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In understanding torah sh'baal peh, as well as halacha we generally work under the presumption that earlier generations were correct and/or knew more than later generations. For example many a talmud shiur revolves around being m'yashev the Rambam, showing how questions from later authorities against the Rambam's opinion can be resolved.

I would like to know where this understanding comes from and why it is seen as correct. In most other intellectual disciplines we assume that those who come later have the benefit of more information, better access to resources, and the 20/20 hindsight of seeing the errors of those before them.

For example today we may have the benefit of materials the Rishonim were never aware of.

So, why do we always assume that previous generations are right or knew more than later generations?

I would limit this question to the period after the close of the gemarah

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yeridas hadoros. –  HodofHod Feb 5 '13 at 16:12
    
Halacha kevatrai –  Double AA Feb 5 '13 at 16:16
    
let us continue this discussion in chat –  HodofHod Feb 6 '13 at 5:19
    
Chaverai: @nikmasi, are there any updates you can make to the question based on the issues raised in comments? HodofHod, it sounds like you may have an answer here. All, I'm cleaning up the comments here since they were all imported into the linked chat room. –  Monica Cellio Feb 7 '13 at 15:22
    
@Monica Actually, it only mine and DoubleAA's conversation :( –  HodofHod Feb 7 '13 at 15:42
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3 Answers

There is a story with Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky Zatzal who was travelling on a plane with one of his grandchildren. His grandchild was making sure he was comfortable and serving him with all his needs. A non-Jew that was sitting nearby asked Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky why is it that Jewish people show such respect to their elders? Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky responded that we believe that Hashem created man, so a previous generation is one generation closer to the original handiwork of Hashem, therefore we show respect to our elders, however those who believe that humanity evolved from apes, each previous generation is one generation closer to the original ape, and therefore do not respect their elders.

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I'm sure that's what all secular people are thinking every time they all don't respect their elders. Does this imply that Amram was greater than Moshe? Also how does this relate to Halacha where knowing future questions may sway your opinion? –  Double AA Feb 5 '13 at 18:42
    
isn't the halacha that if the father is an am ha'aretz and the son is a talmud chacham that the father must show respect to the son? If my father was a Ger am I exempt from showing him honor? I know that since R' Kamenetsky was of the previous dor we may try to be m'yashev the story so that it makes sense, but on the face of it it is false. We honor our parents or previous generations because the torah says so. –  user2110 Feb 5 '13 at 19:59
    
@nikmasi What need is there to "m'yashev"? If the story happened, then the statement was meant as drush or some sort of incomplete analogy (which is what all ta'amei hamitzvot are anyway). –  Double AA Feb 5 '13 at 21:37
    
@DoubleAA I am working under the assumption that R' Kamenetsky wasn't a fool... –  user2110 Feb 5 '13 at 21:44
    
@nikmasi So am I... Even non-fools use incomplete analogies as Taamei haMitzvos. See, for example, all taamei hamitzvos ever. –  Double AA Feb 5 '13 at 21:46
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Firstly, here are a couple of mekorot which maintain this way of thinking:

Shabbat 112b

אם ראשונים בני מלאכים - אנחנו בני אנשים. ואם ראשונים בני אנשים - אנו כחמורים, ולא כחמורו של רבי חנינא בן דוסא ושל רבי פנחס בן יאיר, אלא כשאר חמורים

R. Zera said in Raba b. Zimuna's name: If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like asses, and not [even] like asses of R.Hanina b. Dosa and R. Phinehas b. Jair, but like other asses.

Eiruvin 53a

אמר רבי יוחנן: לִבן של ראשונים כפתחו של אולם, ושל אחרונים כפתחו של היכל, ואנו כמלוא נקב מחט סידקית

R. Johanan further stated: The hearts of the ancients were like the door of the Ulam, but that of the last generations was like the door of the Hekal, but ours is like the eye of a fine needle.

---------Edit----------

Here is a post-talmud source which touches upon this:

Sefer Hayom Yom 6th Shvat states: (The narrator is the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Alter Rebbe is the Baal HaTanya)

My father wrote that he heard in the name of the Alter Rebbe that all rabbinic authors until and including the Taz and Shach, composed their works with ruach hakodesh, the Divine Spirit. An individual's ruach hakodesh, as explained by Korban Ha'eida in Tractate Sh'kalim (Talmud Yerushalmi), end of ch. 3, means that the mysteries of Torah are revealed to him. This comes from the aspect of chochma in its pre-revelation state

If we take this line of thinking - in addition to what the Gemara states - that further back means greater - then it becomes clear that saying that the Rambam 'made a mistake' - would be very difficult - because he said it with divine intuition.

Also I once heard a mashal that in previous generations they 'saw' whereas in later generations they only 'heard'. Just imagine a vision of an intricate landscape with millions of details. When gazing upon that landscape - all those details are before you, tangible and clear. If however I were to ask my friend who saw that vision to explain to me what he saw - even if he heard and comprehended all of them - it's just not the same.

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Thanks, I was aware of these sources which is why I stipulated in my question that I'm only interested in this phenomenon post the close of the talmud –  user2110 Feb 5 '13 at 21:09
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But why would we think that these statements made in the Talmud cease to become relevant in later generations? –  Danield Feb 5 '13 at 21:13
    
@Danield Straw man! They continue to be relevant in asserting that that generation was not as impressive as the previous one. Alternatively, that none of us are Nevi'im. –  Double AA Feb 5 '13 at 21:33
    
@DoubleAA What do you mean by Straw man? –  Danield Feb 5 '13 at 21:41
    
@Danield Above, you attacked a straw man instead of nikmasi's point. He never said the statements made in the Talmud cease to become relevant in later generations. Only you did, and then you attacked it with the implication that statements of the Talmud are always relevant in later generations. –  Double AA Feb 5 '13 at 21:48
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(Although the question is primarily regarding the post-Talmudic era, this answer includes the general topic of permissibility of later authorities to argue on earlier ones, since I believe it is necessary to give the answer in the context of the broader picture.)

Torah Shebaal Peh was transmitted in various different "Tekufos" - time periods. Very roughly speaking, we have the Tanaim, Amoroim, Rabanon Sevurai, Gaonim, Rishonim and Achronim. Generally speaking, members of a single Tekufah may argue with their counterparts in the same Tekufa, but not with an earlier time period. This is quite a strict rule with regards to Amoraim vs. Tanaim and comes up countless times in the Gemora (e.g. Shabbos 64b, Taanis 14b, Baba Metzia 5a, Kesubos 8a). Similarly, after the Gemora was concluded we are not allowed to argue with it (see for example the Rambam's Hakdoma to Mishneh Torah).

Later on, this is not as clear cut - it's a subject of much debate whether Achronim may argue against Rishonim. The Alshich (Shu"t Alshich Siman 39) and R. Moshe Alshakar (Teshuvot Maharam Alshakar Siman 54) [both cited in Shach CM 25:22] write that just as a Tanna may not argue against an Amora, an Achron may not argue against a Rishon (R' Moshe Alshakar writes that the comparison between his generation and that of the Rishonim is not even like that between a human and a monkey!). However the Rama (CM 25:2) writes in the name of the Maharik (Shoresh 96) that we follow the later opinion if the earlier one was well known. The Shach (Kitzur Hanhagos Issur Heheter 8) brings this and then writes that some argue that we should not follow later opinions which are contrary to the notable Rishonim and concludes that in cases were the earlier opinion is stricter we should follow it. It's also not so clear exactly when the cut off date is between Rishonim and Achronim (somewhere around the time of Shulchan Aruch). What is certain is that there is a veneration of the Rishonim - even those who maintain it is permissible to disagree will do so in a most respectful manner.

Why this is so is quite clear: Yeridos Hadoros. The Gemora in several instances makes mention of the fact that as generations proceed we are not as great as before. (See for example Brochos 20a, 35b, Shabbos 112b, Eiruvin 53a, Yoma 53a, Niddah 24b). This trend continues post Talmud as is evident from the Rishonim and Achronim who say countless times that "Kama'i Adifa" - earlier Sages are greater.

Additionally there are certain cutoff dates when it was accepted that henceforth they would not argue on previous generations. The Kesef Mishna (Hilchos Mamrim 2:1) explains that although Rambam maintains that "the judge who exists at that time" (Devorim 17:9) may overrule previous decisions, once the Mishna was completed it was universally accepted that no later generations would revoke its decisions, and similarly once the Gemora was complete, no person may disagree. The Maharam Alshakar (ibid) quotes the Raavad that one who argues against a Gaon is like arguing against the Talmud, and the Alshich (ibid) compares the difference between Tosfos and the Maharik to that of a Tanna and Amorah.

The question posed a very strong point: "In most other intellectual disciplines we assume that those who come later have the benefit of more information, better access to resources, and the 20/20 hindsight of seeing the errors of those before them. For example today we may have the benefit of materials the Rishonim were never aware of." This is a very valid idea acknowledged in Halachic methodology - "Halacha Kebasrai". (See Rif Eurivin 35a, Tosfos Kidushin 45b "Haveh Uvda", Rosh Sanhedrin 4:6 for just some examples. It is codified by the Rama in Shulchan Aruch CM 25:2). Being that later Sages were aware of the preexisting opinions and still chose to argue we give greater credence to the latter authorities.

However, it is important to emphasize that this is not due to any intrinsic advantage of the later authorities. Rather it is a technical advantage due to the fact that they happened to live later. So, there is an intellectual advantage to being earlier, and a technical advantage of coming later. This already explains the veneration we have for earlier generations; although we may have access to more data than them, we still have the utmost respect for their incomparable level of understanding. Additionally, there will be times when the rule that a later generation may not argue against an earlier one will take precedence over the rule of "Halacha Kebasrai". Thus, we rule like the Talmud Bavli over the Yerushalmi, but a Rishon will never argue against the Talmud. (This is as mentioned above much clearer earlier on, and as we come closer to our times the cut-off points become much blurrier).

The Shibaley Haleket brings a parable from R' Yeshaya Mitrani (author of Tosfos Harid) that expresses this point beautifully: A giant is taller and therefore able to see further than a midget. Yet, if you put the midget on the shoulders of the giant - he will be able to see further. This is not because he is greater, rather because he is building upon what came before him. (The Chavos Da'as (in his Hakdoma to YD) takes this one step further: this would be be true if the giant and midget had equal eyesight. However nowadays even our sight is impaired and it doesn't help that we are "on the shoulders of giants").

For further reading, see the two volume set "Hamachlokes B'halacha", which compiles the views of many poskim on Halachic disputes.

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Nitpicks: What about Savoraim? See also judaism.stackexchange.com/q/13058/759 –  Double AA Feb 7 '13 at 5:23
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TL;DR There's a big argument about who you can argue with. :) –  Double AA Feb 7 '13 at 5:23
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thank you, this is a very well written and thorough answer. I would mark it correct if you could further source the notion that yeridas hadoros applies to specific people and their knowledge (post talmudic times) as opposed to being a general statement about the spiritual merits of earlier generations. Just mentioning that some later authorities wrote "Kama'i Adifa" isn't a strong proof (in my mind). They could be talking about specific people who were smarter than them and happened to live earlier. How do we know this is a general rule? –  user2110 Feb 7 '13 at 14:29
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You source the concept of Yeridas haDoros and you source the concept of not arguing on earlier authorities, but you don't source that they are related. You only assert it as clear. I'd suggest it can be argued that the reason for not arguing on earlier authorities is a legal procedural issue that once a psak has been made and established, we don't change independent of personal greatness, ie that's just how halachik process works (כבר הורה זקן in a sense). –  Double AA Feb 7 '13 at 17:28
    
I have to seocnd @DoubleAA's comments on the technical issue of why Psak holds up. R' Shlomo Zalman Auerbach famously suggested that using electricity on Shabbath does not seem to him to be a violation of any DeOraitha law, but that the matter had been decided already so it must stand as Halachah. –  Seth J Feb 12 '13 at 19:12
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