Menu

Sunday, 29 January 2017

112) THE MEIRI TEXTS - LOST OR IGNORED?

Meiri's Beit Avot published in Salonica (1821)

INTRODUCTION:

R. Menachem ben Shlomo Meiri (1249-1306)[1], whose original name was Don Vidal Solomon, was a Spanish/French Talmud scholar and supporter of Rambam (1135-1204) who he referred to as ‘the greatest of authors’.

Many of his extensive writings have a strong Maimonidean influence[2] and were known lean towards rationalism and tolerance (particularly of non-Jews). However, in some circles, he is regarded as being out of line with traditional thinking.

The Meiri espouses probably the most radically liberal view on Christianity and Islam that is to be found in all of Torah literature.  He posits that the notion of idolatry has absolutely disappeared from society (barring what he refers to as some fringes or ‘extremities’ of civilisation). 

Idolatry, in his view, has essentially become extinct, and replaced by more developed religions, with Christianity and Islam both falling under the broad banner of monotheistic religions. He refers to them as ‘umot ha-gedurot be-darcei ha-datot’, or ‘nations bound by ways of religion’, as opposed to the idolaters of old who thrived on total anarchy. See KOTZK BLOG 52

It is often alleged that Meiri’s writings were either ‘discovered’ or ‘rediscovered’ in recent times, after having been ‘lost’ for centuries. And because they were lost, they were excluded from the mesorah, or authoritative rabbinic tradition. For this reason, some modern poskim or halachik decisors will not revert to Meiri on any halachik matters.

In this essay, we will try to ascertain whether the Meiri texts were indeed lost or simply disregarded.

MEIRI SIDES WITH RAMBAM:

Rambam managed to spark four major controversies directed against him because of his views. The fourth controversy, which was spearheaded by Rashba[3], challenged Rambam’s alleged view that some Biblical figures were largely symbolic as opposed to having been real persons. The Meiri came to Rambam’s defence denying that accusation.

The Meiri then wrote a letter[4] expressing his position that freedom of thought should be upheld for the different scholars of all the different countries, without any interference whatsoever. (The debate took place in Europe and Rambam had been living in Egypt.)

The Meiri was now cast as a defender of Rambam and a dangerous promoter of independence of thought.

THE COMMON THEORIES:

History has tried Meiri in the same court of public opinion as was Rambam.

Maimonides was severely criticised for his views, particularly as they were expressed in his Guide for the Perplexed. Some say the same person who wrote the Mishneh Torah could never have written the Guide. Others say he wrote for the censors.  Some say he wrote for a particular segment of society but did not intend those views to reach the mainstream.

Similar theories abound concerning Meiri. Of particular interest is the one that Jesuit priests inserted the more ‘broad minded’ views into the text in order to favour the gentiles.
These views are interesting but - besides the censorship issue – are largely unsubstantiated by historical evidence, and may fall into the category of ‘conspiracy theories’.

MEIRI’S WRITINGS GET ‘LOST’:

As mentioned, the common perception is that Meir’s writings were lost and have only been discovered recently.

MISHNA BERURA (1838-1933):

The Mishna Berura[5], published in 1904, often remarks; ‘now that we have the Meiri’, implying that previous generations did not have his writings.

CHAZON ISH (1878 –1953):

The Chazon Ish[6] popularised the notion that the Meiri’s works had been lost and only recently discovered. Therefore they fall out of the line with the mesorah transmission, to the extent that we can no longer rely on these views for practical purposes. See KOTZK BLOG 82.

The Chazon Ish writes that we cannot rely on manuscripts, because the scribes in previous generations would often take numerous manuscripts and compare them. They would then chooses the most common versions and use those as the basis for their texts. Therefore, if one discovers a manuscript today, there is no way of knowing whether it was a ‘discarded’ or an ‘accepted’ manuscript.[7]

R. JOSEPH B. SOLOVEITCHIK (1903-1993):

Interestingly enough, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik held a similar view. He was also suspicious of newly surfaced texts and manuscripts.

He wrote:

If the chachmei hamesorah (the rabbis charged with handing down the tradition) did not see this text, then it’s probably wrong....If the Vilna Gaon and Rav Chaim did not know of the new Meiri, then the new Meiri could only be a curiosity – not a member of the exclusive club that included Rambam, Ramban and Rabeinu Tam.[8]

SHULCHAN ARUCH HARAV:

It seems as though the Alter Rebbe takes a middle of the road approach. According to him, we can rely on ‘many of the writings of the Rishonim which were not printed until recent times’ only in cases where for ‘serious prohibitions’ we can rule ‘more strictly’.[9]

MEIRI’S WRITINGS GET ‘DISCOVERED’:

THE PARMA MANUSCRIPTS:

In 1761, in the Italian city of Parma, a library by the name of Biblioteca Palatina was established. The library housed many old collections. In the mid-1800’s the library acquired a collection of about 1500 old Hebrew manuscripts and books, from a collection belonging to a Parma priest, Giovanni de Rossi from the previous century.

Although it is true that Meiri’s commentary to ALL the tractates of the Talmud (known as Beit haBechirah) was only available after the unearthing of a single complete manuscript found in Parma 1920,[10] many other writings on various individual tractates were available before this time.

R. HAYM SOLOVEITCHIK (b. 1937):

During the 1990’s, R. Haym Soloveitchik (the only son of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik quoted above) seems to be at variance with his illustrious father when he wrote:

It is not, as commonly thought, because the Beit ha-Behirah has been recently discovered.

True, the massive Parma manuscript has been in employ only for some seventy years.
However, even a glance at any Hebrew bibliography will show that much of the Beit ha-Behirah on sefer mo’ed, for example, had been published long before Avraham Sofer began his transcriptions of the Parma manuscript in the nineteen twenties.”[11]

Accordingly, it is misleading to think that all the writings of Meiri were only ‘discovered’ a mere century ago, because many of his texts were known for centuries.

R. Haym Soloveitchik continues:

Rather, Meiri’s works had previously fallen stillborn from the press.
Sensing its alien character, most scholars simply ignored them...[12]
Accordingly, many of his writings always existed but were ‘ignored’ because of their ‘alien character’![13]

Other scholars reiterate the notion that some Meiri texts always existed, but offer a different explanation for their obscurity. They suggest that the reason why they were not often published was simply ‘on account of their exceptional length.’[14]

Nevertheless, the Meiri was certainly known although not many of his works were published.

EARLY KNOWN WRITINGS OF MEIRI:

Let’s look at some of these earlier, known and published writings, of the Meiri.
The following is an example of the 16th century Shitta Mekubetzet, written by R. Betzalel Ashkenazi (1529-1592) which quotes the Meiri:




This indicates that ‘harav haMeiri’ was known, and cited, four hundred years ago.

In 1795, part of the Meiri’s Beit haBechira was published in Livorno, Italy:


The Meiri also wrote a commentary to Mishle (Proverbs) which was published in Portugal as early as 1492. This was then included in Mikraot Gedolot (Amsterdam edition) 1724.

MEIRI INTRODUCES LAG BAOMER TO US:

The Meiri was the first to bring the festival of Lag BaOmer, as we know it, to our attention:

It is interesting to note that although the Gemara[15] speaks of R. Akiva’s 24 000 students dying between Pesach and Shavuot, it makes no mention of the day called Lag BaOmer.

The first time the name Lag BaOmer ever appears is in Machzor Vitry (1175). But all it mentions is simply that Lag BaOmer and Purim fall out on the same day of the week.

The earliest source dealing with the customs and character of the day itself is to be found in the Meiri:

There is a received tradition from the Gaonim that on the thirty-third day of the Omer the deaths (of the students of R. Akiva) stopped, and we have the custom not to fast on this day. We also do not get married from Pesach until this time.“[16]

One cannot help but notice that later when the Tur[17] and Shulchan Aruch[18] speak of Lag BaOmer they do so rather cautiously. Both use the expression ‘it is said that this is the day the students of R. Akiva stopped dying’. 


 (The Tur, however, rather tellingly a few words later, uses the expression ‘I found a text’ referring to another source.)


Does this indicate that for some reason they were weary of the Meiri and refused to regard him as a reliable source?

ANALYSIS:

While many of Meiri’s writings did indeed remain in manuscript form until quite recently[19], there does seem to have been a body of published literature which has always been available.

The question is:

Was the Meiri inadvertently excluded from the canon of rabbinic literature due to an accident of history in that works were simply lost over time?

Or, could it be as R. Haym Soloveitchik proposes, that Meiri’s writings were indeed considered too ‘alien’ and therefore intentionally ignored?

Were Meiri’s views too broad and too Maimonidean?

If the latter is true, is this not an example of an important Rishon having been sidelined and weeded out by latter sages, for not towing their party line?


The Meiri wrote a masterful introduction to Pirkei Avot, in which he traces the line of Torah transmission from the earliest days right up until his own time.

What an irony if he was excluded from - and became a victim of - that very chain of transmission he documented, valued, and wanted to contribute to.




[1] Some accounts record 1316 as the year of Meiri’s passing.
[2] According to Professor Haym Soloveitchik (referring to Meiri’s Beit haBechira): “Meiri, in quasi-Maimonidean fashion, intentionally omits the give and take of the sugya, he focuses, rather, on the final upshot of the discussion and presents the differing views of that upshot and conclusion.” The Meiri is also similar to Rambam in that his work, the Beit haBechira; “can be read almost independently of the Talmudic text, upon which it ostensibly comments.The same is true of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah.
[3]Shlomo ben Aderet (1235–1310). 
[4] This letter was addressed to Abba Mari who together with Rashba entered into this polemic against Rambam.
[5] By R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, also known as the Chafetz Chaim.
[6] Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, a leader of Chareidi Jews in Israel.
[7] See Michtavei Chazon Ish, Chelek 1, 32.

[8] Mentor of Generations: Reflections on Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Zev Eleff, p. 208

R. Soloveitchik made a similar comment about Otzar haGaonim (a collection of newly discovered texts from the Cairo Geniza): “Any responsa of the Gaonim not known to our Rishonim are only side factors. They cannot now become part of our mesorah.”
[9] Seder Mechirat Chametz (First few sentences) 92 [1398] b.

[10] See Contemporary Halakhic Problems, by J. David Bleich Volume 4, p.159.

[11] (E. g. Megillah Amsterdam, 1759; Sukkah Berlin, 1859; Shabbat Vienna, 1864.) Haym Soloveitchik, Rapture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy, Tradition 28, no. 4 (1994), 120-121, n. 54.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Nonetheless, apparently a student of R. Avraham Yehoshua Soloveitchik (Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk) claims that in Brisk there was a tradition that the Meiri, although a Rishon, was regarded as having the authority only of an Acharon.
[14] Quoted from: Virtual Judaica, Hiddushei ha-rav ha-Meiri.
[15] Yevamot 62b
[16] Meiri to Yevamot 62b
[17] Tur 493
[18] OC 493:2
[19] Some examples: The Meiri’s Chibbur haTeshuva was only published from the manuscript in 1950.
His commentary to Tehillim was only published in 1936.  The Magen Avraham, on Jewish customs in Provence, was only published in 1909. His introduction to Avot, published in 1995. His commentary to the Hagaddah, published in 1966. His collection of Derashot, published only in 1957. And his Sefer haMiddot, a work on ethics, finally published in 1966.

No comments:

Post a Comment