Responses to Questions on the Essay by R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

In a previous post, I posted questions to be posted on this blog from R. Moshe Meiselman that were sent to me by someone involved in the controversy over R. Slifkin’s books. The questions revolve around R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam’s essay on the aggados (non-legal Talmudic literature) in which he states that the Sages were sometimes mistaken on scientific issues. R. Meiselman asked questions about the authenticity of the essay. (See also this post). What follows are the questions and my responses. I was also privileged to have R. Chaim Eisen respond to some of the questions and his letter is provided after mine (with permission).

But first, while I acknowledge that this is a discussion of importance in terms of historical fact, I believe that it should have no normative significance. This is because the opinion offered in the essay by R. Avraham Ben Ha-Rambam has been offered by other Rishonim and Acharonim, and accepted by Gedolei Torah throughout the ages. I once again direct readers to Rav Yitzchak Herzog’s Judaism: Law and Ethics, p. 152 (link).

Click here to read moreSecond, I have great respect for R. Moshe Meiselman’s learning. The one time I spoke in learning with him I raised an obscure Mishneh La-Melekh and not only was he familiar with it but he was able to correct my explanation of it’s views. The following is simply my own understanding of this issue that is offered in the spirit of respectful discussion and in response to a direct request.

1) There is an obvious disagreement between the Rambam in Peirush HaMishnayos and the author of this piece in the understanding of the gemorroh in Chulin 124a. The author of this piece says that this means that one would not have to listen to Yehoshua bin Nun.

The Rambam writes that this means that prophecy has no place in altering halochoh – a basic foundation of the Rambam’s view of halochoh. Are these positions consistent? If not, where do we find that the son ever disagrees with his father on basic issues.

This is an interesting point but one whose significance is, I believe, minimal. The Rambam quotes the Gemara about disagreeing with Yehoshua as proving that a prophet has no special status in issues of halakhah. This is a very important aspect of Rambam’s view of the Oral Torah. However, R. Avraham quotes the Gemara as showing that one may disagree with a great scholar of an earlier generation, even Yehoshua.

I don’t see R. Avraham as disagreeing with his father’s view but only of his interpretation of this Gemara. The disagreement is interesting but nothing particularly out of the ordinary. He has disagreed with his father on bigger things. There is no indication that R. Avraham disagrees with his father’s principle, just the interpretation of a single talmudic passage.

2) The Rambam writes that one may use an even tekumah to prevent miscarriage and go out with it on Shabbos. The Rambam also says this in Moreh Nevuchim. The Rashba says that the Rambam was of the opinion that this was a result of Chazal’s experimentation, not that of the general culture.

According to this author, this is not so and one may not wear it because of darchay ho’emori and certainly not on Shabbos. Where do we find that the son ever disagreed with the father on an explicit halochoh in Mishneh Torah?

I disagree with the implied reading of R. Avraham. All he says is that an even tekumah (an amulet worn by pregnant women) does not work; he does not say that one may not wear it. This is entirely consistent with the Meiri’s approach (Commentary to Shabbos 53a, 60a, 67a; Pesachim 109b and elsewhere) that many of these types of “segulah” remedies serve as placebos. The question is whether the Rambam followed this same approach.

The Rashba (Responsa 1:413) that R. Meiselman quoted notes apparent contradictions among the Rambam’s various writings on this subject. For example, the Rambam writes that amulets do not work (Moreh Nevukhim 1:61) but allows someone to wear a proven amulet on Shabbos (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shabbos 19:14). However, the Rashba offers no resolution of these contradictions and, as the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 301:80) notes, gives no clear conclusion on the subject. In general, I’ve found two approaches to understanding the Rambam’s position on the issue of “segulah” remedies.

1. The Radbaz (Responsa 5:63,153) writes that the Rambam believes that there is no medical benefit from “segulah” remedies. However, since people think that there is medical benefit one is allowed to wear “segulah” remedies on Shabbos and there is no issue of carrying on Shabbos or “darkei ha-Emori” (forbidden heathen practices). This position of the Radbaz has the Rambam and R. Avraham agreeing entirely on this subject. I believe that this can be inferred from Moreh Nevukhim 3:37 (see R. Yosef Kaffach’s translation p. 359, the text near n. 40).

2. Maharam Chabib (Tosefes Yom Ha-Kippurim, Yoma 83a) explains that the Rambam allows for “segulah” remedies that have been tested and confirmed by doctors. Even though doctors cannot explain how these remedies work, they will not deny proven remedies. But unproven remedies are to be ignored. This is also the approach of Maharatz Chajes (Tiferes Le-Moshe ch. 4 in Kol Sifrei Maharatz Chajes vol. 1 p. 423).

In recent literature, R. Yosef Kaffach in his edition of Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Shabbos 19:13 n. 33 follows the approach of the Radbaz. So do R. Yehudah Levi in his The Science in Torah p. 136 and Dr. Marc B. Shapiro in his article “Maimonidean Halakhah and Superstition” in Arthur Hyman ed., Maimonidean Studies vol. 4 (2000), pp. 99-100. R. J. David Bleich follows the approach of Maharam Chabib in “Maimonides on the Distinction between Science and Pseudoscience” in Fred Rosner and Samuel Kottek eds., Moses Maimonides: Physician, Scientist, and Philosopher, pp. 253-254 n. 3, quoted in this post.

The position in R. Avraham’s essay does not necessarily contradict the Rambam but rather supports the Radbaz’s explanation of the Rambam.

3) While the Cairo Geniza does have a partial version of the work by Rabbeinu Avrohom ben hoRambam, is there any indication that this segment quoted in the Ein Yaakov actually appears in that work? Furthermore, if that work expressed mainstream ideas why is it that we only find it in the genizah?

There are multiple manuscripts of the essay! The essay seems to have been part of the book Ha-Maspik Le-Ovdei Hashem, of which the vast majority has been lost. It is not a question why we only find it in the genizah because 1) we find it elsewhere, 2) most of the book is not even found in the genizah, and 3) the genizah has been a treasure trove of valuable manuscripts from all the old books over centuries that were placed to rest in it (it has unquestionably not been merely a depository for deficient and erroneous works but has been confirmed countless times as a valuable resource for accurate manuscripts). The passage in question is not (to my knowledge) in the genizah fragments but it is in the Oxford, Paris and JTS manuscripts.

4)Where did Reb Shlomo Zalman [Auerbach] say that one may not question this opinion?

Shemiras Ha-Guf Ve-Ha-Nefesh, p. 54 (translation taken from an essay on

I saw in the work Nishmas Avraham 14:4 that he brings the words of Rav Sherira Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam, and rates this view as one of the reasons why we cannot use the medical cures brought in the Talmud; and the gaon Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach raised the point that it is appropriate to bring this view as “some say,” but the main approach is with the other views. I asked Rav Shlomo Zalman who are those views that argue with Rav Sherira Gaon and Rabbeinu Avraham ben HaRambam. He wrote to me as follows: “At the moment I do not remember if there is someone who actually argues, or even if there is anyone who is able to argue with them. But it could be that my intent was that since many have given the reason of nature having changed, and did not mention at all the aspect of improvements and increased knowledge in medical methods in our time, therefore I raised the point that it should be written as ‘some say’…”

5) To say that it agrees with Rambam because he quotes the gemoroh in Pesochim is rather outlandish. Everyone had that gemoroh. Only Rabbeinu Tam had a unique view of it.

It is not just that they both quote the Gemara, but that is significant also. If Rav Meiselman is willing to concede that the majority of commentators understood the Gemara as R. Avraham does, then there is little further to discuss because that understanding is an explicit support of the idea that the Sages could have been mistaken on scientific matters. However, there are multiple similarities between this essay and R. Avraham’s other writings, this being only one of them. See R. Elazar Hurvitz’s overview of the manuscripts for details.

Let me just close by stating that there have been some very personal remarks made about this issue and about Rabbi Slifkin in particular. I believe that these are regrettable and hope that proper amends will be made and interpersonal peace restored. No further public comment on this is necessary.

[Responses from R. Chaim Eisen:]

I feel compelled to respond to the questions Rabbi Meiselman “posed in the interest of open discussion about the passage by R. Avraham ben Ha-Rambam regarding the sages of the Talmud and science.” I am limiting my focus to the first two points Rabbi Meiselman raised. In both, he questions the compatibility of the perspectives ascribed to R. Avraham b. Rambam with views articulated by Rambam in his writings. It is exclusively regarding these questions of compatibility that I feel obliged to comment here.

1. Quoting Rabbi Meiselman, “There is an obvious disagreement between the Rambam in Peirush HaMishnayos and the author of this piece in the understanding of the gemorroh in Chulin 124a. The author of this piece says that this means that one would not have to listen to Yehoshua bin Nun. The Rambam writes that this means that prophecy has no place in altering halochoh — a basic foundation of the Rambam’s view of halochoh,” etc. —

The “obvious disagreement” is not at all obvious to me. Rambam, in his Introduction to the Mishnah, understands the passage in Chullin 124a as excluding prophetic contributions to Talmudic discussions, since the latter must be predicated solely upon arguments deriving from “סברא” — i.e., human reasoning. Any claim that cannot be supported in this manner is therefore rejected. This is precisely the point made in Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal. The context differs, but the message again is that any appeal to an authority that is not verifiable through human reasoning (including unattested scientific claims) is inadmissible in Talmudic discussions. To quote from the standard Hebrew translation, the implication of the passage in Chullin 124a is, “לא הייתי מאמין בו — ואף על פי שהוא נביא — כיון שאין בידו יכולת להודיע הענין בכוונה בדרך הסברה והמשא והמתן והדרכים שבהם ניתן התלמוד להדרש.” The essence of the more general point in Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal is that trusting uncorroborated scientific pronouncements is tantamount to favoritism in judgment. This is completely consistent with Rambam’s position and borne out perfectly by the citation from Chullin.

2. Quoting Rabbi Meiselman, “The Rambam writes that one may use an even tekumah to prevent miscarriage and go out with it on Shabbos. The Rambam also says this in Moreh Nevuchim,” etc. —

To be precise, while Rambam rules thus in Hilkhot Shabbat 19:14, I am unaware of any mention of “even tekumah” per se in Moreh Ha-Nevukhim. (Rashba mentions “even tekumah” while analyzing Rambam’s views on “Darkhei ha-Emori,” in his lengthy correspondence with R. Abba Mari b. Mosheh b. Yosef Ha-Yarchi, on this subject. [See Shut Rashba, I, 413, and Minchat Kena’ot, letters 3 and 5.]) However, Rambam, both in his commentary on Mishnah Shabbat 6:10 and in Moreh Ha-Nevukhim 3:37, does mention other similar “segulot” introduced in the same Talmudic passage that refers to “even tekumah” (see Mishnah Shabbat 6:10 and T.B. Shabbat 67a). Understanding Rambam’s position is a major issue addressed by many rishonim (besides Rashba and R. Abba Mari b. Mosheh b. Yosef Ha-Yarchi, mentioned above), and an exhaustive discussion is definitely beyond the scope of these comments. Nonetheless, the most basic challenge is reconciling Rambam’s ban of paranormal agents (e.g., see Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 11:16, Moreh 3:37, and below) with the Talmudic allowance, which he cites as Halakhah, regarding artifacts construed as medicinally valuable that would otherwise be forbidden as “Darkhei ha-Emori.”

This is by no means a problem unique to cross-referencing Rambam’s various works. For example, in his Mishnah commentary, he scathingly derides spurious claims pertaining to so-called holy names, regarding which “the writers of talismans and the fools among people rave” (com. on Mishnah Sotah 7:6; see also com. on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4:7 and his comments regarding talismans, idem, and Moreh 1:61-63). Yet, in the same composition, he explains (and evidently supports — see also Hilkhot Shabbat 19:14, 20:13, and 26:14) the license to bear a “talisman produced by an expert” (“kamea mumcheh”) in the public domain on Shabbat (com. on Mishnah Shabbat 6:2). Likewise, in Moreh 3:37, Rambam states, regarding “Darkhei ha-Emori,” “In order to keep people away from all magical practices, it has been prohibited to observe any of [the idolaters’] usages, even those attaching to agricultural and pastoral activities and other activities of this kind. I mean all that is said to be useful, but is not required by speculation concerning nature, and takes its course, in their opinion, in accordance with occult properties. This is the meaning of its dictum: ‘And ye shall not walk in the customs of the nation’ (VaYikra 20:23), these being those that are called by [the Sages], may their memory be blessed, Amorite usages. For they are branches of magical practices, inasmuch as they are things not required by reasoning concerning nature and lead to magical practices that of necessity seek support in astrological notions. Accordingly the matter is turned into a glorification and a worship of the stars” (The Guide of the Perplexed, trans. Shlomo Pines [Chicago: University of Chicago, 1963], II, 543). Yet, again in the same passage, in an ostensive nod to similarly occult practices, he writes, “You must not consider as a difficulty certain things that [the Sages] have permitted, as for instance the nail of one who is crucified and a fox’s tooth (see Mishnah Shabbat 6:10 and T.B. Shabbat 67a). For in those times these things were considered to derive from experience and accordingly pertained to medicine and entered into the same class as the hanging of a peony upon an epileptic and the giving of a dog’s excrements in cases of the swelling of the throat and fumigation with vinegar and marcasite in cases of hard swellings of the tendons. For it is allowed to use all remedies similar to these that experience has shown to be valid even if reasoning does not require them. For they pertain to medicine and their efficacy may be ranged together with the purgative action of aperient medicines” (Guide, II, 544; these are the practices, together with “even tekumah,” that Rambam rules are permitted in Hilkhot Shabbat 19:14).

A partial resolution of the apparent inconsistency may lie in the placebo effect of “segulot,” which Rambam seems to countenance as having real, albeit feeble, prognostic implications (see com. on Mishnah Yoma 8:6). In addition, regarding the laws governing what may or may not be borne in the public domain on Shabbat, Rambam (com. on Mishnah Shabbat 6:10 and Moreh, loc. cit.) cites favorably the Talmudic principle, articulated by Abbayyei and Rava, “Anything that has the status of medicine does not have the status of ‘Darkhei ha-Emori’” (Shabbat 67a and Chullin 77b). Significantly, in his Halakhic code, Rambam quotes this allowance but qualifies it by specifying, “This is if the physicians say that it is beneficial” (Hilkhot Shabbat 19:13). (Note that Rashi takes a very different approach to the aforementioned principle; see his commentary on Shabbat and Chullin, loc. cit.) For Rambam, on the most basic plane, the prohibitions of “Darkhei ha-Emori” are canceled when mundane, terrestrial experience (as opposed to an appeal to the paranormal) corroborates claims for the efficacy of an activity. This will remain true, even if the efficacy is unexplained, tenuous, or merely psychologically induced. Similarly, the question pertaining to the laws of Shabbat is whether one can tenably argue that the article — which one would be otherwise forbidden to bear in the public domain — is not being “borne” in an Halakhic sense since it serving as a palliative. Do such statements attest to actual medicinal efficacy? Clearly, to Rambam, they do not. He conspicuously justifies the use of what would otherwise be forbidden articles because “in those times these things were considered to derive from experience and accordingly pertained to medicine” (Moreh, loc. cit.) — implying that he deemed this conclusion uncorroborated in his own times and, potentially, scientifically flawed.

Without dwelling on this to excess, note that the above resolution is comparable to that which R. Menachem b. Shelomoh Ha-Me’iri presents, in his Beit Ha-Bechirah on Shabbat 66b-67a; see also his similar comments in Beit Ha-Bechirah on Pesachim 109b, on Sanhedrin 67b, and on Chullin 77b. R. Yedayah ben Avraham HaPenini Bedersi, in his Iggeret Hitnatzelut to Rashba (quoted in Shut Rashba, I, 418), takes an approach that is essentially equivalent. R. Nissim Gerondi presents a somewhat different, but substantively comparable, formulation, in his commentary on Hilkhot Rif on Shabbat and Chullin, loc. cit., and, with much greater elaboration, in Derashot Ha-Ran, Derush 4 and especially Derush 12. Rashba’s view, as emerges in his lengthy correspondence with R. Abba Mari b. Mosheh b. Yosef Ha-Yarchi on the subject, cited above, is substantively very different. Considering the nuances that distinguish among these approaches is beyond the scope of these comments.

3. Quoting Rabbi Meiselman, “According to this author, this is not so and one may not wear it because of darchay ho’emori and certainly not on Shabbos. Where do we find that the son ever disagreed with the father on an explicit halochoh in Mishneh Torah?” —

Given the above, consider what Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal actually states in the standard Hebrew translation regarding “even tekumah”: “שאנחנו מוצאים להם אומרים שלא נתאמת ולא נתקיימו בגמרא דברי הרפואות, וכענין אבן תקומה, שאמרו, שמונע להפיל הנפלים, שלא נתאמת.” The statement pertains to neither that which is prohibited as “Darkhei ha-Emori” nor what one is permitted to bear in the public domain on Shabbat, the exclusive foci of Rambam’s rulings, as noted above. Rather, this statement addresses the question of scientific accuracy — which it discounts — which, as opposed to Halakhic considerations, was the sole focus of its context. Far from contradicting Rambam’s statements on the subject, it veritably flows from the dichotomy that derives from Rambam, as noted above.

4. Apart from establishing that the statements Rabbi Meiselman cites from Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal are completely consistent with Rambam’s views, some perspective is necessary. As Rabbi Student notes, no one impugned the attribution of Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal to R. Avraham b. Rambam until the recent objections to Rabbi Slifkin’s citation of it. Far from an obscure work, it has been published in the introductory material of the popular Ein Ya‘akov for centuries, and no reputable scholars ever doubted its authenticity as R. Avraham b. Rambam’s work. I must be blunt: Transparently, the current objection to the work’s authenticity is due to its attitude regarding the Sages’ fallibility in their non-Halakhic, scientific statements. (The work explicitly affirms the Sages’ authority in all Halakhic statements; the reconciliation of these views is not the subject of this discussion.) We should then ask whether this very approach, concerning the fallibility of the Sages’ scientific views, is consistent with Rambam’s. Consider, then, the following two quotations from Rambam’s Moreh Ha-Nevukhim:

“You should not find it blameworthy that the opinion of Aristotle disagrees with that of the Sages, may their memory be blessed, as to this point [pertaining to astronomy]…. You know, on the other hand, that in these astronomical matters they preferred the opinion of the sages of the nations of the world to their own. For they explicitly say: The sages of the nations of the world have vanquished. And this is correct. For everyone who argues in speculative matters does this according to the conclusions to which he was led by his speculation. Hence the conclusion whose demonstration is correct is believed” (Moreh 2:8; Guide, II, 267).

“Do not ask of me to show that everything [the Sages] said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For at that time mathematics were imperfect. They did not speak about this as transmitters of dicta of the prophets, but rather because in those times they were men of knowledge in these fields or because they had heard these dicta from the men of knowledge who lived in those times” (Moreh 3:14; Guide, II, 459).

Note that the view regarding non-Halakhic, scientific statements of the Sages, exemplified by these citations, is neither unique to, nor originated with, Rambam. R. Sherira Ga’on and R. Hai Ga’on articulated it in a responsum (see B. M. Lewin, Tachkemoni, I, 41), two centuries before Moreh Ha-Nevukhim, on the efficacy — or even safety — of Talmudic medicinal remedies (see Gittin 67b-70a). Indeed, Rabbi Meiselman concedes that most commentators understand this to have been the thrust of a well-known passage in the Talmud itself (see Pesachim 94b). However, our focus in these comments is not establishing the precedence or pedigree of this perspective, only the consistency of its presentation in Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal with its presentation in Rambam. Likewise, the dichotomy between the Sages’ fallibility in non-Halakhic, scientific statements and their authority in all Halakhic statements, expressed in Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal, echoes Rambam’s comments on the list of maladies rendering an animal an Halakhic terefah. (See Hilkhot Shechitah 10:12-13, and see also the comments of R. Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz on them, in Chazon Ish, Yoreh De‘ah, 5:3.) Again, apart from establishing consistency, understanding this dichotomy is also not our focus at present.

In closing, I feel obliged to invoke an additional statement by Rambam, in Hilkhot Kiddush Ha-Chodesh 17:24, in which he justifies his reliance, idem, upon the works of ancient Greek astronomers: “Since all these matters are [corroborated] by clear evidence in which there is no blemish and regarding which it is impossible for a person to have afterthoughts, one should not be misgiven regarding the author, whether prophets composed [the work] or [other] nations composed it. For regarding anything whose reason is revealed and whose truth is known by clear evidence in which there is no blemish, one relies not upon the individual who stated it or taught it, rather upon the evidence that was revealed and the reason that was known.” Rambam aphoristically affirmed the same principle in his introduction to “Shemonah Perakim” in his Mishnah commentary, justifying reliance upon non-Jewish philosophers (primarily, Aristotle and neo-Aristotelians) in that work: “Hear the truth from whoever says it.” The author of Ma’amar al Odot Aggadot Chazal stresses this very point, attributing it to his father: “וענינים אלו וכיוצא בהם — אין להבינם ולהתבונן אותם מפני שהיה גדול העצה והחכמה, אלא מפני הראיות והמופתים שיש עליהם. וכן אמר אבא מורי ז”ל ביאורה. והוא דבר מבואר, וענין קל בעיני כל נוטה מעל תאות גופו.” In other words, let us, unbiased, allow the evidence to speak for itself. One hopes that, in that vein, by now, we can finally, conclusively, lay the question the author’s identity (and that of his father) to rest.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter