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שאל אביך ויגדך: What Are the Parameters of Looking to Tradition for Guidance?

November 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha

שאל אביך ויגדך: What Are the Parameters of Looking to Tradition for Guidance?

by Gidon Rothstein

In a recent shiur I give at Webyeshiva.org, I came across a story the Rov, zt”l, tells about his great-grandfather, the Beis haLevi. In the 1800s, the Radzyner Rebber, R. Gershon Henoch Leiner, believed he had re-discovered tekhelet, the bluish dye which ideally complements the white of the strings of tsitsit.1 In trying to popularize his discovery, the Radzyner went to several rabbinic authorities to get their agreement.

It is the Rov’s view of the Beis haLevi’s rejection that sparks my interest. According to the Rov, the Beis haLevi did not object to the Radzyner’s proofs for his claim; rather, he argued in return that tekhelet is one of those aspects of Judaism that can only be passed down by tradition, citing the verse of שאל אביך ויגדך (Devarim 32:7)2 The idea is thought-provoking, in at least two ways.

Lost Traditions and How to Deal With Them

First, it raises the question of how to deal with lost traditions. The Rov seems to say that certain traditions are impervious to being lost, an idea that has some basis in Rambam’s claim3 that there has never been an argument about certain aspects of Jewish tradition. Rambam’s claim is itself difficult; indeed it figures centrally in the shiur I was trying to elucidate for my audience. But the Rov goes a step further, noting that there could never be a debate about what was defined as red or which day of the week was Shabbat.

Yet tekhelet itself is a clear counterexample, a well-known aspect of tradition that was simply lost. So, too, the definition of the words the Torah uses for non-kosher birds, leading to our current practice to eat many fewer types of birds than the Torah allowed, simply because we no longer know which birds are kosher.4 Even within the Rov’s examples, we have halachic debates today about the definition of certain colors (notably, in the context of the laws of niddah, the definition of the color brown). In certain parts of the world—where the definition of the dateline is in dispute—we are not sure about which day of the week is Shabbat.

In the case of lost traditions, then, it is not clear what the Rov would have us do. From the shiur itself, it seems like he and his great-grandfather may only have been willing to accept the testimony of נביאים, of prophets. He notes that Rambam5 cites the Gemara6 that tells us that 3 prophets7 came back from exile, to show the Jews the place of the altar and its acceptable dimensions, and to let them know that they were allowed to offer sacrifices even in the absence of a Temple.

The Rov suggests that the prophets played that role because prophets are often the authoritative bearers of tradition. If that is true, the Rov seems to suggest that whenever such traditions are lost, we would have to wait for a bearer of tradition to restore what had been lost, meaning, presumably, Eliyahu.8

A Continuing Role for Prophets Even in Messianic Times

One beneficial aspect of the Rov’s perspective is that it reminds us of a role that prophets would play in an ideal Jewish society. Reading נביאים today— I write this the day after attending a siyyum for the OU’s Nach Yomi project, an online repository of shiurim on all of Neviim and Ketuvim—we might think they were only there to rebuke the people, and would have little function in a restored Messianic kingdom, since all will be filled with the knowledge of God.

Rambam does not accept that view, since he includes9 the commandment to listen to prophets among the positive commandments of the Torah, even though he opened his Sefer haMitsvot with the declaration that he would only include those mitsvot that apply throughout history. In fact, and more difficult to explain, Rambam seems to include the commandment to listen to a prophet among the sixty commandments that obligate all Jews in all times and places, despite it having been many years since we have had verified prophets. The Rov’s idea at least lets us know a role for Prophets even in the absence of the evil inclination.

While the Rov’s perspective is internally coherent and consistent, its starting point—the Beis HaLevi’s claim about relying only on traditions of שאל אביך ויגדך, ask your father and he shall tell you, bears further investigation, in this and a few upcoming posts. Is that, in fact, how tradition has understood this verse from Haazinu?

שאל אביך: The Gemara’s Use of the Term

 The Gemara, as far as my Bar-Ilan CD-Rom tells me, only references this verse in one context, the question of making a blessing before fulfilling the obligation to light Hanukkah candles.10 Faced with the form of the blessing, אשר קדשנו במצוותיו, Who has commanded us in His commandments, the Gemara questions where God commanded us, and offers two answers. The more well known is the view of R. Avya, who cited the verse of לא תסור, the source of the general obligation to follow Rabbinic law. R. Nechemiah instead cites our verse, שאל אביך, ask your father. Ritva explains that R. Nechemiah was unwilling to include Chanukkah in the verse of לא תסור because it has no basis in Torah law. In Ritva’s view, R. Nechemiah understood לא תסור to mean that we have to listen to the Rabbis in all their interpretations of Torah law, and their protective extensions of that law. When it came to legislating completely new laws, in his view, the source was שאל אביך.

That reading reminds us of a similar distinction drawn by Ramban in defending Behag’s count of mitsvot. Rambam opened his Sefer haMitsvot by upbraiding Behag (not by name) for including Rabbinic mitsvot such as the lighting of Chanukkah candles in the 613. In his defense, Ramban argues that Behag included only those Rabbinic pronouncements that were not extensions meant to protect and safeguard Torah law. If so, לא תסור covers the Rabbinic ability to safeguard the Torah, שאל אביך offers a source for the legislation of new ideas, at a Rabbinic level, but which, for Behag, are considered part of what God gave us at Sinai.

There are many other uses of שאל אביך in our tradition, and as we go through them in upcoming posts, we can expand our understanding of the kinds of guidance for which we turn to our rabbinic leaders and, eventually, see where the Beis haLevi’s claim fits with other views.

  1. Most readers will be aware that today, another dedicated group of people believes it has discovered tekhelet, which is why so many tallitot today have blue and white strings. More information on that, including a history of the search for tekhelet, can be found at www.tekhelet.org []
  2. The claim is made in the context of a shiur entitled שני סוגי מסורת, two types of tradition, one of which is the tradition of reception, not susceptible to thinking and reasoning. []
  3. Hilchot Mamrim 1:3 []
  4. See Vayikra 11;13-20, where the Torah lists non-kosher birds. []
  5. Beit haBechirah 2:4 []
  6. Zevachim 62a []
  7. Rashi identifies them as חגי, זכריה, ומלאכי, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, an identification Rambam omits.  I note that in the story “Last One Out, Turn Out the Lights…” in my book, Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel (and Other Untold Tales of the Prophets. I assumed that only Malachi went to Bavel, because Megillah 15a identifies Malachi with Ezra.  If we accept Rashi’s tradition, all 3 went to exile and returned. []
  8. Another example, from my personal experience, is the question of which physical phenomenon Hazal and the rishonim meant by the term שקיעה, which we translate as sunset.  In an article I published in BaDad 14, I argued that the best reading of the Gemara and rishonimi suggests that they were not speaking of sunset as the disappearance of the ball of the sun, as we do today.  The only way that claim could be right is if there a time of cultural rupture, when the assumptions about sunset changed, so that a word that had hitherto been understood in one way began to be understood in another.  The Rov seems to reject that possibility, and when faced with it, seems to say it is only a matter for prophets to replace. []
  9. Positive Commandment 172 []
  10. Shabbat 23a []
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