Picking Favorites in Torah

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by R. Gil Student

I. Singling Out a Teaching

When you say something, sometimes the loudest part is what you leave unsaid. The Gemara (Bava Basra 164b) warns against praising someone because that can lead to criticizing him. While this needs to be limited, as commentators explain, the basic idea retains power. Even positive speech can have negative implications.

The Gemara (Eruvin 64a) quotes Shmuel as saying that if a rabbi drinks a revi’is of wine, he is not allowed to rule on halakhic matters. Rav Nachman says that this teaching is not good at all because he personally only thinks clearly after drinking a revi’is of wine. Rava objects to Rav Nachman. How can he say that the teaching is not good? Rav Acha Bar Chanina teaches, “Anyone who says, ‘This teaching is pleasant’ or ‘this is not pleasant,’ loses the fortune of Torah.” In response, Rav Nachman withdraws his statement.

In context, the specific objection is to Rav Nachman’s disapproving statement about an earlier teaching. However, Rav Acha Bar Chanina’s teaching has broader significance. He objects even to praise of a teaching: “This teaching is pleasant.” It would seem that we are not even allowed to pick a favorite teaching – a verse, a Mishnah or a rabbinic saying. Is that really what this passage implies?

Rashi (ad loc., s.v. mai ta’ama) says that the problem is contrasting teachings, saying “this is pleasant and that is unpleasant.” If so, just praising a teaching would be allowed. According to Rashi, you can have a favorite teaching as long as you don’t also list teachings that you dislike.

II. Improper Praise

However, Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha, 17th cen., Ukraine; Commentary, ad loc.) points out that the biblical prooftext for this teaching (Prov. 29:3) seems to refer only to praise. Therefore, he concludes that it is forbidden to choose a favorite teaching. According to this understanding, choosing a teaching as a favorite implies lesser appreciation for other teachings. Even if you don’t say that other teachings are unpleasant, you imply at least that they are less pleasant. That, in itself, insults the Torah teachings.

Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad (20th cen.; Ben Yehoyada, ad loc.) adds that if you say about some teachings, “this is pleasant,” then your silence is meaningful. If you are someone who often praises teachings, then when you fail to say “this is pleasant,” you implicitly say that the teaching is not pleasant. The silence of someone who regularly praises speaks loudly. Therefore, you should not praise Torah teachings to avoid implicitly denigrating other teachings with your silence.

At the beginning of Parashas Korach, Rashi (Num. 16:1) says: “This section is beautifully expounded in the Rabbi Tanchuma’s midrash.” Rav David Ha-Levi Segal (Taz, 17th cen., Poland; Divrei David, ad loc.) asks how Rashi could violate the Talmudic teaching against saying that a teaching is pleasant. He disagrees with the suggestion that you are only forbidden to say that this is pleasant while that is unpleasant. This can’t be, he argues, because certainly it is forbidden to say that a teaching is unpleasant. That seems evident from the criticism of Rav Nachman above. If you can’t say that a teaching is unpleasant, then the Gemara must be teaching that each saying on its own — “this is pleasant” and “this is unpleasant” — is improper. Rather, he finds a different explanation of Rashi’s words to avoid the problem of saying that a teaching is pleasant.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef (21st cen., Israel; Ma’or Yisrael, Eruvin, ad loc.) quotes the (questionable) 17th century work Kitzur Shelah as warning that when people sell aliyos in a synagogue, they should be careful not to say that the Torah reading containing the Ten Commandments is pleasant and good. Doing so would contradict the Gemara that disallows choosing a favorite teaching.

III. How to Praise a Teaching

However, as already mentioned, Rashi on Eruvin seems to forbid only saying “this teaching is pleasant and that teaching is unpleasant.” Similarly, Rav Yisrael Lipschitz (19th cen., Germany; Tiferes Yisrael, introduction to Eduyos) points out that the tractate of Eduyos is called Bechirta, the chosen or preferred one. His father explained that when it comes to monetary laws (Bava Kamm 6b-9b), there are three types of land — idyis (high quality), beinonis (average) and ziboris (low quality). Rav Lipschitz’s father suggests that the name of the tractate Eduyos is related to the term for high quality land. Just like that kind of land is preferred, the teachings in this tractate are favorites. Rav Lipschitz adds that this does not contradict the saying in Eruvin (64a) because that only forbids praising a teaching while denigrating another. Here, we are only praising the teachings in the tractate. Effectively, Rav Lipschitz agrees with Rashi and disagrees with Maharsha and the others.

Rav Shmuel Strashun (Rashash, 19th cen., Lithuania; Glosses, Eruvin 64a) points out how the language across the Talmud seems to contradict this teaching. We often see scholars praising a teaching (e.g. Shevu’os 45b – “Rami Bar Chama said, ‘how excellent is this teaching’”). Similarly, we often find scholars denigrating a teaching (e.g. Ta’anis 4b – “Ulla said, ‘that which Rav Chisda taught is difficult like vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes.’”). Rather, he suggests that praise is only improper if it includes denigration as well, like the view of Rashi and Rav Lipschitz. Additionally, denigration of a teaching is only improper if you are not involved in the back-and-forth argumentation. If you are disagreeing with a teaching, then the rules of beis midrash battle allow for harsh evaluations. However, if you are merely a passive observer, then unfavorable judgment is disrespectful.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv, 19th cen., Russia; Meromei Sadeh, ad loc.) takes a completely different approach. He distinguishes between human benefit and objective truth. If you say that a teaching is pleasant or unpleasant, you are commenting on whether or not it is beneficial to people. You are assessing its utility to human joy. That is a confusion of categories and a denigration of Torah in general. However, you can say whether you think a teaching is correct or incorrect, is brilliant or not. A teaching is either true or not, and you are allowed to say that. It is not useful or physically beneficial, and it is wrong to make that mistaken statement.

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 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.

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