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The Influence of Technology on Rabbinic Authority

Once in a while you come across a book which you say to yourself that you really should read, that it will probably help you understand certain things that you didn’t know before, or look at old truisms in a different light, but often you don’t get around to reading the book. Maybe you’re too busy, maybe it’s too long, but eventually you hope to find the time to read that. For me one of those books is Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. Luckily for those who don’t want to read through all 832 pages, there is also an abridged version-The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Well, I have yet to get through either, but this review give you some idea of Eisenstein’s thesis. As with regard to the general culture, changes in technology have also influenced rabbinic culture and numerous aspects of Jewish tradition. [1] As I have written before, the phenomenon of cyber-responsa is one of the more recent manifestations of such trends (see this post by Iyov about Muslim cyber-fatwas). I wanted here to bring some sources which I cited in my post on cyber-responsa, which directly address the influence of print culture on rabbinic authority. [2]

One of the more widely quoted sources in his matter is the commentary of the Lehem Mishneh to the Rambam’s Laws of Talmud Torah, chap. 5, where the Rambam brings numerous statements which severely limit and chastise one who disagrees with their teacher. The Lehem Mishneh is surprised that the Rambam did not include the prohibition of instruction before one is forty years old (see AZ 19b), and he explains this omission in the following manner,

וסבירא ליה לרבינו דהיינו דוקא בזמן קדום, שלא היו לומדים אלא מפי סופרים ולא מפי ספרים…אבל עתה שהתורה בכתב ואנו לומדים מפי ספרים ודאי לא בעינן כולי האי …וכעין זה שמעתי בשם אחד שכתב בשם חכם אחד שבזמן הזה ליכא מורה הוראה בפני רבו מפני שאנו לומדים מפי ספרים והספרים הם המלמדים

And he [Maimonides] would affirm that it applies only to very early period during which study took place orally, without the benefit of books…but now that the Torah is written and we study from books, surely such an age requirement is not needed…And in a similar vein, I have heard from someone who wrote in the name of a certain scholar that the principle that forbids one to instruct in the presence of his teacher does not apply in modern times, since we study from books, and the books themselves are the teachers. (trans. from Roth, p. 144)

As Ahituv shows in his article, a similar opinion was held by the teacher of the Lehem Mishneh, the Maharashdam. In a responsum (HM no. 1) in which he discusses the prohibition of not instructing before one reaches the age of forty, and that there may be a scholar of higher stature in the city, he writes ,

ולענין אם יש לחלק בין זמננו זה לזמן התלמוד נראה בעיני דבר ברור שיש לחלק ולומר שכל אלו הדברים נאמרו בזמן התלמוד, שהיו כל הדינים יוצאים על פי הסברא והכל על פה. ומי שהיה יושב על ההוראה הוא הנקרא דיין אמת, אבל בזמננו זה, אין התלמיד חכם המורה כי אם הספר ואם התלמיד חכם ראינוהו שהוא בדוק ומנוסה לעיין ובעל סברא יודע דעת ומבין פשיטא שיכול להורות. לא מיבעיא בשוין אלא אפילו במקום שיש גדול ממנו

As to the matter of whether one should distinguish between our time and the time of the Talmud, it seems to me that it is clear that one should distinguish and say that all of these matters were said in the time of the Talmud, since all of the laws would be learnt from inference/logic (סברא) and everything was oral. And someone who would instruct was called a true judge, but in our time, the sage is not the one who instructs, but rather the book. And if we see that a sage is experienced and knowledgeable enough to conduct research, and is capable of reasoning and comprehension, it is obvious that they may instruct. It doesn’t make a difference whether they are equal, or whether there is someone of greater stature.

A much later example of this approach can be found in the Arukh ha-Shulhan (YD 242:21). There R. Yehiel Michel Epstein comments upon the opinion of R. Moses Isserles as to the parameters regarding a student’s loyalty to the authority of their teacher.

ויראה לי דגם מרבינו הרמ”א לא נעלם כל אלה אלא דס”ל דזהו הכל בדורות התנאים והאמוראים שלימודם היה בע”פ בקבלה רב מפי רב ויש שהיה בקי במשניות וברייתות הרבה ויש שלא היה בקי כל כך אבל היה חריף ומפולפל ויש שהיה מתון ומסיק אליבא דהלכתא לכן באפשר שיהיה לו כמה רבותיו מובהקים או למקרא רב מובהק לבד ולמשנה לבד ולגמ’ לבד אבל בזמנים האלה שלימודינו בספרים וכל התלמוד כתוב לפנינו וכן כל החדושים וכל הפוסקים כתיבים לפנינו לא שייך לחלק בכאלה

It seems to me that also from the Rama all of these weren’t unknown, rather he was of the opinion that all of this was in the generations of the Tannaim and the Amoraim whose learning was oral and by tradition, teacher to teacher. There was one who was fluent in mishnahs and many baraitas, and there was one who wasn’t so fluent but had a very sharp intellect, and there was one who was moderate and able to decide practical halakhah. Therefore it is possible that one was able to have a number of primary teachers, a primary teacher just for scripture, a primary teacher just for Mishnah, a primary teacher just for Gemara. But in these times when our learning is from books and the Talmud is written before us, as are all of the commentaries and codes, there is no need to distinguish in such matters…

These are just some illustrations of how technological change has influenced the status of rabbinic authority in the eyes of some.

[1] Elchanan Reiner has written a very interesting article, “The Ashkenazi élite at the beginning of the modern era : manuscript versus printed book” in Polin 10. Jacob Petuchowski has also written about the influence of printing on the evolution of the siddur. See his article in Judaism 34.
[2] Yosef Ahituv has analyzed most of these sources in his article, “מפי ספרים ולא מפי סופרים” in Sinai vol. 107. See also Joel Roth, The Halakhic Process, from which I have borrowed a translation.

4 Responses to “The Influence of Technology on Rabbinic Authority”

  1. 1
    S.:

    >For me one of those books is Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change.

    You’re right, you should read it (and also her earlier articles). :)

  2. 2
    Mordechai Honig:

    This approach we find a few hundred years earlier, see: ארחות חיים לר’ אהרן הכהן (מלוניל, הלכות תלמוד תורה, סי’ כא:
    “והר’ משה מאיוורא ז”ל ואחיו ר’ שמואל מאיורא כתבו באגרותיהם: מיום שגלו אבותינו וחרב בית מקדשנו ונשתבשו הארצות ונתמעטו התורות והלבבות אין לנו עוד לומר מורה רבך כמורה שמים, וכל הדינין הראויין לעשות תלמיד לרב נתבטלו, כי הגמרות והפירושים והחידושין והחבורים הם המורים האנשים”.
    and see more:
    E. Kanarfogel, “Rabbinic authority and the right to open an academy in medieval Ashkenaz”, Michael, 12 (1991), pp. 233-250
    א’ גרוסמן, “שקיעת בבל ועליית המרכזים החדשים באירופה במאה הי”א: אגדה ומציאות”, דברי האקדמיה הלאומית הישראלית למדעים, ח (חוברת 9, תשנ”ט), עמ’ 196, והספרות המובאת שם בהערות 27-28.
    נ’ דנציג, “מתלמוד על פה לתלמוד בכתב: על דרך מסירת התלמוד הבבלי ולימודו בימי הביניים”, בר-אילן: ספר השנה, ל-לא (תשס”ו), עמ’ 108-109

  3. 3
    Menachem Mendel:

    Mordechai,

    Thank you for the references. It is from Prof. Danzig’s article that I got to Yossi Ahituv’s article.

  4. 4
    Conference on Responsa in the Age of the Internet « Menachem Mendel:

    [...] address issues of rabbinic authority and community. See previous discussions of this issue here, here, and [...]

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