Saul Lieberman: The Greatest Sage in Israel

Meir Bar-Ilan


A. The Greatest Sage


In the Mishnah Avoth 2:8 the Rabbis discussed the five disciples of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai and stated that R. Yohanan ben Zakkai designated the uniqueness of each of them. They then quoted him as follows:


He used to say: If all the sages of Israel were on one side of the scale and Eliezer ben Hyrkanos were on the other, he would outweigh them all. Abba Saul quoted him: If all the sages of Israel, even with R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos included, were on one side of the scale and R. Elazar ben Arach were on the other, he would outweigh them all.[1]


This tradition has parallels in the sayings of the Tannaim (Rabbis of the Mishnah).[2] According to one R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos was the greatest sage in Israel;[3] according to the other, it was, on the contrary, R. Elazar ben Arach.[4] The common denominator of these differing opinions is the awareness of the sages that one of them was considered as outstanding. However, one who delves into Talmudic literature will find it difficult to determine what led the Tannaim to rate the greatness of one individual above his colleagues and to take sides favoring one of the two. In any case, one thing is entirely clear: one sage among the disciples of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai was the greatest sage of his generation. Metaphorically, it was expressed by stating that if all the (other) scholars were placed on one pan of a balance and that special individual were on the opposite pan, he would outweigh them all. One individual was recognized by everyone as exceeding all the others in understanding and wisdom.


The sayings refer to Tannaim. It appears that in the Jewish historiographic tradition, even if there was recognition of various prominent personalities,[5] no real attempt was made to match one sage against another, and certainly no attempt was made to depict one sage as excelling his contemporaries. Each sage was evaluated on his own without comparison to others. In effect, this has been the situation until now, or more exactly: until the Gaon Professor Rabbi Saul Lieberman (henceforth: RSL).


Whoever examines the corpus of accomplishments of RSL has to admit that in this case one can say about this sage the equivalent of what was said of the Tannaim: “If all the sages of Israel were on one pan of a balance and Saul ben Moshe Lieberman were on the other - he would outweigh them all”. In other words, in an exceptional way, it can be said that RSL exceeded his contemporaries and they recognized that fact. There is no intention here to summarize the case for the greatness of RSL since his publications (books and articles) speak for themselves. Any scholar is bound to be impressed by the depth of knowledge and breadth of thought, scope of knowledge and wonderful innovations. Indeed, it does not follow that other sages agreed with him on every issue. But it appears that his teacher Prof. Y. N. Epstein, though they differed in matters of Torah interpretation,[6] recognized the greatness of his student (analogous to R. Yohanan ben Zakkai’s recognition of his disciple).[7] To keep the record straight it has to be noted that only one person has minimized the achievements of RSL but he is an isolated case.[8] All the Jewish scholars contemporaneous with RSL, his colleagues and students and even those who were not personally acquainted with him, including non-Jews, grant that RSL was unique and special among the sages of Israel with no successor like him; they relate to him with admiration unequaled in the academic world.


B. A Great Man Who Erred

The thrust of the following is to note one phenomenon unique in the teaching and knowledge of RSL. Though already noted, it merits attention because it is almost exclusive to this sage, a characteristic that is almost absent in other Jewish scholars. The reference is to the ability to recognize one’s error (and not another’s).[9] It appears that, more than any other scholar, RSL agreed to recognize his error; doing so publicly in an unprecedented manner throughout his scholarly career. Already in one of his first articles, RSL noted that regarding one matter in his book Ha-Yerushalmi Kiphshuto  I was unable to avoid a tight spot.” Following a comment of R. Chaim Heller OBM he notifies his readers: “Everything I said regarding this matter in ‘Ha-Yerushalmi Kiphshooto’ is null and void.”[10] Furthermore RSL did something that seems to me unprecedented in the field of Hebrew literature: he published a complete booklet designating the errors he himself acknowledged.[11] Here are some informative quotations from this booklet: "typographical errors and my errors"; "this is a slip of the pen"; "this is unnecessary"; “this is a translation from Yiddish”;  "my words are not accurate"; "the entire short note should be erased"; "I now see that it is a far-fetched speculation"; "according to this I made a serious mistake by explaining (this way) even in the short commentary." His final words: "I conclude with a prayer that I will be privileged to remove all the rubbish from Tosefta Kiphshuta for the orders of Zeraim and Moed and to correct everything at the end of Nashim"


Similarly, RSL wrote in another connection: “I cancel what I wrote in Tosefet Rishonim.”[12]  In the second edition of Devarim Rabba he writes: "All I have written is idle talk."[13] It is almost certain that further searching in the writings of RSL will lead to the revelation of more such pearls - he not only notes his error but makes it public.[14] This phenomenon of a retracting scholar is seen in Tannaim and Amoraim but seems to have just about disappeared subsequently. A shining example of a great scholar retracting is seen in t. Ohaloth 4:2 (Zuckermandel edition, p. 600): [15]


R. Yehuda said: six things were declared impure by R. Akiva and he retracted. Once containers of bones were brought from Kefar Tabia and were placed in the synagogue in Lod. Theodorus the physician entered with all the physicians.

They said: there is no spine here from a single dead person, nor a skull from a single person.

They said; since there are some who declare impure and some who declare pure, let us take a count. They started from R.  Akiva who declared pure.

They said; Since you who used to declare impure now declared pure - they will be judged pure.

R. Simon said: till the day of his death, R. Akiva declared impure. If he retracted after death, he is [=I am] unaware.[16]


The special subject of this anecdote departs from the present discussion,[17] but what is important for the present discussion is that R. Akiva, who used to declare impure, retracted, not just once but six times. And just because of this retraction, his words carried greater weight than in other cases.[18] Similarly a baraita is cited in b. Hulin 55b: "R. Simon ben Elazar said: R. Meir retracted; He used to declare a skinned animal pure but he retracted and banned it." Similarly the Mekhilta of R. Simon ben Yohai comments on Exodus 13: 9: "R. Yosi said: R. Yehuda retracted."


The Amoraim already sensed retraction as a kind of "style". In the course of their learning they referred to various Tannaim as having retracted, for instance R. Eliezer, R. Yehuda, R. Yishmael, and R. Tarfon.[19] Hence it is not surprising to find in the Gemara various traditions about Amoraim who retracted, for instance Rava, R. Nachman, R. Aha bar Yaakov, R. Yohanan.[20] Eventually a new term "version" evolved, as used in b. Bava Bathra 157b: "Ravina said the initial version of R. Ashi was that the first party prevails; the final version of R. Ashi was that the litigants divide/compromise."[21]  Particularly interesting are the traditions about various Amoraim who publicly declared their errors. Here is an example from b. Shabbat 63b: "When R. Dimi left for Nehardea, he sent a message: What I said to you was in error."  Public retraction in similar terms was also declared by R. Nahman, Rava and Zeiri.[22] However, except for those limited cases in which the individual retracted publicly, it is hard to establish the extent to which we are dealing with historical testimony or philosophical examination. (The difficulty is greater in the case of Amoraim than Tannaim). In any case, it is clear that in the intellectual and Halachic world of the Tannaim and Amoraim, a scholar could retract his words and his students could report on his behalf that he had changed his mind.


Unique was Maimonides in retracting and declaring his errors publicly. It is not just incidental that RSL pointed this out, although his specialty was in the field of the Tannaim. For example, when RSL published Maimonides' Laws of the Jerusalem Talmud, he did not confine himself to a diplomatic version (as he was to do with the Tosefta) but paid special attention to Maimonides’ approach of retracting and changing his position, as he calls on his readers to correct the versions in their books.[23] RSL remarked not only on Halachic matters but also that Maimonides changed his theological view. At first he considered the book Shiur Koma the work of scholars: "and he was drawn to the book Yesod Mora (The Basis of Awe) of R. Abraham Ibn Ezra...which had great influence on Maimonides,[24] and he then retracted and deleted the words..."[25]


In summary, RSL not only retracted but he admitted his errors. He not only publicized it, but he searched for and disclosed them for this was the way of the greatest: Maimonides. We thus find that, more than is known about other sages, we know with certainty of three personalities who retracted: R. Akiva (six times!), Maimonides and RSL A three-fold cord is not readily broken.


C. Admits Error


In the winter of 1983 I intended to travel to the United States. I consulted RSL, my beloved uncle, and he told me that there was no need for me to come to the States and there was nothing for me to do there. Nevertheless, I thought it was worth the trip to the States. This was the academic year after the submission of my doctorate, a number of months after I was severely wounded in Lebanon. I thought that, in spite of my uncle’s recommendation, I would visit the States. And so it worked out. I came to the States about 22 years after my previous visit.


During weekdays I stayed with a friend in New York. For the Sabbath I came to stay with RSL. I was his Sabbath guest. It was evident that the lady of the house was missing. Aunt Judith OBM had passed away in Kislev 5738 (1977) and my uncle was living alone. I thought to myself how many years had passed since RSL had hosted anyone in his dwelling, but of course I did not bring up the subject. We talked about various matters, before and after the prayers, during and after the meal. I wanted to present my innovative interpretations. Of course he was very happy to hear me out, not for the first time. I presented my explanation of Tosefta Yevamoth Chapter 3 (unique in not having any internal division), reading as follows:


R. Liezer was asked:

Regarding the mamzer, does he inherit? - He said: Does he remove the sandal?

- Indeed does he remove the sandal? - He said: Does he inherit?

- Indeed does he inherit? - He said: What about plastering his house?

- [Indeed what about plastering his house?][26] - He said: What about plastering his grave?

- Indeed what about plastering his grave? - He said: What about raising dogs?[27]

R. Liezer was not one to speak excessively, but he said nothing that he had not heard earlier.[28]


Among all the issues mentioned here (and in the matching text in b. Yevamoth 66a), I dealt with only one subject: the plastering of the grave of the mamzer.[29] RSL wrote in his commentary that we are dealing with the plastering of a grave, the way graves are marked - a well known issue (appearing dozens of times) in Talmudic literature.[30] I argued with the foremost interpreter of the Tosefta that we are dealing with another issue: the Tanna is not dwelling necessarily on the plastering of the mamzer's grave, but only because he has already dwelt on the plastering of his house. The simple text is that there were people of the opinion that it was necessary to plaster the home of the mamzer, both the home in which he resided and his eternal resting place, so that everyone would shun him, along the lines of (Deuteronomy 23:3): "He shall not enter the community of the Lord."


RSL completely rejected my interpretation. His broad smile showed that he was amused by this impossible interpretation, He rejected it derisively, the way scholars reject the words of ignoramuses. I was not offended but I did not accept his opinion. It was pointless to argue and we shifted the discussion to another issue. It ended with my sleeping Sabbath night in the home of RSL after his rejection of my notion.


Sabbath morning, RSL woke me with greetings of "A peaceful Sabbath" and "Good morning." While my eyes were still cobwebbed, he added with a triumphant smile on his face: "You are right." He added: "I erred." The reason for his error was that he had not distinguished between "marking" a grave and "plastering" a grave. I was embarrassed and surprised. RSL endorsed in the morning what I had said Sabbath eve. The words that had been dismissed lightly were now supported by his examination of the verb "plaster" in connection with graves, describing an activity mentioned only here. It was clear to me that admission of such an "error" was the result of thought. At the time I did not appreciate the significance of his words. I was happy that my uncle agreed with my interpretation. That seemed enough.


Three weeks later, I was already back in Israel anxiously awaiting my uncle’s arrival for Passover. RSL was alive when he boarded the plane but, unfortunately, his body was removed from the plane after his soul had departed in the heavens. Only then did it become clear to me why I had traveled to the United States.


Translated by:

Rachelle and Saul Isserow

Ein Rogel 16/3

Jerusalem 93543

Tel # 972(02) 672-6826


[1] According to the Kaufman manuscript (Makor Press), Jerusalem 1968 (Abbreviations have been spelled out), the printed version includes the title ‘Rabbi’ twice but there is no substantive change.

[2] Avoth d’R. Nathan, S. Z. Schechter edition, New York 1967, Version A, Chapter l4, p.58; Version B, Chapter 29, p. 59; Mekhilta of R. Simon ben Yohai, Y. N. Halevi Epstein- E. Z. Melamed edition, Jerusalem 1979, p. 159 (but that citation is only regarding R. Elazar ben Arach). On this see immediately below.

[3] This opinion is preferred as R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos is the Tanna about whom there is abundant information (See: Y. D. Gilat, R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos, Tel Aviv 1968, as is not the case for R. Elazar ben Arach. In addition, in Tractate Kallah Rabbati 6:4 the text reads (differing from b. Berakhot 28b): “The Rabbis learned, When Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, all the sages of Israel visited him, and furthermore I cite 300 laws on the subject of an intense white discoloration (of the skin) and 300 decisive verdicts on “Thou shall not allow a sorceress to remain alive” and no one questioned me on them except Akiva ben Joseph. In other words none of the sages of Israel knew the laws in which R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos was the expert except for his pupil R. Akiva.

[4] The greatness of R. Elazar ben Arach is recognized in the single instance of his expounding on the Merkava (chariot); fire was blazing all around him, to such an extent that R. Yohanan ben Zakkai embraced him and said to him “Fortunate is she that gave birth to you, fortunate is our father Abraham that this person came from your loins.” See b. Hagiga 14b; Mekilta of R. Simon ben Yohai (op. cit.). However, in  Avoth d'R. Nathan Version B (above), the following was added: “And why was not the name of R. Elazar ben Arach glorified for his wisdom? But because on their departure from Jerusalem he said where can we go and he also said we are going to  Emmaus, a beautiful city. In other words, the Tanna clarifies the gap between the primary outlook of R. Yohanan ben Zakkai and the realization of the qualifications of R. Elazar ben Arach in the course of his life, potentialities that were not realized. Also see D. Y. Bornstein, “Elazar ben Arach,” Eshkol Encyclopedia, 2, Berlin 1932, pp. 710-711. He may also be hinted at in m. Hagiga 1:7: “R. Simon ben Menasia says: Who is irreparably deformed? R. Simon ben Yohai says: The term deformed is applied only to one who was originally in good shape and then was deformed, and who is that? A scholar who discards the Torah.”

[5] A striking example appears in b. Gittin 59a: “It was said by Rava the son of Rabba, and some say by Hillel the son of R. Wells: From the days of Moses to Rabbi, Torah  and greatness were not found together. Really not? Where was Joshua? There was Elazar! (so) There was Elazar? There was Pinhas! (so) There was Pinhas? They were the elders... R. Aha the son of Rava said, I also state: From the days of Rebbi to Rav Ashi Torah and greatness were not found together’, etc. Also compare the sayings: 1) “Rav Hai - last in time, first in importance;  2) “From Moses to Moses none arose like Moses”, see: S. Ashkenazi, Avnei Hen (Precious Stones), Tel Aviv 1990, pp. 159-169 (Hebrew);  3) “From Abraham to Abraham none arose like Abraham”, see: A. Weiser, “The Debate over R. Abraham ibn Ezra in the Literature of the Haskalah (Enlightenment)”, Sinai, 61 (1967), pp. 110-115 (Hebrew).

[6] S. Lieberman, Sifri Zuta (The Lod Midrash), New York 1968 (Hebrew).

[7] RSL told me personally that Prof. Y. N. Epstein told him (Lieberman) that he (Epstein) wanted Lieberman to succeed him as head of the Talmud Department at the Hebrew University after his death, but it did not work out.

[8] J. Neusner, Why There Never Was a “Talmud of Caesarea”: Saul Lieberrman’s Mistakes, Atlanta, Georgia, Scholars Press, 1994. For such a case it is said: The lion cannot be rebutted after his death (b. Gittin 83a). In addition the “judge” has a personal issue and he is disqualified from dealing with such a case.

[9] The first to call attention to this trait of RSL was T. Preschel, "RSL and his scientific work," reprint from Hadoar, New York, 1963, p. 6.

[10] Tarbiz, 6 (1935) = S. Lieberman, Researches in the Torah of the Land of Israel, Jerusalem 1991, p. 215 (Hebrew).

[11] S. Lieberman, Supplement of corrections and additions to Tosefta KiPhshuta: Order Moed, New York 1962 (Hebrew).

[12] Mishnah Shir Hashirim = Studies in the Torah of the Land of Israel, p. 43, note 42 (Hebrew).

[13]  S. Lieberman (ed.), Devarim Rabba, second edition, Jerusalem 1974, p. 135.

[14] See: D. Zlotnik, "Comments of RSL on the six orders of the Mishnah R. C. Albeck edition," Sinai, 61 (1998), pp. 22-31 (Hebrew).

[15] This tosefta is based on the m. Ohalot 2:5(6): “The spine and skull from two deceased, and a revi‘it of blood from two deceased, and a quarter of bones from two deceased, and a dead limb from two deceased, and a live limb from two living persons; all these R.Akiva declares impure and the sages declare pure” (according to the Kaufman manuscript, p. 476).

[16] A parallel text in b. Nazir 52a: “An incident in which a container full of bones was brought to the synagogue of Tarsiyim and left out in the open: Todos the physician entered with all the physicians and they declared: There is no spine from a single corpse.” (The Munich manuscript version: "Theoriri (?Theodoro?) the physician entered and all the physicians at his side.") P. Talmud Berakhot 1:1 3a; S. Lieberman, Tosefet Rishonim, III, p.102; D. Pardo, Hasdei David, Jerusalem 1970, I, p. 190 (and the comments of RSL on the spot).

[17] On the subject itself, see M. Bar-Ilan, "Medicine in Palestine in the first Centuries of the Common Era," Kathedra, 91 (1999), pp.31-78 (Hebrew).

[18] The words of R. Simon express opposition to this tradition (of retraction). That is to say, R. Simon diplomatically expressed his opinion that R. Akiva did not reverse his decision until the day of his death but still declared impure. The conclusion "If he retracted after death - he is unaware" teaches us that R. Akiva may have retracted in the afterworld (="world of truth") but his student is unaware of the retraction, all this is a euphemism regarding the words of R. Yehuda.

[19] Several examples: 1) b. Pesahim 117b: “Rav Yehuda reported in behalf of Shmuel: R. Yehuda retracted;" 2) b. Sukka 27a: “Bira said in behalf of Rav Ami: R. Eliezer retracted;" 3) b. Sukka 34b:"'Biraa said in bealf of Rav Ami: R.Yishmael retracted;" 4) b. Menahot 34b: "Rabba said:"According to R. Yosi, R. Yehuda retracted;" 5) b. Bechorot 18b: "(R.) Ami said: "R. Tarfon retracted."

[20] Several examples: 1) b. Shabbat 123a (ibid 111a; b. Bava Bathra 24a; b. Menahot 7b): "Rava retracted from that;" 2) b. Shabbat: "Rav Nahman retracted from that;" 3) b. Pesachim 29b: "But Rav Aha bar Yaakov retracted from that;" 4) b. Yevamoth 42b: "R. Hiya bar Abba said: R. Yohanan retracted."

[21] This is the printed version. However, in the Florence manuscript  II I 7-9 (in the digital databases of the RSL Institute), the version is: "Ravina said: The first reader  in the presence of Rav Ashi said: the first acquired; the last reader said: they divide." The sense of the change is that we are not dealing with a literary creation as would appear from the printed version but with a verbal lesson, and this version is preferred. See also: Y. A. Efrati, The Period of the Sevoraim and Its Literature, Petah-Tikva 1973, p. 56 (Hebrew).

[22] B. Eruvin 16b; ibid. 104a; b. Bava Bathra 127a; b. Zevahim 94b; b. Hulin 56a (perhaps Rav Oshiya is intended); b. Nida 68a.

[23] S. Lieberman, The Jerusalem (Talmud) Laws according to Maimonides, New York 1948, pp. 6-13. In his summary: "In the final analysis Our Master frequently retracted not only his decisions but also his explanations."

[24] On the influence of R. Abraham ibn Ezra on Maimonides, see: I. Twersky, "Did Ibn Ezra influence Maimonides?", I. Twersky and J. M. Harris (eds.), Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra: Studies in the Writings of a Twelfth Century Jewish Polymath, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993, Hebrew section, pp. 21-48.

[25] Mishnah Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) = Researches in the Torah of the Land of Israel, p. 42 (Hebrew).

[26] The excerpt in brackets was apparently deleted by the scribe on the basis of the similar sections (although the deletion can be explained in another way).

[27] On the problem of raising dogs and the law in Qumran (MMT) see: E. Qimron, "The Controversy over the Sanctity of Jerusalem in the Period of the Second Temple," Researches on Judea and Samaria, 6 (1996), pp. 73-77 (Hebrew). All matters of law in this excerpt are explained elsewhere.

[28] On changes of versions and explanations, see: Tosefta - Nashim, Lieberman edition, New York 1967, p. 9; S. Lieberman, Tosefta Kiphshuta - Nashim, 6, New York 1967, pp. 22-24 (Hebrew).

[29] For a broader treatment, see: M. Bar-Ilan, "Burial in 'Ancestral Legacy' among Jews in Antiquity," I. Singer (ed.), Graves and Burial Customs in the Land of Israel in Antiquity, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 212-229 (Hebrew).

[30] The notion first occurs in Ezekiel 39:15: "He shall erect a marker beside it, until the buriers have interred them in the Valley of Gog's Multitude." Also see, m. Shekalim 1:1, m. Moed Qatan 1:2; m. Nida 7:5; and many others.