Lieberman: The Greatest Sage in
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
This tradition has parallels in the sayings of the
Tannaim (Rabbis of the Mishnah). According to one R. Eliezer ben Hyrkanos was the greatest sage in
The sayings refer to Tannaim. It appears that in the Jewish historiographic tradition, even if there was recognition of various prominent personalities, 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, recognized the greatness of his student (analogous to R. Yohanan ben
Zakkai’s recognition of his disciple). 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. 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
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). 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.” 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. 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.” In the second edition of Devarim Rabba he writes: "All I have written is idle talk." 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. 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): 
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.
The special subject of this anecdote departs from the present discussion, 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. 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. 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. 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." 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. 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. 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, and he then retracted and deleted the words..."
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
During weekdays I stayed with a friend in
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?] - He said: What about plastering his grave?
- Indeed what about plastering his grave? - He said: What about raising dogs?
R. Liezer was not one to speak excessively, but he said nothing that he had not heard earlier.
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. 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. 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
Rachelle and Saul Isserow
Ein Rogel 16/3
Tel # 972(02) 672-6826
 According to the Kaufman manuscript (Makor
 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.
 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
 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
 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).
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
J. Neusner, Why There Never Was a “Talmud of Caesarea”: Saul Lieberrman’s Mistakes,
The first to call attention to
this trait of RSL was T. Preschel, "RSL and his scientific work,"
Tarbiz, 6 (1935) =
S. Lieberman, Supplement of
corrections and additions to Tosefta KiPhshuta: Order
Mishnah Shir Hashirim = Studies in the Torah of the
 See: D. Zlotnik, "Comments of RSL on the six orders of the Mishnah R. C. Albeck edition," Sinai, 61 (1998), pp. 22-31 (Hebrew).
 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).
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
On the subject itself, see M. Bar-Ilan, "Medicine in
 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.
 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."
 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."
This is the printed version.
However, in the
 B. Eruvin 16b; ibid. 104a; b. Bava Bathra 127a; b. Zevahim 94b; b. Hulin 56a (perhaps Rav Oshiya is intended); b. Nida 68a.
S. Lieberman, The
 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.
Shir Hashirim (Song of Songs) = Researches in the Torah of the
 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).
On the problem of raising dogs
and the law in Qumran (MMT) see:
On changes of versions and
explanations, see: Tosefta - Nashim, Lieberman edition,
For a broader treatment, see: M.
Bar-Ilan, "Burial in 'Ancestral Legacy' among Jews in Antiquity," I.
The notion first occurs in
Ezekiel 39:15: "He shall erect a marker beside it, until the buriers have
interred them in the