June 20, 2024
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When Did ‘Doubt’ Begin?

Reviewing: “The Birth of Doubt: Confronting Uncertainty in Early Rabbinic Literature” by Moshe Halbertal. Brown Judaic Studies. 2020. English. Paperback. 250 pages. ISBN-13: 978-1951498764.

Many people conclude their daily prayers with Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith. These 13 principles start with the powerful expression “I believe with complete faith.” But Jewish law can lack that same certainty level, and uncertainty and doubt must be dealt with.

In a masterpiece of a book, “The Birth of Doubt: Confronting Uncertainty in Early Rabbinic Literature,” Dr. Moshe Halbertal (professor of law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) looks at how the rabbis (Chazal) dealt with, developed and approached uncertainty and doubt. The modern science of uncertainty and decision theory started with Blaise Pascal in the 17th century with his wager. However, Halbertal’s discussion focuses on a separate issue, which is the proper and moral way to deal with uncertainty.

He writes that the laws of sfkeios (doubt) make up one of the most intricate, technical and difficult fields of early rabbinic literature, and yet the maze of debates and rules is guided by larger religious, moral and social concerns. Furthermore, this is the case since life in general, and Halacha specifically, has doubt crouching at nearly every corner.

Areas of doubt Halbertal addresses include ritual purity and impurity, marriage and lineage, monetary law, kosher food and more. Out of the certainty of pre-Temple times, the rabbis of the Talmud developed a formal system on how to deal with doubt and uncertainty. The book’s focus is on how the rabbis during the post-Temple era dealt with the areas of Halachic doubt and on doubt through the lens of the Mishna, Tosefta and midrash halacha.

One of the many topics dealt with is the hazakah (maintaining the status quo of an object of uncertainty), which creates a halachic anchor in a world filled with uncertainty. The power of hazakah is that it limits the capacity of uncertainty to generate an unending and ever-intensifying obsessive form of investigation and examination.

Doubt, if left unchecked, can have the problem of turning into a paralyzing concept. Nevertheless, as Halbertal astutely writes, the parameters of doubt, as codified by the rabbis, be it in the area of food or ritual impurity, do not, in fact, reflect a paralyzing dread of uncertainty. Instead, they indicate the exact opposite; the rules governing uncertainty and doubt were created to enable contact and interaction with spaces that invite uncertainty. Namely, the marketplace in the case of forbidden foods and the public domain with respect to ritual purity and impurity.

The beauty and brilliance of this work are that Halbertal shows the extreme sophistication in which the rabbis of the Talmud approached doubt. Rather than encumbering them, doubt gave the rabbis a gold mine of opportunity to develop principles that are the foundation of many Halacha areas.

In his biography of Ramban, Halbertal writes that Nachmanides “knew the Talmudic tradition like the back of his hand.” Halbertal, in his brilliant writing, and with Rabbi Elli Fischer’s masterful translation of the original Hebrew, leaves no doubt about his mastery of the topic in this fascinating and engaging work.


Ben Rothke lives in New Jersey and works in the information security field. He reviews books on religion, technology and science.

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