| Chulin

Rabbinic debates are not for the faint-hearted. They can be most intense, and sadly, can lead to tragic consequences. One of the most famous of Talmudic debates, that regarding the tanur shel achnai, led to the excommunication of Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol and the death of Rabban Gamliel (see here for further analysis). 

An discussed here an obscure debate regarding the ritual purity of a knife led to the end of the relationship between Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan—and to the death of both of them. An innocent question regarding the laws of honouring teachers caused a 40-year period in which Rav Huna and Rav Chisda did not speak to each other as we discussed here

Even the disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, often (and rightfully so) held up as a model of constructive conflict and deep friendship, were not always so. While their many disputes did not stop the followers of these schools of thought from marrying each other, the Gemara describes how a debate between Hillel and Shammai became so intense that they “stuck a sword in the study hall, and they said: One who seeks to enter the study hall, let him enter, and one who seeks to leave may not leave...And that day was as difficult for Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made” (Shabbat 17a). The Jerusalem Talmud goes so far as to claim that on that fateful day, students of Beit Shammai actually killed students of Beit Hillel. While some interpret the “killing” non-literally, most do not (see for example Tosafot Gittin 36b, s.v. ella). At least one view in the Gemara claims that it was specifically the many disputes between these schools of thought that had the effect of “making the Torah like two Torot” (Sanhedrin 88b)[1]

Disputants need not know each other to carry on intense disagreements—the written word is enough to set the wheels of dispute in motion. The Rambam opens Sefer Hamitzvot his enumeration of the 613 mitzvot (which he then elaborated on in the Mishne Torah) with a sharp attack on the Ba’al Halachot Gedolot, who lived some 300 years earlier in Bavel. The Rambam was not enamoured, to say the least, of the decision of the Behag to count a number of rabbinic mitzvot amongst his count of the 613 mitzvot—the first count of the mitzvot in Jewish history[2]

I recall hearing that when the Mishne Lamelech, Rav Yehuda Rosanes, published his work, Parshat Derachim—which anachronistically seeks to explain Biblical stories in light of later-day halachot—some commented that the writing of the book was a violation of ba’al tashchit, the prohibition of waste, for the pen and paper consumed in its production. 

Whatever else it may reflect, the sharpness of tone we often read about demonstrates the passion of the rabbis for the subject at hand. The lack of vigorous debate is often no more than a sign of apathy. As we have noted many times, rabbinic writings in general, and the Talmud in particular, were written by rabbis, for rabbis. And rabbis, like all other professional groups, have internal methods of expression that are rarely understood by the outsider. What appears to others as insulting may actually be a sign of great respect and demonstration of how seriously those views are to be taken. 

Often, it is the critical comments of others that propel a book to “bestseller” status. One only criticizes that which is important; the unimportant is just ignored. If not for the often-critical glosses of the RaMah to the Shulchan Aruch, it is doubtful that it ever would have become the authoritative code of Jewish law. 

Which brings us to the Rambam, the Raavad and the gid hanasheh. The Talmudic sages (Chulin 99b) debate whether yeish b’gidin b’noten ta’am, the nerves of animals impart taste. If they do, then if the gid hanasheh is not removed before cooking an animal, its taste would render the entire animal non-kosher. However, if it does not impart taste, the animal would be kosher even if the gid hanasheh is not removed until after the animal was cooked. 

In debates such as these, where the question appears to be of a factual nature, one may wonder why did the Sages not just ask a non-Jew to taste the meat from an animal cooked with the gid hanasheh and ask him if it imparts taste. It is likely that is exactly what was done, and the response was that its taste is barely noticeable. And hence, the rabbis are in actuality debating how much taste is considered as imparting taste. 

The Rambam (Hilchot Korban Pesach 9:11) writes that the korban pesach was cooked—actually barbequed, to be more precise—with the gid hanasheh intact, and it was only removed later when it was time to eat the korban pesach. As the Kesef Mishne explains, the Rambam follows the view that the gid hanasheh does not impart taste and hence, there is no problem removing it after the meat has been cooked. Nonetheless, “the holy Jewish people”, as an act of extra piety, would remove it before cooking. However, regarding the korban pesach, they did not do so, lest they accidentally break a bone of the korban pesach, something that would be a violation of a biblical command. Only as they were eating the korban pesach and came upon the gid hanasheh would they remove it—something that was presumably easier done with cooked meat. 

The Raavad, clearly, was not too pleased with this ruling. “B’chayei roshi, by the life of my head, there is no greater prohibition than this, that one should broil the pesach with the gid hanasheh…and if I will merit to eat the [korban] pesach and he [the Rambam] brings me the korban, I would, right in front of him, throw it to the ground”.  (How much I would pay to watch the scene!)

What is so interesting is that once again, we are witnessing a debate over an issue that, at the time of the Rambam (1138-1204) and the Raavad (1125-1198), had not been relevant for some 1,100 years. And presumably, when it is time to actually bring the korban pesach,[3] there will be a Sanhedrin that will determine whose view we should follow. So there is little need to get so riled up about some theoretical ruling of the Rambam. Yet for our medieval giants, a discussion about the korban pesach was not a theoretical one. The idea of bringing a korban pesach felt very real, even if from a “realistic” perspective, the idea that rabbis living in Europe or even Egypt would ever bring a korban pesach seemed ludicrous.  

While the Raavad might throw the korban pesach of the Rambam on the ground, he would not do the same to the “lulav” of the Rambam despite the fact that, had the Rambam brought his lulav to the Raavad’s shul, the Raavad would have declared it pasul. The Rambam (Hilchot Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav 8:5) rules that a hadas that is missing its top remains valid.  While the Raavad would most definitely invalidate the “lulav” of the Rambam, his language in doing so is rather different.

Instead of looking downward to the ground, he looks to the heavens above. The Raavad writes “that ruach hakodesh, the Divine spirit, has already for many years appeared in our Beit Midrash, and we ruled that it is invalid as per the ruling of the Mishna…and all is clear in our books and space was left for me from heaven.” (And I would pay even more to see that!)

Perhaps we may suggest that the “anger” directed at the Rambam regarding a “treifkorban pesach reflects the common Jewish attitude regarding kashrut, much more than the lulav, as fundamental to a Jewish way of life (see for example here).  

Or perhaps there is something a bit deeper going on. Perhaps the change in tone reflects the notion that the arba minim are described by the Torah as hadar, beautiful. While the term is specifically used regarding an etrog, our rabbis understood it as applying to each of the four species—in fact, it is the lack of hadar that disqualifies a cut-off hadas in the first place. One does not throw something beautiful on the ground, regardless of the fact that tashmishei mitzvah, objects used in the performance of mitzvot but lacking the name of G-d, may be “thrown out” (Megilah 26b). If we are allowed to slaughter and eat animals, we can surely throw them on the ground. 

In other words, taking the lulav, acknowledging that all our produce belongs to G-d, elevates us. Killing animals—even if allowed, and at least regarding the korban pesach, mandated—can debase us. Hence, the biblical notion that meat ideally should be eaten only in the context of korbanot

Or perhaps I am reading too much into stylistic flourish. In any event, while the Raavad (and many others) strongly disagreed with many of the views of the Rambam, the many who wrote their critical comments on the Rambam likely helped to make the works of the Rambam into one the most widely studied of Jewish texts. 

[1] If and how this might comport with the view that the debates between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are both "words of the living G-d" is a matter we discuss here

[2] The "rabbinic" mitzvot included in his list of taryag mitzvot, are llighting Chanukah candles, hearing the megillah on Purim, reciting 100 daily blessings, comforting  mourners, visting the sick, burying the dead, clothing the "naked", calculating the seasons and saying the whole of Hallel on the 18 special days a year.

[3] Actually, the korban pesach, for reasons beyond the scope of this devar Torah, may, according to many, in theory (and possibly in practice) be offered in our time, even absent a Temple. However, the simple reading of the Raavad’s gloss on the Rambam (Beit Habechira 6:15) is that there is no longer any sanctity on the Temple Mount and hence, korbanot can no longer be brought (and all can freely walk there even if not in a state of purity—another topic beyond the scope of this devar Torah).