Sunday, September 17, 2006

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Shechitah 10:12-13

The following, except for the Hebrew, is from a comment I have posted to Lakewood Yid's blog article at

הלכות שחיטה פרק י

יב ואין להוסיף על טריפות אלו, כלל: שכל שיארע לבהמה או לחיה או לעוף חוץ מאלו שמנו חכמי הדורות הראשונים, והסכימו עליהן בתי דיני ישראל--אפשר שתחיה. ואפילו נודע לנו מדרך הרפואה, שאין סופה לחיות. יג וכן אלו שמנו ואמרו שהן טריפה--אף על פי שייראה בדרכי הרפואה שבידינו שמקצתן אינן ממיתין, ואפשר שתחיה מהן, אין לך אלא מה שמנו חכמים, שנאמר "על פי התורה אשר יורוך:

This Rambam says the following to me: Chazal wouldn't have said an animal can live with a certain injury unless they had reason to think it could - presumably meaning evidence that an animal with such an injury had indeed lived. Therefore, even if we can't explain it, we have to go with their empirical evidence.

However, it's much harder to understand how we could be witnessing a tereifah live more than a year. Maybe we're not so good at keeping non-tereifot alive, and so even though Chazal could sustain them for a year or more, we can't. But how do we explain a tereifah that lives beyond a year? Chazal couldn't sustain the animal, but we can?

Rambam's implicit answer is that this is indeed the case, but hilchot tereifot are nonetheless already etched in stone (perhaps because the 2000 years of Torah that the Chazon Ish spoke of have ended), and so, "Ein lecha ela mah shemanu chachamim." The halacha they established is permanent, as per "Al pi hatorah asher yorucha."

That doesn't, however, mean their science was right. Just as Rabbi Eliezer was theoretically right in the case of tanur achnai, but the halacha nonetheless follows Rabbi Yehoshua, so too in this case certain animals may really - medically speaking - not be tereifot, but since they have been established as tereifot by the halachic process, they are halachically tereifot, period.


Fabian said...

why musn't u be named, theodore???

Anonymous said...

Are you saying that a Halacha clearly based on a factual error remains valid.
The Rambam himself הלכות שגגות פרק יד
writes ז [ג] הורו בית דין שיצא השבת לפי שנכסית החמה, ודימו ששקעה, ולבסוף זרחה החמה--אין זו הוראה, אלא טעות; וכל שעשה מלאכה חייב, אבל בית דין פטורין. וכן אם התירו אשת איש להינשא לפי שהעידו בפניהם שמת בעלה, ואחר כך בא בעלה--אין זו הוראה, אלא טעות; והאישה ובעלה האחרון, חייבין חטאת על שגגתן. וכן כל כיוצא בזה.
See the explanation of the Chazon Ish
& Rav Moshe Feinstein in C"M 2:73
how to understand the Rambam you mentioned.

DES said...

I think one can differentiate between (a) a factual error in determining the circumstances of a specific case, which is under the rubric of psak - application of established halacha to a specific case; and (b) an error in determining the physical reality when establishing a broad, universally applicable halacha, which is part of the process not of psak but of halacha-formation. An error in the former case may invalidate the psak, but an error in the latter case may not have the same effect on the halacha thus established.

If we are willing to accept that the halachot of tereifot are based on the biological reality at the time of Chazal, and that even though the biological reality has changed, the halachot stay the same, I am not sure why we would insist that Chazal were right in their original understanding of the biological reality. Evidently we are accepting the notion that hilchot tereifot need not correspond to biological fact nowadays. Given that, I do not see why we would have to assume that they necessarily corresponded to biological fact when they were established, either.

I have not checked the Chazon Ish or Igrot Moshe, but my understanding is that they say that changes in biology account for the discrepancies between hilchot tereifot and our own observations of what animals can and cannot survive. This explanation requires one to believe that such changes in nature occurred. I believe there are firm scientific grounds for rejecting this premise as so unlikely as to be untenable.

As an aside, there is at least one circumstance where halacha does not change even if it is based on an error in understanding reality: kiddush hachodesh/ibur hashanah, which, once established, is valid even if it was done based on faulty astronomical assumptions: "Atem afilu shogegim/anusim/mut'im."

Rael Levinsohn said...

I was wondering if perhaps you could create a pdf version of your "Sources Indicating That Chazal Did Not Possess Perfect Scientific Knowledge". It makes a lot easier to read and print. Many thanks and keep up the great work

DES said...

I think for now I'll just keep things in the current format. There would be a variety of complications with putting it into a PDF (to make a somewhat long story very short). Sorry about the inconvenience. I will definitely bear the suggestion in mind, and I will (bli neder) act on it when it is more practical. Thanks for the feedback.

David Guttmann said...

DES said...

Thank you for the reference. Is the entire article available only to paying subscribers? When I click on the link, I see only the first 2 or 3 pages.