Were the Tosafists Philosophers? II

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by R. Gil Student

I’ve had a few more thoughts about this issue since I wrote the original essay on the topic. I took another look at Dr. David Berger’s book, Cultures in Collision and Conversation. Aside from a chapter that directly addresses the question, many parts of the book discuss it. This is a topic that has been recently debated among the experts. What follows are a few of my amateur thoughts after a summer of teaching classes on the Semak:

  1. As we discussed last week, the Semak, in the mitzvah of fearing God (no. 4), utilizes the philosophical argument that Jews are obligated in mitzvos as a matter of gratitude. This argument was also proposed by R. Sa’adiah Gaon and R. Bachya Ben Pakuda. The Semak does not cite a source for this argument but it is still a philosophical argument. It is noteworthy precisely because it is so unusual.
  2. In the mitzvah to learn Torah (no. 105), Semak speaks at length about the need for constant, devoted study. More briefly (no. 15), Semak also lists a prohibition against failing to study Torah. In both places, he condemns non-Torah-related speech (albeit with a nuanced difference). Someone who adopts this strict regimen of Torah study who is interested in studying philosophy would have to allow for the time spent on it (as Rambam does in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 1:13). It seems to me that one would omit this permission for any of three reasons: 1) you believe it is obviously forbidden and unworthy of discussion, 2) you believe it is obviously permitted, 3) you do not want to take a stand on such a controversial subject. I find it most likely that Semak follows the first view.
  3. In the mitzvah to follow God’s ways (Aseh, no. 7), Semag (not Semak) includes a brief anti-philosophical polemic. He tells how, in his travels, he explained to the wise men of Spain that the verse “Know the God of your father and worship Him” (1 Chronicles 28:9) refers to acts of kindness (as proven by Jer. 22:15-16). I can imagine him saying this with a gentle, mischievous smile to Spanish philosophers or to rabbis in Spain who are anti-philosophy. Either way, he seems to knowingly albeit implicitly denounce the philosophical definition of knowledge of God.

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 has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He 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.


  1. Someone who adopts this strict regimen of Torah study who is interested in studying philosophy would have to allow for the time spent on it (as Rambam does in Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 1:13).
    I assume that you refer to this:
    “אוֹתָן הַתֵּשַׁע–קוֹרֶא בְּשָׁלוֹשׁ מֵהֶן, בְּתוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב; וּבְשָׁלוֹשׁ, בְּתוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה; וּבְשָׁלוֹשׁ, מִתְבּוֹנֵן בְּדַעְתּוֹ לְהָבִין דָּבָר מִדָּבָר. וְדִבְרֵי קַבָּלָה, בִּכְלַל תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב הֶן; וּפֵרוּשָׁן, בִּכְלַל תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה; וְהָעִנְיָנוֹת הַנִּקְרָאִין פַּרְדֵּס, בִּכְלַל הַתַּלְמוּד.”
    But is that really what the Rambam is saying? It seems to me that (to him) of course the Pardes is Torah. The question he is answering is which third it falls under, not that he needs to “account” for it because it is not Torah or only doubtfully Torah. Hence he also clarifies where “דִבְרֵי קַבָּלָה” and “פֵרוּשָׁן” go. I assume that you agree that these other two don’t need a separate accounting from Torah.
    Similarly, I don’t know anything about whether the Semak would have had a positive or negative view of philosophy. But I don’t see how his silence here proves anything. If philosophy is part of the Torah, as the Rambam supposes, then it is automatically included; if not, then it would presumably be forbidden (or at least as forbidden as math or the sciences or history or literature, etc.) under this prohibition.

    • Actually, I saw Rambam, Hilkhos Talmud Torah 1:11-12 as saying that talmud Torah means learning Tanakh (miqra), halachic conclusions (mishnah) and halachic process (gemara).

      Our 1:10-1:11 is often 1:13 in manuscripts and among Yemenites. So I assume that is what RGS is referring to.

      But I agree with R David Ohsie that it’s wrong to conflate the Rambam’s “gemara”, which lists means of deriving halakhah with philosophy:

      “…ושליש יבין וישכיל אחרית דבר מראשיתו ויוציא דבר מדבר וידמה דבר לדבר ויבין במדות שהתורה נדרשת בהן עד שידע היאך הוא עיקר המדות והיאך יוציא האסור והמותר וכיוצא בהן מדברים שלמד מפי השמועה וענין זה הוא הנקרא גמרא.”

      The Rambam doesn’t seem to include aggadita at all as part of Torah study, never mind philosophy. On this one point, he appears to agree with the quoted Semag.

      Where the Rambam does discuss learning aggadita and philosophy is Yesodei haTorah 2:2, as part of the mitzvos of ahavas and yir’as Hashem. “והיאך היא הדרך לאהבתו ויראתו? בשעה שיתבונן האדם במעשיו וברואיו הנפלאים הגדולים ויראה מהן חכמתו …”

      • I meant 1:13 where Rambam says that Pardes is part of Torah. As the commentaries explain, Pardes means philosophy and science. See R. Kafach’s commentary n. 49 and his article in Techumin 2 (and in vol. 2 of his Collected Writings).

        I don’t think it is obvious at all. In fact, R. Lamm got a lot of grief from making this claim in his book Torah U-Madda. If I understand correctly, the Rema and Shakh (YD 246) seems to think Rambam meant Kabbalah.

        • Well, if the Rambam tells us to conflate “means of deriving halakhah with philosophy”, who am I to argue?

          Since qabbalah is a philosophical theory, and the Rambam holds qabel es ha’emes mimi she’omro, I’m not sure how deep this dispute goes. FWIW, his bit about how Aristo was one step below navi seems to imply that the pardes he refers to in ch. 6 as being the preparation for nevu’ah is philosophy.

        • R. Student, I think you are right that it is not obvious philosophy and science are part of Torah. But, as you say, the Rambam thought that they were. You don’t need the commentaries, as the Rambam says explicitly in Yesodei HaTorah 4:13 what Pardes refers to.
          Therefore, when the Rambam states in Talmud Torah 1:13 which of the 9 hours includes Pardes, he is not saying that Pardes is only a questionable part of the Torah, so he must account for it explicitly here. Rather he is just trying to figure out which of the 3 categories it fits (one could argue that Maaseh Bereishis and Maaseh Merkavah, as explanations on Torah and Nach could fit into another category). The proof is that in the same sentence, he classifies “דִבְרֵי קַבָּלָה” and “פֵרוּשָׁן” which are unquestionably Torah.
          Thus the argument that anyone who considers philosophy to be part of Talmud Torah must explicitly say so when listing out where you are required to spend your time is not compelling. As a simple example, I’m going to guess that Chabad would not feel it necessary to explicitly say that Tanya is part of Talmud Torah, nor would the Arizal need to say that Kabbala is part of Torah.
          If I understand correctly, the Rema and Shakh (YD 246) seems to think Rambam meant Kabbalah.
          I might not be understanding this comment. The Rema is explicit that “other wisdom” (Sh’ar Chachmos) is the meaning of Pardes. The Shach doesn’t disagree; he just says that the Rema should have been more specific and listed philosophy, astronomy and Kabbala. History and medicine, for example, should be excluded.
          In fact he corrects the Drisha for doubting the identification of Pardes by the Rambam with “other wisdom” and says the the Drisha undoubtedly did not see the Rambam in Yesodei Hatorah 4:13.
          He also does add that just like the Rambam warns that Pardes is not for everyone and one just fill himself with Talmud first, so to the Mekubalim say that one should wait to study Kabbalah, as this is their version of Pardes.
          Thus when he says in the beginning that the Rema should have specified philosophy, astronomy and Kabbalah, he was not ascribing Kabbalah to the Rambam, but rather saying that the first two would be Pardes for the Rambam, and Kabbalah would be Pardes for the Mekuballim.
          Likewise, the G”RA understood the Rambam this way, and objected vigorously. He would not have objected to an identification of Pardes with Kabbala.
          Y”D 246
          Yesodei Hatorah 4:13

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