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3. The Phenomenon of Machaloketh

3. The Phenomenon of Machaloketh


Perhaps the most emphatic expression of the human component of Torah exegesis is the phenomenon of machaloketh, or disputes between the sages on Machaloketh is the product of the limitations and imperfections of the human mindmatters of Torah law. In a machaloketh, two or more sages, or two or more groups of sages, will reach differing and even opposite conclusions regarding a Torah principle or law. Yet the Talmud declares that “these and these are both the words of the living G‑d.”1 In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud:

R. Yanai said: If the Torah would have been given cut and dried, we would not have a foot on which to stand. What is the meaning of this? “G‑d spoke to Moses…” Said Moses before Him: “Master of the world! Tell me how the law should be!” Said G‑d to him, “Follow the majority. If the majority says he is innocent, they have made him innocent. If the majority is says guilty, they have made him guilty.” Thus, the Torah is expounded in forty-nine ways that deem an object impure, and forty-nine ways that deem it pure.2

Similarly, the Talmudic sage R. Elazar ben Azariah declares:

Torah scholars sit in numerous groups and study the Torah. One group deems a thing impure, and another deems it pure; one group forbids a deed and another permits it; one group disqualifies something and another renders it fit. Should a person then ask: How, then, might I study Torah? Therefore we are taught, “All was received from a single pastor.”3 One provider said them from the mouth of the Master of all works, as it is written, “G‑d spoke all these words.”4 So make your ears as a hopper and acquire a perceptive heart to understand the words of those who deem impure and the words of those who deem pure, the words of those who forbid and the words of those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who render fit.5

The phenomenon of machaloketh is itself the product of the limitations and imperfections of the human mind. In the words of the Talmud, “When the number of insufficiently developed disciples of Shammai and Hillel grew, disputes increased within Israel.”6 And yet, it is regarding those selfsame disputes that the Talmud declares that “these and these are both the words of the living G‑d.” To again quote Maimonides:

If two people are equal in their intelligence, in the depth of their study and in their knowledge of the principles from which the logical arguments are to be derived, there will be no disagreement between them; and if even if there would, their differences will be minor, such as we find in the case of Shammai and Hillel themselves, who differed only on a few laws… But when their disciples’ diligence in wisdom slackened and their logical prowess diminished in comparison to those of Hillel and Shammai their masters, they fell in dispute over the understanding of many issues, as each one’s conclusions were based on his own intellect and on the extent of his own comprehension of the principles.

Yet we are not to fault them in this, as we do not compel two debating sages to debate with the minds of Joshua and Pinchas.7 Nor do we impugn the validity of their arguments, since they are not on the level of Hillel and Shammai or those greater than them, and G‑d did not command us to insist on this in our service of Him. Rather, he commanded us to heed the sages of the generation, as He said, “If there a rise a matter that is beyond you to judge… you shall come… to the judge who shall be in those days.”8 It is along these lines that halachic disputes arise—not because they erred concerning the laws [handed down from Sinai], or because one is saying the truth and the other is saying a falsehood…

The Mishnah (Ethics of the Fathers 5:17) states:

Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute between Hillel and Shammai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korah9 and all his company.

The obvious question arising from the text of this mishnah is: Why would it be desirable for any dispute, albeit one that is for the sake of Heaven, to endure? Should not the objective be to resolve the dispute and discover which is the correct opinion? But in the case of the Torah machaloketh, “these and these are both the words of the living G‑d.” Both opinions are the product of the human mind applying the divinely given Why would it be desirable for any dispute, albeit one that is ‘for the sake of Heaven,’ to endure? principles of Torah exegesis to the divinely given words of the Written Torah, which incorporate within them “49 ways of deeming and object impure, and 49 ways of deeming it pure.” So both are Torah, even if only one of them is selected—using these selfsame principles—as the one that is followed in actuality. The dispute endures, as both opinions guide our lives, whether as practical instruction or as spiritual insight. Furthermore, as we shall see, in Torah the opposing views of a machaloketh inform and reinforce one another, so that the “dispute” itself expresses a deeper truth which underlies and incorporates them both, and adds depth and meaning to each.

Machaloketh may be a feature of the limitations and deficiencies of human mind, but it is the human mind which, in partnership with divine revelation, generates Torah. The human mind does not achieve this despite its limitations and deficiencies; rather, these limitations and deficiencies are themselves integral to the process by which Torah is generated.10

Talmud, Eruvin 13b.
Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:2. Also see Midrash Tehilim 12:4: “Everything that G‑d would say Moses, He would tell him forty-nine sides of purity and forty-nine sides of impurity.”
Talmud, Chagigah 3b. Also see Gitin 6b, which records a machaloketh between R. Evyathar and R. Yonathan, and then relates: “R. Evyathar encountered Elijah. Said he to him: “What is G‑d doing?’ Said he to him: ‘He is studying the matter of the Concubine at Gibeah.’ ‘And what does He say?’ ‘Evyathar My son says thus, and Yonathan My son says thus.’ Said he to him, ‘Can there be doubt before G‑d, Heaven forbid?’ Said he to him, ‘These and these are both the words of the living G‑d.’”
Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b. Indeed, where the divine aspect of Torah dominates, machaloketh has no place. Thus, regarding the first day of Sivan—the day that the people of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai—it is written, “Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain” (Exodus 19:2). The verb vayichan, “he camped,” appears here in the singular form, rather than in the plural “they camped” (vayachanu) which describes all other encampments of Israel. Rashi explains that the Torah wishes to inform us that “they camped as a single person, with a single heart, unlike all other encampments, which were accompanied by dissent and dispute.” The Rebbe posits that the “dissent and dispute” which characterized all other encampments need not be understood only in the negative sense, but also in the positive sense of the dialectical nature of Torah study as pursued by a plurality of minds and intellects. The first of Sivan, however, was the day on which the human mind abnegated its individualistic and contentious nature, remaking itself as an “empty vessel” receptive to the divinely gifted aspect of Torah (see closing paragraphs of chapter 1 above). On this day, there was no machaloketh. (Likutei Sichoth, vol. 28, pp. 7–14.)
The primary Torah authorities in the second and third generations after Moses.
See Numbers 16.
See Bartenura and Midrash Shmuel to Avoth 5:17; Mikdash Melech to Zohar 1:17b; R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Likutei Torah, Korach 54b–c; The Rebbe, Beurim le-Pirkei Avoth 5:17.
Yanki Tauber served as editor of
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An excerpt from a larger work, titled The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Philosophy of Torah.
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