The Avodah Mailing List, Volume 2, Number 194-195, March 17-18, 1999
Rabbi Harry Maryles:
It seems to me that the entire thread about whether our generation can contradict previous generations or whether we can even contradict present day Gedolim should be nothing more than an issue of common sense. There are several factors that one must consider. One is the concept of Yeridas Hadoros, which tells us in effect that previous generations were: (A)closer to Maimad Har Sinai, and, therefore, (B)more knowledgeable about the Emes of the Torah, (C) smarter than us, (D)had less transmission of mesorah (by this I mean that each time one generation transmits mesorah to the next generation there is a factor of error introduced)and, consequently (E) less confused by millenia of debate on what original halacha was. These 5 factors alone (I'm sure there are others that I can't think of off hand) explain why we shouldn't be allowed to argue with previouos generations. This should apply to the entire history of the generations of Klal Israel. Therefore, Rishonim can't argue on Amoroim, and Amoroim can't argue on Tanaaim etc. For purposes of this discussion we should define Doros. Over the millenia, historical eras developed that were considered level in terms of the ability of members of that era to disagree with eachother, even if they were a few generations apart. Later generations within a particular era, are considered equal in status vis-a-vis disagreement with previous generations and within those categories (e.g. the period of the Rishonim, for example) debate and disagreement flourished.(witness the Rambam and the Raavid). Fast forward to today. Our generation is not on a level of Chazal or Rishonim and even the greatest Gedolim of our time would not dare to argue with a Rishon. (The GRA is an exception which seems to contradict the entire theory of Yeridos HaDoros and although many explanations are given as to why he is an exception I have yet to hear a satisfying one.) The best we can do now if we want to argue on a Rishon is to find a bar plugta to hang our hats on. This will allow our comparitively feeble knowledge and svaros to have standing but will not allow us to contradict Halacha as paskined in the Shulchan Aruch as our generation is greatly inferior to the generation of Rabenu Yosef Caro or the Rama. What about the question of arguing with a certifiable Gadol like R. Moshe Finestien? He, of course is in the era of Achronim which we are still a part of and theoretically we can argue with him. However, one has to consider the depth and breath of his Torah knowledge vis-a-vis our own. As another poster has written about R. Moshe, he encourged srutiny and debate of his works as long as it was done with proofs and fear of G-d... the mark of a true gadol. Parenthetcally, it has been postulated by some that the period of Achronim was ended by the Holocaust. The Gedoliom of pre-war Europe, such as R. Moshe, or the Rav has passed on and our scholorship will never even come close to theirs. If we look on the horizen, there seems to be a dearth of Tamidei Chachamim that come anywhere near the Calibre of the previous generations. To be sure we still have a few left of that generation, R. Elyashiv comes to mind, but they are all elderly. I am wondering if others agree with this assesment. Finally I think the crux of the argument on this list is whether we can disagree with previous generations on matters not pertaining to Halacha, such as history or science. I believe the answer is, yes. If we have unequivical proof contradicting Chazal, we have two choices. (1)We can reject reality and say Chazal was right or (2) we can say that chazal were knoweledgeable of the science of their day and if they had the information avilable to them that we now have they would have come to the same conclusions we have and agreed with reality. How all of this relates to then original debate about contradictions between Chazal's version of history and historian's version of history is directly related to being able to prove history of several thousand years ago. I don't think you can prove to any degree of certainty who is right about those time frames and therefore why not believe chazal's version of history since they were closer to it historically. But I would be first to say that Chazal made a mistake historically if it could be proven they were wrong.
There is an assumption here that amoraim cannot disagree disagree with tannaim and similarly rishonim with amoraim becuase of yeridas hadoros. This is far from clear, Rav Elchanan Wasserman implies that an amora could in fact disagree with a statement of a tanna if it is not in a mishna or an authenticated beraisa. Similarly Rambam states that the gemara is closed because all scholars accepted it - not because of yeridas hadoros. While we frequently quote the Gra as diasgreeing with rishonim he is not unique. The shaagas aryeh an contemporary also disagreed. In fact R. Moshe Feinstein also disagreed with rishonim eg Meiri. If the reason is yeridas hadoros was is the difference between Meiri and Rashba? How does halacha ke-basrai square with yeridas hadoros. In fact since nondisagreement with previous generations only works on eras not individual generations implies that it has nothing to do with yeridas hadoros. I personally see no reason to assume that early doros were smarter than us. Were most tannaim smarter than Einstein - I have no way of knowing. However, if each generation of gedolim is smarter than the next one it follows that tannaim were thousands of times smarter than us. This gives a problem of the relation of tannaim to their contemporaries. Either the Romans are not smarter than us which implies that tannaim were thousands of times smarter than their contemporaries. We are told how Rabbi Yehoshua outwitted the Greek philosophers. This is not much of a trick if he was thousands of times smarter. In fact how could there be debates with all sorts of groups if the tannaim clearly vastly outclassed everyone else. The other choice is that the goyim of that era were also smarter - which seems unlikely. In fact the Nodah beYehuda in his famous teshuva on the size of measurements assumes that previous generations were physically larger than us. I find that even harder to understand. For the middle ages we have the metal of knights and they appear quite small. I recall reading that Roman graves that were uncovered also showed smaller people than today. Are we also to assume than the tannaim physically towered over their Roman contemporaries? Many people associate yeridas hadoros more with points (A),(D),(E) above. The question than arises how much is yeridas hadoros affected by printing? I have heard claims that today the concept of rebbe muvhak almost doesn't exist since most of our learning is from printed books rhather than verbal communication.
(א) משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה.
(1) Moses received the torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.
Menachem Kellner, Maimonides on the "Decline of the Generations" and the Nature of Rabbinic Authority
(טז) ותמצא שאמרו ז''ל (שבת קיב:) אם הראשונים כמלאכים וכו' ואם הראשונים אנשים וכו', הראת לדעת כמה צריך אדם עשות בהתקדשותו. וצא ולמד כמה היו משתדלים בעבודת ה' הראשונים, ממעשה ... ולזה כיון באומרו דבר לשון קושי לצד הפלגת הציווי. ולצד בחינת המושג אמר ואמרת ואמר אל כל עדת בני ישראל לבל יאמר אדם שאין מצוה זו הגדולה לכל איש ישראל ולא דבר הכתוב אלא ליחידי סגולה, לזה אמר אל כל עדת וגו' שכלם ישנם בגדר מצוה זו, והוא מאמרם ז''ל (תדב''א רמב''ם הל' תשובה) יכול אדם לעשות עצמו כמשה רבינו:
(16) You are familiar with the statement in Shabbat 112 that if "former generations could be compared to angels then we nowadays are merely like ordinary mortals; if, however, even the earlier generations were comparable only to ordinary mortals, then our generation is comparable to donkeys." This only underlines how much and how hard we have to strive to fulfil the commandment the Torah has legislated in our verse. ... The Torah uses the word דבר when introducing this commandment to alert us to the extraordinary demands this commandment makes upon us; on the other hand, the Torah continues with ואמרת, to remind us of the extraordinary spiritual benefits that accrue to people who take observance of this moral directive seriously. The words אל כל עדת בני ישראל are necessary so we should not say that a commandment demanding such stature could only be addressed to the elite of the people. The Torah stressed that everyone is included in this commandment to teach us that every single Israelite could become a potential Moses if he tried (compare Tannah be bey Eliyahu, and Maimonides hilchot Teshuvah chapter 5).
Rav Elchonon Wasserman, Divrei Sofrim 2:5
(ב) בֵּית דִּין שֶׁגָּזְרוּ גְּזֵרָה אוֹ תִּקְּנוּ תַּקָּנָה וְהִנְהִיגוּ מִנְהָג וּפָשַׁט הַדָּבָר בְּכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְעָמַד אַחֲרֵיהֶם בֵּית דִּין אַחֵר וּבִקֵּשׁ לְבַטֵּל דְּבָרִים הָרִאשׁוֹנִים וְלַעֲקֹר אוֹתָהּ הַתַּקָּנָה וְאוֹתָהּ הַגְּזֵרָה וְאוֹתוֹ הַמִּנְהָג. אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל עַד שֶׁיִּהְיֶה גָּדוֹל מִן הָרִאשׁוֹנִים בְּחָכְמָה וּבְמִנְיָן. הָיָה גָּדוֹל בְּחָכְמָה אֲבָל לֹא בְּמִנְיָן. בְּמִנְיָן אֲבָל לֹא בְּחָכְמָה. אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לְבַטֵּל אֶת דְּבָרָיו. אֲפִלּוּ בָּטַל הַטַּעַם שֶׁבִּגְלָלוֹ גָּזְרוּ הָרִאשׁוֹנִים אוֹ הִתְקִינוּ אֵין הָאַחֲרוֹנִים יְכוֹלִין לְבַטֵּל עַד שֶׁיְּהוּ גְּדוֹלִים מֵהֶם. וְהֵיאַךְ יִהְיוּ גְּדוֹלִים מֵהֶם בְּמִנְיָן הוֹאִיל וְכָל בֵּית דִּין וּבֵית דִּין שֶׁל שִׁבְעִים וְאֶחָד הוּא. זֶה מִנְיַן חַכְמֵי הַדּוֹר שֶׁהִסְכִּימוּ וְקִבְּלוּ הַדָּבָר שֶׁאָמְרוּ בֵּית דִּין הַגָּדוֹל וְלֹא חָלְקוּ בּוֹ:
(2) If a Supreme Court issued a decree or enacted an ordinance or introduced a custom, which has become widespread throughout Israel, and a subsequent court desires to abolish the instructions of the predecessors and to eradicate that particular ordinance, decree or custom, it cannot do so, unless it is superior both in wisdom and in number. If it exceeds the other court in wisdom but not in number, or in number but not in wisdom, it cannot annul its instructions. Even if the reason for which the predecessors introduced the decree or ordinance exists no more, the successors cannot revoke anything introduced by the predecessors unless they exceed them. But how can any Supreme Court exceed another in number when each Supreme Court consists of seventy-one members? The reference is to the number of contemporary sages who have agreed to accept the decision of the Supreme Court, or have not opposed it.
(ה) ובתנאים ואמוראים, חשבו להם הגיון דרוש, לדרוש ולסור מביאור ספר התורה, וכל אחד בשכנו ידרוש לעצמו, עד שהיה קל לפניהם במקום אשר לא יבין את זאת ילבט ארחות דרכו ויחוה דעתו ברחבה על דברי חכמינו ז"ל התנאים והאמוראים, שלא כן ידברו ולא אמת יאמתו דבריהם ח"ו, ויתאבק בגאותו וקריאת שם גדלו מפני שהכבוד תלוי בו. יאמר כי לא לפניו חנף יבא, ולא ישא פנים אף לדברי התנאים והאמוראים, וכל מעריציו יענו אחריו מקודש ולענות צדק יחשבו לו, כי לא לפניו חנף יבא, ולא ישא פנים אף לתנאים הקדמונים ולא ידעו כי בנפשו דבר. הלא גם לפני רב אשר לא יגדל ממנו, רק שלמד וקבל ממנו, אפילו רואהו עובר על דברי תורה [במילין דרבנן], אסור לומר לו שאסור, רק שיאמר לו כך למדתני רבינו, כדאיתא בטיו"ד (סי' רמ"ו) וכן אם טעה בפירוש אפילו בכתוב, צריך לומר לו מקרא כתוב בתורה כך הוא. וכן מצינו כמה פעמים בש"ס קרי עליה האי פסוקא, משום שלא רצה לומר לו בפירוש, וקל וחומר בן בנו של קל וחומר לפני הראשונים והתנאים. וכן ראינו שגם הם בהפרש איזה דורות מהתנאים והאמוראים מראשונים עד אחרונים, אשר מכלם יחד נבנה הש"ס והמדרשים, ומכל מקום בהפרש איזה דורות אמרו (יומא ט:) טובה צפרנן של ראשונים מכרסן של אחרונים. וכן אמרו (שבת קיב:) אם הראשונים בני מלאכים אנו בני אנשים ואם הראשונים בני אנשים אנו כחמורים, ולא כחמורו של רבי פנחס בן יאיר. וכל שכן אנחנו בדורותינו, מה חיינו ומה כחנו אזובי קיר, יתוש בריה קלה נגד שרפי מעלה, ואנו רק באורן של ראשונים נראה אור. ובמקום שאין אנו מבינים דבריהם צריכים אנו לדעת, כי חסרון דעתנו וקוצר ידיעתנו היא, ובנו החסרון והאשמה:
(5) The Rishonim (the Torah sages from the 10th to the 15th century) were adept at interpreting the Torah. However, when more recent interpreters confronted the words of the early and later sages of the Gemara, their fondness for their own intellects led them far afield in their understanding, and they departed from the proper explanation of the Torah. It was an, “every man for himself” kind of interpretation. Then it became easy for them to say whatever suited their minds when they simply did not understand the words of the sages. They said things that the sages would never have said, and interpreted in ways that are, God forbid, not arriving at the truth of their words. See how we are sitting in the dust before His pride and calling His Great Name, He upon whom all honor depends! A sycophant cannot come before God, and does not even take interest in the words of the Tanaim and Amoraim. All of his admirers agree to his words and proclaim his holiness, and feel they are justified in their agreement. For a sycophant cannot come before Him, and will not even take note of awesome wisdom of the early sages, not even realizing that the sages were speaking against him. Do we not find the halacha instructing us that even concerning one’s Rabbi, even if he is not greater than him but whom he simply learned from, that when he sees the Rabbi transgressing a rabbinical commandment it is forbidden for him to say that the action is forbidden, but should rather say, “I learned it this way, Rabeynu.” This is as is codified in the Tur (Yorah Deah, 246), where if his Rabbi made a clear mistake, even concerning a verse, you should simply say, “this is the way the verse goes in the Torah.” So too have we found it said several times in the Gemara, (rather than contradicting him), “read to him this verse,” since he does not want to correct him overtly. How much more so when later generations are confronting earlier generations. We find a great difference between each generation – the Acharonim are far from the Rishonim, as are the Rishonim from the Amoraim and the Amoraim from the Tanaim. But all together they build the corpus of the Talmud. Concerning this difference it is written (Yoma, 9b), “a fingernail of the early sages is worth more than the belly of the later sages.” So too is it said (Shabbat, 112b), “If the early generation of sages are sons of angels, then we are sons of men. And if you say that he early sages are men, then we are as donkeys, but still inferior to the donkey of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair! (who, though he was a donkey, was careful to refrain from eating untithed fodder.)” And how much more so in our own generation, what is our life, what is our power? We are as ivy on the walls. We are like a mosquito before Seraphim! It is only in the light of the Rishonim that we see light! And in a place where we do not understand their words it is incumbent upon us to know that the deficiency lies within us and the great limitations of our minds. The deficiency and guilt is upon us.
אמר רבי יוחנן טובה צפורנן של ראשונים מכריסו של אחרונים א"ל ריש לקיש אדרבה אחרונים עדיפי אף על גב דאיכא שעבוד מלכיות קא עסקי בתורה אמר ליה בירה תוכיח שחזרה לראשונים ולא חזרה לאחרונים
Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The fingernails of the former are preferable to the belly of the latter. Reish Lakish said to him: On the contrary, the latter were superior; even though there is subjugation by the kingdoms, they are engaged in Torah study. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Reish Lakish: The Temple will prove that the former were superior, as it was restored to the former. The Second Temple was constructed after the destruction of the first. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple, it was not restored to the latter. Apparently, the former were superior to the latter.
He explains: The term early Sages is referring to Rabbi Akiva, and the term later Sages is referring to his student, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. Some say that the term early Sages refers to Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and that the term the later Sages refers to Rabbi Oshaya the Distinguished. And we are like the eye of a fine needle. On the topic of the steady decline of the generations, Abaye said: And we, as far as our capabilities are concerned, are like a peg in the wall with regard to Torah study. Just as a peg enters a wall with difficulty, our studies penetrate our minds only with difficulty. Rava said: And we are like a finger in wax [kira] with regard to logical reasoning. A finger is not easily pushed into wax, and it extracts nothing from the wax. Rav Ashi said: We are like a finger in a pit with regard to forgetfulness. Just as a finger easily enters a large pit, similarly, we quickly forget our studies.
קרי עליה לית דין בר אינש איכא דאמרי כגון דין בר אינש אמר רבי זירא אמר רבא בר זימונא אם ראשונים בני מלאכים אנו בני אנשים ואם ראשונים בני אנשים אנו כחמורים ולא כחמורו של רבי חנינא בן דוסא ושל רבי פנחס בן יאיר אלא כשאר חמורים:
Ḥizkiya was so impressed by Rabbi Yoḥanan’s comment that he exclaimed about him: This is not a human being, but an angel. Some say that he said: This is an ideal human being. On a similar note, Rabbi Zeira said that Rava bar Zimuna said: If the early generations are characterized as sons of angels, we are the sons of men. And if the early generations are characterized as the sons of men, we are akin to donkeys. And I do not mean that we are akin to either the donkey of Rabbi Ḥanina ben Dosa or the donkey of Rabbi Pinḥas ben Yair, who were both extraordinarily intelligent donkeys; rather, we are akin to other typical donkeys.
Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The hearts, i.e., the wisdom, of the early Sages were like the doorway to the Entrance Hall of the Temple, which was twenty by forty cubits, and the hearts of the later Sages were like the doorway to the Sanctuary, which was ten by twenty cubits. And we, i.e., our hearts, are like the eye of a fine needle. He explains: The term early Sages is referring to Rabbi Akiva, and the term later Sages is referring to his student, Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua. Some say that the term early Sages refers to Rabbi Elazar ben Shamua and that the term the later Sages refers to Rabbi Oshaya the Distinguished. And we are like the eye of a fine needle. On the topic of the steady decline of the generations, Abaye said: And we, as far as our capabilities are concerned, are like a peg in the wall with regard to Torah study. Just as a peg enters a wall with difficulty, our studies penetrate our minds only with difficulty. Rava said: And we are like a finger in wax [kira] with regard to logical reasoning. A finger is not easily pushed into wax, and it extracts nothing from the wax. Rav Ashi said: We are like a finger in a pit with regard to forgetfulness. Just as a finger easily enters a large pit, similarly, we quickly forget our studies.
The Gemara responds: In the context of the discussion whether or not human dignity overrides honoring God in the sense of fulfilling his mitzvot, Rav Pappa said to Abaye: What is different about the earlier generations, for whom miracles occurred and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur? If it is because of Torah study; in the years of Rav Yehuda all of their learning was confined to the order of Nezikin, while we learn all six orders! Moreover, when Rav Yehuda would reach in tractate Okatzin, which discusses the extent to which the stems of various fruits and vegetables are considered an integral part of the produce in terms of becoming ritually impure, the halakha that a woman who pickles a vegetable in a pot, and some say when he would reach the halakha that olives pickled with their leaves are pure, because after pickling, it is no longer possible to lift the fruit by its leaves, they are no longer considered part of the fruit; he would find it difficult to understand. He would say: Those are the disputes between Rav and Shmuel that we see here. And we, in contrast, learn thirteen versions of Okatzin. While, with regard to miracles, after declaring a fast to pray for a drought to end, when Rav Yehuda would remove one of his shoes the rain would immediately fall, whereas we torment ourselves and cry out and no one notices us. Abaye said to Rav Pappa: The previous generations were wholly dedicated to the sanctification of God’s name, while we are not as dedicated to the sanctification of God’s name. Typical of the earlier generations’ commitment, the Gemara relates: Like this incident involving Rav Adda bar Ahava who saw a non-Jewish woman who was wearing a garment made of a forbidden mixture of wool and linen [karbalta] in the marketplace. Since he thought that she was Jewish, he stood and ripped it from her. It was then divulged that she was a non-Jew and he was taken to court due to the shame that he caused her, and they assessed the payment for the shame that he caused her at four hundred zuz. Ultimately, Rav Adda said to her: What is your name? She replied: Matun. In a play on words, he said to her: Matun, her name, plus matun, the Aramaic word for two hundred, is worth four hundred zuz. It was also related about the earlier generations, that they would degrade themselves in the desire to glorify God. Rav Giddel was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the women’s immersion sites. He said to them: Immerse yourselves in this way, and immerse yourselves in that way. The Sages said to him: Master, do you not fear the evil inclination? He said to them: In my eyes, they are comparable to white geese. Similarly, the Gemara relates that Rabbi Yoḥanan was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the women’s immersion sites. Rabbi Yoḥanan, who was known for his extraordinary good looks, explained this and said: When the daughters of Israel emerge from their immersion, they will look at me, and will have children as beautiful as I. The Sages asked him: Master, do you not fear the evil eye? He said to them: I descend from the seed of Joseph over whom the evil eye has no dominion, as it is written: “Joseph is a bountiful vine, a bountiful vine on a spring [alei ayin]” (Genesis 49:22). “Ayin” can mean both “spring” and “eye.” And Rabbi Abbahu said a homiletic interpretation: Do not read it alei ayin, rather olei ayin, above the eye; they transcend the influence of the evil eye.
(7) Others explain: with thirteen different methods of interpretation. In either case, the intention is that the superiority of earlier generations could not be on the score of learning.