Logic in the Talmud

A Thematic Compilation by Avi Sion

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The present volume, Logic in the Talmud, is a ‘thematic compilation’; that is, it is a collection of essays previously published in some of my primary works. Such collections allow me to increase the visibility of scattered writings over many years on a specific subject. In the present case, the essays are drawn from only two past works, Judaic Logic (1995)[1] and A Fortiori Logic (2013).

What do I mean by ‘logic in the Talmud’? This term differs somewhat from the commonly used term ‘Talmudic logic’. Research on logic in the Talmud (including both the Mishna and the Gemara) aims at uncovering and evaluating all logical processes actually in use, consciously or not, in Talmudic literature; it is an empirical and analytical study, devoid of preconceptions or prejudice. It is scientific observation comparable to, say, observation of animals in the wild or to electrons in an accelerator. Talmudic logic, on the other hand, as commonly understood, is an account of the way the participants in the Talmud, and later Talmudists, perceived their own logic (whether rightly or wrongly). That is, it is an account of accepted ‘principles’, rather than of actual practice. Talmudic logic is thus part of the larger investigation of logic in the Talmud; but not co-extensive with it.

There is a big difference between authentic logic studies, aimed at uncovering the facts of the case, whatever they happen to be; and make-believe studies, aimed at defending some religious or other ideological doctrine. The one is methodologically fully scientific; the other is essentially biased and apologetic. The results of these two pursuits, naturally, differ considerably. The former throws light on all relevant issues and findings, impartially; the latter emphasizes positive aspects and ignores or conceals negative aspects. The researcher in this field must consciously decide at the outset which of these two approaches he (or she) will adopt; whether his loyalty is ultimately to reality or to some given doctrine.

Research on logic in the Torah (and more broadly, the Tanakh) is, of course, a necessary preliminary to research on logic in the Talmud (and more broadly, all Rabbinic literature). The scientific study of logic in the Talmud is, obviously, a very broad field, requiring very attentive examination and critical assessment of every thought-process occurring in this massive document. Patience is required, to collect and sift through large amounts of information; and then, to meticulously examine each item found in great detail. Obviously, this work can best be done by someone (or many people) expert in both Talmudic discussions and general logic. Such double expertise is rarely found, if ever – which is partly why relatively little work has been done in this pregnant field. Yet such research is important for both Talmudic studies and general logic studies. Both domains are sure to benefit from it, in both their breadth and depth, in theory and in practice.

A major reason why such research has lagged far behind where it should be by now is that there is strong ideological resistance against its potential results on both left and right, i.e. by both modern atheistic secularists and orthodox Jewish Talmudists; though of course for different reasons. As regards the secularists, they are suspicious, antipathetic and antagonistic towards any work and anyone that may possibly give any credence or value to religious documents or thought. As regards the Talmudists, they are full of fear and loathing towards any work and anyone that may possibly put in doubt their cherished beliefs. Both the secular and religious camps steer well clear of any study of logic in the Torah and the Talmud, dogmatically refusing to even glance at such work, let alone to consider and discuss its findings, let alone contribute to it. Both parties are, therefore, unscientific in their spirit and approach.

My own work in this field has been, I believe, consistently objective and conscientious. In my early work, Judaic Logic, I analyze and appraise the hermeneutic principles traditionally alleged to characterize Talmudic halakhic (i.e. legal) discourse, including the Thirteen Midot of Rabbi Ishmael and the distinct techniques favored by Rabbi Akiva, in a critical yet fair manner; and in my later work, A Fortiori Logic, I push the investigation of Talmudic logic to unprecedented heights, subjecting certain crucial texts to very searching and penetrating scrutiny and assessment. Yet, I must say that all this work, much of which is reproduced in the present volume, constitutes just a small fraction of the work that needs to be done in the vast field concerning us. There is a lot of work still to be done; and it is to encourage others to join in this interesting and valuable research work that I publish the present book.

The following pages are, to repeat, drawn mainly from my two past books, Judaic Logic (abbr. JL) and A Fortiori Logic (abbr. AFL). The chapters are not placed in the chronological order in which they were written. Rather, the selections from AFL are placed first; and those from JL, last. This order is logical, in that a fortiori argument is the mainstay of Talmudic logic; and deserves and has traditionally received the most attention. Thus, in the present volume, we first thoroughly examine a fortiori argument in the Talmud, from a multitude of angles. This includes: a historical survey; a theoretical primer, describing and explaining the varieties of a fortiori argument; detailed analyses of certain crucial Biblical, Mishnaic and Gemara arguments; explicating the rabbinical dayo (sufficiency) principle; philosophical discussions on related issues; and comparison between a fortiori argument and other forms of reasoning in the Talmud, notably the analogical and the syllogistic; and more. Issues yet needing to be dealt with are highlighted.

Then comes an exhaustive listing of a fortiori arguments found in the Mishna; followed by an attempted estimate of the number of a fortiori arguments in the Gemara. Unfortunately, I have not yet developed an exhaustive list of a fortiori arguments in the Gemara; I only here show the way to one. After that, I examine the input of various post-Talmudic commentators, issues raised by them and solutions proposed by them. Although most such commentaries are of later date, they constitute an integral part of Talmud studies; no Talmudist would dare engage in such study today without referring to such authorities. I also here take a look at what three standard lexicons say on the subject. On the other hand, I have left out of the present volume the large part of AFL where I deal with a great many, more modern, commentators in much detail.

It is only after having thus dealt with a fortiori argument in great detail that I insert, in the present volume, relevant chapters from JL. This provides our study with a wider perspective. Here, I closely examine various other argument forms traditionally thought to be part of Talmudic logic, with reference to both theoretical and practical data. Some of these arguments appear to be invalid; but this conclusion is admittedly only tentative, being based on a limited sample of applications. Moreover, it is not clear how often these alleged arguments are actually used in the Talmud; many seem to be pretty rarely, if at all, used. In short, much myth seems to be involved in the traditional account of Talmudic logic. In conclusion, the rabbis have evidently been mostly competent practitioners of logic; but their theoretical capacities in this field left (and continue to leave) much to be desired.

To repeat, the present book does not constitute an exhaustive study of logic in the Talmud; but it is a ground-breaking and extensive study. Anyone who takes the trouble to read it carefully will find it intellectually very challenging and rich in information. It is hoped that other competent individuals, upon reading it, will be inspired to get involved in this important field of research.



[1]              Plus some addenda and diagrams for JL published first online, then in Ruminations (2005).

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