As a religion based on tradition, Judaism places great stock in the words and opinions of its early Sages. This is so to the extent that there is great debate as to whether it is even possible that these early authorities could err. In fact, throughout Jewish literature one can find many areas where people argue for deference based on seniority. For instance, there is an extensive debate on the binding authority, and to what extent, with regard to the Rishonim or the Shulhan Arukh. Similarly, there are those who refuse to allow that the Rishonim or earlier authorities erred. Recently, some accused Rabbi Natan Slifkin of allowing that certain statements of Hazal require reappraisal and that those statements are wrong. In the case of Slifkin, his issues with the particular statements of Hazal were not novel and mainly he repeated some of the same arguments that have been bouncing around for the last 400 years or so without adding anything new to that particular debate. A more important case, however, was that of R. Hayyim Hirschensohn in his discussion of whether women are allowed to hold positions of power.
In the early part of the 20th century there was a debate of the appropriateness of women taking part in elections - whether they can vote or run for office. (Of late, this debate has been renewed by the Young Israel stance regarding women becoming a synagogue president.) Most are aware that those who argue that women cannot hold positions of power rely upon the Rambam, hilkhot melakhim 1:5, who in turn in relying upon a Sifre 147 to Devarim 17:15. R. Hirschensohn, however, understood the Sifre in a radically different manner and in doing so allowed that the Rambam erred in his interpretation of the Sifre. Specifically, R. Hirschensohn argues that the Sifre that states "that the verse (Devarim 17:15) 'You shall place upon yourselves a king' limits the placement to a king and not a queen" should be understood that the requirement for a king does not require a queen. That is, should the queen die she need not be replaced; however, should the king die there is a commandment to replace him." Furthermore, according to R. Hirschensohn, the Sifre has nothing to do with the other statement from Hazal (Yevamot 45b) based on this verse, that "any leadership you shall establish should only be from your brethren [they must be Jewish]." Thus, the Rambam erroneously conflated the two statements and thereby misunderstood the Sifre and came to the incorrect conclusion - that women are barred from all positions of power. As R. Hirschensohn explains "that even one as great as the Rambam in his knowledge and wisdom is not immune from error, an which then caused many who followed after him to rely upon and led to other errors. It is without a doubt the Rambam relied upon memory regarding these statements, and did not have time to reexamine them again" (See Malki ba-Kodesh 2:194).
As one would expect, aside from taking issue with R. Hirschensohn's position on women holding power, many took issue with R. Hirschensohn's claim the Rambam erred. R. BenZion Uziel said that although he respects R. Hirschensohn -- in fact R. Uziel ultimate held like R. Hirschensohn on this issue -- R. Uziel "believed that [R. Hirschensohn] erred in hastily writing such things about our master, Maimonides. For, while we may indeed take issue with his position, we may not characterize him as having committed [elementary] errors in understanding the text, or as having been mislead by custom and historical context. [R. Hirschensohn's] remarks to such effect are, no doubt, a slip of the pen." Mishpetei Uziel, vol. 2, Hoshen Mishpat, no. 6 (the translation comes from this article). R. Uziel was not alone in disputing R. Hirschensohn's assessment of the Rambam as is evidenced by the many letters to R. Hirschensohn and his responses on the issue of the Rambam erring. See, e.g. Malki ba-Kodesh 4:131, 6:103-104 (letter from R. Yosef Babad). It is worth noting that R. Hirschensohn seemed to have tired defending this opinion saying in one letter "that any further argument about this point is only repetitive." Malki ba-Kodesh 6:100.
Another more recent example was noted by R. Eliezer Brodt in the magazine Datza, no. 15 (19 Kislev 5368): 4, where he calls to attention the recent edition of R. Yosef Karo's Maggid Mesharim edited with notes by R. Yosef Kohen. In the Maggid Mesharim, amongst the many halakhic statements from the Maggid -- the legendary angel that visited R. Karo and whose remarks are recorded in this work -- is that "on Rosh ha-Shana one should not eat meat or drink beer [wine] and one should be careful about other foods as well. And, although Ezra said [regarding Rosh ha-Shana] 'go eat sweet food' that was only said for the populace, I [the Maggid] am speaking to the special ones." The problem with this specific statement is that, as many commentaries have noted, it contradicts various Talmudic statements - including a Mishna or two - that imply one should eat meat on Rosh ha-Shana. (For more on the topic of eating meat on Rosh ha-Shana see Eliezer's post earlier post, available here, additionally, Eliezer's forthcoming volume on many of the customs of Rosh ha-Shana will also discuss this custom amongst others.)
Amongst the many others who attempted to explain this statement of R. Hayyim of Volozhin explained that the entire power of the Maggid only came from R. Karo himself. Thus, if R. Karo forgot a Mishna or a source then the Maggid wouldn't know it either. Therefore, "it is clear that at that moment the Bet Yosef [R. Karo] forgot the relevant Mishna, or there was some lack in his recollection or understanding, and due to that the light [understanding] of the relevant Mishna was also held back from the Maggid." R. David Luria, Kadmut Sefer ha-Zohar 5:4 (Koenigsberg, 1856), p. 35a (quoting R. Hayyim). Thus, according to R. Hayyim, R. Karo could forget and make mistakes.
R. Hayyim of Volozhin's understanding, however, is completely rejected by R. Yosef Kohen in his new edition of the Maggid Mesharim. R. Kohen commenting on R. Hayyim's explanation says "I am extremely troubled, how is it possible to say that the great Rabbi Bet Yosef, who understood and was completely fluent in the entire Talmud and Mishna, that he forgot a simple Mishna or that he was weak in a particular Mishna." Maggid Mesharim, R. Yosef Kohen ed. (Jerusalem, 2007), 418.
Again, we see the two camps clearly, those who allow for human error and forgetfulness and those who refuse to believe great Rabbis could fall prey to these human frailties. An examination of the relevant sources shows that those in the former camp have the greatest support. To return to the Rambam that R. Hirschensohn argued erred in his understanding of the Sifre. The Rambam himself in his famous answer to the Hakhmei Lunel, admitted that he had made a mistake. Similarly, the Rambam's son, R. Abraham when presented with a contradiction between his father's statement and a Talmudic passage said "it is possible that my father forgot this passage when he wrote this."
Likewise, R. Yair Hayyim Bacharach, author of Shu"t Havvot Yair, explains in a responsum "to one Godol who cast aspersions on [R. Bacharach] for claiming errors in the writings of the great earlier ones. That is, you asked how can I have the gall to dispute the earlier ones which we are much smaller. And, that I went further and said [at times] that they had forgotten the words of the Talmud and the Poskim." R. Bacharach answered "I turn the question back on you, is not this language, that is, 'you have forgotten [אשתמיטתיה]' taken from the Talmud itself and applied to the greatest Amoraim . . . using [forgetfulness] is a respectful way to allege that one didn't remember a relevant passage. Forgetfulness is human nature and affects everyone. Of course, how forgetful one is depends on the person."
R. Bacharach then offers historical examples to support his contention. "Who is greater than Moshe the greatest prophet who forgot two laws (Shapiro notes that Bacharach erred - Moshe made three errors! (Shapiro, 52 n.220)) due to anger . . . and who is a greater Posek than the Rambam who understood the entire oral Torah as is evidenced by his work and who also authored a commentary on the entire six volumes of the Mishna based on the Talmud . . . who also forgot . . . and Rashi, who was a repository of Torah, but who writes in his commentary to the Torah . . . 'I don't know . . . and whom the Ramban wrote that [Rashi] forgot a passage from Midrash Ruth." R. Bacharach continues to list other such examples. He concludes "there is no shame in saying that the Rishonim and the Achronim . . . forgot a Talmudic passage or Tosefot . . . and this position is evident from the writers in all the generations that precede me, they never held back from saying on the great ones before them." R. Yair Hayyim Bacharach, Shu"t Hut ha-Shuni, no. 20.
R. Ya'akov Hayyim from Baghdad, in the introduction to his responsa Rav Pealim, echos R. Bacharach's sentiment. "In truth one can find that many great ones that they made terrific errors, errors that even children wouldn't make, and at times they made mistakes in quoting biblical verse, as was the case with the goan, wonder of his generation the Hida [R. Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, one of the most erudite scholars of his period] . . . on these sorts of errors the verse 'that one is blameless from error' (Psalms 19:13)." By way of example R. Ya'akov Hayyim highlights four such errors R. Yosef Shaul Nathanson, author of the Shu"t Shoel u-Meshiv made in his work. R. Ya'akov Hayyim concludes "therefore, do be surprised to find I disagree with the great ones . . . when I argue they erred because they forgot. Because, such allegations [of forgetfulness] are not unique and in no way take away from their greatness."
It is particularly ironic that the Hida fell prey to this very type of forgetfulness as he wrote an entire book, Helem Davar,  showing exactly these types of mistakes in other's works. The title of the Hida's work, Helem Davar is rather instructive when discussing the possibility of sages erring. Helem Davar refers to the sacrifice the members of Sanhedrin would bring should they all err, indicating that even groups of great people are not immune from making mistakes.
With the above introduction we now turn to Professor Marc Shapiro's new book Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters (Scranton and London: University of Scranton Press, 2008), 205 pages, where one of the three articles is devoted to showing exactly the type of errors that must be attributed to forgetfulness or faulty memory that appear in the Rambam. This volume is an expanded discussion of Prof. Shapiro's two earlier articles "Maimonidean Halakhah and Superstition" (2000) and "Principles of Interpretation in Maimonidean Halakhah: Traditional and Academic Perspectives" (2008), both of which originally published in Yeshiva University's Maimonidean Studies, and includes a Hebrew section of several letters from two twentieth-century Torah giants (R. Joseph Kafih and R. Yehiel Yaakov Weinbeg), as well as from the nineteenth-century-maskil Nahman Isaac Fischmann to R. Samuel David Luzzatto zt"l (ShaDaL).
Shapiro provides many examples of persons who held Maimonides and others could err as well as many who hold that one cannot attribute difficult passages to error. For example, notes that the Hida (contrary to what we have seen above regarding his view of other scholars) held that one can not write off difficulties in Maimonides' statements to error as "[i]f such approaches are adopted every insignificant student will be able to offer them, and what value is there in writing such thing?" (Shapiro, 8). On the other hand Shapiro marshalls numerous sources, including the Ramabam himself, who allow for the errors in the Rambam. In the letter to the sages of Lunel, the Rambam states that in his old age he suffers from forgetfulness. (See Shapiro 73 n.295, 76 nn. 308, 309 discussing the controversy over the authenticity of these letters). However, even explict statements from the Rambam himself have been disputed by later authorities. For example, although the Rambam condeeds regarding a law in Yad that he erred, the Gra says that the Rambam was erring is saying he erred. The Gra explains that the original law in Yad is indeed right contrary to the Rambam's own position. (Shapiro 69 n.282). The Gra's position is somewhat tenuos, aside from the obvious issue of ignoring the statement of the original author, as "a number of . . . achronim provided what they believed to be better proofs for Maimonides' decisions than he himself was able to supply" but is has been shown "that the aharonim who adopted this approach erred in almost every example." (Shapiro 54 n.227).
Included in the book is a short "Note on Maimonides and Muhammad" following censorship that occurred in his "Islam and the Halakhah," Judaism 42:3 (Summer 1993): 332-343, about which Shapiro writes:
The "Note on Maimonides and Muhammad" found at the end of the English section requires a bit of explanation, as it speaks to the times in which we live and the sometimes precarious state of scholarship when it comes up against larger political forces. In 1993, I published an article in Judaism entitled "Islam and the Halakhah." In the version of the article submitted to the journal, I mentioned that Maimonides referred to Muhammad as a "madman," and in a few lines I also explained the origin of the term. When the article appeared in print, however, I was surprised to find that this had been removed without my knowledge. Naively, I thought that this was an innocent mistake, and I inquired as to what had happened. Imagine my shock when I was told that my article had been censored because the journal did not want to publish anything that could be seen as offensive to Muslims! While some may see this as understandable in the wake of the Salman Rushdie episode, it was nevertheless a betrayal of scholarship, which cannot be guided by political correctness. I would hope that any Muslims who see the "Note on Maimonides and Muhammad" will understand that its intent is not to insult their prophet, but rather to clarify a historical issue.
Studies in Maimonides and His Interpreters is available for purchase here at Amazon.com.
The editors of the Seforim blog take great pride in the first post (of hopefully many frequent posts) at this new web address being able to discuss Professor Shapiro's new work. This is so, as Professor Marc B. Shapiro has been (as many others) a frequent contributor to the Seforim blog. It is such contributions that make the blog so much better.
 Much of the material on R. Hayyim Hirschensohn was brought to my attention by Marc Herman, "Orthodoxy and Modernity: Rabbi Hayyim Hirschensohn's Malki ba-kodesh," (BA thesis, Brandeis University, 2005), 18-51. For a recent review of the scholarly consensus on R. Hayyim Hirschensohn, see Marc B. Shapiro, "Review of Jewish Commitment in a Modern World: Rabbi Hayyim Hirschenson and His Attitude to Modernity by David Zohar," The Edah Journal 5:1 (Tammuz 5765): 1-6. Additionally, parts of the material on this topic of claiming that people forgot, comes from R. Shmuel Ashkenazi's article "Helem Davar u-Tous Sofer." Ashkenazi's article was originally supposed to appear in the journal Or Yisrael no. 15 (Nissan 5659), but at the last minute the editors decided not to publish it and instead the article was published separately in a run of 25 copies. Ashkenazi, himself an outstanding repository of material - it seems unlikely he forgets but he is human - in this article lists numerous examples of errors that can only be attributed to forgetfulness or printing error. For instance, Ashkenazi notes that R. Yechiel Epstein in his Arukh Ha-Shulhan states "it is surprising that the Rif does not mention the laws of yayin pagum, not in the eigth chapter of berakhot discussing the laws of wine for blessing, or in the tenth chapter of Pesachim regarding kiddush and havdalah." In fact, however, the Rif in the tenth chapter of Pesachim does discuss the laws of yayin pagum.
Or, the case of R. Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gunzberg (author of Shu"t Shaagat Aryeh), who notes in his Turei Even, that "we never find anywhere that the reading of the Bikurim passage is called Vidyu." Turei Even, Megilah, 20, s.v. mihu. Ashkenazi cites R. Yeruchum Fishel Perlow's comments in the journal Noam who notes R. Gunzberg forgot the mishna in Bikurim 2:2 which calls this recitation "viduy" as well as the Rambam in the laws of Bikurim 3:5, who says "it is a mitzvah to preform viduy on the bikurim." Ashkenazi adds the Tosefta in Bekurim chapter one and the Yerushalmi Bikurim, chapter 2 also refer to this process as viduy.
Another example, this one with the Hida. The Hida in Machzik Beracha (O.C. 468:10) and Lev David (end of chapter 10) states the author of the SeMaK is R. Yecheil. But, the real author is R. Yitzhak Corbeil. The Hida, in his own work on Hebrew bibliography, Shem ha-Gedolim, actually gets it right. But, it appears that he forgot that when he wrote these other works.
 R. Moshe Feinstein also argues the Sifre is not connected with the Talmudic statement. See Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah II, #44-45. R. Feinstein, however, ultimately comes to the opposite conclusion then that of R. Hirschensohn - the opinion of the Rambam must be followed and women cannot hold high office.
 As an aside, one of the many letters to R. Hirschensohn regarding women's voting rights came from Yehiel Mihel Goldberg from Radom. Goldberg attempts to bolster R. Hirschensohn with the (now) well-known statement of R. Shmuel Archivolti in his Ma'ayan Ganim and recorded by R. Barukh ha-Levi Epstein in both his Torah Temimah and Mekor Barukh that supposedly is a halakhic statement which allows for women to study Talmud. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the Ma'ayan Ganim is not a responsa work or halakhic work. But, Goldberg's use of the Torah Temimah for this point seems to be the earliest. While the Torah Temimah was first printed in 1902 and then reprinted in 1904, it was not reprinted until 1928 and Goldberg's letter was written in 1921. Perhaps Goldberg's use evidences that the Torah Temimah was well received soon after it was published.
 This work, Helem Davar was recently printed (Beni Brak, 2006) for the first time in book form from manuscript - it also was printed as part of the lager book Iggerot ve-Haskmot Rabbenu ha-Hida also in 2006. Prior to this 2006 publication, R. Yehuda Leib Maimon published Helem Davar in the journal Sinai 43 (1948): 301-15. The 2006 edition includes Maimon's original article as well as a commentary on Helem Davar, Hokher Davar.
 This argument, essentially a slippery slope argument, is also applied to making textual emendations. See, e.g. R. Y. Landau, Noda be-Yehuda Kama, Even ha-Ezer, 32; this issue is discussed by Y.S. Spiegel, Amudim be-Tolodot Sefer ha-Ivri Haghot u-Maghim, Ramat Gan, 2007, pp. 255-56.