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Shabbat Parashat Korach 5774

Ein Ayah: Relying Only on the Rules of Reliable Answers

(condensed from Ein Ayah, Shabbat 1:1)

Gemara: Rabbi Chiya said to Rav: “Bar pachti (son of important people), didn’t I tell you that when Rabbi (R. Yehuda Hanasi) is involved in one massechet, do not ask him a question from a different massechet, as the matter may not be on his mind! Had Rabbi not been a great man, you would have embarrassed him, for he might have given you a not good answer, although now he has answered you well.”


Ein Ayah: There are set rules of the intellect, by which when all the conditions are fulfilled, the fruit of the mind are reliable, just like other elements of nature, which are dependable. However, there are occurrences that are by chance, without a set foundation in nature, and these should not be relied upon. Even if one time the matter worked out favorably, one should not extrapolate from one case to another.

As an example of this concept, when a scholar is involved in a certain intellectual realm, his mind will certainly produce a complete and appropriate idea. However, when one is involved in a different topic, then as a general rule, he cannot be confident that his intellect will produce good results in a different area. This is because focus on a topic is one of the crucial factors that is needed to ensure intellectual success, and its being missing is likely to be significant. 

It does happen that an exceptional mind will be able to use an all-encompassing multi-disciplinary look and accurately arrive at the truth on a topic in which he is not involved at the time. That is because, for a great intellect, the many specific topics are interconnected and form one intellectual unit, turning everything into one massechet. However, such a phenomenon is rare enough that it does not create a rule of intellectual nature. Rather, it is a chance event that occurs in the spirit of a unique, exceptional individual.

Whenever something exists as an exception, it is possible for factors to arise that preclude its consistent recurrence. It is incorrect to base a behavior on anything other than a reliable natural phenomenon. Therefore, it is correct to act with the expectation that a scholar will be able to answer a question on a matter in which he is involved. It is not moral, though, to put him in a position where, naturally, he will be unable to answer (i.e., a different topic) and that it is only because he is an exceptionally great man that he will have a good chance of escaping embarrassment. As we have said, it is possible that the situation will be such that even the great scholar will be unable to answer accurately, as exceptions to the rule do not always occur.

In addition to the moral issue of causing embarrassment, there is also a concern of a mistake in the world of scholarship. After all, he may give a wrong answer, and it is possible that the one who asks will not pick up on the weakness of the answer and will rely upon it. This teaches us that we should not rely on a pattern of behavior that defies the logic of the intellect. Even if it worked out once, there is no guarantee that it is any more than a chance occurrence that will not repeat itself. Thus, even though this time, Rabbi’s answer was good, Rabbi Chiya told Rav not to repeat his behavior of asking on topics which, naturally, Rabbi would not be expected to know. Good fruit comes when nature says that the intellectual process is complete, which is when the one who answers is focused on the topic at hand.

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