Rav Soloveitchik and Disputed Traditions

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Commemorating the Twentieth Yahrtzeit of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt”l

Rav Soloveitchik and Disputed Traditions

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik applied his Brisker approach to explain and defend a famously outrageous statement by the Rambam that is so wrong, it must be right. In three separate places, Rambam states that Sinaitic traditions are never disputed among the Sages.[1]Introduction to Mishnah Commentary; Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, Shoresh 2; Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mamrim 1:3 Yet, in a brilliant responsum,[2]Chavos Yair 192 R. Yair Chaim Bachrach compiles a comprehensive list of counterproofs, passages from rabbinic literature in which Sinaitic traditions are clearly disputed. How could the Rambam have overlooked so many examples? A thinker as great as he could not have made such a basic mistake, explicit in the very work on which he was writing a commentary. In commemoration of R. Soloveitchik’s twentieth yahrtzeit, I offer (my understanding of) his approach in a groundbreaking and little known essay.

Rambam’s great defender was R. Tzvi Hirsch (Maharatz) Chajes. In his Toras Ha-Nevi’im,[3]Ma’amar Torah She-Be-Al Peh he resolves all the Chavos Yair‘s challenges with four principles:

  1. Rambam meant that no Sage would argue directly with a tradition. If his disputant claimed to have a Sinaitic tradition–in a theoretical discussion (kodem ma’aseh–that settled all arguments.
  2. The Sinaitic tradition was often general, allowing for debate over details. Rambam actually said this explicitly in his commentary to the final Mishnah in Eduyos.
  3. Similarly, some Sinaitic laws were given to the Sages to apply. For example, the various minimum amounts are Sinaitic traditions but where to apply them–e.g. whether to use the olive-size or date-size minimums for a specific prohition–was intentionally left for the Sages to decide and therefore subject to debate.
  4. Sometimes there is debate over the status of a law but not the law itself, e.g. whether a prohibition is a Sinaitic tradition or a custom.

R. Soloveitchik[4]Iggeros Ha-Grid Ha-Levi to Hilkhos Mamrim 1:2-3 – I, II, III took an entirely different approach. He carefully distinguished between (the Hebrew translation) of Rambam’s words in the introduction to his Mishnah commentary and fit them into conceptual categories. Rambam discusses two types of Sinaitic traditions: received explanations and received laws. The former provide authoritative interpretations of biblical verses, about which Rambam states there is no debate. The latter are laws without Scriptural anchor, which Rambam claims no one may dispute.

R. Soloveitchik explains that the Rambam was saying two separate things, one dogmatic and one mechanical, corresponding to two principles that underly rabbinic disputes. The first is eilu ve-eilu, these and those are God’s words. This principle allows for multiple valid views on any given subject and therefore debate within legitimacy. You might have thought that a Sinaitic tradition, a direct transmission from the Almighty, could not be disputed. However, we learn in Bava Metzi’a (59b) that eilu ve-eilu allows for multiple views in addition to a revealed opinion. However, this principle has limits. The second principle is acharei rabim le-hatos, following the majority view. In other words, only a debate that is subject to the halakhic decision-making (hakhra’ah) rules, whether by majority or otherwise, can be considered a valid debate.

Rambam was stating that the first type of Sinaitic traditions–received explanations–are not subject to eilu ve-eilu. No one may dispute any such interpretation. Indeed, he states that rejection of such a biblical interpretation is considered heresy.

However, the second type of Sinaitic traditions–received laws–are subject to eilu ve-eilu but not to the decision-making rules. Therefore, they are not inherently subject to valid debate for mechanical reasons, because halakhah has no way to conclude such a discussion. If one rabbi would claim a Sinaitic tradition, another could not say he finds another view convincing. That would be outside the bounds of halakhic decision-making.

However, there are ways of bringing the received tradition into the bounds of decision-making. For example, if rabbis debate the meaning of the tradition, such a discussion falls within the parameters of a legitimate debate. Similarly, if a rabbi disputes a received tradition with an argument that is itself within the bounds of decision-making, he drags the Sinaitic tradition into the debate. If he proposes a derashah, a full-blown halakhic exegesis that is subject to decision-making rules, the received tradition is indirectly dragged into a valid debate.

Received traditions are clearly true, since they were taught to Moshe at Sinai. However, because of the eilu ve-eilu principle, there may be other valid Torah truths. Debate is precluded on those issues when decision-making rules are unavailable. But when the decision-making rules are made to apply, debate may flourish in the Talmudic tradition. And so this outrageous Rambam is defended with the Brisker conceptual approach.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, 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. Doesn’t the Rav also say this in Shiurei L’zecher Abba Mari chelek aleph, “Shnei Sugei Mesores”

  2. Yes, you are correct that this appears in different form in Shiurim Le-Zhekher Abba Mori, vol. 1 pp. 224-231. Thank you for the reference.

    His formulation here is more Brisker. I wonder why there is no mention of the connection in Iggeros Ha-Grid (perhaps family politics) or in Prof. Gerald Blidstein’s commentary on Hilkhos Mamrim,

  3. suggestion: give examples in all categories under discussion. It would make the post much clearer to the average reader.

  4. This feels like yet another attempt to “prove” that true Torah Judaism is decided “top-down” “by those with broad shoulders”. Whether one agreed with him on a specific issue or not, few would claim the Rav’s broad shoulders were nor respected. But, it has been 20 years since he died; and many more since he was incapacitated. And no leader has been found that unifies American Modern Orthodoxy as he did (for better or worse). Further the reality of וקבצנו יחד מארבע כנפות הארץ has taken root to make the notion of one received tradition a sociological anachronism.

    So the $64,000 question is how relevant this is dogma on “Disputed Traditions” is to Modern Orthodoxy of the 21st century other than as red meat to Briskers who have convinced themselves that theirs is the one true way?

  5. IH-why don’t you go to the conference at YU on 4.14.13 and see how relevant RYBS’s teachhings are today? I see no evidence on the ground that the wonderful renaissance of Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel has had any impact on the fundamental hashkafic precept of a received tradition from Moshe Rabbeinu.

  6. Steve — I’d be tempted to attend part of the conference, but alas I have a long-standing commitment to be elsewhere that day. That said, how much do you think I could get for my first edition (1976) copy of בסוד היחיד והיחד with original dustjacket?

  7. I’d even make it a set with a first edition (1979) copy of יהדות עם יהודי ומדינת ישראל also with original dustjacket 🙂

  8. IH – how about you start addressing the material in posts here, as opposed to using them as segues toward discussion of your unrelated pet peeves?

  9. The Rav’s explanation of the Rambam, that there can be no alternative peshat to Chazal’s in cases of perushim ha-mekkubalim, is contradicted by the Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim 3:41, where he explains עין תחת עין according to its literal meaning. According to the Rav’s interpretation of the Rambam, that is אפיקורסות.

  10. Gil – which category does this mishnah with halacha l’moshe misinai(HLMM) fall into according to the rav? Its neither an halacha or a definition of biblical terms. Eduyyot 8:7

    ח,ז אמר רבי יהושוע, מקובל אני מרבן יוחנן בן זכאי ששמע מרבו ורבו מרבו, הלכה למשה מסיניי, שאין אלייהו בא לטמא ולטהר, לרחק ולקרב, אלא לרחק את המקורבין בזרוע, ולקרב את המרוחקין בזרוע. משפחת בית צריפה הייתה בעבר הירדן, וריחקה בן ציון בזרוע; ועוד אחרת הייתה שם, וקירבה בן ציון בזרוע. כגון אלו–אלייהו בא לטמא ולטהר, לרחק ולקרב. רבי יהודה אומר, לקרב, אבל לא לרחק. רבי שמעון אומר, להשוות את המחלקות. וחכמים אומרין, לא לרחק ולא לקרב, אלא לעשות שלום בעולם–שנאמר “הנה אנוכי שולח לכם, את אלייה הנביא–לפני, בוא יום ה’, הגדול, והנורא. והשיב לב אבות על בנים” (מלאכי ג,כג-כד).


  11. Anonymous: Compare with Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Chovel U-Mazik 6:1

    Ruvie: The second type which is disputed by a scriptural exegesis

  12. It’s interesting to note that there are only 3 mishnaic texts – M. Peah 2:6, M. Yadayim 4.3 and M. Eduyyot 8:7 and 2 tosefta texts. While it appears 11 distinct sugyot in yerushalmi and 26 in bavli. One would think that the tannaic texts would record all HLMMs. Is there any difference between the yerushalmi and bavlii use of the term or amoraic/tannaic use? Any thoughts?

  13. Gil- Ruvie: The second type which is disputed by a scriptural exegesis
    “the second type of Sinaitic traditions–received laws–are subject to eilu ve-eilu but not to the decision-making rules”

    It’s aggadatah not laws. Is there a difference?

  14. Ruvie, similarly the “613 mitzvot” are never listed in either Talmud either.

  15. Avi-The Talmud in Makos states without any qualification whatsoever that 613 Mitzvos were given to Moshe Rabbeinu. The Monei HaMitzvos spend much time in discussing and debating which Mitzvos are included in this calculation. Even where the Mishnah provides a numerical list of Avos as types of prohibited behavior,as in Shabbos, BK,or Sanhedrin, that list in and of itself, generally is where discussion begins ,and serves as a means of remembering various concepts in an easily referenced manner, as opposed to where any discussion ends, in providing definitions and practical applications. It should be noted that RYBS , in a series of Shiurim on the Hasagos HaRamban to Sefer HaMitzvos of the Rambam, pointed out that the above referenced statememt as to 613 Mitzvos, is never raised as a means of supporting or arguing against the contention that a particular act is either prohibited or permitted.

  16. Avi – yet HLMM is used differently in many places as well as eras. you can see a difference between the yerushalmi usage vs, bavli. It seems the definition wasn’t really set as we may believe.
    OTOH, trayag mitzvot are simple taryag mitzvot – the number always is 613 but what is torah vs derabbanan is up for grabs at times.
    If you had a list of x numbers of HLMM and disputes on what that list was – then that would be more similar.
    lets not forget that things were forgotten or lost (per the talmud) (let alone those that think its all late or post second temple but thats another kettle of fish to fry).

  17. For a good discussion on the scope and meaning of Halacha LMoshe Mi Sinai, see both the ET entry as well as the discussion by the Pri Megadim in his Psicah HaKolelles. For the purposes of this discussion, I think that the Rambam in the Perush HaMishnah in Sukkah also discusses the term in the context of the Arbah Minim.

  18. A counter-example, it seems to me, can be found in pp. 13 – 24 in (frum) Prof. Elisheva Carlebach’s Palaces of Time (Harvard, 2011) in which she demonstrates the revolution in Jewish calendar calculation (Ibbur) that started with the Karaite challenge in the 8th century and took form for Rabbinic Judaism between the 10th and 12th centuries, overthrowing the Gemara, particularly after “it now appeared that Jews needed to assimilate the learning of the gentiles into their own calculations. … The twelfth-century computus literature of the Spanish sages justified incorporating into Jewish culture, through the calendar, new wisdom, new structures, and new arguments from the science of the non-Jews.” As Abraham Ibn Ezra bluntly states in Sefer ha’Ibbur refuting the Amora Shmuel:

    Do not pay attention to the tequfot [calculated according to] Samuel, who reckoned to the quarter day and not more precisely, for his is not a true interval at all. Perhaps Samuel knew this, and set the formula for the people of his generation, for it is difficult for people to understand primary fractions, let alone secondary. I know that any wise man who reads these things that I have said about the tequfah of Samuel will wonder at my words, or mock: and I respond: it is I who wonder at you. For the Torah demands that a matter can be verified if there are two or three witnesses, and I have seven honest witnesses to refute Samuel’s calculation. … If the tequfah of Samuel is true, then our entire calendation is false, and our festivals and fasts all lies, Heaven forbid. Better that our calendation is true, and what of Samuel’s reckoning? It is irrelevant.

    It goes without saying that calculating the calendar has never been viewed as an eilu ve-eilu issue and it is also an issue in which “decision-making rules are unavailable”. And yet the received tradition was overturned, and worse, seemingly as a result of external challenge.

  19. shachar haamim

    On the subject of the 20th yahrtzeit, Rav Soloveitzhik’s grandson – R. Meir Lichtenstein – wrote a very important article on the relevance of Rav Soloveitchik’s doctrinal outlook on today’s generation.
    actually it is a quite candid admission as to the irrelevance of much of his philosophy and doctrinal outlook to today’s world.
    you probably wouldn’t hear this from students of RYBS who are age 55+ – some of whom comment here on this blog occassionally – and who often go on and on about how Israel needs to be exposed to RYBS’s philosophy, about how relevant it is for what Israeli religious youth need, etc.
    The fact that his grandson – who is a rosh mesivta in a leading hesder yeshiva – can be so candid about this point is simply amazing. Especially when the “official party line” of many of the close talmidim (and other family members) is usually the opposite.
    I hope that someone tranlsates this piece into english.


  20. r’shachar,
    Didhe say much more than each time and place has its own circumstances and that we need to be grounded in mesorah when addressing them?

  21. Many thanks, Shachar. It is affirming to hear other voices question the relevancy of the Rav’s philosophy and socio-religious political positions for the 21st century.

    Until a translation is made available of the whole article, I want to specifically point out the end of Section 2 as it relates to recurring discussions on Hirhurim:

    ניטול כדוגמה את העיסוק בסדרי בית הכנסת האורתודוקסי שהרב הגן עליהם כחומה בצורה (כפי שקובצו ב’איש על העדה’, עמ’ 164־179), ואת העולה מפעם לפעם לדיון בהקשר זה על דפי מוסף ‘שבת’. די להשוות בין הדברים כדי לעמוד על עומק הפער בשפה ובדילמות. כך, בעוד הרב מציג את ההפרדה בין גברים לנשים בבית הכנסת כנתון יסוד המגדיר את המוסד, ואת המוטיבציה לשבת במעורב הוא מתאר כרצון לאמץ דפוסים חיצוניים והשפעה של הסביבה הגויית (שם, עמ’ 171), מאמרה המדובר של פרופ’ ורד נועם על מקום הנשים בבית הכנסת מציג את הדילמה בצורה שונה לחלוטין.לדבריה הדרת הנשים מבית הכנסת מציבה שאלה על אודות ההתאמה בין אורחות החיים שלנו לבין עמידתנו לפני ה’. בלשון אחרת, בעוד הרב מגן על האוטונומיה של סדרי בית הכנסת מול מפגש עם סדרי דת הרוב הנוצרי, הדילמה העכשווית מנוסחת כדילמה פנימית באשר לפניה העכשוויות של היהדות. ההגדרה השונה של הדילמות ושינוי השפה של הדורות מקשים מאליהם על הדור הצעיר למצוא מענה שלם לדילמות שלו במשנת הרב. כך, ציון עשרים השנים לפטירתו של הרב מהווה גם הזדמנות לבחון את הרלוונטיות של משנתו עבורנו.

  22. R’ Joel — to your point, there is another way to read (from Section 4):

    הרב היה מתורגמן ומשורר, שתרגם באמצעות כלי ההמשגה הבריסקאיים את התורה עבור בני דורו, ויחד עם זאת שר שירה חדשה ומצא בתורה עומקים ורעיונות חדשים על טבע האדם ועל עולמו הפנימי. הרב שילב אמון ברלוונטיות של התורה להווה יחד עם תודעה עמוקה של רציפות הדורות ושל המשכיות. שתי נקודות אלו – אמון ברלוונטיות של התורה ותודעת מסורת – לא מוזכרות דיין בשיח העכשווי של הציבור התורני הרחב בארץ, ואני סבור שניטיב לעשות אם נשקול לאמץ את מורשתו של הרב ולהדגיש גם עתה בהווה את שני היסודות האלו.

    Which came first, the chicken or the egg? The need for change, or the rationale to implement it?

  23. well as one of those 55+ (although only in contact by later readings and tapes) I always thought that my take away was not what the Rav said but how he thought
    . עיקר המורשת של הרב אינו התשובות שהוא נתן לבעיות השעה אלא הדוגמה החיה של אדם שהתמודד עם אתגר המשך קיום המסורת היהודית מתוך אמונה עזה בנצחיות התורה. מורשתו של הרב היא תביעה להתמודדות רעננה ועכשווית מתוך ביטחון שזאת התורה לא תהא מוחלפת

  24. IH: Better to ignore Prof. Noam’s challenge, as RYBS does, that to take it up and fail at it, as so many others do.

  25. On second thought, “ignoring” is quite an overstatement, but I will leave it because it works in terms of the current point of discussion.

  26. When one reads the writings of RYBS, one has to be careful to avoid casting them in the light of either the contemporary Charedi, DL, or LW MO POV. It is easier to claim based on purportedly changed circumsttances that the same are as a place of safe harbor for one’s own biases or worse, to reject the same as outdated ,warranting reevaluation or as not drawing critical lines in the sand that led MO and the Charedi world in their revival in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

  27. Lawrence Kaplan

    Shachar Haaamim: As a 55+ student of the Rav who comments occasionally on this blog, I don’t believe I have ever gone on in the way you describe. Actually, I have no idea to whom you may be referring. If it is Steve B, he was never, to my knowledge, a student of the Rav.

  28. shachar haamim

    Joel Rich – if that’s all he said dayeinu. it is still an important thing to say and hear.

    Lawrence – I wasn’t commenting on any one specific commentor. Frankly in re-thinking what I wrote, I apologize for the “age discrimination”. R. Haim Navon who wrote the second article in that anniversary issue – and who is in his thirties and by his own admission never met RYBS, is a good example of the other school which advocates for the increase in the exposure to the doctrines of RYBS – especially as a contra and counter to the prevalence of the influence of the Rav Kooks.
    I think that R. Navon and R. Meir Lichtenstein have similar viewpoints regarding “conservatism” – i.e. slow change coupled with fealty and adherence to tradition.
    Yet I can’t help but think that their outlooks as to the importance of teaching RYBS doctrinal thought are opposed. R. Navon stresses how very relevant and important it is.
    R. Meir Lichtenstein seems to suggest that it really isn’t.

    I don’t think this is merely academic – frankly very much of RYBS writings are “heavy” and not appealing to most people.

  29. 55+ Rav Student

    shachar haamim: as a 55+ Rav student speaking for myself and for what I know of others of my time – nobody among us exaggerates the Rav’s importance in the way you suggest. He was a brilliant and charismatic teacher and a less brilliant politician. His writings are not just “heavy” they are idiosyncratic in two ways. He does not speak to the true frum and he does not speak to the liberal arts philosophers. The Rav talks to himself and to those who pretended to understand his genius. A few of his students did understand his program and sought to extend it and build upon it – but those efforts were rebuffed and ignored. The near-idolatrous culture of the sycophants won out in the end. No serious critical extension of the Rav’s work has been published. It’s too bad because he had much to say about Yahaduth and religion once the layers of pompous German philosophizing were peeled back.

  30. 55+ Rav Student

    Lawrence Kaplan: shachar haamim is making things up – not that there is anything wrong with that. shouldn’t we be talking about why the YU and Maimonides school models failed in the US and Israel, despite the Rav’s support for both?

  31. 55+ Rav Student- can you expand on the “students did understand his program and sought to extend it and build upon it”.

    ” no serious critical extension of the Rav’s work” – are you referring to his philosophical writings? Only?

    The criticism today of the Rav’s work is based on his focus to German philosophical questions of the 1920s and 30s to which really are no longer relevant in today’s age or speak to the issues of our generation ( to quote a former 55+ former student).

  32. Larry Kaplan-all of the RY and Rabbanim who had an influence on me were Talmidim of RYBS, and over the years, I acquired and read as many of the printed articles and seforim of RYBS, as well as seforim which set forth RYBS’s shiurim as authored by his Talmidim Muvhakim, many taped shiurim of RYBS and the unauthorized seforim printed and published by Talmidei Chachamim whose works demonstrate that they understood the Torah in RYBS’s shiur even though they learned in other yeshivos or just attended RYBS’s shiur ( Noraos HaRav, Harrei Kedem, etc). It would be an understatement for me to state that I was influenced by RYBS’s teachings on a wide variety of issues, even though I was not zoche to be a talmid in the shiur, and attended Yahrtzeit Drashos on the YU campus, snuck into one Yartzeit shiur in the Furst Hall Beis Medrash and then spent the better part of a limited summer vacation at RYBS’s last Yarchei Kallah.

    I would agree that the RZ/DL world in Israel should certainly be more exposed to RYBS’s halachic and hashkafic works, especially so that the Dor Asher lo Yada Es Yosef can see how RYBS created the halachic and hashkafic foundation of a committed MO laiety.

  33. 55+ Rav Student-It can be fairly stated that there is a vast difference between RYBS’s shiurim on Talmud, the drashos and shiurim re Teshuvah, the Yamim Noraim, Kol Dodi Dofek and Tefilah, the essays where RYBS drew the line in the sand about mixed seating and ecumenical theological dialogue and the purely hashkafic works. The former works are rooted in halacha. The hashkafic works such as Lonely Man of Faith, etc, integrated secular philosophical works, but also relied on halacha as the starting point.

  34. 55+ rav student wrote:

    “shouldn’t we be talking about why the YU and Maimonides school models failed in the US and Israel, despite the Rav’s support for both?”

    I would merely say that YU and Maimonides worked for some, just as the Charedi model of Jewish education worked for others. Jewish education should not be viewed as a one model fits all design.

  35. shachar haamim

    “I would agree that the RZ/DL world in Israel should certainly be more exposed to RYBS’s halachic and hashkafic works, especially so that the Dor Asher lo Yada Es Yosef can see how RYBS created the halachic and hashkafic foundation of a committed MO laiety.”

    Steve – I agree with this, but this should be accompanied by an understanding of the milieu in which he operated and also should not be treated as something which is coming to supplant e.g. Rav Kook’s or other RZ leaders (which is what the agenda of some of these students who advocate this is).
    I’m much more comfortable with someone coming along and suugesting that we should add RYBS and Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch to the “curriculum” – much as Rav Steinzaltz, Rav Shagar z’l and Rav Froman z’l did with chabbad, hassidut and btratslav – i.e. as a supplement to “classic” RZ outlook, but not as a substitution.

  36. Lawrence Kaplan

    Steve B: All I said is that you were not a student of the Rav. which you confirm. I never wished to deny that you were profoundly influenced by the Rav, both through his Talmidim and his writings. My point was that if Shachar Haamim was referring to anyone, it had to be to me, and I never said what he attributed to this mysterious 55+ Rav student who comments occasionally on hirhurim.

  37. shachar haamim

    Lawrence – as I said before, I wasn’t referring to anyone in particular.

  38. Lawrence Kaplan

    Shachar: Notice the word “if” in my last post.

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