Studying Greek Wisdom
Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
The Sages speak in a number of places about a decree against studying Greek wisdom. This article explores many of the essential issues relating to this decree.
The mishna (Sota 49b) states: "During Vespasian's War they decreed [against] the groom [wearing] a wedding crown ... During Titus' War they decreed [against] the bridal crown and that one should not teach his son Greek wisdom."
The gemara (Sota 49b) quotes a beraita:
"The Sages taught: During the siege in the Hasmonean war, Horkanos was outside [the walls of Jerusalem] and Aristobulos was inside. Every day they would send out a box of dinar coins and they would send the daily sacrifice in return. There was one old man who knew Greek wisdom. He spoke with them (the Hebrew 'la'az' refers to speaking in a non-Hebrew tongue) with Greek wisdom and said to them, 'As long as the Jews are involved in the Temple service, they will not fall into your hands.' The next day they lowered the box of coins and they sent them up a pig [instead of the daily sacrifice]. When it reached halfway up the wall, it dug its hoofs into the wall and the land of Israel trembled four hundred parasangs. At that time they said, 'Cursed is the man who raises pigs, and cursed is the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom.'"
The time of the decree mentioned by the beraita - the Hasmonean period - seems to contradict that mentioned in the mishna - Titus' War. The war against Titus was at the very end of the Second Temple period, while the episode during the Hasmonean war preceded the destruction of the Temple by over 130 years.
This discrepancy can be resolved in two ways:
1. the decree did not take hold at first and then was reissued in the time of Titus (Rash, Commentary to Mishna Pe'ah 1:1);
2. the original decree might have been a temporary measure, while the second was established as a permanent halakha for generations to come. We find other examples of temporary decrees: the penalization of the Levites in the times of Ezra (Yevamot 86b); the prohibition for the generation of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi against accepting a stolen object returned by a thief (Rabbeinu Tam, Bava Kama 94b).
1. The simple reading of the mishna and gemara quoted above is that the decree was a reaction to the event in the time of the Hasmoneans and to the destruction of the Temple. There does not seem to be anything wrong with Greek wisdom per se; rather, decreeing against teaching it was a way of reacting to what happened – either by remembering the destruction or by refusing to identify with the culture connected with the tragedy.
2. On the other hand, if Greek wisdom is value-neutral, why ban it because of one episode? The beraita's use of the image of the pig, identified with impurity, indicates that Greek wisdom is itself problematic.
3. A different approach: The context within which Greek wisdom appears in the mishna implies that it is a kind of adornment. "... They decreed [against] the groom [wearing] a wedding crown, ... the bridal crown and that one should not teach his son Greek wisdom." Greek wisdom was perhaps considered an ornament, similar to (in recent times) knowing how to speak French or play the piano. The Yerushalmi (Pe'a 1:1) supports this: "It is permissible to teach one's daughter Greek wisdom because it is an adornment ('takhshit') for her." Again, with this approach, there is nothing inherently bad about Greek wisdom. The decree was made essentially against frills.
The gemara in Sota concludes that "the Greek language is distinct from Greek wisdom." In other words, they decreed against Greek wisdom and not against studying the Greek language. Rigid definitions are not given for "language" and "wisdom." One could take either a minimalist or maximalist approach to defining the two terms. "Language" might be used in its most constricted sense (spoken language), leaving everything else (literature, culture and the like) prohibited under the decree. On the other hand, "wisdom" might mean only Greek philosophy, whereas literature and culture would fall under the broader category of "language."
The gemara also says that learning Greek wisdom was permitted to the house of Rabban Gamliel because they were "close to the government" and needed it. It seems that they had not only a practical or pragmatic need but, because of their associations with the government, they were required to be connected with their culture and lifestyle. [What defines a "need" would have to be clarified.]
WHAT IS "GREEK WISDOM?"
Rashi (Menachot 64b) defines Greek wisdom as "things hinted at" (remizot). Likewise, the Rambam (in his Commentary on the Mishna) calls it "hints and riddles." This seems to refer not to standard wisdom, the sciences and humanities, but rather to some secret, esoteric wisdom.
The Rivash (#45) was asked to define Greek wisdom, "whether it refers to those famous books about the natural world and about what is beyond it (physics and metaphysics)?" He responded that they are not included in the decree. In his opinion, "'Greek wisdom' means to speak in Greek in a way that the common folk will not understand, using riddles and obscure language..." (However, he raises the possibility that it still might be fitting to avoid studying Greek scientific works for another reason, "Do not stray after idols.")
With regard to modern times: The Rambam writes that Greek language and wisdom has been forgotten: "This matter has, no doubt, been lost, and does not exist today in the world ..." (Commentary to the Mishna, Sota). Concerning the language, he writes (Hilkhot Tefillin 1:19): "[Ancient] Greek has already faded away, been corrupted and lost."
LEARNING GREEK WISDOM AND THE COMMANDMENT TO LEARN TORAH
The gemara (Menachot 99b) raises another problem with studying Greek wisdom.
Ben Dama asked Rabbi Yishmael, "Someone like me, who has learned the whole Torah - is it permissible to learn Greek wisdom?" He responded … "'You should meditate on it (Torah) day and night' (Yehoshua 1). Go and see if you can find a time that is neither day nor night, and then learn Greek wisdom!" This opinion conflicts with that of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani ... Rabbi Yonatan says, "This verse is not an obligation or a commandment, but rather a blessing."
Here also there does not seem to be any essential value problem with Greek wisdom. The question raised in the gemara concerns the obligation of TORAH STUDY. The question of apportioning time could have come up with regard to swimming or hiking, for that matter. The gemara concludes that if the obligation to learn Torah applies "day and night," there is no time to learn Greek wisdom. If there is no such obligation, then it is permissible.
The Yerushalmi contains a similar passage, but adds the following, "Does not Rabbi Yishmael teach that the verse 'You should choose life,' refers to learning a trade? Based on this (his reading of the verse, 'You should meditate on it day and night'), there is no time to learn a trade!" They conclude that the source for the decree against Greek wisdom is "because of informers (who hand over Jews to the authorities)."
Even if the obligation to learn Torah applies day and night, it is still possible that one could fit in time for learning Greek wisdom. The Ran (Nedarim 8a) holds that one is obligated to learn "day and night ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITY." There are certain basic needs that a person must meet, and the rest of the time should be filled with Torah study.
Learning a trade is considered one of these needs, as the Yerushalmi says. The Ra'avan writes that despite the prohibition against embarking on a sea voyage three days before Shabbat, it is permissible for one's trade. Rashi writes (Bava Metzia 30b) that the verse "You should inform them of the path in which they should walk" refers to teaching one's children a trade. Studying Greek wisdom might, if it has some worth, also be considered a legitimate need, which (according to the Ran's approach) would not detract from one's fulfillment of the obligation to "learn Torah according to one's ability."
It seems that the Torat Kohanim introduces another element to the decree. On the verse in Acharei Mot, "Do My statutes and keep my laws to WALK IN THEM," the midrash comments:
Walk in them - make them paramount and not secondary. Walk in them - your dealings should be only through them, not mixing anything else in the world with them. You should not say, 'I have learned the Torah of Israel; I will now go and learn the wisdom of the nations of the world.' The verse says, 'Walk in them,' so that you should not abandon them.
The Torat Kohanim's approach is broader than the gemara's decree; it speaks of the wisdom of the nations of the world and not only about Greek wisdom. The focus is not on laxity in Torah study, but rather on MAKING THE TORAH SECONDARY (tafel). Placing something else at the center of one's focus is problematic. "Walk in them - make them paramount and not secondary."
Here also, there does not seem to be an essential value problem with foreign wisdom, but rather a concern that a person will say, "I have learned the Torah of Israel; I will now move to another discipline, of equal worth to Torah." Here the Sifra sets down, "You must not abandon them."
If so, there might be situations where learning the wisdom of other nations is sanctioned, as long as they would contribute to a person's service of God. One must constantly maintain a consciousness that he stands with both feet in the world of Torah and is firmly planted in it.
[Daf Kesher #74,Tevet 5747, vol. 1, pp. 298-300.
This article is adapted from a student's summary of a shiur given on Motzaei Shabbat Parashat Miketz 5747 and was not reviewed by Harav Lichtenstein. Harav Lichtenstein has treated this subject in a number of articles, most recently in "Judaism's Encounters with Other Cultures," edited by Rabbi J.J. Schachter.]