April 14, 2024
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Dwarfs on the Shoulders of Giants

Is the study of Torah progressing or regressing? Whatever one’s intuitive response may be to such a question, a definitive answer is surely elusive.  Methodologically, at least it would first be necessary to define what we mean by “study of Torah,” “progression,” and “regression.” It would therefore be necessary to settle on an appropriate time-frame.

Torah study, for example, may be progressing or regressing in the second half of the twentieth century when compared to its first half. The question may be confined to a specific segment of the Jewish community (e.g., the Lithuanian style yeshivot gedolot or the yeshivot hesder), to a particular geographic area, or to the Jewish community at large. Crucial to the investigation will be the means used to measure progression or regression—assuming such measurement is possible.

No less interesting than the question itself are the larger theological issues it raises. Is Torah study supposed to be progressing or regressing? After all, a profound sense of regression seems to pervade traditional Judaism.1 The Torah in all its glory was revealed at Sinai. It’s been downhill ever since, or so at least some would argue. Moses was greater than any of the prophets who followed him; the Tannaim were greater than the Amoraim; and the Amoraim pale in significance to the Rishonim. Regression, rather than progression, is a theme wrjt large particularly in Talmudic and later rabbinic literature. Typical passages read:

1. R. Yohanan stated: The minds (literally; hearts) of the earlier generations were as wide as the entrance to the Ulam, whereas the minds of the later generations were merely as wide as the entrance to the Hekhal. And our minds are only as wide as the eye of a needle! 2

2. R. Yohanan stated: The fingernail of the earlier generations is better than the belly of the later generations.3

3. R. Zera said in the name of Raba bar Zimona: If the earlier authorities were angels, we are mortals. If the earlier authorities were mortals, we are asses—and not extraordinary asses like those of R. Hanina b. Oosa and R. Pinehas b. Yair, but rather, ordinary asses.”4

Scripture too seems to support generational regression. Kohelet 7:10 reads: Don’t say, “How has it happened that former times were better than these? For it is not wise of you to ask that question.” Rashi, for whom generational regression was self-evident, wondered aloud why Kohelet thought it was not wise to proclaim a truth that the Talmud takes for granted. Rashi explains:

For it is not wise of you to ask that question: for the [earlier] generations were better and more righteous than the later generations, therefore the former times were better than these. Indeed, it is not possible for the later generations to be like the earlier generations.5

Apparently, for Rashi, generational regression was a fact of life to be recorded, bemoaned. Despite the persistence of the regression theme, many Torah authorities were puzzled by clear signs of progression, especially with regard to Torah study. It did not go unnoticed that numerous talmudic passages seemed to support generational progression.6

Moreover, could anyone claim in all seriousness that Maimonides’ Code was a “regression” when compared to the gaonic codes that preceded it?7

Was the Gaon of Vilna less pious and learned than the generation that preceded him?8 Some rabbinic authorities have suggested that a distinction between piety and intellect may best account for all the evidence, piety being characterized by regression and intellect by progression. But precisely because piety and intellect are inextricably bound up together in Jewish teaching, it remained necessary to explain how progression in Torah study was possible despite moral regression.

The two passages presented here in translation were among the first to confront the issue of how progress in Torah study was possible despite a theology of generational regression. The first passage is drawn from the responsa of R. Isaiah di Trani (circa 1200- 1260), an Italian halakhist who wrote extensive commentaries on the Talmud.9 He was the first Torah authority (and Jew) to cite the aphorism of “dwarfs on the shoulders of giants,” and openly acknowledged his literary debt to contemporary non-Jewish philosophers.10 The aphorism was introduced into medieval thought by Bernard of Chartres (d. 1126), a Christian philosopher and theologian.11

From a Jewish perspective, the aphorism was particularly ingenious and apt, for it paid tribute simultaneously to progression and regression, thus supporting as it were all the talmudic sources. On the one hand, the earlier generations are depicted as giants and the later generations as dwarfs—a clear case of regression. On the other hand, the dwarfs see farther than the giants—clearly evidence for progression. The focus of the first passage is on the cumulative effect of knowledge. The second passage is drawn from the writings of R. Isaac de Leon (circa 1540), a rabbi in Ancona, Italy.12 He, too, cited the aphorism (which we have omitted from the excerpt translated here). What is new and significant in this passage is its focus on specialization. 13


First, I wish to respond to your claim that it was improper for me to argue against the great Rabbi Isaac b. Samuel of Dampierre (d. circa 1185). Heaven forbid that I should do such a thing! It never entered my mind that I was arguing against him. I am but a single flea (I Samuel 24:15], i.e., an ignoramus—so Targum Jonathan renders the phrase in comparison              to his students, how much more so when I am compared to him! But it is my practice to dismiss all opinion that appears to me to be mistaken. Should Joshua the son of Nun endorse a mistaken position, I would reject it out of hand. I do not hesitate to express my opinion, regarding such matters, in accordance with the modicum of intelligence allotted to me. I fulfill the verse: I will speak Your testimonies in the presence of kings, without being ashamed! (Psalm 119:46). Heaven is witness, however, that even when I felt that my opinion was more persuasive than the opinions of the authorities who preceded me, I was never arrogant, claiming: My wisdom has served me well (Kohelet 2:9). Instead, I applied to myself the parable of the philosophers. For I heard the following from the philosophers.

The wisest of the philosophers was asked: “We admit that our predecessors were wiser than we. At the same time, we criticize their comments, often rejecting them and claiming that the truth rests with us. How is this possible?” The wise philosopher responded: “Who sees farther, a dwarf or a giant? Surely a giant, for his eyes are situated at a higher level than those of a dwarf. But if the dwarf is placed on the shoulders of the giant, who sees farther? Surely the dwarf; for now the eyes of the dwarf are situated at a higher level than those of the giant. So too, we are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants. We master their wisdom and move beyond it. Due to their wisdom we grow wise and are able to say all that we say, but not because we are greater than they.”

Furthermore, we wish to state that we have confined all our arguments against opinions expressed by the rabbis who preceded us to those instances where they themselves disagreed, the one permitting; the other prohibiting. Now how shall we resolve such a dispute? Can mountains and hills be weighed on scales? Can we decide that one rabbi was greater than the other, and then discount the opinion of the lesser rabbi? We have no choice but to examine their opinions—all their words are the words of the living God—and then decide which one accords best with all the evidence and merits becoming authoritative. Such was the practice of the sages of the Mishna and Talmud. The later authorities never hesitated to discuss, render judgments concerning, and even reject, the opinions of the earlier authorities. The Amoraim, for example, did not hesitate to declare that the halakha was not in accordance with a particular Mishna. Wisdom is greater than the wise. None of the wise is free of error. Perfect wisdom rests only with the Lord.


To those who would express amazement at my readiness to disagree with the earlier authorities, I cite the words of the wise physician, Rabbi Solomon Almoli (d.circa 1542), from his small treatise Me’assef le-Khol ha-Mahanot; “It is possible for the later authorities to know and comprehend more than the earlier authorities on two accounts:

First, on account of specialization–it is possible for a later authority to specialize in one topic, focusing all of his effort and talent on its study, with the result that his comprehension of the topic will supersede that of the earlier authorities.

Second, on account of the cumulative effect of knowledge: We later authorities, by expending a modicum of effort, comprehend more in less time than the earlier authorities. For in their day, the various branches of knowledge were still in their infancy, largely unknown, and required much effort of the part of the investigator in order to discover the basic principles of knowledge. We, however, are the beneficiaries of their research. All their discoveries and proofs are laid out before us like a set table. The light of their wisdom provides us with fight and serves as our eyes, as explained in the citation from R. Isaiah di Trani in R. Zedekiah b. Abraham’s (13th century) Shibbolei ha-Leqet.14

By Shnayer Z. Leiman (Reprinted with permission of the author. This article first appeared in Tradition 27:3 1993. To conserve space, notes appear on the website www.jewishlink.com and also at http://www.leimanlibrary.com/texts_of_publications/60.%20Dwarf

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