Review of Professor Daniel Sperber's Netivot Pesikah
by Eliezer Brodt
Professor Daniel Sperber, Modes of Decision – Methods and Approaches for Proper Halakhic Decision Making, Jerusalem, Reuven Mass, 2008, 207 pages; Hebrew.
פר' דניאל שפרבר, נתיבות פסיקה 'כלים וגישה לפוסק ההלכה' ירושלים, תשסח, ראובן מס, 207 עמודים
Last week a new book from Rabbi Prof. Daniel Sperber arrived in stores, Netivot Pesikah. This is his third book which he authored in less than a year (see here and here for reviews on them). Before I begin I must say at the outset this book follows in the path of his most recent book Darkah Shel Halakha in that he discusses very sensitive topics and says things that many will take issue with. In this post I will not even attempt to deal with all that is discussed in this book as that would require its own book which others much better suited than I could do. What follows is a review of some of the points which he makes in this book including some of my own opinions for whatever they are worth. This is just some preliminary remarks as many topics contain much information and, in time, will be subject to their own posts.
This book is an expansion of essays that he has written in English first printed in the book Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah, and later, reissued in a separate booklet “Legitimacy and Necessity: Scientific Disciplines and the learning of the Talmud.” This volume is an expansion of those essays including many additions and some new chapters never printed before. The first two parts of the book deal with what a Rav specifically needs to know and use modern day tools to reach proper conclusions in halakha. Sperber includes all kinds of samples to prove his points, including many examples from old texts and historical works. As Sperber writes in the introduction of his English edition:
This study seeks to demonstrate that there is a need to use scientific discipline when examining rabbinic texts. These texts include textual clarification based on manuscripts and early printed editions, philological studies to ascertain the exact meaning of difficult terms, seeing the text in its historical, sociological and literary settings and the use of material evidence to understand the physical aspects of an object discussed. Without the appreciation of these methodologies we often miss the main point of the text, and in some cases even err to the particular halachic implications.
He begins this latest volume with the following statement -- which is really picking a fight in a quiet way -- that it is well known that in the yeshiva world they mock the academic world saying they are concerned with what the Tanaim and Amoraim wore, whereas we are concerned with what they actually say. He says although it is certainly very important to know what they say, it is also very important to know what they wore. He shows a few examples that demonstrate this point that by not knowing what they wore, there were mistakes in understanding different areas of halakha such as in hilkhot tefilah and in hilkhot nidah.
Additionally, another example offered by Sperber, is from the laws of tying on Shabbat, where he ably demonstrates that if one has a full understanding of sailor knots, this knowledge allows one to fully understand the gemarah dealing with these issues. These examples, according to Sperber, show the importance in having this kind of knowledge. He than goes in to a lengthy discussion of what is known today as the scientific method of learning gemarah. Professor Sperber shows that this form scientific method of study is not new, rather, it dates to the times of rishonim. Further, he shows that there were great people such as the Sredei Eish who was involved with such methods and that if done properly this method is very important. In this section it is clear that even Professor Sperber is well aware of the great dangers of it and he does not know exactly how to go about mainstreaming it as opposed to the rest of this volume. A quote that Professor Sperber brings from R. Avraham E. Kaplan is appropriate here:
From there he moves in to a whole discussion of the usage of manuscripts in general and specifically about the famous opinion of the Hazon Ish. Sperber's discussion is based on on Professor Speigel works Amudim b'Tolodot Sefer HaIvri, but he adds many excellent sources to those of Speigel. Specifically, he shows how many gedolim disagreed with the Hazon Ish as is evident from the haskamot and usage of the work Dikdukei Soferim - an entire work devoted to using manuscript evidence to ascertain the correct text of the Talmud. Sperber quotes the Minsker Godol who praises the sefer Dikdukei Soferim. To this I would add two more quotes from R. Meir Halpern's excellent book on R. Yerucham Leib Perlman, the Minsker Godol [R. Halpern taught the Minsker Godol's son]:
"כל אות ואות שבדברי חז"ל היתה חשובה ושקולה בעיניו לעשותת אותה יסוד ולהעמיד עליה בנין ולקחת ממנה ראיה לדין והלכה. ולכן היו חביבים בעיניו ספרי דקדוקי סופרים, וכמה וכמה פעמים היה מראה כי על פי שנוי קטן בנוסחא מתיישבים כמה דברי גדולי הראשונים, שהבאים אחריהם נתקשו בהם ולא ירדו לסוף דעתם ודחאום מהלכה". (הגדול ממינסק, עמ' 85)
Elsewhere he writes:
"כשעלתה בידו ליישב שיטת איזה מהראשונים על פי נוסחא ישנה שמצא בגירסת התלמוד, היה בעיניו כמוצא שלל רב ואין קץ לשמחתו. ולכן היו ספרי דקדוקי סופרים של הר"ר רפאל נטע רבינוביץ יקרים וחביבים לו". (שם עמ' 159)
Professor Sperber then continues with another topic, showing the need to know about different printings and printing mistakes. He shows how the knowledge of bibliography helps one come to a proper understanding of the topic of parashat Parah being d'oraitah -- and it is somewhat ironic that on this very page there is a mistake where Sperber writes the name of the Prei Chadash as R. Yechezkial, where it should really say R. Chizkiyahu]. Professor Sperber writes that the teshuvot on the topic of smoking today should take in account that all the earlier literature on this topic is from a time when they did not realize the dangers of smoking.
In the second section he has thirteen excellent examples (including pictures) demonstrating how using manuscripts helps one come to a proper understanding of the Yerushalmi. He gets in to a discussion of mesorah, nussach hatefilah. This later point leads him in his notes to deal with all the different printings of the siddur of R. Jacob Emden as much was added in over the years which was not written by R. Emden until the new beautiful edition by Eshkol was printed. [Even Eshkol edition, however, is not perfect and does not fully reflect the opinions of R. Emden, but it is much better than previous siddurim that claimed to reflect R. Emden's positions.] Sperber offers an example how censorship from the censors causes a wrong Pesak on topic of halakhot of lo sichanam. He has a small discussion about the Besamim Rosh, and a more lengthy discussion on how the proper dating of when the Rama died plays a role halakhically. He shows how a Kaarite explanation crept into many rishonim and how a mistake in Rabbeinu Yerucham without using manuscripts causes a wrong halakha. Finally, he has a lengthy discussion of the edited teshuvah of the Rama on yayin nessach. These are just some of the many topics one can find in this sefer.
The last two parts of the sefer are a continuation of his previous work Darkah Shel Halakha, including new information on topics discussed there on the feelings a posek must have to the people asking questions. (Sperber has a separate article on this topic, available here.) To illustrate the point he brings a beautiful story with R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, when after listening to a very complicated question, he told the person that he is sorry but that he can not answer him as he can not put himself in his shoes – it was towards the end of his life so he did not have enough strength.
The last part of Netivot Pesika are additional sources continuing from his Darkah Shel Halakha about how a posek should not to be overly machmir.
As always, Professor Sperber does not let us down with his breathtaking wide range of sources in his famous lengthy footnotes -- 283 notes in total -- quoting both from Hebrew and English sources. Of great interest to note is his tremendous Bikiut in all the seforim of R. Yaakov Chaim Sofer. This volume is also full of many nice stories and anecdotes to demonstrate his points. This book is much more organized than some of the other works of Professor Sperber, a complaint that many have voiced by some in the past. There are no tangents in tangents of tangents, as he sticks with each topic at hand.
One complaint I have with the book although he includes all the tools one needs to have today to render proper halakhic rulings, there is a glaring omission which I feel should be the few pages explaining how it is proper to learn Torah and that all the Torah sources are the first and most important things that one needs to master first. Only afterwards are these tools helpful and necessary, otherwise these tools alone will not help much.
When I finished reading Netivot Pesika I was stuck with the following feeling: A while ago when reading the excellent article of Dr. Shlomo Sprecher on mezizah b'peh I thought to myself that its lucky I am not a Rav, as this evidence is so hard to deal with. I never went to medical school and I have doctors saying each way and besides that I have the excellent documentation of Dr. Sprecher on this whole topic showing the whole historical development of this halakha convincing one how one can do it b'klei. This book also continues showing me how hard it is for one to become a Rav these days and anyone reading it thinking of pursuing such a career might change their minds.
My outcome after seeing all this unbelievable evidence would be that every rav has to make sure to carefully check up the sources he is using to reach his pesak and if it is related to issues of science or knowledge outside of learning to consult an expert of that particular field, but going to school would not teach one all of this as Sperber himself admits that how many languages could one learn already (pg 50) and still have time to learn Torah which is always supposed to be the main thing? There are many sources which show that one can learn other sciences, etc., and the great necessity of knowing them of reach proper conclusions in pesak.
One has to be aware of all these methods and maybe know how to check up manuscripts. But there is no way every topic that one would be able to research from scratch and suspect that everything up until now is a mistake. Besides, who has such libraries, even with the various computer programs, no one has all these manuscripts and early printings so readily available. The Rabannim would never get anywhere with issuing p'sakim. Rather, a rav has to be aware of the issues that Prof. Sperber raises and consult experts of each particular field, whether dealing with bankers or real estate agents to understand what the market is, to consult medical experts with regard to medical and fertility issues, electrical issues, scientists and the like.
Thus, if someone is dealing with questions of hilkhot Shabbat and electricity aside for having to master the extremely complicated topics of Grama he also has to understand electricity a bit besides for this he would have to understand how this particular product he is dealing with works exactly. Today many rabbanim are well aware of this so they are very careful to check into exactly understanding how products work before issuing a pesak to list one example.
One of the greatest poskim of the past century, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, was famous for how he consulted experts and tried to understand the exact facts before issuing a pesak. This is evident in all his writings on all of the modern day issues. One example: In recent years there has been much written on the bottle cap opening of shabbat -- it even has its own huge sefer (as virtually everything else does these days) on the topic! One of the rabbanim who has been involved with this topic for years is R. Moshe Yadler, author of Meor Hashabbat, where he has written on this topic and spent many hours speaking to many gedolim about it. When he was researching the topic he made sure to track down every type of bottle, he visited factories to see how bottles are made so that he would be able to understand exactly how it is made so he would be able to pasken properly. When he gives a shiur about this topic he comes with a bag full of all types of caps to demonstrate to the crowd the exact way it is made, etc. He told me once that he spoke to R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach about this many times at one point and requested R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach to put in writing his pesakim to which the latter did. But R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's son told R. Yadler that his father sat for three days with a soda bottle in front of him the whole time he was writing the teshuvah and he kept on taking it on and off. Another of the many samples of this are the writings of R. J. David Bleich in his now five-volume Contemporary Halachic Problems, two-volume Jewish Bioethics and other works.
In conclusion I would like to quote a lengthy passage from one of my favorite books HaGodol m'Minsk that expresses an idea similar to Professor Sperber,on what a Rav should know – [I got to this book after hearing many times from my Rosh haYeshiva R. Zelig Epstein Shlita how great it is] I apologize for not translating it into English
"אף שם אל לבו להשתלם בידיעת עניני העולם. ובאשר ידע כי התמדתו הנפרזה בתורה היא הגורמת לחסרונו זה, ומפני גודל שקידתו כמעט שלא דבר עם איש מלבד לענות שאלה באיסור והיתר או למי שבא לדבר בדברי תורה, והיו הכל נמנעמים מלבוא אל ביתו בראותם כי למשא הם עליו והוא מדבר רק בעל כרחו כאלו כפאו שד, ובו ברגע שמפנים שכמם ללכת הוא שב ללמודו בקול רם כמשפטו באופן שניכר ומורגש היה להם שבביאתם הם מבטלים את הרב מתורתו. . . לכן עלה על רוחו להשלים חסרונו בכל האפשר, ויאמר להנהיג תורתו מנהג דרך ארץ. ועל פי רמז מאתו וגלוי דעתא דניחא ליה, היו באים אליו לפרקים שניים מחשובי העיר. . . הם היו באים אליו בעידנא דמיפגר מתלמודו, והיו משעשעים אותו בשיחותיהם. זה מספר מעסקים ומסחרים שונים ומבאר פרטיהם ודרכיהם, וזה מדבר על גוי ועל אדם, מספר קורותיו והרפתקאותיו ומבאר דעותיו והשקפותיו. וכיון שנפרץ הגדר מעט, היו באים לפעמים גם אחרים מאנשי העיר בשיחם ושיגם. והרב היה מתענין ושומע ומתכוון לקנות ידיעה בעיני התבל והמציאות. אף היה מתיר לעצמו לפעמים ללכת עם אחד מאלה לטייל בסביבות העיר. ומדי עברו לפני בנין שונה ודבר לא רגיל היה שואל לדעת טיבו ומהותו. כן נמשך הדבר כשלשה ירחים לערך. הרב אמנם עשה חיל בלמודיו אלה ויעבור בהם את רבותיו אלה, שהיה קורא להן בדרך הלצה רבנן דאגדתא, מאיר דעובדי ובמשך הזמן הקצר הזה התעשר בידיעות רבות... והנה נשמט מזכרונו דבור אחד מהראשונים המדברים בזה ולא ידע לפי שעה מקומו והוצרך לחפש אחריו תלה את הדבר בביטול תורה של הפסקות האלה בשיחות וטיולים, ויצר לו מאד ויקט בפניו. וישב לחדר למודו ולקביעותו כבראשונה, והבקורים והטיולים חדלו... בעת זקנו אמר לי פעם אחת כד הוה בדיחא דעתיה רב אמר שמונה עשר חדשים גדלתי אצל רועה בהמה, ורבנו הקודש לא נתן לו רשות להתיר בכורות, ואני לקחתי לקח שלשה חדשים אצל בעלי הבתים והעולם לא נתנו סמיכתם לי על ידיעתי עניני הארץ. בכל זאת אוכל לומר כי הידיעות האלה שקינתי לי אז, הן הן שעמדו לי בכל ימי חיי, מהם אני שואף ויונק בכל עת שבא מעשה לידי". (הגדול ממינסק עמ' 59-63).
Many of these points were demonstrated a bit in the convention and than journal Beis Havad previously discussed on the blog. Professor Sperber, however, goes ahead and demonstrates it much more clearly via many excellent examples to prove each point.
The book is available in the U.S. at Beigeleisen and in Israel at Girsa books and directly from the publisher, Rubin Mass. The SOY Seforim Sale at Yeshiva University, has online ordering available (minimum order of $100), and has Darkah Shel Halakha and Netivot Pesika.