[Avodah] Torah and Secular Knowledge before Ghettoization

Micha Berger micha at aishdas.org
Fri Jul 2 07:34:00 PDT 2021

On Wed, Jun 30, 2021 at 11:58:13PM -0400, Zev Sero via Areivim wrote:
> On 29/6/21 9:08 am, Prof. Levine via Areivim wrote:
>> Torah knowledge combined with secular knowledge was the standard until
>> Jews were locked in ghettos and hence had little or no contact with the
>> outside world.

> That is not true at all.

The Gra disagrees. See R Barukh miShklov (Schick)'s intro to Ayal
Meshulash. He presumes that success in learning requires a strong
background in other knowledge, and thus people were expect to learn
both. The whole reason for his writing a Hebrew introduction to Euclidian

RYL has posted translations of quotes to this effect from both the Gra
and RSRH so many times, your blanket "not true at all" is inappropriate.
Your derekh may disagree, but "not true at all"?

To catch people here up, here are RYL's references from earlier in the
conversation on Areivim:

> R. Yhonason Eybeschutz wrote in Yaaros Devash 2:7
> (as translated by L. Levi in Torah and Science, pages 24-25):

>     For all the sciences are condiments and are necessary for our
>     Torah, such as the science of mathematics, which is the science
>     of measurements and includes the science of numbers, geometry,
>     and algebra and is very essential for the measurements required
>     in connection with the Eglah Arufah and the cities of the Levites
>     and the cities of refuge as well as the Sabbath boundaries of our
>     cities. The science of weights [i.e., mechanics] is necessary for the
>     judiciary, to scrutinize in detail whether scales are used honestly
>     or fraudulently. The science of vision [optics] is necessary for the
>     Sanhedrin to clarify the deceits perpetrated by idolatrous priests;
>     furthermore, the need for this science is great in connection with
>     examining witnesses, who claim they stood at a distance and saw
>     the scene, to determine whether the arc of vision extends so far
>     straight or bent. The science of astronomy is a science of the Jews,
>     the secret of leap years to know the paths of the constellations and
>     to sanctify the new moon. The science of nature which includes the
>     science of medicine in general is very important for distinguishing
>     the blood of the Niddah whether it is pure or impure and how much more
>     is it necessary when one strikes his fellow man in order to ascertain
>     whether the blow was mortal, and if he died whether he died because
>     of it, and for what disease one may desecrate the Sabbath. Regarding
>     botany, how great is the power of the Sages in connection with
>     kilayim [mixed crops]! Here too we may mention zoology, to know
>     which animals may be hybridized; and chemistry, which is important
>     in connection with the metals used in the tabernacle, etc.

>> R. Yhonason Eybeschutz wrote in Yaaros Devash 2:7 (as translated by
>> L. Levi in Torah and Science, pages 24-25):

>> For all the sciences are "condiments" and are necessary for our Torah

> The word is "parpera'os", "desserts", which as the Rambam pointed out come
> after the meal, not before or during it...

Actually, it is used to refer to appetizer as well as desert. Like in
Y-mi Berakhos 6:5 (vilna 49a). Jastrow suggests that it's a loan word
from Greek: "periphery", which made me think of today's idiom of "side
dish". Given that, I don't think "condiments" is necessarily wrong,
although I wouldn't personally have used that translation.

All "parpera'os" tells you is that it's not the core of the meal.
Nothing about it needing to wait for the end.

The Rambam, for that matter, doesn't speak of secular knowledge as a
whole waiting for after one "filled their belly" of Torah. See Yesodei
haTorah 4:11-13. (Halakhah 11 invokes his commentary on Chagiga 2:1,
by using the phrase "Ein Doreshin", and there is a related discussion
there. As well as at Moreh 1:30.) The Rambam only discusses Maaseh
Bereishis and Maaseh haMerkavah, which he identifies with metaphysics and
theology -- and just spend 4 peraqim outlining.

(The statement in halakhah 13 is a parallel to those who insist that one
not learn Qabbalah until being well grounded in Toras nigleh. E.g. Chayei
Adam 10:12 uses the same "shmila kereiso" in that context.)

In fact, in Peirush haMishnayos, the Rambam specifically talks about how
that attitude belittles G-d, to think one can skip to learning about Him,
to going to the aliyah before having a bayis. Other topics, such as Ayil
Meshulash's presentation of Geometry, aren't in the Rambam's discussion
nor fit his depiction of the problem.

> But it is a misrepresentation to portray that Yaaros Devash as praising or
> recommending other wisdoms.

RYE "just" lists things of Torah a memeber of Sanhedrin can't undertstand
without it. Removing your assumption that parparaos means something after
the meal, or that we include pragmatic knowledge when talking about achar
shemilei kereisav, there is no reason to assume he means it's only for
Sanhedrin. Rather than saying that Torah without secular knowledge has
a glass ceiling.

RYL's other citation from that earlier Areivim post, which more belongs
here on Avodah as well:

>  From https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/science-in-medieval-jewish-cultures/astronomy-among-jews-in-the-middle-ages/BC836CF916165930270B5F8342195E86

A summary of an essay in Science in Medieval Jewish Cultures, by Dr
Bernard Goldstein (Univ of Pittburgh), published in 2012:

>     In the Middle Ages Jews were deeply involved in the practice
>     of astronomy and they depended on the Greco-Arabic tradition
>     largely based on Ptolemy's Almagest composed in the second century
>     c.e. During the first phase, from about 750 to 1100, contributions
>     by Jews, whether in Hebrew or Arabic, were relatively minor compared
>     with those of their Muslim contemporaries. However, in the second
>     phase, beginning in Spain in the twelfth century, some significant
>     works were translated from Arabic into Hebrew and others were
>     summarized. In addition to the dominant Ptolemaic tradition, Jews
>     had access to an astronomical tradition exemplified in Arabic by
>     the tables of al-Khw rizm (d. ca. 840) that ultimately derived from
>     Hindu sources. Translations from Arabic into Hebrew continued in the
>     thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and, by the end of the thirteenth
>     century, enough material was available in Hebrew for Jews who did not
>     know Arabic to compose original treatises that were more advanced
>     than an introductory work. In addition to those writing in Arabic
>     and in Hebrew, there was an important group under the patronage of
>     Alfonso X, King of Castile (reigned 125284), that produced treatises
>     in Castilian. The fourteenth century marks the third phase in which
>     Jews made their most original contributions to astronomy, and this
>     phase continued in the fifteenth century when Jews still excelled in
>     this discipline by the standards of the day. In geographical terms,
>     interest in astronomy can be found in nearly all Jewish communities,
>     but the works produced in Spain and southern France were the most
>     important.

This is a chapter summary. It would be helpful to see the argument built.

But the Golden Age of Spain is definitely a strong example of an era when
the norm was to learn Secular Knowledge. Generalizing from that to, eg,
learning during the millennia between Moshe Rabbeinu and Rav Ashi, though,
is less solid ground.


Micha Berger                 When faced with a decision ask yourself,
http://www.aishdas.org/asp   "How would I decide if it were Ne'ilah now,
Author: Widen Your Tent      at the closing moments of Yom Kippur?"
-- https://amzn.to/2JRxnDF -- Rav Yisrael Salanter

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