Rabbi Meir’s Rhetoric

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Rav Meir disagrees with the other sages on a number of topics involving logic.

1- When framing a tenai, a condition on a business dealing, an oath, a pledge or the like, the majority opinion and the halakhah is that for a condition to be binding, it must be stated in both the positive and the negative. In other words, the person or contract must state what will happen if the condition is met, and what will not happen if the condition is not met. So, an example conditional oath might be, “I will donate this cow to the Temple if my child arrives home in the next day, and I will not donate it if my child does not arrive by then.” Rav Meir holds that the tenai is binding even without the second, negative, clause.

It would seem that Rav Meir is a believer in the dictum that “the exception proves the rule”. That if I say “I would never eat a garlic bagel” it implies that in general I would eat bagels, which is why I singled out the particular kind I wouldn’t eat. Whereas from a strict logical point of view, if I didn’t eat bagels at all, it remains true that I wouldn’t eat garlic ones either. Rav Meir is basic himself on a rule of rhetoric — I wouldn’t have phrased it as an exception if the rule (that I generally do eat bagels) wasn’t true. So to Rav Meir, the positive implies the negative condition.

The Chakhamim, on the other hand, are being more formal about it. Not judging it by laws of rhetoric, but by laws of logic. And therefore the negative clause DOES need to be spelled out explicitely.

This dispute in oaths and contracts. When it comes to interpreting Chumash, all the sages do deduce the negative case from the positive one. Perhaps because the Torah’s parsimony with words makes it even more compelling to assume that the conditional wouldn’t be there if the case weren’t the exception to the rule. (The exception thus proving the existence of the rule.)

The pasuq states (Shemos 22:10)

שְׁבֻעַת ה תִּהְיֶה בֵּין שְׁנֵיהֶם אִם לֹא שָׁלַח יָדוֹ בִּמְלֶאכֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְלָקַח בְּעָלָיו וְלֹא יְשַׁלֵּם.

The oath of Hashem will be between the two of them, if he did not put his hand against [i.e. break] his peer’s work, then the owner shall accept [the oath] and he need not pay.

If a rentor takes an oath that he didn’t damage the rented item, he need not pay the owner. But what if he didn’t take an oath? For example, what if he were someone already suspect of making false oaths, and the court doesn’t want to tempt him into lying again to make an oath that isn’t trustworthy anyway? The Yerushalmi Shavuos 7:1 (vilna 33b) opens by assuming that Rabbi Meir would have to conclude that the verse implies that in that case, the rentor would indeed have to pay. After all, stating a condition implies that if it isn’t met, the reverse conclusion holds. But Rabbi Chiya concludes that in when it comes to verses, the Chakhamim and R’ Meir would agree.

Perhaps because rules of rhetoric only apply to how people speak. And so, when we talk about the exception proving the existence of the rule, this is only when a person bothers making a condition. The rules of rhetoric for the chumash are the rules of derashah — they operate somewhat differently. Even under Rabbi Yishma’el’s “diberah Torah belashon benei adam — the Torah is written in human language. That rule speaks to what kinds of things are subject to derashah, the meanings of phrases, not analyzing syntax. {Although, Rabbi Meir is a student of Rabbi Aqiva, Rabbi Yishma’el’s disputant on this point.) Rabbi Yishmael says that the meaning of a word includes idiom; Rabbi Meir goes further and says it even includes usual intent.

2- A second case is when there is a list of clauses in an oath, or a number of contracts on one parchment with one set of witnesses’ signatures (Yerushalmi Shavuos 26b). Rabbi Yehudah holds that if a person swears not to eat “wheat and barley and spelt”, with the connecting vav meaning and between them and he happens to eat all three, he sinned only one time. However, if the grains were simply listed with no conjunctive — “wheat, barley, spelt” — then each of three is its oath, and therefore eating all three types of grain would be three violations. Rabbi Meir says the reverse — with the vavs eating all three would be three sins, and without, one sin.

Similarly, consider the case of when two contracts are written on the same parchment, but the whole thing is only signed once, on the bottom. Rabbi Yehudah says that if the second contract begins “Ve-” (and) then the signatures apply to both contracts, but without it, the second contract is valid but the first contract is not signed and unenforceable. Rabbi Meir again says the reverse: with the ve- the witnesses only validate the second contract, and without it — both.

This also appears to be a question of logic vs rhetoric. Rabbi Yehudah feels that since the vav means “and”, it inclusion explicitly binds the two parts into one whole. Otherwise, they remain independent. Rabbi Meir is using rules of rhetoric. The fact that the person didn’t even bother pausing to connect the clauses verbally shows how tightly coupled they are in his intent. Thus, without that ve-, R’ Meir feels they are more connected.

3- There is a notion in the halakhos of contracts called an asmachta, where the clause is so outrageous, it clearly wasn’t made seriously, and since one clause of the whole contract is invalid, the contract as a whole is void. (This is a problem that needs to be avoided if a prenup were added to the kesuvah. Is the groom promising something that he had no intent of honoring because the odds of divorce seemed so outrageous at the time of marriage?)

In Sanhedrin 3:2 (mishnah, not Y-mi), the chakhamim rule that if someone promises to accept a ruling of a court that includes his father, the other party’s father, or even three cow hands, the court’s ruling is valid. Rabbi Meir says that the person can indeed reneg.

Because Rabbi Meir looks to how people talk rather than what was actually said, he has a much broader scope to the rule of asmachta than the majority opinion. Such a claim would clearly be a boast about the strength of his case, and not an actual promise to accept the ruling, and therefore Rabbi Meir takes it as such. This too is beyond “belashon benei adam” of Rabbi Yishma’el, where we are talking about idiom, not intent.

4- A case that may not seem related is whether one may neglect a minority possibility. In general, we say that if the permitted is more likely than the prohibited we can neglect the minority and assum the item is permitted. Such as if three pieces of fat were mixed up, two from areas in the animal where the fat is permissible, one a prohibited fat, one may pick a piece up and eat it. However, “Rav Meir chayash lemi’utei — Rav Meir does worry about the minority.”

This doesn’t sound like a logic issue, except that I have already suggested that Rabbinic logic doesn’t deal in true-false black-and-white questions. (In technical terms: it’s multivalent, not boolean.) So that questions of more vs. less likely would be viewed by our sages as logical ones.

It would seem that while the sages can rule that a halachic state depends on an item’s more likely physical state, but Rabbi Meir, dealing in rhetoric rather than logic, would have to worry about a person’s niggling “what if?”

More on this topic:

In The Semitic Perspective I listed a number of differences between what I called the Yefetic perspective and the Semitic one.  Differences that are sometimes so fundamental, they can group the various schools of Western, Yefetic, philosophy — whether we speak of Aristotle to Derrida — into one camp by comparison.

One of these differences is that in general, it doesn’t appear that Chazal embraced simple true-false all-or-nothing logic. In Aristotle’s world, something is either true or false, and ideas like exactly where the line is between red and purple are addressed as secondary, exceptions to the norm. It was only in the 20th century that Western Logic started exploring systems where sets have blurry edges. Like “tall” in “a tall man”. Someone who is 6’6″ is definitely tall, someone who is 5’4″ is certainly not. But what about people just around at the edge?

In Jewish Thought, it is quite the reverse — everything is a matter of degree, and all-or-nothing situations are the degenerate case where the options happen to lay at the ends of the spectrum. And this runs from Leah being called the “senu’ah”, the “hated” wife of Yaaqov, all the way through history to the Yiddishism of calling someone “not dumb” or “not ugly”. In reality Leah was not hated, although certainly less loved than Rachel. Attributes are always meant in a relative sense, it is taken for granted that the reader who sees a contrast between “beloved” and “hated” would see them as comparative, not absolutes. In my second example, the person who attempts to avoid an ayin hara by voicing a compliment in the negative is basing it on the idea that the listener will assume that their calling someone “not stupid” is because their bright, but technically the words include also the average and so no conspicuous bravado is uttered. In halakhah we find this idea recognized when we have rules telling us when we can ignore the chance that something came from the minority of possibilities (e.g. a piece of meat in a store where nearly all the butchers are kosher) or simply improbable.

Note, though, that if we were concerned with minorities, as R’ Meir does, there would be only two logical states — definitely permitted, and everything else.

This might even be connected to Rabbi Meir being willing to learn from Acher, the sage Elisha ben Avuyah after he chose Greek wisdom over Torah. Is it that Rabbi Meir’s logic ends up being the Greek two-valued sort, which gave him an affinity to Acher’s spin on things? Was it his like of rhetoric over abstract logic that made him more immune to the negative elements in Acher’s teachings? More likely it was both — the constant awareness that comes from seeing the world slightly differently than the sages made him alert to Acher’s divergences.


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