The Unobservable, the Unobserved, and the Observed

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  1. Jacob Farkas says:

    Had Hazal known that abiogenesis would be disproven and nevertheless issued the ruling vis-a-vis maggots as if abiogenesis were a reality, it would prove the point that Halakhah is limited to the experienceable.

    The fact that Hazal used abiogenesis in their reasoning indicates that it is only because they believed it to be so. Had they known otherwise, they may have a) issued a different ruling. b) found another reason for their ruling, including the one Rav Dovid ZT”L used in his explanation.

    The point is merely academic though, being that in practice we have no example of Halakhah considering that which isn’t observeable.

    However, moving forward, why shouldn’t Halakhah consider [humanly] unobserveable but verifable methods of evidence. Would DNA or reliable forensic testimony be used in the future in any extent, e.g. to help Agunos, would GPS-derived records be used to refute the classic case of Imanu Hayeesem with Eidim Zommamim?

  2. micha says:

    I don’t think you took my chidush as far as I intended it to go.

    I’m suggesting that halakhah is unconcerned with what is scientifically out there. I would agree that chazal were presumably convinced that these bugs reproduced abiogenetically, that being the best science of the day. But they never claimed that was the basis of the halakhah, or even made a scientific claim in support of the pesaq. When chazal say that the maggots were born of the meat they weren’t trying to describe the biology, but how we experience maggots arising. We don’t experience any piryah verivyah in their life cycle, and that’s all chazal is saying.

    Your question only arises because you’re reading the words of the gemara as a science text. I’m suggesting it’s not.

    I admit there is a complication in that the classical thinker never expected there to be a divergence between the observed and what’s really out-there. A world of invisible fields and forces, of microscopic biology, etc… But that’s not to say they necessarily made their statements on both levels.

    Particularly since, as in my previous post, I feel there is both theological and linguistic reasons to believe halakhah should not be concerned with things that make little impression on us on a gut level.

    As for the use of new forms of evidence, that’s subject to machloqes. We’re discussing shitos about the usability of DNA evidence on Avodah right now, in fact. See the threads Extablishing Mamzerut and DNA testing and related offshoots.

    But the whole subject of material evidence seems not to be discussed much in the gemara, as far as I can tell.


  3. Jacob Farkas says:

    I am not reading the gemara as science. I suggested that had science been available in the times of Gemara the Gemara would have read differently.

    Hazal make a Drashah from the Pasuq – Hasheretz Hashoreitz al ha’aretz – that it excludes that which never reached the soil. Hazal took a cue from the Pasuq, knowing (based on their information) that there were two types of Sheratzim, those that were from the environment in large, and those that were “born” inside of other objects, that when the Torah wrote ‘Al Ha’aretz’ it was specific in the exclusion of the latter. Such a Drashah, a Miut, could only exist in conjunction with the belief that there are two seperate categories.

    To establish parameters is one thing, as in the rule of “nir’ah l’ayin,” that a bug needs to be visible to the naked eye to be considered Halakhicly relevant. But this may have another reasoning, other than Halakhah ignoring objective existence, rather we invoke Shelo Ni’t’nah Torah l’malakhei haShareis, that the Torah is to be experienced by people, and so application of the law has to be consistent with human experience.

    The Torah may thus never REQUIRE that one use tools or methods that are beyond average human capacity. However, would this necessarily mean that Halakhah itself is bound by these limitations, that Hazal would apply a Mi’ut in a Pasuq for a category that doesn’t really exist, but is only perceived to be so? I would think not.

    Furthermore, while the Torah does not expect a person to use ‘methods’ that are beyond average human capacity, it may not ignore the findings of such methods. By insisting that Halakhah itself needs to be in the boundaries of the phenomenological universe, you are de facto excluding the possibility of applying any evidence or information gleaned from the natural universe.

    I agree that Qiyum HaMitzvos should be limited to human parameters, but establishing facts in Halakhah, facts that may affect Qiyum HaMitzvos, Halakhah should use every tool available to establish truth, particularly in an era where average humans rely on everyday science in flight, surgery, hurricane/earthquake warnings, GPS, Radio, etc. Should Halakhah ignore these in today’s era, it wouldn’t be addressing the current human condition.

    Should we find error in Hazal with today’s science, as with the Drashah of Al Ha’aretz, we need to resolve the matter within our legal framework, and that favors the precedent. Should there be sufficient need and rabinnic will to overturn precedent, there is no reason that they shouldn’t. Emunah in the words of Hazal is not harmed by the fact that they used faulty information. If anything, the fact that they trusted science enough to make a D’rashah in a Pasuq, should be a lesson in courage of conviction for all future Halakhic decisors.

  4. micha says:

    I disagree, I think because I’m drawing a distinction between “every tool available to establish truth”, and the impact of technology on our lives such as “flight, surgery, hurricane/earthquake warnings, GPS, Radio, etc.”

    I am not limiting halakhah’s tools to establish truth, I’m limiting halakhah’s truth to that which shapes our personalities. Technology does. The unobservable realities about how the technology works, even when we know them intellectually, don’t.

    There is a reason why even astronomers think about a beautiful sunset, rather than relating that experience to the common knowledge that the sun isn’t setting, the earth is spinning the other way. The sunset experience is what shapes our personalities, what causes us to better “walk before Me and be whole”. I’m suggesting that halakhah therefore addresses the experience even though we all acknowledge intellectually that Copernicus was right about what causes that experience.

    The notion is grounded in the linguistics and the a priori idea that halakhah’s role is to shape a person and thus should relate to experience, not ontology. The fact that this frees us from worrying about changes in science on many (but not all) issues of law is a pleasant consequence.


  5. Jacob Farkas says:


    I used specific technologies to illustrate how certain technologies are part of the human experience today, and why Halakhah would shortchange today’s generation if confined to the humanly experienceable.

    Rather than go in circles, I would like to conclude that:
    a) I know of no evidence that Halakhah has that limitation (the experienceable).

    b) I agree that Halakhah should and does not require people to borrow tools outside of the humanly experienceable. For both the etymological and theological reason you cited.

    c) Future Halakhic decisors should use methods of verification to establish fact, outside of the extant methods known and practiced.

    I was always uncomfortable with Yad Soledes Bo being translated to numeric values.

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