. As I said in my earlier response, I hope to bring it up in the closing post.