Thursday, August 19, 2004

I'm back from the family vacation. All the requirements were satisfied. We ambled through Majrassa, hiked through Gilabun, tubed down the Hatzabani, got chairlifted up the Hermon, picked berries at El Rom and apples at Ein Zivan, cooked out, ate out and went to Tzfat for the Klezmer thing. Wholesome family fun which I thoroughly enjoyed. For all the Jewish music afficianados, I'll just say that the Klezmer thing reminded me of the San Gennaro festival I would occasionally stumble into in Little Italy in the olden days. Big crowds eating greasy and/or sugary food with the occasional musical performance. The only good news was that the Little One made it to the bathroom in the nick of time and I talked all the progeny out of cotton candy. And I did get to hear a fiddler on a roof play a medley from... Let's just forget the whole thing.

I advertised a discussion of sfek sfeka and probability and I intend to make good on that promise. But the details can be a bit tedious, so I hope to focus on some larger questions that the problem raises. For example, there is no indication of anybody having anything approaching a modern theory of probability earlier than around 400 years ago. This includes chazal. (Before anybody gets hot under the collar: certain ideas -- yes, a theory -- no.) So is there any point in interpreting the rabbinic notion of sfek sfeka in light of ideas which only arose much later? There certainly is since, to the extent we are able to embed the rabbinic ideas in a richer theory, we are able to generalize those ideas. It is not important that those authorities whose ideas we are interpreting were not in conscious possession of the richer theory in which we embed their ideas. What matters is the quality of the generalization.

For precisely that reason, it is important that we be embedding their ideas and not distorting them as is often the case when we fail to step out of our modern shoes in reading chazal. This is beginning to get a bit high-falutin' so let's change gears and consider a brain-teaser. Imagine that we discover that the whole universe (that is, every single item in the universe) has doubled in size (in such a way that proportions are preserved) since the time of the gemara. What would be the halachic consequences in terms of quantities such as ke-zayit and ke-beitzah? (Contemplate this for a moment.)

Okay. Possible answer #1 is that we ought to use "old" olives which are half the size of actually existing ones, since chazal dealt with old olives. Possible answer #2 is that we ought to use current olives either because 1) the intended quantity was simply whatever olives are extant at the time of measurement however large they may be or because 2) current olives scale to the current universe the same way that old olives scaled to the old universe. (These are distinct arguments since the first argument holds even in the case in which only olives changed size but the rest of the universe did not. BTW, it is commonly believed that the Chazon Ish rejected the first argument but, as I will argue on another occasion, this belief is false.) Possible answer #3 is to duck the question by noting (correctly) that we could not actually know that such a universal expansion took place since the world would in all respects look the same to us. Ultimately, though, all these answers are silly (albeit in diminishing degree). In fact, the idea of every item in the universe expanding is simply incoherent. The question one ought to ask is: expands compared to what? The whole idea assumes some absolute notion of distance independent of any actual concrete objects. (An inch is an inch, you say? But, remember, in our story all the rulers expanded, too.)

A curious fact about people's perception of notions such as absolute distance, time etc. is the convergence of "primitive" and "post-modern" ways of thinking. Once upon a time, time and distance were measured in terms of concrete processes and objects. Sunrise, sunset, eggs, olives, arms, thumbs. These were not proxies for what moderns think of as "real" units of time and distance such as seconds and centimeters (or whatever). As periodic processes, such as pendular motion, and ubiquitous rulers became increasingly exploited for measurement of time and distance, people began to think of such measures as absolute. That is, people began to think of time and distance as just being out there, independently of any concrete processes or things which could be used to establish scale. Although physicists have never really been tempted by this illusion, for most people the notion that time and space can only be measured relative to real stuff is a typically post-modern idea in both substance and recentness. So, at least in this case, the post-modern way of thinking hearkens back to pre-modern ideas.

I've rambled on here because time and distance are perfect examples of how a failure to understand chazal on their own terms have lead to possible distortions. As Sacha Stern notes in his brilliant book, Time and Process in Ancient Judaism, the very notion of time as an entity in itself was foreign to rabbinic though at least until the Rishonim. My argument here doesn't require that radical a claim. I simply wish to note that when we blithely assume that shqiah is simply a proxy for some given clock state or that ke-beitzah is simply a proxy for a certain number of cubic centimeters, we do so at our peril. Yes, such translations allow us to generalize shqiah to situations in which we have no actual experience of sundown and to deal with the fact that eggs are neither ubiquitous nor perfectly constant in size. But they also may change the experience of performing a mitzvah from one which is inherently fuzzy and subjective in some aspects to one which is precise but alienated. It isn't at all clear to me that this development is a happy one for halachah (though I can't deny that that is how halachah has evolved and that's what counts).

So, think of all this as an apologia in advance of some anachronistic talk about sfek sfeka and probability. To be continued.


Blogger Robert said...

As for units of measurement, the speed of light would remain constant, one assumes, even if everything "doubled in size". So one could determine that things had doubled in size by measuring how long light takes to traverse their dimensions. Or would you have speeded up light by a factor of two as well? I don't even want to think what effects that would have on the fabric of space-time.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Jason H. Elbaum said...

Interesting discussion.

My intuition is to understand the halacha as relating to observable everyday human experiences. Sort of as in "dibrah torah bilshon bnei adam" - the Torah speaks in human language. So an olive and an egg were chosen to represent minimal and substantial amounts of consumption, respectively, since they were familiar and widely available.

If Chazal thought in terms of modern scientific methodology, they could not have distinguished between quantities of less than a beitzah, more than a beitzah and exactly a beitzah - how much is "exactly" the size of an egg?

Similarly, I think it's clear from the sources that flavor absorbed in food or pots is just that - particles of flavor which can be imparted to other foods in certain processes of cooking. Whether or not a certain material can absorb flavor would seem to be an empirical question.

Clearly, the halacha also relates to unobservable metaphysical legal statuses, which can take precedence over physical reality in deciding the law, but that doesn't mean all of halacha should be reduced to conceptual abstractions.

Biur Chametz

2:02 PM  

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