Monday, November 30, 2009

And For the Real Enthusiasts in Jewish Law, A Story

It occurred to me, writing my previous post, that it might be read by someone who actually knew something about the subject, and who would object that I was in one way or another distorting the facts or biasing my discussion. To divert the attention of any such reader, here is a story which, I have concluded, must be the original of a more familiar version along similar, if less academic, lines.


The young scholar came to the Rabbi and he said "Rabbi, I have been studying the Mishneh Torah of the learned Moshe ben Maymun, and it is a trial and a tribulation to me. He goes into great elaboration over the heave offering, and the first tithe, and the heave offering of the first tithe, and the second tithe, and the poor man's tithe, and gleanings, and the corners of the field, and I know not what else, and I cannot follow the tenth part of it all. What am I to do?"

And the rabbi said to him, "Do you know anyone who has a copy of the Mishnah that you might study?"

And the young scholar answered, "my uncle has a scroll of the order "seeds," and no doubt would permit me to study it."

"Then go," said the rabbi, "and for the next month study the Mishnah, and then return to me."

A month later, the young scholar appeared before the rabbi, still more distraught and unhappy.

"Rabbi," he said, "This Mishnah is a terrible confusion. It gives one rule from one sage and another from another, and a third from a third sage, and it tells me that the school of Hillel said this and the school of Shammai said that, and I cannot tell for all it says what the law is or how I am to act. I am weary and confused and know less of the law than I did before I began to study it. Rabbi, what am I to do?"

"Do you" the Rabbi asked "know anyone who possesses scrolls of the Talmud, and would let you read in them?"

"My wife's brother, Rabbi, possesses scrolls of one of the orders of the Talmud, and no doubt would permit me to study it."

"Then go, and for the next month study Talmud, and when that time is done return to me."

And the young scholar did as he was told. A month later he returned to the Rabbi.

"Oh Rabbi, this Talmud is a terrible confusion and mess and tangle, and I can make nothing of it. For not only does it give one answer from one sage and a different from another, but those commenting on the answers offer two explanations for the first, for neither of which any rhyme or reason is presented, and three for the second, and make the two sages to agree on one rule, or agree on the other rule, but never tell me what the law is, and if there is any in the whole community who knows less of the law than I do after reading for a month in the Talmud I cannot guess who it could be. Rabbi, what am I to do?"

"Have you still a scroll of the writings of the Rambam?"

"Indeed I do, Rabbi."

"Take them down and read from them, that you may learn the law."

A week later the Rabbi met the young scholar, and he said to him "How go your studies."

"Wonderfully well, Rabbi. I have been studying the Mishneh Torah, and nothing could be clearer. For each case it gives one rule, not two or three, and it spends no words at all on explaining away the disagreements of the sages, but merely tells what the law is in plain words."


Unknown said...
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heiner said...

Maybe one could mention:

Rambam == Moshe ben Maymun == Maimonides

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Eric Rasmusen said...

Good story, but it is confusing at the end. Shouldn't it be told differently--- that the rabbi's last advice is to study the Torah again?

I rewrote it for my blog, at:

Bruce said...

Actually, studying the Torah itself is conspicuously absent in this story. (The young scholar first studied the "Mishneh Torah" which is Maimonides' restatement or codification of the law.)

I think the point is that the since the Talmud records debates, not the bottom-line legal conclusion, it does not offer much guidance if you are looking to solve a practical question.

One of my co-bloggers (who is a law professor) compared studying Talmud to law school. The purpose is to expose the student to some legal ideas, to develop argument skills, and to learn to "think like a lawyer", but not ultimately to get a specific legal answer to a specific legal question.

Milhouse said...

The Talmud does usually record bottom-line legal conclusions at the ends of debates, but you have to wade through a lot of argument until you get there, and the conclusion is not always obvious. Also, while the Talmud is theoretically divided into tractates based on topic, it goes off-topic about as often as a Usenet thread, in other words all the time. So there's no one place to look for all the laws related to a particular subject, and a question you have may be answered anywhere; or the answer may be implied in an aside on a completely unrelated topic.

The Rambam was the first to ditch the Talmud's tractate division, come up with his own hierarchy of topics, and gather all the Talmud's conclusions on each topic in one place. The Tur then came up with his own divisions, which have been followed by almost every halachic authority since.

David Friedman said...

The young scholar doesn't start with the Torah but with the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides' law code. The Torah wouldn't be particularly clear, and certainly not well organized, and it would leave out large parts of the law--everything attributed to the Oral Torah and the later decisions of the sages.

John B. Chilton said...

Off topic, but I've always liked this result,'_Rule

Joshua Angrist and Victor Lavy (1999) have used the nonlinear relationship between the local number of students and the class size predicted by Maimonides' Rule to estimate the effect of class size on scholastic achievements, and to evaluate the effect of being just below the number of students for whom an additional teacher would be required, and of being just above this number.
Their results have shown highly irregular patterns in class size that are precisely mirrored in student achievement. They have found that a reduction in predicted class size of ten students is associated with a 0.25 standard deviation increase in fifth-graders' test scores.[2]

Anonymous said...

This story seems clever but in fact has several unrealistic aspects and problems. Besides those noted by previous commenters, traditionally, studying is done in groups of at least two people if not more so they can make their way through the Talmudic arguments.