Saturday, July 02, 2005

Shabbos: Apikoros and Amulets

Over at ToratMoshe, Moshe Silver's blog about the weekly Torah portion, you will find the following related to last week's parsha:
A Rasha' - a Wicked Person - says: "I know G-d commanded us to keep kosher, but I don't care." An Apikoros says: "Three thousand years ago it was dangerous to eat meat in dishes that milk had been cooked in. You could get food poisoning. Nowadays, we have refrigeration and sterilization, it's OK." What most people do not expressly state, but what underlies this statement, is "And that's the way G-d wants it to be."
It is a traditional understanding of what the Torah has to offer, but is it the only traditional understanding? It seems to me that even 2000 years ago, the Torah's limitations were acknowledged by the rabbis (who may not have thought of them as limitations even as they reinterpreted them, sometimes leniently and sometimes stringently). My problem with this traditional interpretation is that I read it as building a fence around me, the Apikoros:
The Apikoros often accepts Torah as "a way of life," paying great homage to the importance of "our eternal tradition". It's just that, when it comes to what the Torah really means to say (or really should have said), the Apikoros knows better.
But it isn't the Torah that forbids treating minor medical ailments on Shabbos. It's the Rabbis, who fear that it might lead someone to grind herbs into medicine (53b). Do I dare to ask if G-d wants me to have a headache on Shabbos? It is a question only an Apikoros would ask!

My rebellion against Rabbinic stringincies simmers on a low flame. I bristle at all the time they consume constructing a straitjacket around Shabbos., but I delight when they turn their attention to grander themes. It's been many pages since that has happened, but it begins to re-occur on 53. Here, amulets and shoes creep into the discussion (and they will flutter in and out for several pages). Amulets, in particular, reveal a rabbinic tension between superstition and science, as there is an important question regarding how one can prove that magic is effective.
Is there such a thing as an amulet that is proven effective for man and not proven effective for animals? (53b).
According to the Gemara, the answer is yes, and the explanation has to do with mazal. Rashi offers two alternative definitions of mazal, though both apply exclusively to humans, providing the missing "ingredient" that makes the amulet effective for humans but not for animals. Mazel is either the angel advocate for a person in the Heavenly Court or the intelligence that allows a person to believe in the therapeutic effects of the amulet. Either definition requires faith in something for the medicine to work.

This suggests that miraculous intervention requires at least intelligence and perhaps an advocate in Heaven. So, it is natural that the Gemara will seek to determine what sort of man is ripe for the miracle of healing:
It happened with a certain person that his wife died leaving a son to nurse, and he did not have enough money to pay the fee of a wetnurse. A miracle was performed for him-- his breasts were opened like the two breasts of a woman and he nursed his son.

Rav Yosef said: "Come and see how great this man was, for such a miracle was performed on his behalf!" Abaye said to Rav Yosef: "On the contrary! How inferior this man was, for the natural order was changed on his behalf!" (53b).
According to Rashi, his inferiority is suggested by the plain fact that God did not perform the less conspicuous miracle of opening the "gates of income" for him. Maharsha (in ArtScroll):
This person certainly had some merit, for otherwise the miracle would not have been performed for him. However, he was inferior in that he was prevented from earning a living in the normal way and thus had to be sustained with a miracle.
It is perhaps a common notion to suggest that a modest person will see daily sustenance as a miracle, but no less worth preserving and keeping in the forefront of one's mind.

There is an early example of scientific methodology on 61, where the Rabbis seek to establish a protocol for evaluating the effectiveness of amulets. There is general agreement that an expert in amulets is one who has crafted three amulets for three different people, all of which have had healing powers, and that an effective amulet is one that has cured the same illness three times. Rav Pappa inquires: "If one wrote three different amulets for a single person who suffered from three different illnesses, and cured him of all three illnesses, what is the law?" In such a situation it cannot be determined whether the amulets or the patient's mazal was the deciding factor, so the healer's expert status remains uncertified. There's a glimmer of science even in the absence of empirical data, and the mind struggles to establish methodology.

19 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes yes about "fences". While we can be sympathetic to the intention of the rabbis to build a fence around the Torah less we transgress the laws of the Torah, we see the danger of the fence becoming a wall and the wall in which some Jews imprison other Jews as not being "good enough" Jews. Being alive makes us good enough Jews -- being alive as Jews in this day and age is a miracle. It seems to me that what plays out throughout history is the tension between those who are comfortable with nuance and differentiation and those who prefer more hard and fast understandings. The hard and fast understandings may give temporary relief but can never capture the nuance and gesture of life.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

A.H.A, Shalom!

You wrote:

Over at ToratMoshe, Moshe Silver's blog about the weekly Torah portion, you will find the following related to last week's parsha:

A Rasha' - a Wicked Person - says: "I know G-d commanded us to keep kosher, but I don't care." An Apikoros says: "Three thousand years ago it was dangerous to eat meat in dishes that milk had been cooked in. You could get food poisoning. Nowadays, we have refrigeration and sterilization, it's OK." What most people do not expressly state, but what underlies this statement, is "And that's the way G-d wants it to be."


With all due respect to my friend and teacher Reb Silver, this is not my understanding of what an Apikoros is, neither in its original connotation in the Talmud, nor in its idiomatic use in the so-called “Torah-True” world. Idiomatically: First and foremost, an Apikoros is a Torah scholar, and a heretic only second. Nonobservant Jews, even ones with Ph.D.s in philosophy would be referred to as goyim, shkotzim, chiloniyim or frei, but never as Apikorsim unless they are truly learned in Torah. There is grudging respect implied. All of us can spout the kind of stuff attributed to the alleged Apikoros above, but none of us knows enough to aspire to that crypto-honorific title .

[In the Talmud, the term is purely contemptuous, and often describes somebody who disses the Rabbis. Incidentally, Epicurus the philosopher believed that G-D created the world, but isn’t involved with it – G-D doesn’t care if you kick dogs, let alone if you tie a black box on your head every morning or not.]

You wrote:

But it isn't the Torah that forbids treating minor medical ailments on Shabbos.

The Torah isn’t so great on Shabbos, either. Just ask the guy who was gathering sticks (Numbers 15:32 et seq.).

My rebellion against Rabbinic stringincies simmers on a low flame. I bristle at all the time they consume constructing a straitjacket around Shabbos., but I delight when they turn their attention to grander themes.

The staightjacket got a lot worse in the 20th Century than it ever was in the Talmud.

Re amulets working by means of Mazal, I believe that the accepted opinion is “Ayn mazal l’yisrael” -–that mazal does not apply to Jews (Shabbat 156a).

There is an early example of scientific methodology on 61, where the Rabbis seek to establish a protocol for evaluating the effectiveness of amulets. There is general agreement that an expert in amulets is one who has crafted three amulets for three different people, all of which have had healing powers, and that an effective amulet is one that has cured the same illness three times…

It’s an example of empiricism, as you point out, but while it’s a retrospective “experiment,” it’s not a proper propective one. There’s an example of one later in the Berachot where they experimentally establish what parts of a caperbush are necessary for the development of the fruit. Even Scripture has an example of an empirical experiment: Elijah’s contest on Mount Carmel to see whether the sacrifice to G-D or to Baal will get the fire from heaven (I Kings 18:21 et seq.). As a recovering scientist, I’d love to collect every example I can. It’s simply not true that the idea of doing an experiment was alien to the ancient world (also, the idea that romantic love was invented in the Renaissance etc.).

10:21 AM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Reed Chopper: First and foremost, an Apikoros is a Torah scholar, and a heretic only second. Nonobservant Jews, even ones with Ph.D.s in philosophy would be referred to as goyim, shkotzim, chiloniyim or frei, but never as Apikorsim unless they are truly learned in Torah.

Am Haaretz: It strikes me that your definition suggests that one who is a Torah scholar first and a heretic "only second" is like the "disobedient son"-- i.e., there never was such a one. Have I set my aspirations too high?

Reed Chopper: The Torah isn’t so great on Shabbos, either. Just ask the guy who was gathering sticks (Numbers 15:32 et seq).

Am Haaretz: Gathering sticks is inexcusable. It is a chore that should be part of regular Shabbas prep. But let's say you checked the cupboard before Shabbas and there appeared to be plenty of ground willow, yet something in the Shabbas meal gave everyone a headache and there simply wasn't enough to go around. . . .

Reed Chopper: The staightjacket got a lot worse in the 20th Century than it ever was in the Talmud.

Am Haaretz: That's what I thought, but why?
________________________________________________

Reed Chopper: Re amulets working by means of Mazal, I believe that the accepted opinion is “Ayn mazal l’yisrael” -–that mazal does not apply to Jews (Shabbat 156a).

Am Haaretz: Interesting. Why isn't this "Jewish-Human divide" (see Foer, Everything is Illuminated) even alluded to in the present discussion of wearing amulets on Shabbas?
________________________________________________

Reed Chopper: It’s an example of empiricism, as you point out, but while it’s a retrospective “experiment,” it’s not a proper propective one. . . . As a recovering scientist, I’d love to collect every example I can. It’s simply not true that the idea of doing an experiment was alien to the ancient world (also, the idea that romantic love was invented in the Renaissance etc.).

Am Haaretz: Not invented, no. But in Christian culture, Abelard and Heloise had a huge impact in breaking down "family values." But of course, romantic love goes back to the patriarchs!

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Am Haaretz: Have I set my aspirations too high?

Reed Chopper: Yes, you have. An Am Haaretz cannot be an Apikoros.

Am Haaretz: Gathering sticks is inexcusable. It is a chore that should be part of regular Shabbas prep. But let's say you checked the cupboard before Shabbas . . .

Reed Chopper: The fundamental problem is that there's no middle ground in terms of caring for the sick on Shabbat. In other words, there's no category of "You MAY desecrate the shabbat to take care of a person with the creeping frebbish." It's either: "You MAY NOT desecrate the shabbat to care of a person with the creeping frebbish" or "You MUST desecrate the shabbat to take care of a person with the creeping frebbish." If the creeping frebbish is a dangerous condition, it's MUST, if it's not, then it's MAY NOT. btw, once you MUST, then you don't pussyfoot about it, you don't try to do it in a Shabbesdik way, and you don't look for a goy (or an Am Haaretz) to do it for you. You go ahead and do it in the most direct and effective way possible.

Am Haaretz: The staightjacket got a lot worse in the 20th Century than it ever was in the Talmud . . . but why?

Reed Chopper: It's like the Peace and Freedom Party being circumspect about the Freedom and Peace Party. The frummies were under attack by haskala (and modernity in general), so they constantly tried to outdo one other in proving that they were the real thing.

Am Haaretz: Why isn't this "Jewish-Human divide" (see Foer, Everything is Illuminated) even alluded to in the present discussion of wearing amulets on Shabbas?

Reed Chopper: Generally: amulets, demonology, angelology, magic and superstition were the rage in Babylonia but not in Eretz Yisrael. R. Yochanan was from Eretz Yisrael, so he didn't like astrology. The disussion here is the stam (anonymous voice of the Gemara), which is Babylonian.

7:11 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

No middle ground for us or for them? What if we reconstruct the situation and say that once medicine came in bottles and was freely available without needing to be ground fresh, it was no longer considered a desecration to treat the symptoms of creeping frebish?

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Very important question. The halakhic principle is: If the Rabbis issue a gezerah (essentially, forbidding on their own authority what the Torah itself permits), that gezerah can be rescinded only by a specific process. The gezerah does not lapse automatically when the reason for it lapses (today we are not worried that somebody is going to grind medicine). The authorities have to specifically retract the gezerah, if they choose to do so (they don't have to) and only if they are greater "in wisdom and number" than the court that originally instituted the gezerah. Worse yet, if the gezerah was instituted in order to build a fence around a Torahitic law (which is true in the instant case) then the gezerah may not be rescinded by later authorities except under extremely exceptional circumstances. There are circumstances when a rabbinical court can suspend even Torahitic law, as long as the pretense is that the suspension is temporary. (See Maimonides Hilchot Mamerim 2).

8:44 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Are there any instances of a gezirah being rescinded in the last 250 years?

8:47 PM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Well, yes and no. You had to pick such a complicated topic! Here's the brief version.

There are gezerot that were instituted in Mishnaic and Talmudic times, and also gezerot that were instituted throughout the ages, including modern times (e.g. Coca Cola was forbidden by some rabbinical courts because of the company's observance of the Arab boycott of Israel). The post-talmudic ones are rescinded all the time. The ancient ones are not exactly rescinded, but they are allowed to lapse in a peculiar legal way. For example, there is a gezerah against drinking goyish wine (originally because it could have been consecrated to avodah zarah, and later because drinking with goyim might lead to intermarriage). This gezerah is still widely observed. But did you know that there are also ancient gezerot against goyish oil, goyish bread, and anything cooked by a nonJew? These are largely lapsed. Here's how it works.

Briefly, if a gezerah is issued by the rabbis, and the people immediately reject it and refuse to observe it, the gezerah is null and void, and the rabbis are not permitted to try to force the people to observe it. I'm simplifying here, but if many years after the gezerah was issued, the rabbis note that the gezerah is not being observed by the community, they can rescind it on the grounds that it never really caught on in the first place.

Maimonides has a brilliant exposition of what we can change and what we're stuck with in the second chapter of Hilchot Mamerim.

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