Technology and Sinai

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I. Dueling Mountains

Midrashic tradition teaches that when God was choosing on which mountain to give the Torah, Carmel and Tabor came running, asking that they merit this honor. God chose the humble Sinai rather than the uprooted Carmel and Tabor, but the rejected two still merited learning Torah for a brief period (see Megillah 29a; Bereishis Rabbah 99:1). Whether you take this as a parable, a story of debate in the heavenly court or a literal history (cf. Maharsha on Megillah; Yefeh Toar on Bereishis Rabbah; Me’Am Lo’ez on Exodus 19:17 — I prefer the first), you can extract from it a lesson that transfers to other, practical areas.

II. Dueling Rabbis

The Gemara (Horayos 14a) describes a debate whether the great yeshiva in Pumbedisa should choose Rabbah or Rav Yosef as its rosh yeshiva. Rav Yosef had a phenomenal memory and knew all Tannaitic literature by heart. He was a “Sinai”. Rabbah did not have a similarly encyclopedic knowledge but was a brilliant analyst, an “oker harim” (uprooter of mountains). Who is a more appropriate choice for rosh yeshiva? Rav Yosef, the Sinai, was selected but he declined and Rabbah took the position. Twenty two years later, after Rabbah’s death, Rav Yosef assumed the position.

The Maharsha (ad loc.) connects this debate with the former midrash about the mountains. Carmel and Tabor only learned Torah for a brief period but were uprooters of mountains, able to deduce many laws through their brilliance. Yet Sinai, which knew the entire Torah, prevailed. And so Rav Yosef, the master of all masekhtos, prevailed as well.

R. Shlomo Kluger, in a marginal note to Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim, Eishel Avraham 136; cf. Nimukei Chaim 136:1), connects this to a debate in Avos (2:8) over which of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students was greater. The first opinion is that R. Elazar ben Hyrkanus, who never forgot anything, was the greatest. Abba Shaul said that R. Elazar ben Arakh, who was an overflowing stream of brilliance, was the greatest. The Gemara in Horayos seems to conclude that R. Elazar ben Hyrkanus, a Sinai like Rav Yosef, would have been considered greater.

III. Dueling Scholars

This has practical implications not only in choosing who should serve as the senior instructor but also in the synagogue. In discussing priorities in calling people to the Torah, the Levush (Orach Chaim 282:7, quoted in Ba’er Heitev 136:1) rules that a scholar with a broad ability to decide on practical matters precedes a sharp scholar. The Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim, Eishel Avraham 136) explains that this is based on the rule that a Sinai takes precedence over an oker harim.

R. Shlomo Kluger suggests that the conclusion of this talmudic debate was only relevant to the time when then Oral Torah was not written down. In those days, the ability to memorize prior teachings was crucial and a Sinai was invaluable. In later years, when the Mishnah, Gemara and other books were readily available for consultation, a Sinai was less important than an oker harim.

IV. Technology

Today, when we have computerized much of the extant Torah and can easily search and access it, R. Kluger’s argument seems even stronger. When Google and Bar Ilan searches can uncover all relevant primary texts, when Tzitz Eliezer and Yabi’a Omer provide references to all prior studies, when encyclopedias like Otzar Yisrael and Encyclopedia Talmudis summarize centuries of information, isn’t the need for penetrating analysis greater than for perfect recall?

However, we need to sound a note of caution. While the Maharsha’s above comparison to the mountains who learned briefly is equivocal, Rashi is clear that the oker harim has to have a little Sinai in him. Rashi (Horayos 14a sv. u-mar) describes an oker harim as someone who “שאין משנה וברייתא סדורין לו כל כך.” He is familiar with all the primary texts but does not have them at his fingertips. We are not speaking of a novice but an expert who merely lacks the incredible recall of a Sinai. Beginners, regardless of their analytical prowess, need not apply. To be even an oker harim, one must be a little bit of a Sinai.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.


  1. יפה. I would amplify and extend this with two relevant sentences from Rabbi Daniel Reifman’s recent posting on Text & Texture:
    “We need to develop a more heightened awareness of the hermeneutic process — an understanding that texts do not simply ‘read themselves’” and “One learns to accept the fact that no one interpretation [of a text] can lay an exclusive claim to truth, and that the best one can do is to build a case for one’s analysis that others will find convincing.”

  2. I agree with IH, this is an important point from a great article, which should have been linked to in “News and Links”

  3. “Today, when we have computerized much of the extant Torah and can easily search and access it…isn’t the need for penetrating analysis greater than for perfect recall?”

    I guess that there is a certain appreciation that one ought to have for the talmid chacham on shabbes, who can offer the Sinai on shabbes…

  4. To be even an oker harim, one must be a little bit of a Sinai
    Many,many years ago one of the BI project team leaders spent some time in WO. He was asked about this issue and his response was that their goal was to give wisdom to the wise.

    IMHO these efforts have/will force poskim in 1 of 2 directions (because a relatively intelligent/learned layperson can learn all the direct sugyot on some issues. 1. kiblu daati (accept my opinion-don’t ask twice, it’s alright) or 2. Require a greater explanation of what factors led them to favor a particular non-compelled point of view.


  5. One who is not familiar with a field of work does not do well merely by searching vast quantities of literature on a computer. One needs some background in how the various pieces of information relate to one another and to neighboring topics. I am frequently required to learn technical material in new (to me) fields professionally, and while the papers are widely available and well indexed, it is much easier and more effective if I can get some guidance from someone who knows the new field well. Failing that, I almost always try to work through (or at least skim through) a recent textbook before diving into the primary literature. The few times I have had to do that cold it has been both inefficient and unpleasant, and I expect that the results were less valuable than when I have been able to get some guidance.

  6. Joel Rich,

    Tshuvot have been lengthening over the generations–compare a tshuva of the Gaonim (many are one or two sentences) to a tshuva of a Rishon to something in a recent Acharon. Partly because the latter authorities have to deal with all the material written by the earlier ones, but also, the gaonim didn’t have to persuade anyone. They had real authority that came with real offices so they just offered the answer. Of course they wrote on questions that were so simple that no modern Rabbi would bother publishing an answer (e.q. what bracha do you make for a bris)

  7. Who can claim today to be “Sinai”? There is just too much to learn, internalize and remember. MVR Rav Aviner has said that every ben-torah must learn in his lifetime all of Torah up to the end of the Amoraim. This includes Torah NACH,Mishnah, Tosephta,midrashei CHAZAL,Gemarra Bavli and Yerushalmi. All this with basic mepharshim. This bekiyut is the basis for being able to go on to be Oker Harim. IMHO very few yechidei segulah can hope to acheive this goal, even if most of their time is occupied by Torah study.
    There is a running argument in our kollel on how and where to use technology and search engines as a modern “Sinai”. Is it too easy? Will it make us lazy and shallow,with less “amal torah”? Or will it allow us to learn without being inundated by the present flood of Torah information? Tzarich iyyun Gadol.

  8. Actually the real issue can be found here:
    The day is quickly coming.

  9. To be even an oker harim, one must be a little bit of a Sinai. Yes. But what I find interesting from all the sources: one could not be both

  10. See for a (perhaps apocryphal) story that underscores how a computer search doesn’t match a true Sinai.

    It does nobody any good if you deduce through sharp analytical thinking a phenomenal chiddush that’s already covered explicitly by a Mishna somewhere out in Keilim, e.g.

  11. The debate over whether a computer can match a true Sinai reminds me of the current news of IBM’s supercomputer Watson challenging the all time Jeopardy Champions. See: If a computer can win in Jeopardy does it have what it takes to balance opposing viewpoints in Halacha and “pasken” a shayla?

  12. >See for a (perhaps apocryphal) story that underscores how a computer search doesn’t match a true Sinai.

    It sure would help if the story is real, but even if it is, no one believes that mounds of sources on hard drives is a substitute for a great memory and intelligence. But these, supplemented with formidable search skills are a pretty good combination. For example, in the alleged RCK story, a good searcher would know that he’d need to do a variety of searches, including one with nekudos. Also, a true Sinai is ultimately limited to what he learned whereas databases can encompass much more. Even a RCK didn’t master the contents of, say, 10,000 seforim.

  13. A number of years ago, I asked RHS whether I should purchase the entire ET or a set of Mossad HaRav Ritvas. RHS felt that the coverage of the ET on any issue it covered was essentially far more comprehensive than the view of one great edition of a Rishon. True confession time-I purchased both my initial huge chunk of the ET and eventually purchased both the Ritvas and a Frankel Rambam at the SOY Seforim sale-where prices for sets remain unmatched on this side of the Atlantic.

  14. I wonder how many people might consider the Carmel and Tabor story to be literal, or at least almost literal, after reading the following:

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