Is History Proof?

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by R. Gil Student

We like to think that facts will end an argument. More often than not, they only move the battlefield. History is not a science but an art of interpretation. While historical analysis begins with careful research, it continues with inference and explanation. Both are subject to debate.

In the Talmud, we find mixed responses to historical claims. On the one hand, history is invoked as a potential method of resolution to a longstanding debate. The Gemara (Bava Basra 73b-74a) tells how Rabbah Bar Bar Chanah was wandering in the desert and met an Arab peddler who offered to show him the corpses of the generation of the biblical wandering, which were remarkably preserved. Rabbah Bar Bar Chanah tore off a piece of their tzitzis but was forced to leave it there. When Rabbah Bar Bar Chanah returned, the rabbis lamented that he could not remember the number of strings and knots. Had he remembered, this would have resolved a debate between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel.

This text implies that historical information can resolve these types of religious debates. In another passage, this is qualified.

The Gemara (Chullin 6b-7a) describes how R. Meir’s brother-in-law testified to R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi that R. Meir ate from vegetables of Beis She’an as if they were grown outside the land of Israel. Based on this testimony, R. Yehudah Ha-Nasi permitted all the vegetables of Beis She’an (treating the city as outside the borders of Israel). The Gemara continues to challenge this ruling. Maybe R. Meir ate under specific circumstances and did not believe that Beis She’an was outside the borders? After a number of such challenges, the Gemara concludes: “See what a great man testified about him.” Rashi explains: “Since he was coming to testify about this, he carefully examined it.” While we can question the historical proof, the source can be assumed to have reliably interpreted the event. Rav Menachem Krochmal (Tzemach Tzedek, no. 75, cited in Gilyon Maharsha, Chullin, ad loc.) deduces from this passage that we only rely on the testimony of experts, even regarding common practice. The average person misses crucial details and some even misrepresent Torah for convenience. He quotes from a responsum of Rav Moshe Mintz who writes similarly about testimony from non-experts that is often clearly incorrect.

According to this passage, we have to be careful about historical testimony. Aside from the general flaws in eyewitness testimony due to the frailty of human memory, witnesses may not have seen all the details or understood the entire context. History requires context. We often don’t know all the circumstances of what happens today, even events that we live through. Someone in the ancient world writing about events about which he heard may not be describing them accurately. Only a trustworthy contemporary expert who has sufficiently researched the history can be fully trusted.

The ben sorer u-moreh, rebellious son, is a startling biblical law. The Sages explain that the laws contain many different requirements, rendering the laws nearly ineffective. For example, the boy has to be within three months of turning thirteen. Additionally, the parents have the right to forgo the harsh punishment since the Torah says that they will take him to the court. They can refrain from taking him. One Sage even says that “a rebellious son never was and never will be.” He says the same about an idolatrous city that is burned to the ground and a leprous house that must be buried (Sanhedrin 71a). These are not just religious declarations but historical statements that can be disproven. And they are.

R. Yonasan (ibid.) says that he personally saw a rebellious son and sat on his grave. (This raises the halakhic question how R. Yonasan, a priest, could sit on the grave.) He also saw a mound that was an idolatrous city. Similarly, R. Elazar Bar Tzadok saw a mound that people said was the remains of a leprous house.

These are respectable testimonies. Do they end the historical question about whether these laws were ever put into effect? The Talmud does not reach a conclusion, presumably because this has no legal ramifications. However, medieval thinkers address this. Sefer Ha-Chinukh (248) quotes both opinions, as if each is valid. Some say that these laws were never put into effect while others said that they were. In contrast, Rav Yitzchak Arama (Akeidas Yitzchak 61) says: “However, we rely on the trustworthiness of those rabbis who testify faithfully that they saw [these laws put into effect] and stood on their mounds.” Rav Arama seems to close the discussion by appealing to the faithful testimony of the rabbis.

What role does historical evidence play in religious debates? According to these passages, a real but limited role. We must neither overstate the decisive value of history nor ignore its contribution when used responsibly.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the founder, publisher and editor-in-chief of Torah Musings.

One comment

  1. I wonder about the weight that this poses regarding your article “The Heresy of the Ten Commandments”. What if it could be shown that it was normative in ancient Judaism to consider the decalogue as possessing greater respect and authority than the other commandments? What would that mean today?

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