Emunat Hakhamim: Faith in the Sages

by: Simha Friedman

Faith in the Sages

By: Simha Friedman

This article originally appeared in Tradition 27,4 1993. Appears here with permission.

The subject of this article, emunat hakhamim and da’at Torah is not a new one. In our day, it constitutes a very real issue for the religious community confronting the State of Israel and the secular component of its life. This same issue troubled our ancestors during the period of the struggle between Hasidim and Mitnaggedim; it was one to which the rabbis of the medieval period and the Sages of the Talmud (Hazal) related; and the books of the Prophets support the contention that it contributed its share as well to the conflict between monarchy and prophecy in ancient times. True, the nature of the tension between spiritual and socio-political authority may have varied from one period to the next, in the same way as the balance of power between them was not always the same. But such crises as the controversy of Korah and his band, the imprisonment of the prophet Jeremiah in the court of the guard, the burning of Maimonides’ works in the thirteenth century, and the appeal to the Russian authorities to help stem the strengthening of Hasidism at the beginning of the nineteenth century, all represent tragic examples of this tension for the believing Jew. It is a twofold problem: first, does the Jewish religion tolerate the existence of separate realms of sovereignty for these two authorities? Second, is it possible to clarify these boundaries so as to enable the two realms to coexist, or must one function at the expense of the other?

I shall attempt to expand below upon the meaning I attribute to the various components that I identify as relating to this subject, insofar as I have found support for them in our literature, and to respond to the two parts of the problem as I have presented them. I consider this effort from the perspective of “It is Torah and learn it I must.” Indeed, I have no other goal in this discussion other than engaging in the process of shared study.

In doing so, I model myself upon what I have learned from R. Moshe Sofer in a responsum written after R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes had presented him with a copy of his book, Torat ha-Nevi’im. In his introduction, R. Chajes expressed the fear that critics will reproach him with the argument that he had innovated nothing new, and therefore there seemed no purpose in his writing what he did. The Hatam Sofer, however, encouraged him to publish his book, for his intention is to increase Torah knowledge. He found support for his position in an incident involving R. Abba (Bezah 38a-b). Prior to his aliyah to the Land of Israel, R. Abba uttered the prayer: “May it be Thy will that I say things which are acceptable to the Sages of the Land of Israel.” The Talmud explains, however, that his prayer went unanswered, for during the course of a certain encounter in a bet midrash in Israel, R. Abba was ridiculed for a particular proof he had brought. The Hatam Sofer drew a comparison between R. Abba’s prayer which went unanswered and a similar prayer of R. Nehunya ben ha-Kanah (Berakhot 28b), who also requested, prior to teaching Torah, that he not stumble in matters of halakhah and that his fellow scholars rejoice in him and which was granted. The Hatam Sofer explained the difference between the two in the fact that R. Abba sought to find favor on the part of those who would hear him and was therefore unsuccessful, while R. Nehunya ben ha-Kanah prayed simply to be guided toward the truth of the halakhah, but was not concerned with the approval of his listeners and therefore succeeded. The Hatam Sofer inferred from this that as long as the intention of the disputants is to determine the truth of their views, there is a chance that each side will act with intellectual honesty in order to clarify the matter. However, once their aim is purely to convince the other party of the validity of their position, the desire to win the argument is likely to result in the lack of objective judgment and therefore they will be unsuccessful [1].


Emunat hakhamim is enumerated in the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot among the forty-eight items which are indispensable conditions for the acquisition of Torah. Opinions vary as to what it means in this context. R. Simhah of Vitri states that it refers to the willingness of the person studying the Oral Torah to trust the words of Hazal and to accept them in toto, with all their implications. In his words, “he should believe in their words, unlike the Saducees or Boethusians.” [2] This implies that only one who takes upon himself the yoke of the Oral law merits acquiring Torah. It is not explained whether rabbinic aggadah (legends, homilies, general moral adages, and the like) is included under this rubric, but there can be no doubt that it does apply to everything under the heading of halakhah, including laws (dinim, edicts (gezerot), rules (takkanot) and ordinances (seyagim) as well as the various hermeneutical rules by which the Torah is interpreted. Whoever adheres to this basic position thereby expresses his faith in the Sages, and is thus fit and deserving to acquire mastery over the Torah.

According to the conception presented by Rabbi Isaac Aboab in his Menorat ha-Ma’or, emunat hakhamim encompasses the aggadot as well as the halakhot. He wrote:

We are required to believe whatever they [i.e., the Sages], of blessed memory, said in the midrashim and aggadot, as we do in the Torah of Moses our teacher, of blessed memory. And if we find there something which appears to us to be exaggerated or outside of nature, we must attribute it to the short comings of our own comprehension, and not to their utterance. …For every person ought to believe that whatever is written in their name is a true thing (davar amiti)…[3]

R. Aboab evidently thinks that all statements found in aggadah merit the same level of acceptance and belief as is granted to halakhic teaching. In other words, both halakhah and aggadah are considered as “words received by tradition (divrei kabbalah).” If we do not agree with them, the the shortcoming can only lie in the limits of our own understanding and in the profundity of the subject matter under consideration. It follows – and I quote again – that “every person ought to believe that whatever is written in their [i.e. the Sages’] name is a true thing (davar amiti) and he ought not mock it- neither in his mouth nor in his heart.”

The author of Menorat ha-Ma’or, therefore, rejects any kind of skepticism. He does not indicate whether he advocates an extreme fundamentalist approach similar to that found in the world of the hasidic folk story – i.e., in the spirit of credo quia absurdum est– or whether he advises one who is doubtful or questioning of a given passage to turn to various kinds of symbolic or metaphoric interpretations in order to understand the legends of the Sages. It is also difficult, on the basis of the remarks in his introduction, to tell with certainty which way he decided. However, there can be no doubt that in his view, following the act of intellectual criticism there must come the act of faith- submission to whatever is written in the name of the Sages. But even having said that, one question remains open: does the term Hazal include only the Sages of the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash, or does it include whoever believes in their words down to our own days- and perhaps every venerable disciple, as well as whatever he may innovate in the future? If the latter is indeed the case, then one is obligated to follow the words of the Sages even with regard to extra-halakhic matters. The Sifristates:

“You shalt not turn aside (lo tasur) from the matter which they shall declare unto thee, to the right hand, nor to the left” (Deut. 17:11), even if it seems to you [that they say] that left is right and right is left, you shall listen to them. [4]

Rabbi Samuel b. Isaac Uceda, following the approach of Menorat ha-ma’or, likewise explains what he considers to be the nature ofemunat hakhamim. In his commentary to Avot, known as Midrash Shmuel, he writes:

He should believe in everything taught by our Rabbis, of blessed memory, as if it were given to Moses on Sinai. Concerning this it states, “you shall not turn aside.” For if he fails to believe in even one thing, the secrets of the Torah will not be revealed to him, and in the end this will cause him to become a Saducee, for one sin brings another in its wake.

This position, articulated by a disciple of R. Isaac Luria and a colleague of R. Moses Cordovero, is more explicit than that of R. Aboab. A person who doubts even one saying of the Rabbis has committed a sin, is well on his way to adopting the Saduceean heresy and is barred from acquiring the Torah and its secrets in any lasting way.

This same line of thought, presenting the concept of emunat hakhamim with a certain aura of naivete, is quite clearly articulated in the book Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, written by the late Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, one of the leading exponents of Musar teaching in our generation. Rabbi Dessler was active in and influential upon English Orthodox Jewry in the circle of the Gateshead Yeshiva, and also taught in Bnei Berak. He writes:

The definition of emunat hakhamim follows from this. One who wishes to believe them may make use of their clarity of vision and perception so that they may be his guide. We may straighten our world-view and our practical behavior through their words. Moreover, it is only to the extent that we become their disciples and exert ourselves to understand their way of thought that our own thought becomes straight. Therefore, the great ones of our generation, whose life occupation was to continue as loyal disciples of the way of thought of our Sages, merited this straightness to a tremendous degree; so much so that their opinion, even in matters for which they had no explicit source, and even ordinary advice in worldly matters (setam ezot bi-mili di-alma) is true and clear, “as a man inquires of the word of God” (II Samuel 16:23), as our eyes have seen, thank God, also in this generation. [5]

(Perhaps it is permissible to note here that which occurred to me when examining the above-quoted biblical source. I was struck by the irony of the fact that the verse, ”as a man inquires of the word of God”, refers to the infamous advice of Ahithophel. I do not know whether Rabbi Dessler felt this irony, but I would have been hesitant to quote this verse in such a context.)

In any event, there are two things that we may infer from Rabbi Dessler’s remarks: (1) Our great Sages of all generations, insofar as they loyally continue the ways of thought of the talmudic Sages of old, receive clear and true vision concerning matters for which there is no clear source, including worldly matters as well. (2) The benefit derived from faith in the Sages is such that, insofar as we wish to place our trust in them, they can serve as our guides. It is interesting to note that faith in the Sages- which in his view even includes extra-halakhic areas such as worldly advice relevant to the community and the individual- is not imposed upon us but presented as offering certain benefits of assured efficacy to those who choose to believe in them. Rabbi Dessler’s view concerning this matter is further expanded in another letter in that same volume in which he replies to the argument that, in light of the awesome events of the Holocaust, is one not forced to conclude that those rabbinic leaders who opposed the mass immigration of Jews from Europe to the Land of Israel during the period prior to World War II were fatally mistaken. He wrote:

From your remarks [I do not know to whom these words are addressed-SF], I see that you think that all the great Sages of Israel, whose actions were for the sake of Heaven, and who were both geniuses of the intellect and pillars of righteousness, and who, in all of their judgments and halakhic rulings, doubt less [manifested] the verse, “God is present in the divine assembly” (to quote the words of Nahmanides on Deut. 17:11 and Kuzari III:41 )-that they were all entirely mistaken. Heaven forbid, that there should be such a thing in Israel! …For I had the privilege to know some of these geonim personally, and I observed them in assemblies concerning matters of Klal Yisra’el….And I may conclusively say…that whoever was privileged to stand before them on such an occasion was convinced that he saw the Shekhinah resting upon the works of their hands, and that the Holy Spirit dwelled in their circle [the author is referring to such Jews as the Hafez Hayyim and the like-SF]. …And our Sages have already instructed us to listen to the words of the wise (hakhamim), even when they say that left is right, and not to say, Heaven forbid, that they have certainly erred for a little person such as myself concretely perceives their error. Rather, my perception is completely nullified as the dust of the earth, compared with the clarity of their intellect and the divine assistance [which they receive]….It seems likely that what one thinks is perception is no more than [one’s] imagination and an evil spirit. This is the Torah opinion (da’at ha-Torah) concerning the definition of emunat hakhamim….The source of all sin and the beginning of all destruction, Heaven forbid, is the failure to acknowledge the nullification (hitbatlut) [of one’s own self] in relation to our Sages, for all of one’s merits are of no account compared with the root of everything, which is faith in the Sages. [6]

In this letter, Rabbi Dessler outlines several important points which make it clear how and why he arrived at this point of view concerning emunat hakhamim, and what his conclusions are regarding the contradiction between our faith and what we perceive with our senses:

First, gedolei yisrael, all of whose acts are for the sake of Heaven and who are “geniuses of the intellect and pillars of righteousness,” merit tangible divine help (siya’ata di-shmaya) in their halakhic rulings, in the sense of “God is present in the divine assembly.” It follows, therefore, that it is inconceivable that they could have erred in their evaluation of the crisis situation for the Jewish people prior to the Second World War.

Second, whoever observed them from close proximity during their deliberations concerning matters pertaining to the entire Jewish people clearly knows that the Divine Presence (Shekhinah) rested upon them and the Holy Spirit (ru’ah ha-kodesh) was present at their gathering- even in worldly matters (bi-mili di-alma). It follows from this that it is our obligation to listen to the words of the Sages even in such matters.

Third, it is implied from this that it was not they who were in error, but rather our own perception and evaluation of the situation which misled us. In any confrontation between our own understanding and their directives, we must subjugate ourselves completely to them. Whereas we “see only what which is visible to the eyes,” they penetrate to the very heart and essence of events and historical reckoning.

To summarize-and I again quote – “This is the Torah opinion (da’at Torah) concerning the definition of emunat hakhamim.”

Rabbi Dessler’s position may have been based upon an observation of Nahmanides. The Talmud (Bava Batra 12a) states: “R. Avdimi of Haifa said, ‘Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been removed from prophets and given to the Sages’.” Nahmanides explains this saying as follows: “Even though prophecy- i.e., vision and apparition- has been removed from the prophets, the prophecy of the Sages, which is [vouchsafed them] by means of their wisdom, has not been nullified. Rather, they know the truth through the ruah ha-kodesh which is within them…” [7] The context of the remarks there suggests that Nahmanides is referring to wisdom concerning worldly matters which emanates from the ruah ha-kodesh present among the Sages.


From all that we have seen thus far, it would appear that authoritative figures of our tradition attribute to the Sages of Israel- not only those of previous generations, but also those who follow their path down to our own day- the ability, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit which they were and are privileged to receive, to see further than we ordinary people can with the powers of our own minds. It is not too far a step from that to the demand that we not rely upon our own opinions and understanding even with regard to matters of politics, economics, society and education, unless we have received the approval of the great Sages of our day.

It is the declared aim of the “Council of Great Torah Scholars” (Mo’e zet Gedolei ha- Torah) of Agudat Israel to provide the established organizational expression of this demand. Also, the hasid who seeks the advice and guidance of his rebbe regarding all major decisions of his own private life is another expression of this idea. More recently, the question addressed to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel in the summer of 1972 concerning the participation of religious Jewry in a particular coalition government and its echoes among various sectors of the Israeli religious public, reflected a clear indication of the confusion regarding the role of emunat hakhamim in light of the above-mentioned formulation of Rabbi Dessler, which is presented as the only legitimate understanding of this notion for the believing Jew.

I shall examine this subject from various different viewpoints, beginning with the following questions:

(1) Is the viewpoint on emunat hakhamim summarized in the writings of Rabbi Dessler, indeed, the only legitimate position for the religious Jew, such that it may be presented as “The Torah opinion” (da’at Torah) with a capital “T”?

(2) Is this matter to be seen as one to be determined by the usual rules of halakhic decision-making (pesak), or does it belong to the realm of beliefs and opinions (emunot ve-de’ot), in which one finds a multiplicity of views in Judaism?

(3) If it is not the only valid view, what alternative to it exists, and what degree of validity may be accorded to any such alternative view regarding this subject?


I shall preface my remarks on this matter with an explanation of the concept da’at Torah, an offshoot of emunat hakhamim so widely used today that at times one wonders whether it ought not to be included among those things of which our Sages said that they are difficult in large measure, but good in small amounts…All told, the phrase da’at Torah appears only once in the entire Talmud, in the course of a dispute among the Tannaim as to whether or not the prohibition against eating the sciatic nerve of an animal applies only to the right thigh, or also to the left (Hullin 90b). According to R. Yehudah, only the nerve of the right thigh is prohibited, while according to the tanna kamma, both are- and such is the halakhah. The following is the language of the Tosefta (Hullin VII:1): “R. Yehudah said: ‘It is not observed save in one, and da’at determines that it is in the right one.’ ” The Talmud states: “They asked: ‘Is it clear to R. Yehudah that it is the right thigh, and what is meant by da’at here is da’at Torah, or is it doubtful to him and what is meant by da’at is da’at noteh (Rashi: uncertain but probable)’?”

On the phrase da’at Torah, Rashi comments, ”as is deduced below,” referring to the statement of the Talmud further on (Hullin 91a) that the exegesis of the original biblical verse (Genesis 32:32) from which the prohibition is derived is based upon the use of the definite article, i.e., “the thigh muscle which is on the socket of the hip” (al kaf ha-yarekh) which is taken to be a specific reference to the right thigh. In this context, “da’at Torah” means a law inferred by the accepted method of exegesis of biblical texts, as opposed to something learned purely by logical inference. I do not know when the phrase da’at Torah began to be used in its newer sense to indicate that a halakhic conclusion, arrived at by a halakhic authority on the basis of his analysis of talmudic sources or of the opinions of the Rishonim and Aharonim who preceded him, has the weight of the tradition of pesak. A similar phrase is used in the edicts (takkanot) of halakhic authorities (ba’alei hora’ah) when they wish to emphasize their own legitimacy or ap peal to their flock to acknowledge their authority, as in the expression: “our opinion is the Torah opinion (da’atenu da’at Torah).” But even in these cases, the goal is to underscore the fact that the content of these enactments is compatible with what had been accepted by halakhic authorities over the generations, both substantively and procedurally.

To the best of my knowledge, however, there never was an intention to provide the subject matter under discussion with a meta-halakhic authority known as “da’at Torah.” Yet, there is a tendency in contemporary religious circles to lend precisely such a metaphysical quality to the concept of “da’at Torah” when speaking of those problems which, by their nature, are not subject to the usual form of halakhic treatment. By means of the notion that, “There is nothing which is not alluded to in the Torah,” they wish to give to the opinions of contemporary religious authorities concerning worldly matters (mili di-alma) the status of da’at Torah, as if they were equivalent to strictly halakhic decisions, and hence mandating the acceptance of those opinions with the force of biblical law (by including them as well in the prohibition of lo tasur (Deut. 17:11).

This tendency is extremely problematic for a number of reasons, several of which I shall enumerate. First of all, from the talmudic discussion of “the stove of Akhnai” (Bava Mezi’a 59b) we learn that one is not required to heed a divine voice, because “it is not in Heaven.” Even prophecy has no status in the process of halakhic decision-making, as explained by Maimonides in the Introduction to Seder Zera’im in his Commentary to the Mishnah. Thus, the attempt to present da’at Torah as a quasi-halakhic authority in areas to which the accepted procedures of pesak do not generally apply is destined to failure because it is, in fact, opposed to halakhah. For in halakhah itself no such metaphysical considerations are in the least bit authoritative. Indeed, our rabbis teach us that a law or principle derived by an argument ad majus can only be as strict as the law from which it is derived; one cannot go beyond its own letter (“dayo lavo min ha-din liheyot ke-nidon“).

Secondly, even if we assume that support can be found within the tradition for the position that the opinions of great Sages in worldly matters are authoritative-e.g., Nahmanides’ explanation of the statement, “the sage is preferable to the prophet” because “they know the truth through the ruah ha-kodesh which is in their midst” [8] – it does not thereby necessarily obligate others to accept it. Indeed, even Rabbi Dessler does not make this claim. I have already cited his carefully formulated passage above in which he states: “The definition of emunat hakhamim follows from this. One who wishes to believe them may make use of their clarity of vision and perception, so that they may be his guide.” [9] Note the phrase, “one who wishes to believe them.” The jump from advice to obligation is a far-reaching one and is made only by those who choose to do so. It is not an authority that can be summarily imposed upon anyone who does not choose to accept it.

Third, we do not find that those who were asked questions in the extra-halakhic realm relied upon metaphysical inspiration, such asruah ha- kodesh or a bat kol. It is true that such examples are forthcoming in the halakhic realm (as opposed to the extra- or meta-halakhic one). Thus, Rabbi Jacob ha-Levi of Marvege, in a responsum concerning the ritual immersion of those who have had seminal pollution, states:

After having seen all these, I asked, on Monday night, 19 Kislev, whether it came to my mouth from God or not [that is, whether the answer I had received was from a divine source]. And this was my question [it is worth noting to what extent Rabbi Jacob is troubled by doubts-SF]: “O Supreme King…command thy holy angels charged with replying to dream-questions to give a true and correct reply to what I will ask before Your Glory…(to tell me) whether the things are emanated from the Holy Spirit…or whether they came to me from another spirit”…And they replied: “In truth, it was the word of God.” [10]

But with all due respect for R. Jacob of Marvege, R. Hayyim Joseph David Azulai (the Hida) saw it necessary to confront the problema tics of even halakhic rulings based upon ruah ha-kodesh. He wrote:

…In Shem ha-Gedolim, Part I, p. 34, I wrote that according to Maimonides who ruled that a prophet who stated that, “such-and-such a line of reasoning is correct” is subject to (death by) strangulation (Hil. Yesodei ha-Torah 9:4)- the Sages of that generation should decide that law. But, even according to him, if there is a dispute among the Sages of the generation and no one is in a position to determine the law, then they are permitted to ask from Heaven [to tell them] according to which of the holy ones the halakhah is (to be decided), and it is fitting to act according to what we have been shown from Heaven. As the Rabad wrote in [his Hasagot to Maimonides’] Hilkhot Lulav 8:5: “The Holy Spirit has already appeared in our study house for many years, and we have determined that it (i.e., a lopped-off myrtle] is unfit.” And Rabbi Jacob Segal did likewise, asking questions of heaven, and he was answered. [At this point there comes a very significant comment-SF:] And if one rabbi sees fit to disagree, he may do so, for it is not in Heaven [i.e., one is permitted to listen, but one is also permitted to disagree]. Nahmanides likewise [cited by Maggid Mishneh and Migdal Oz on that same passage in Hilkhot Lulav) disagreed with what Rabad wrote concerning that law, “The Holy Spirit has already appeared…” [11]

R. Azulai was unable to ignore the contradiction between “questions from Heaven” on the one hand which are permitted and “it is not in Heaven” on the other which limits the authority of the answers received. Indeed, his solution demands significant restrictions both on the posing of the questions and on the validity of the answers received. His basic assumptions are drawn from the methodology of rational discourse as customarily practiced in the crystallization of normative halakhic decisions. He was clearly justified in reining in the somewhat anarchic tendencies of turning for halakhic decision-making to an extra-rational source, an activity which clearly represented a threat to the unity of the Torah and its observance. There are, indeed, examples in Jewish history which indicate that this danger and its possible consequences ought not to be taken lightly. The Hida’s response does not involve any paradox; on the contrary, it can serve as a paradigm for our discussion.

A similar solution to the same problem is proposed by R. Moses ibn Habib, a Jerusalem rabbi who was one of the great halakhic authorities of the the seventeenth century, although he arrives at his solution in a different way. While the Hida relates to the Rabad’s remarks in his comments to Maimonides’ Hilkhot Lulav in their literal sense and sees a need for restrictions, as stated above, ibn Habib interprets them in a non-literal manner. In his discussion of this matter, he rules in accordance with the opinion of Alfasi and Maimonides and against Rabad, and he then adds:

I saw that the Rival (III: 110) understood that the Holy Spirit had literally appeared in the study house of the Rabad, but that Nahmanides nevertheless’ disagreed with him because “it is not in Heaven.” But, with all due respect to him, it seems to me that the Rabad did not praise himself that the Holy Spirit literally came to him regarding this law, but he said this only by way of hyperbole (derekh guzma), because the interpretation and the distinction he made greatly appealed to him. Behold, the words of the Rabad are cited in his book Temim De’im [12] where it is clear that he adopted this position by virtue of [the power of his arguments and questions, and did not present them in the name of the Holy Spirit…] In any event, the truth of the matter is thus: that [even] if one offers a particular explanation on the grounds of having heard it from the Holy Spirit, one may disagree with him, because “it is not in Heaven,” and one need not take heed of a Heavenly voice- and note this. [13]

Further light is shed upon the subject of the limitations placed upon the validity of rulings which originate in a non-rational source by R. Simeon b. Zemah Duran (Rashbaz). R. Duran was asked a question concerning an adhesion to the wall of an animal’s lung, in which the wall itself was injured in such a way that the adhesion spread beyond the place of the injury, so that its signs were still recognizable even though the broken rib had healed. While according to the opinion of the Geonim and the Rashba the animal is prohibited in such a case, there were those who followed the opinion of R. Asher who permits it. Rashbaz addressed the issue as to which is the preferred opinion and wrote:

I shall relate to you what happened to me. One night, I dreamt that I was eating unclean things, and I awoke trembling and with a disturbed mind. The messenger who buys me meat had brought me meat on that day and said jestingly: “This meat was prohibited and was permitted.” I asked him: “How?” He said: “They found signs of an injury on the wall [of the lung]” [as in the case of the question he was asked]. And I said: “This must be the unclean thing that I was eating in my dream.” And I ordered him to return it. Since that time, I have been scrupulous about such things and prohibited it to my self, but have not the power to forbid it to others, so as not to cause monetary loss to Jews, it being already customary to permit it. And when I am asked why I refrain from this, I answer: “Because it is an animal concerning which a Sage has ruled and it is considered a pious act (mi-darkei hasidut) for a person to abstain from it [as the Talmud states in Hullin 37b-SF].” Hear and you shall know. [14]

Three points in this responsum are of interest to our discussion. First, the upset that was caused to the Rashbaz by his dream combined with the incident with the servant and his bantering remark. Second, he did not feel that he had the power to forbid this meat for other people because the Torah does not cause a monetary loss for Jews. Third, when he explained to others why he abstained from meat of this type, he did not mention the illumination he had received in the dream, but only the element of supererogatory piety which he felt obligated him to refrain from meat over which a rabbi had once ruled to be prohibited.

What follows from our examination of the statements of the Hida, R. Moses ibn Habib, and the Rashbaz is that one may not authoritatively rule for others on the basis of various types of heavenly visions or visitations, even when there is no doubt of their having actually taken place. Thus, those who argue the validity of da’at Torah regarding worldly matters by virtue of it being a kind of twin sister of da’at halakhah and derived therefrom, bear the burden of proof, which will stand up to the restrictions imposed by these aforementioned decisors who limit such a conception even in the realm of halakhah.

I have thus far attempted to clarify the ways in which great halakhic masters, both Rishonim and Aharonim, utilized the extra-rational source of ru’ah ha-kodesh in order to respond to halakhic questions, and to what extent they limited themselves in this respect. Given the interpretation of emunat hakhamim and da’at Torah as articulated by R. Isaac Aboab, R. Samuel Uceda, and Rabbi Dessler, one might come to the extreme conclusion that the prohibition of lo tasur would even extend to worldly matters as well. However, we must not forget that there is another, no less legitimate, conception of emunat hakhamim as well. [15]


This conception appears among the Babylonian Geonim, Maimonides and his son R. Abraham, as we shall presently explain. But, before quoting their words, we need to make two preliminary methodological comments.

We may find it useful to explore explanations of the concepts of emunat hakhamim and da’at Torah and their implications for all questions, both public and private, which do not explicitly relate to the categories of issur ve-heter, tumah ve-taharah and the like, and whose solution is not of the kind to be found explicitly elsewhere. But we must be prepared to settle for less than absolute objective proof. We can do no more than reason by analogy, and assume that those limits placed upon the use of the extra- rational within the framework of the halakhah apply also to those decisions which are outside that realm as well. I can think of no surer way of insuring that a barrier exists between the world of faith and that of superstition.

In this context, a few sentences from the Introduction to Sefer Milhamot Hashem of Nahmanides are very relevant. There he declares that the purpose of this work is not to be polemical simply for the sake of victory, but rather “to defend the one being pursued,” i.e., to explain the opinions of R. Isaac Alfasi in response to the attacks directed against them by R. Zerahiah ha-Levi in the latter’s Sefer ha-Ma’or. He warns the student:

There are no absolute proofs in the controversies of its interpreters, [i.e., of the Talmud] nor, in most cases, decisively decided [i.e. decisive answers to] questions. For there are no certain proofs in this science, as there are in algebra or astronomy. But we will apply all our strength which shall be sufficient in any controversy to reject one of the opinions through convincing arguments, and to press it with [contrary] traditions. We will give an advantage to its antagonist, based upon the logic of halakhot and the logic of the sugyot, in accordance with straightforward reasoning [I do not know the exact meaning of hogen ha-sugyot, translated here as “the logic of the sugyot,” but it seems to refer to the continuous, undisturbed working of the intellect-SF). This is the goal of (exercising) our ability and is the aim of every sage and God-fearing person involved with the wisdom of the Talmud.

Nahmanides’ modesty and critical acumen, characteristic of those who study Torah for its own sake and who are alluded to in the verse, “and cling to Him” (Deut. 11 :22), can guide us on the proper path even in an atmosphere where suspicion is expressed about the sincerity of our intentions.

The second preliminary comment is that the alternative understanding of emunat hakhamim to be presented below appeals to human understand ing as the ultimate arbiter in judging the acceptability of the exegeses and legends of Hazal. In the confrontation between emunat hakhamim and human intellect, the latter is granted the right to accept those legends, interpret them or reject them. Underlying this approach is an essentially optimistic evaluation of the strength and reliability of human reason. Admittedly, the history of human thought reveals that a certain change has taken place in the valuation of that faculty; not everything which, in earlier times, was subject to the rule of the intellect is seen thus in our own day. Limitations and restrictions upon its sovereignty have been discovered, of which early thinkers did not take account- either because they were unaware of them, or because it seemed possible to ignore them. Does this mean that we must follow the anti-rationalist school, which removed the crown from reason and placed it upon the head of the ignoramus?

I do not accept this interpretation, for at least two reasons. First, because it stands in opposition to the nature of man as a rational being. Second, because, even within the halakhic realm, the process of decision-making (pesak) is predicated upon the decisions of the human intellect. The Giver of the Torah gave the final authority to Reason in this area, even when the result was not absolute truth. This is not the place to develop this idea further but an analysis of the introduction to the Kezot ha-Hoshen (to Hoshen Mishpat), as well as that of R. Moses Feinstein to his responsa on Orah Hayyim, confirm this argument. If the Holy One, blessed be He, did so with regard to the halakhic portion of His teaching, I see no reason to disqualify human intellect in the aggadic portion as well. [16]

Let us now turn to the alternative approach to emunat hakhamim and da’at Torah , as it emerges from the words of R. Sherira Gaon, R. Hai Gaon, R. Moses Maimonides, and his son, R. Abraham Maimonides.

R. Bahya ibn Paquda already voiced his opinion in the introduction to his Hovot ha-Levavot that the prohibition of lo tasur (Deut. 17:11) applies to the practical aspect of Torah alone (tehum ha-ma’aseh), and not to the realm of opinions (de’ot), which is the major substance of the aggadah. In principle, this statement implies recognition of a plurality of views which is bound to grow in the future as a consequence of the obligation to engage in philosophical reflection, incumbent upon whoever is capable of doing so. He who simply relies-and here I make use of his expression- upon “the sages of the kabbalah [in the technical sense of ‘that which is received’] and the traditional authority” in the realm of aggadot (as we are required to do in the realm of halakhah) is considered by him as someone who does not adequately fulfill the obligations of the heart, regarding which he invokes the requirement that, “you shall know this day and reflect within your heart” (Deut. 4:39). It follows from his remarks that he acknowledges the autonomy of the human intellect in the realm of beliefs and opinions, while not allowing for it in matters of definitive halakhic practice.

True, I found a certain hesitancy regarding this view in the letters of Rabbi Abraham I. Kook. Rabbi Kook claimed that this principle applies only to the teachings of Hazal who lived in Babylonia, but that in the Land of Israel, which is the site of prophecy, matters are different. He writes:

For the wisdom of prophecy, the foundation of the wisdom of the aggadah, which is the inner side (ha-zad ha-penimi) of the principles of Torah, is far more effective in the Land of Israel than in Babylonia, which is unsuitable for prophecy. [17]

In this context, Rabbi Kook explains the difference between the rabbinical treatment of “the rebellious elder” (zaken mamre) in the Babylonian Talmud and the parallel passage in the Jerusalem Talmud. Both interpret the verse, “When a thing (davar) is too baffling for you to decide” (Deut. 17:8), but the Babylonian Talmud explains “davar” as referring to halakhah, whereas the Jerusalem Talmud explains it in reference to aggadah. [18] The implication is clear: if “davar” refers to aggadah, then the prohibition of lo tasur, (which appears three verses later) applies to it as well, thereby prohibiting someone from rejecting any rabbinic aggadah. Rav Kook’s intention is to indicate that aggadah is likewise subject to the decision of the Great Court, so that one who violates its teaching even in this realm is considered as if he has rebelled against them.

However, Rashi (on the above passage in the Babylonian Talmud) states: “davar” refers to the halakhot given to Moses at Sinai.” The commentators to the Jerusalem Talmud- the authors of Korban ha-Edah and Penei Moshe (in his Mar’eh ha-Panim)-follow suit. The latter echoes Rashi in explaining the term aggadah used in the Jerusalem Talmud in its non-literal meaning: “It may be that aggadah …is that which was told (mah shehugad) orally, hearkening back to the halakhah given to Moses at Sinai.” It may be that the author of Penei Moshe bases himself upon Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah which draws the connection between the word “davar” in verse 8 (“when a davar is too baffling for you to decide) and “davar” in verse 11 (“do not turn (lo tasur) from the davar which they tell you”). The talmudic exegesis applies to the former “davar“, while the prohibition of lo tasur applies to the latter. The relevant passage reads: “They therefore said, ‘which they tell you’ [op. cit.]- that there is in this naught but the telling alone; that they tell you what only they know, i.e. that which is from the tradition.” We have thus found the connection between the “aggadah” mentioned by the Jerusalem Talmud and exegesis which is essentially halakhic (i.e., referring to Mosaic halakhot given at Sinai).

In any event, the category of the “rebellious elder” only applies to tefillin, or to those violations which are subject to the punishment of karet and whose unintentional commission requires the bringing of a sin offering. [19] But even in those cases in which no death penalty is involved, it would appear from the examples cited in the Babylonian Talmud that the bet din only exercises its privilege to impose sanctions where concrete action is involved [20] while with regard to merely theoretical cases,the “rebellious elder” is allowed to maintain his opposition to the High Court.

Rabbi Kook himself also does not apply these reservations (about the viewpoint of the Hovot ha-Levavot) to “the order of study outside of the Land of Israel, which is unsuitable to prophecy; therefore the branches of the ruah ha-kodesh are not concentrated upon the halakhah and its analysis there.” Outside of Erez Yisra’el, “the [accepted] opinions are only those which it is possible to arrive at through the logical intellect. Since matters of aggadot have no bearing upon halakhah, [the prohibition of] lo tasur is not pertinent to them.” This is Rabbi Kook’s position.

But may one not argue and say that even Rabbi Kook’s qualification is relevant to those of us who have been privileged to live in the Land of Israel, and that therefore we would be required to listen to the words of the sages of our land also with regard to matters of aggadah, beliefs and opinions? But this is, in fact, not the view of Rabbi Kook, as is evident from what he writes further on in the same letter:

For that reason, the Babylonian Talmud is most important (ikar) for us. … Nevertheless, whenever God, may He be blessed, shall renew the heart of His people and restore the power of the holiness of the Holy Land in a revealed manner, then the light of the Jerusalem Talmud shall be revealed. .. which is aided by the process of the supernal intellect (sekhel elyon), and the received aggadah combines therein with the halakhah in a hidden way… [Note how many secrets there are in this sentence! – SF].

It follows from this that, for the present – namely, so long as that renewal has not taken place- the approach advocated by the author of Hovot ha-Levavot regarding the autonomy of the human intellect in the realm of belief and opinions remains valid and legitimate, even in the land of Israel, and even according to the view of Rabbi Kook.


In connection with emunat hakhamim and da’at Torah, it is important to note the definition of the concept of aggadah given in the work entitled “Mavo ha-Talmud” – what it includes, and to what extent we are required to accept its contents. Authorship of the Mavo is ascribed by tradition to R. Shmuel ha-Nagid, but there are those who attribute it to R. Shmuel bar Hofni Gaon. Among the twenty-one elements of the Talmud listed there, the Mavo defines the aggadah, in contrast with the halakhah, as follows:

Haggadah is any interpretation which appears in the Talmud concerning a matter which is not a mitzvah. This is [called] aggadah, and one need only learn from it that which seems logically correct (ela mah she-ya’aleh al ha-da’at). For you must know that whatever our Sages affirmed as being a mitzvah received from Moses our teacher, of blessed memory, which he in turn received from the Almighty, one may not add thereto nor remove therefrom. But that which the Sages interpreted, each one according to what occurred to him and what he saw fit in his mind, one learns what one finds acceptable from these interpretations and one need not rely upon the rest.

This approach of the author of Mavo ha-Talmud concerning aggadah, in which a distinction is drawn between those matters of mitzvah which we are commanded to obey, and those matters which are not mitzvah which we may either accept or reject according to our own understanding, is not a unique one. R. Sherira Gaon also wrote:

Those matters which are inferred from biblical verses, known as midrash and aggadah, are but conjecture. ..therefore one does not rely upon aggadah…: That which seems correct in them, which is supported by the intellect and Scripture, we shall accept. For there is no end to aggadot. [21]

Parenthetically, R. Shmuel bar Hofni Gaon goes even further than R. Sherira Gaon, in that he takes exception even to what is stated in Scripture itself (I Samuel 28) concerning the invocation of the prophet Samuel from the dead by the witch of Ein-Dor. He says: “We are not required to accept the words of the ancient ones (divrei ha-kadmonim) if they contradict the intellect.” R. Hai Gaon disagrees with his view, stating that,

It is obvious that if Scripture clearly relates a certain event which happened in a unique way, we are required to believe literally that this thing happened in that way, even if it is beyond our ability to explain it. [22]

Like the author of Mavo ha-Talmud, Rav Hai Gaon also distinguishes between the binding authority of the halakhah and the freer nature of the aggadah. He explains as follows:

You ought to know that the words of the aggadah are unlike the received traditions (shemu’ah). Rather, each person expounds them as occurs to him, [saying] “perhaps” and “one can say”- not in a clearcut matter (davar hatukh). Therefore, one need not base oneself upon them. [23]

It is not inconceivable that, in his use of the term hatukh [“clear-cut”] Rav Hai Gaon was alluding to the Aramaic root equivalent to the term pesak, as if to say: the aggadah is not like a pesak halakhah which we must accept as given. But even if we forego this linguistic conjecture, it is clear from the content of his rather explicit words that this is what was intended.

It is thus clear that those who defined emunat hakhamim in such a way as to include aggadah among those things which must be accepted under the rubric of lo tasur differed with the opinion of the above-mentioned Geonim who reflect the view of the author of theHovot ha-Levavot, according to which the obligation to heed the words of the Sages does not apply to matters of faith and belief. Those who disagree with the position of Rav Sherira Gaon and Rav Hai Gaon have no adequate grounds for claiming that it is forbidden to accept their view. All that one may say in relation to aggadah- i.e., any statement of Hazal which does not specifically pertain to a mitzvah – is that there are those who require one to accept it, and others who allow one to reject it if it does not make sense. Being that this controversy was not settled by a vote among the Sages, every believing Jew is permitted to choose his own opinion as he sees fit. Nobody maintains that views regarding these matters are to be imposed by force – and certainly not in the name of the Torah!

Rav Hai Gaon makes another distinction in relation to aggadah, in that he ranks its authority in terms of the source in which it is cited. He writes:

Whatever is stated in the Talmud is clearer [i.e., more authoritative] than what is not stated therein. Nevertheless, the aggadot written there, insofar as they are unclear or confused, are not to be relied upon for there is a rule, “one does not rely upon aggadah.” But we must try to remove any confusion regarding whatever is stated in the Talmud when we can, for were the confusion not intended to expound [some matter], it would not have been placed in the Talmud. But if we are unable to clarify its confusion, it is considered as one of those things which are not binding as halakhah. But as for that which is not stated in the Talmud, we need not go so far [to attempt to clarify its meaning]; so long as it is correct and beautiful, we expound it and teach it, but if not- we take no notice thereof. [24]

A clear distinction is thus drawn here between those things whose source is talmudic and those which are extra-talmudic – i.e., from Midrashim.

Parenthetically, Rashbam (R. Samuel b. Meir) vigorously rejects whatever does not appear in the Talmud, even if it is stated in Midrash Rabbah. Thus, he did not accept the aggadah in Shemot Rabbah (1:26) concerning Moses’ stuttering, offered in explanation of the phrase, “heavy of mouth.” He wrote:

Is it possible that a prophet who knew God face to face, and received the Torah directly from His Own hand, would stutter in his speech? This matter does not appear in the words of the Tannaim or Amoraim, and one does not take heed of the external [i.e., non-canonical] books (sefarim ha-hizoniyim). [25]

This statement clearly refers only to the words of the Tannaim and Amoraim cited in the Talmud, for the above-mentioned midrash likewise cites the words of Amoraim, albeit not found in the Talmud. Rashbam evidently accepted the distinction drawn by Rav Hai Gaon between those aggadot found in the Talmud and those found elsewhere in rabbinic literature. However, according to Rav Hai Gaon, even those statements which are part of the Talmud are subject to the limits imposed by what common sense is prepared to accept.

Another example of the limitation of the authority of the aggadah appears in the realm of medicine. In a responsum concerning the reliability of medicinal remedies mentioned in the Talmud, Rav Sherira Gaon states:

We must tell you that the Sages were not physicians, and whatever they saw in their day was in accordance with the experience they had accumulated with the sick. Theirs were not words of mitzvah and therefore one should not rely upon those remedies. It is forbidden to make anything of them until one examines and determines with certainly, by physicians who are expert in the matter, that this remedy will not harm him, for it is forbidden for a person to place his life in danger- and thus did our ancestors and elders teach us… [26]

When the subject under discussion is an halakhic one, such as preservation of the life of a sick person, talmudic aggadah is subject to the confirmation of contemporary medical science and experience. The Maharsha (R. Samuel Eliezer Edels) undoubtedly accepted this principle, but nevertheless he felt the need to comment:

One can see from this that the Talmud is not deficient in any of the wisdoms (haser mi-kol ha-hokhmot) because for every illness you will find in it a complete and reliable remedy, to those who understand their language. Let no one mock the Sages of the Talmud by saying that they were deficient in knowledge of medicine. [27]

The restriction implied by the words, “to those who understand their language,” is rather surprising. Did Maharsha wish to lay the blame on us for our own lack of knowledge of how to make proper use of the medical prescriptions of the Talmud? Practically, there can be no reason for using them, because instructions which are not understandable are irrelevant, particularly in the realm of medicine in which real physical danger may be involved. I do not know what his intention was. Perhaps this passage too must be seen in light of what he wrote in the Introduction to his Hiddushei Halakhot: “aggadot whose literal meaning is strange and remote. ..from [the understanding oft the intellect (sekhel)] …[must be understood in keeping with the verse] “the honor of God is in the hiddenness of the thing” [Prov. 25:2].”

In any event, according to Rav Sherira Gaon, one is not to ascribe authority to the talmudic Sages within the medical realm. Unlike the case of halakhah in which the tradition was received at Sinai, Hazal‘s knowledge of medicine reflects the knowledge and experience of their time alone, and therefore has no more authority than does general medical science of that period.


Maimonides’ opinion concerning the proper understanding of aggadic literature appears in his Commentary to the Mishnah, Introduction to Perek Helek. The view he accepts is that of the “third group” discussed there- namely, “those who understand by way of parable and metaphor those portions of the aggadah which are not acceptable in their literal meaning.” [28]

He also confines the authority of the Sages to halakhic matters alone, for they were transmitted to them as part of the oral tradition given at Sinai. By contrast, their remarks concerning astronomy reflect the condition of the science in their day, as they received it from the Greek scholars. True, the basis of the Hebrew calendar as we have it is to be found in books written by the Greek scholars concerning the calculations of equinoxes, solstices and other computations. Yet, the reason for considering their calculations and rules to be correct is that they are supported by indisputable objective proofs; the personality of the scientist responsible for them is irrelevant to their validity. In his presentation of these astronomical rules and calculations, Maimonides wrote:

Since all of those things are established with clear proofs which are faultless, and it is impossible for a person to question them, one is not concerned about the author – whether they were composed by prophets, or whether they were composed by [scholars] of non-Jewish nations; for in every thing whose reason is manifest and whose truth is known by means of proofs which are beyond reproach, we rely upon the person who said them or taught them, based upon this manifest proof and the reason which is known. [29]

Thus, the basis for the reliability of the calculations and intercalations found in the Hebrew calendar is human understanding, even though the conclusions to be drawn from them affect numerous areas of halakhah. Maimonides explains his position on this matter in the Guide of the Perplexed, where he avoids an attitude of contempt for previous scholars who held views which were subsequently disproven over the course of time. Yet, he draws the following distinction between science (madda) and halakhah:

Do not ask me to show that everything they have said concerning astronomical matters conforms to the way things really are. For, at that time, mathematics was imperfect. They did not speak about this as transmitters of dicta of the prophets, but rather because in those times they were men of knowledge in those fields or because they had heard these dicta from men of knowledge who lived in those times. Because of this, I will not say with regard to dicta of theirs, which, as we find, corresponds to the truth, that they are incorrect or have been said fortuitously. [30] For whenever it is possible to interpret the words of an individual in such a manner that they conform to a being whose existence has been demonstrated, this is the conduct that is most fitting and most suitable for an equitable man of excellent nature. [31]

These remarks contain an unusual combination of modesty and criticism, of respect for man and of respect for the truth, and they are suited to him who made them. Regarding our own subject, we can infer that Maimonides, like the Geonim, drew a clear line between that which was received from Sinai in the realm of halakhah, and the autonomous sayings of the aggadah. In the case of the former, we are bound to obey the words of the Sages; the same does not hold true regarding the latter.


If I add to the words of the Geonim and R. Moses Maimonides concerning the nature and authority of aggadah the opinion of the latter’s son, R. Abraham Maimonides, this is because of his systematic approach to the problem at hand in a monograph entitled, in Hebrew translation, Sefer ha- Maspik le-Ovedei Hashem. [32] Most of this work has been lost, but there is, among the extant fragments, a passage on the homilies (derashot) of Hazal.

R. Abraham initially warns us not to accept the literal sense or external meaning of rabbinic homilies (derashot). Anyone who heeds his advice will be saved, he claims, from three major dangers: mocking their words, denying their truth or, alternatively, attributing miraculous acts “to every wise man and pious person,” as was done to the prophets. He emphasizes that:

He who wishes to support a particular position and to exalt the person who said it and to accept his view without examination or understanding…[as to] whether it is true or not…Such. ..is forbidden both by the way of Torah (mi-derekh ha-Torah) and by the way of reason (mi-derekh ha-sekhel) [i.e., it is forbidden to accept a given view merely because of the important position of the one who said it – SF]. It is inappropriate from the perspective of reason, because [by doing this] he causes lack and deficiency in the reflection; of what one should believe [that is, he divests himself of independent thought – SF]. And it is forbidden by the way of the Torah, because he deviates from the path of truth and from the straight line. …It does not matter whether one accepts that opinion as justified without proof, or whether one believes the person who says it, honors him and claims that the truth is with him without any doubt because he is a great person…For all this is not proof, but is forbidden…One is not obligated, as a consequence of the greatness of the Sages of the Talmud…in the interpretation of the Torah and its details,…its general rules and specifics, to claim for them and to accept their views in all their sayings, in matters of medicine and natural science and astronomy…as we believe them in the interpretation of the Torah, the essence of whose wisdom they possess, and to them it is given over to teach …as is said: “According to the Torah which they shall teach you” (Deut. 17:11). [33]

R. Abraham finds support for his opinion in the rabbinic saying: “By God, even if Joshua ben Nun had said it, we would not obey him” (Hullin 124a). In other words, we cannot accept anything which cannot be reasonably supported by logic and by the accepted forms of talmudic argumentation, even if stated by a prophet.

He also finds additional support for his view in the debate between the Sages of Israel and the Gentile scholars recorded in the Talmud (Pesahim 94b), regarding the question of whether the celestial sphere is fixed and the constellations (mazalot) move, which is the opinion of the Jewish Sages, or whether the sphere moves and the constellations are fixed, as thought by the Gentile scholars. He writes:

…When Rebbe [i.e., Rabbi Judah the Prince] heard these things. ..he decided in accordance with the view of the Gentile scholars based upon this proof [i.e., the one subsequently cited in the Talmud- namely, that during the day springs are cold, while at night they boil over, a sign that during the night the sun descends beneath the earth]…even though this proof is weak [that is, he knows that it is incorrect], as you see. And now let us reflect upon what we are taught in this baraita…that Rebbe only looked at these opinions by way of proofs without paying any attention as to whether they were stated by Jewish or Gentile sages…Reflect upon the wisdom of this secret, for Rebbe did not rule [Heb: pasak; i.e., in the halakhic sense] on the basis of the opin ion of the Gentile scholars, but ruled in accordance with their view (hikhri’a da’atam) …on the basis of the specific proof we have mentioned. And this is why he said: “their words seem likely,” indicating a decision in the sense of hakhra’ah. For had it been clear to him with certainly and with proof that the sphere moves and the constellations are fixed, he would have ruled that the halakhah was like them…

In the course of establishing his thesis that one is not to prefer the words of Hazal over proof and reason in the extra-halakhic realm, he makes this poignant statement:

And in truth this master [i.e., Rabbi Judah the Prince] was called our Holy Rabbi (Rabbenu ha-Kadosh), for when a person rejects lies and supports the emet, deciding according to its truth, and consciously rejects his own opinion when its opposite becomes clear to him – there is no doubt that he is holy. [This definition of holiness is one that I found for the first time in R. Abraham Maimonides – SF].

Later he continues,

It has become clear to us that the Sages, of blessed memory, do not examine opinions nor look upon them, save in terms of their truth and their proof, and not because of he who says them, whoever it may be…

The summary of this position is quite interesting because, like his distinguished father and the Geonim, R. Abraham also draws a clear line between the exclusive authority of the Sages in halakhic matters, and the relative weight of their views in their homilies. To wit:

…It should not occur to you that we believe anyone who has not arrived at true knowledge regarding the expounding of any verse to say that this is a received tradition as we do regarding an essential matter of the Torah and its traditions. It is not so. Know however that the interpretation of verses which are not connected with one of the principles of the faith or with one of the laws of the Torah are not [based upon] received traditions. Instead, there are those which depend upon the decision of the mind [hakhra’at ha-da’at], and those which are pleasing and acceptable in a poetic way (al derekh ha-shir).

From all that has been said here, from the writings of the Geonim through those of R. Abraham Maimonides, it becomes clear that the words of Hazal in those areas outside of the fundamental beliefs of our religion or of the mitzvot (and this is presumably true as well of the words of their disciples who follow in their path, and whose authority is based upon theirs) are to be considered as personal opinions and outlooks which are consequently lacking in that transcendental dimension which compels one to listen to their words. This position regarding worldly matters (mili di-‘alma) is in no way intended to detract from the authority of religious scholars to rule in halakhic matters, about which they have a tradition going back to the talmudic sages and to Sinai, and upon whose authority the Torah was given.

As to those who ascribe to the rabbis of our own generation the authority to decide, on the basis of the Holy Spirit within them, even matters outside of the realm of halakhah, and who condemn as guilty of a lack of emunat hakhamim anyone who does not accept this principle- they need to be reminded that the best and greatest of the Babylonian Geonim and of the household of Maimonides, who had far deeper and stronger faith than all of us, rejected such a position.


I have found a statement in the writings of R. Zevi Hirsch Chajes in which, following Maimonides’ position, he rejects any prophetic involvement in halakhic decision making. However, regarding a hora’at sha’ah (temporary ruling), “doing something optional (davar ha-reshut) or following advice relevant to guiding the Jewish nation…we are required al all limes to listen to the words of a known and reliable prophet of God.” [34] At the end of this essay, he writes:

We have seen that it is a fundamental and firm principle of the Sages that, after the canonization of Scripture, God did not speak to any prophet or Sage, whether it be through the medium of prophecy, ruah ha-kodesh, through the [oracle of the] Urim and Tummim or through the medium of a Heavenly voice (bat kol) concerning any matter of statute and law (hok u-mishpat). [35]

It is an accepted fact in our tradition that prophecy, ruah ha-kodesh and the power of the Urim and Tummim ceased from the period of the Second Temple but the bat kol, however, continued to appear. [36] Indeed, else where in his writings, R. Chajes classifies the various situations in which the Talmud mentions the phenomenon of bat kol – at times with the addition of the words “from Heaven,” and at times without this addition- as follows:

Regarding a bat kol from Heaven, a person who has heard such a voice is required to take heed and to hearken, just as a prophet is required to do in accordance with what he receives through the power of prophecy. [Regarding] a bat kol which is not from Heaven, …it is optional, but not obligatory [to heed and obey]. [37]

It is thus apparent that even a Heavenly voice obligates one only in the passive sense, and not in the active one: that is, the one who hears it is required to act accordingly while others are not

In this passage, R. Chajes is reacting to the contention of Wolfgang Wessely of Prague who argued that, in stating that one need not heed a heavenly voice, the Sages were indicating that they did not give it any credence at all. R. Chajes’ intention was to illustrate that it does have importance; however, beyond the limits he placed upon it, it has no force.


It appears to me that our discussion has led us to the following conclusions:

1. Emmunat hakhamim and da’at Torah are matters whose nature, scope and validity are all subject to differences of opinion within traditional Judaism.

2. Inasmuch as there is no authoritative ruling or decision among the various view I presented, and in my opinion they are not subject to a clear ruling in the same manner as the halakhah, one may not rule any one of them out of hand.

3. Even according to those whose views tend towards the fundamentalist extreme requiring one to seek out and follow the advice of rabbinic scholars regarding the practical decisions in worldly matters as if they were normative halakhic guidelines, one can do no more than attempt to persuade the other side, solely by means of intellectual argumentation, of the rightness of one’s position. I see no justification for an attempt to impose such as position, even when this is done by parliamentary means and certainly not by other ones.

4. It is, nevertheless, desirable that even those who hold the opposite opinion should seriously consider the views of rabbis in worldly matters, when these view are the product of deep reflection upon public issues and conflicts. In my opinion, this may serve as a barrier against the danger of being guided by material self-interests within the existing socio-political frameworks, which are liable to serve as stumbling blocks for us. This is the meaning I would ascribe to the type of obedience I referred to above which I described as an “intellectual goal”.   


[1] She’elot u-Teshuvot Hatam Sofer, Orah Hayyim, #208.

[2] Mahzor Vitri (Jerusalem, 1963), 560.

[3] Menorat ha-Ma’or (Jerusalem, 1961), Ner Sheni, Helek Sheni, Ch. 2, 101-02.

[4] Sifri, Parshat Shoftim, in the Malbim’s version of the text.

[5] Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu I (Bnei Brak, 1977), 59. The italics are mine. (R. Dessler was an extremely influential mashgiah ruhani whose impact was felt world-wide.-ED]

[6] Ibid., 75-77.

[7] Hiddushei ha-Ramban, Bava Batra 12a.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mikhtav Me-Eliyahu, op. cit., 59.

[10] R. Jacob ha-Levi of Marvege, She’elot u-Teshuvot min ha-Shamayim (Lemberg. 1926), #5. Cf. similar statements in other sections of this book.

[11] Hida, En Zokher, Ma’arekhet Alef, #15.

[12] They also appear in greater detail in Migdal Oz, ad. loc., and in Rabad’s Hibbur Hilkhot Lulav, published in Teshuvot ha-Ramban, ed. C. Chavel (Jerusalem, 1975), 239-42.

[13] See his Kapot Temarim on Sukkah 32b. [For a further discussion of Rabad’s position, see Isadore Twersy, Rabad of Posquieres (Cambridge, 1962), 291ff.-ED.]

[14] She’elot u-Teshuvot ha-Rashbaz 11:159.

[15] [For more on the concept of da’at Torah , see Lawrence Kaplan, “Rabbi Isaac Hutner’s ‘Daat Torah Perspective’ on the Holocaust: A Critical Analysis,” Tradition 18:3 (Fall, 1980): 235-48; idem. “Daas Torah: A Modern Conception of Rabbinic Authority,” Moshe Z. Sokol, ed., Rabbinic Authority and Personal Autonomy (Northvale, New Jersey; 1992), 1-60; Gershon Bacon, Da’at Torah ve-Hevlei Mashiah, Tarbiz 52:3 (1983): 497-508; Mendel Piekasz, Hasidut Polin ben Shtei ha-Milhamot u-bi-Gezerat 1940-1945 (“ha-Shoah“) Jerusalem, 1990), 81f.-ED.]

[16] [For a development of this argument based, in part, upon these sources, see Norman Lamm and Aharon Kirschenbaum, “Freedom and Constraint in the Jewish Judicial Process,” Cardozo Law Review 1:1 (Spring, 1979): 99-105-ED.].

[17] R. Abraham I. Kook, Iggerot ha-Re’iyah, 124, #103.

[18] Sanhedrin 87a; Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin XI:3.

[19] See Rambam, Hil. Mamrim III:6-7 and the commentators ad. loc.

[20] See Sanhedrin 46a; Yevamot 90b.

[21] Ozar ha-Geonim, Hagigah, Helek ha-Perushim. This passage is taken from Megillat Setarim. For greater detail, see Sefer ha-Eshkol, II, 47, in the name of R. Sherira Gaon.

[22] Ozar ha-Geonim, Hagigah, Helek ha-Teshuvot, 4-5. For a position similar to that of R. Shmuel bar Hofni Gaon, see Radak’s commentary to I Samuel 28, ad. loc.

[23] Ozar ha-Geonim, ibid., 59.

[24] Ibid. [For more on attitudes towards aggadah, including that of the Geonim, see Marc Saperstein, Decoding the Rabbis (Cambridge, 1980), 6f.-ED.].

[25] Rashbam, Commentary to Exodus 7:10.

[25] Ozar ha-Geonim, Gittin, Helek ha-Teshuvot, 152 (on Gittin 68b).

[27] Hiddushei Aggadot, Gittin, ad. loc., s.v. le-dama.

[28] Compare The Introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed, translated by V. Kapah (Jerusalem, 1972), 9.

[29] Hil. Kiddush ha-Hodesh XVII:24.

[30] This is a subtle jibe at Aristotle. cf. his Metaphysics, I. 4. ii.

[31] Guide III:14. The English translation is from S. Pines, Guide of the Perplexed (Chicago, 1963), 459.

[32] This work. part of a larger study wrilten in Arabic, is entitled Kifayat al-‘Abidin. An English translation, The Highways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides, was published by Samuel J. Rosenblatt, 2 vols. (New York, 1927-38). It also appears at the beginning of all standard editions of En Ya’akov.

[33] Nahmanides also expressed himself similarly: “For in accordance with their opinion He gives them [i.e., the Jewish people] the Torah.” See his Perush al ha-Torah to Deuteronomy, 17:11.

[34] R. Zevi H. Chajes, “Eleh ha-Mizvot“, in Torat ha-Nevi’im (Jerusalem, 1958), 12b.

[35] Ibid., 17b.

[36] See Tosefta, Sotah, XIII:3-4.

[37] R. Zevi H. Chajes, “Imrei Binah”, in Kol Kitvei Maharaz Chajes II (Jerusalem, 1958), #6, 939b.