Rambam Ruling Against the Bavli: the Innocuous Example

Sitting at my uncle’s table, we regularly encounter examples of the gap between his Judaism and my own. Amidst one such conversation, he said: “Rambam never paskins against Shas.” Putting aside the tautological interpretation of this assertion (ie if Rambam paskined it, it can be found one way or another in the Talmud [1]), my uncle believed he was proclaiming an undisputed and axiomatic foundation of Judaism. Of course, certain Medieval Ashkenaz communities followed their inherited traditions even when they contradicted the Babylonian Talmud,[2] but, many suppose, that is not true of the Rambam.

So, like rote, I responded by citing the classics: demons, ru’ah ra’ah, scary stuff, etc.[3]. For some reason – sociologists are yet to explain – my uncle, along with many of the learned world, remains unfazed by these many examples throughout the Mishneh Torah. True, Rambam writes in the MT that Jews ought to adhere to exta-Talmudic (even non-Jewish) sources as reliable and binding for ruling on matters of medicine and astronomy.[4] Yet, one can argue that this position does not specifically contradict the Mishneh Torah’s adherence to the Bavli, and these points may be pushed aside.[5] Similarly, the great divide between the importance ascribed to the MT in comparison to his other works makes it so people can ignore Rambam’s advice when he recommends discounting or changing the law in his Responsa[6] and other works.

Accordingly, for the learned masses, the best area to make this point – that Rambam in the Mishneh Torah may rule against the Bavli – is in an innocuous area: an area where the person will not feel intimidated by modern religious metaphysical theory to automatically discount whole areas of the Maimonidean Weltanschauung.[7] As Maimonides was already well-known in the field of medicine in his own day, it hit me: any area in which the Talmud’s ruling contradicted contemporary 13th century medical theory, Rambam would side with science. So I scoured the MT and here’s the example I found.

In BT Berakhot 35B, the Gemara records that even though R. Yochanon (in the name of Shmuel and R. Yitzhak who said in the name of R. Yehuda) said that one recites the blessing ‘borei peri ha-eitz‘ on olive oil, the Stam of the Gemara observed that when one imbibes olive oil, it negatively impacts a person’s constitution (azukei mazik). Therefore, one ought not to recite a blessing over olive oil when imbibing it. In fact, no blessing is necessary. This is also how the Rif, the Rosh, the Tur (siman 220), the Shulhan Arukh (220:4), Hagahot Maimoniyot (Hilkhot Berachot 8:2), Hayei Adam (klal 51 siman 16), the Arukh ha-Shulhan and the Kitzur Shulhan Arukh rule. But, Rambam in Hilkhot Berakhot (8:2) paskins against the Talmud and these other Poskim and states:

`

“אבל אם שתה השמן לבדו או שלא היה חושש בגרונו מברך עליו שהכל. שהרי לא נהנה בטעם השמן.”

R. Yochanon’s position is rejected, as well as the Stam’s position. A third possibility appeared. Dr. Rambam knew that 1. olive oil can be good for you (ie it does not hurt your body) and 2. it has a taste, albeit a bad one. Like all other foods that fall into this category, the proper blessing is sheha-kol. Indeed, R. Rafal Toledo (siman 90 se’if 21, page 230) explains that we see today (ma’aseh be-khol yom) that oil does not hurt a person, and to the contrary, doctors prescribe it to heal people. Obviously, as Rambam rejects the idea of meshane ha-bri’ot and meshane ha-teva (the world changes to accommodate interpretations of the Talmud), the only option for Rambam was to re-paskin the law by rejecting the Talmud’s ruling and replace it with his modern understanding of what the law ought to be.

Rambam rejected the Talmud’s conclusion because he knew that 13th century science and medicine did not corroborate the Gemara’s claim, thus providing a socially innocuous proof to our point.


[1] Just ask a Brisker

[2] See, for example, Israel Ta Shma’s “Ashkenazi Jewry in the Eleventh Century,” in his Creativity and Tradition, p. 1-36, especially p. 14

[3] I cited examples from Marc Shapiro’s “Halakha and Superstition” in Arthur Hyman’s Maimonidean Studies Volume II, p. 61-108 as well as “Religion and Superstition: a Maimonedian Approach by Rabbi Marc Angel” while also noting the Yerushalmi’s and the Tosefta’s influence; see, for example, Yerachmiel Brody’s article, p. 1-12 in the Hebrew section of Maimonedian Studies II, regarding when the MT prefers the Yerushalmi over the Bavli.

[4] In Hilkhot Kiddush ha-Chodesh 17:24, Rambam writes:

וטעם כל אלו החשבונות ומפני מה מוסיפים מנין זה ומפני מה גורעין. והיאך נודע כל דבר ודבר מאלו הדברים. והראיה על כל דבר ודבר. היא חכמת התקופות והגימטריות שחברו בה חכמי יון ספרים הרבה והם הנמצאים עכשיו ביד החכמים. אבל הספרים שחברו חכמי ישראל שהיו בימי הנביאים מבני יששכר לא הגיעו אלינו. ומאחר שכל אלו הדברים בראיות ברורות הם שאין בהם דופי ואי אפשר לאדם להרהר אחריהם, אין חוששין למחבר בין שחברו אותם נביאים בין שחברו אותם האומות. שכל דבר שנתגלה טעמו ונודעה אמיתתו בראיות שאין בהם דופי אנו סומכין על זה האיש שאמרו או שלמדו על הראיה שנתגלתה והטעם שנודע:

In Hilkhot De’ot 4:21, Rambam writes:

וכל המנהגות הטובים האלו שאמרנו אין ראוי לנהוג בהן אלא הבריא. אבל החולה או מי שאחד מאיבריו חולה או מי שנהג מנהג רע שנים רבות. יש לכל אחד מהם דרכים אחרים והנהגות כפי חליו כמו שיתבאר בספר הרפואות ושינוי וסת תחילת חולי:

[5] Indeed, Rambam himself writes that the MT is only supplying medical advice for the healthy, and, second, all astronomical knowledge was originally in the hands of Yissachar anyways, so the non-Jews are not supplying extra-Jewish information; see Asher Buchman’s “Rambam and Zevulun: Boz Yavuzo Lo in Hakira,” p. 47-78, and especially p. 52 where the source is kind of laid out.

[6] In Responsa #256 (Blau, vol. 2, p. 469-76), Maimonides recommends the abrogation of the repetition of the Amida in certain instances; see, Blidstein’s “Maimonides’ Taqqanah Concening Public Prayer” in Maimonidean Studies III, p. 14-17. Another example can be found in Responsa #211. Even though the Mishnah (Yevamot 2:8) states that one suspected of engaging in relations with a slavegirl may not free her in order to marry her, nevertheless, Maimonides writes: “Let him emancipate her and we help him to do so…” (Responsa #211 Blau Vol. 2, 373-4)

[7] For example, Shapiro points out that in R. Kamenetsky’s Emet le-Yaakov, he opines that certain philosophical parts of the MT can be disregarded.

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3 Comments

Filed under Rationalism

3 responses to “Rambam Ruling Against the Bavli: the Innocuous Example

  1. Michael Kay

    Really interesting, but couldn’t your uncle still respond that in rejecting the Stam’s position Rambam was simply updating the existing Talmudic method of using scientific and medical sources external to Jewish tradition when deciding such issues? So he was still adhering to the Bavli? I suppose the real question then is why, contrary to R’Yochanan, Rambam chose shehakol over ha’eitz?

  2. Anonymous

    The best stuff in the footnotes… read them

  3. Akiva F

    The use of trickery language is abundant throughout this article. It is unfortunate that so many of our scholarly articles are written this way.
    If Rambam truthfully held olive oil is good for you and was deciding “Against the Talmud” he should also have ruled that one needs to pay a fifth more for trumah if he eats trumah olive oil. He doesn’t.

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