In Guide for the Perplexed 1:59 Rambam cites a Talmudic passage and introduces it with the following statement:

You must surely know the following celebrated passage in the Talmud – would that all passages in the Talmud were like that! – although it is known to you, I quote it literally, as I wish to point out to you the ideas contained in it: (Friedlander translation, my emphasis)

What is the meaning of the bolded line? At first glance it seems like a criticism of the Talmud, i.e. Rambam is lamenting that the rest of the Talmud is not like this passage, but inferior to it. However, it might instead mean that Rambam is lamenting that the rest of the Talmud is not as celebrated as this passage, i.e. he wishes the whole Talmud was as famous as this one famous passage. In that case it is not a criticism of the Talmud, but perhaps a criticism of the people who don't study the Talmud.

The other renderings of this into Hebrew or English don't provide much more detail. The Pines translation has it as:

You also know their famous dictum – would that all dicta were like it. I shall quote it to you textually, even though it is well-remembered, so as to draw your attention to the various significations it expresses.

The Ibn Tibbon translation has it as:

וכבר ידעת אמרתם המפרסמת אשר מי יתן והיו כל המאמרים כמותה ואני אזכרה בלשונה ואף על פי שהיא ידועה להעירך על עניניה

The Kafih translation has it as:

וכבר ידעת אמרתם המפורסמת אשר מי יתן והיו כל האמרות כמוה והנני מזכירה לך כלשונה ואף על פי שהיא אמרה ידועה כדי להעירך על עניניה

The Schwartz translation has it as:

וכבר ידעת אמרתם המפורסמת אשר מי ייתן והיו כל האמרות כמותה אני אציין לך אותה כלשונה אף על פי שהיא אמרה שזוכרים אותה על מנת להסב את תשומת לבך אל משמעויותיה

In each of these translations the statement can presumably be read in either of the aforementioned two ways.

I know that Professor Marc Shapiro cited this passage as a criticism of the Sages:

The Limits of Orthodox Theology p. 37

Occasionally, one even finds him subtly criticizing the talmudic sages: 'You also know their [the talmudic sages'] famous dictum – would that all [their] dicta were like it.'

So is there any evidence as to whether this statement was meant as a criticism of the Sages or not? The evidence could be linguistic, contextual, based on how later sources understood it, etc.

In case the context may help answer the question, the dictum under discussion is from Berachot 33b:

A certain [reader] went down in the presence of R. Hanina and said, O God, the great, mighty, terrible, majestic, powerful, awful, strong, fearless, sure and honoured. He waited till he had finished, and when he had finished he said to him, Have you concluded all the praise of your Master? Why do we want all this? Even with these three that we do say, had not Moses our Master mentioned them in the Law and had not the Men of the Great Synagogue come and inserted them in the Tefillah, we should not have been able to mention them, and you say all these and still go on! It is as if an earthly king had a million denarii of gold, and someone praised him as possessing silver ones. Would it not be an insult to him?

(Soncino translation)

  • 2
    I don't see any good reason to view this as a criticism of the Talmud - the simple explanation is clearly that he wishes the entire Talmud was known this well. – Moshe Steinberg May 6 '19 at 18:08
  • Apparently this reading goes back to a 15th century Karaite (quoted here) – b a Aug 18 '19 at 14:24

The commentary of R' Shem Tov there says:

אשר אין בכל המאמרים כמותה מקביל למאמרים אחרים מאגדות וממדרשות אשר יורו על הגשמות ועל תוארים נוספים בא-ל, ולכן אמר מי יתן אשר היו כל המאמרים כמותו

So he understands it as a contrast not with the Talmud as a whole, but with various other statements of Chazal that speak of G-d in corporeal terms or that otherwise attempt to describe Him.

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  • So is it a criticism, or not? – Alex Aug 18 '19 at 18:35
  • @Alex I guess, according to that, it's a criticism of those other statements (but not of the Talmud as a whole). – Meir Aug 18 '19 at 18:38
  • @Meir The Rambam did say that the Talmudist stumbled, never finding the entrance to G-d's palace, which is not to say that it is imprudent to be a Talmudist. Maimonides, himself was a great Talmudist. What the Rambam meant was that people should develop their minds by studying G-d's Creations, natural law, science. – Turk Hill Aug 28 '19 at 17:11
  • @Meir That is to say, that G-d does not want us to sit and rely on Him to solve society's social problems. G-d helps those who help themselves. While it is important to study Talmud, my father (who is a rabbi) did 7hrs a day, he also preached perfection by not relying on G-d, but ourselves. This is what G-d desires. No, Rambam did not criticise the Talmud in this light. – Turk Hill Aug 28 '19 at 17:14
  • See Guide for more info. – Turk Hill Aug 28 '19 at 17:15

In Maimonides on the Decline of the Generations and Rabbinic Authority (p. 60-61) Prof. Menachem Kellner argues that this was indeed a criticism:

In introducing a quotation from BT Berakhot 33b concerning appropriate ways of praising God, Maimonides takes an apparently unnecessary "swipe" at some [of] the sayings of the Rabbis: "You also know their famous dictum – would that all dicta were like it..." There seems to be no way of interpreting this passage other than according to its plain sense: Maimonides approves this dictum of the Rabbis, while hinting at reservations concerning others.

Shem Tov in his commentary to this passage explains that Maimonides approved this dictum because, unlike so many other rabbinic texts, it does not present God in corporeal terms. In effect, he says that Maimonides did not give this passage his "seal of approval" at the expense of other passages in rabbinic literature; rather, Maimonides related to the fact that this passage taught in clear language what other passages taught parabolically, namely, that God was incorporeal.

I am not convinced that Shem Toy succeeds in removing the "sting" from this comment of Maimonides. In no other place with which I am familiar does Maimonides bemoan the fact that the Rabbis saw fit to couch their philosophical perceptions in misleading, corporealist language. If Shem Tov reads Maimonides correctly, then why, according to his understanding of Maimonides, did the Rabbis not teach true doctrines concerning God clearly and in every place? Clearly, they hid these doctrines because the[y] had to. But then why not here?

No, I think that the conclusion cannot be avoided that Maimonides here is expressing approval for one rabbinic dictum and implied disapproval for for other dicta of the Rabbis.

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I don't think it is possible to know exactly what the Rambam meant when he said, "Would that all passages in the Talmud were like that!" But his record is consistent with the statement meaning, "I disagree with some teachings in the Talmud." Here are two examples.

(1) I know that you may… find sayings of… sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty… Possibly the matter was hidden from them. Or there may be an allusion in those words. Or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before them. (You surely know how many of the verses of the Torah are not to be taken literally…) [Rambam, Letter on Astrology]

(2) The custom in those days among all men…consisted in sacrificing animals. God did not command us to give up these services; for this would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used. Sacrifices [however] are not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], prayers are. [To wit,] we were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a Temple in every place, or to allow anybody to become a priest and sacrifice. Only one Temple has been appointed, and only, [as the Torah says,] “in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. 12:26). In no other place are we allowed to sacrifice. [The Torah says,] “Be careful not to give your burnt-offerings in every place that you see” (Deut. 12:13); and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. Because of this, the Prophets rebuke people for being over-zealous in bringing sacrifices. [Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim (Guide for the Perplexed) 3:32]

It is hard to see this as the opinion of someone who looks forward to the resumption of animal sacrifices, even though, in his halachic writings, he delivers normative Jewish teaching:

[When the Messiah comes] the sacrifices will be offered, the Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year instituted as outlined in the Torah. [Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 11-12]

Do his disagreements come through only in his nonhalachic writings? I am not sure, and I don't know of a counterexample.

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    This is more like disagreement with a position than criticism of the medium. And anyway it doesn't answer the question since we still don't know whether the OPs citation was meant as criticism or not. He already knew either was possible. – Double AA May 6 '19 at 17:38
  • Is there any indication that the passage about sacrifices is a criticism of, or even a disagreement with, anything in the Talmud (or other statements of the Sages)? – Alex May 7 '19 at 2:51
  • @Alex -- The passage can be read that way, although the wording is extremely careful. That's why I used very careful wording too: "It is hard to see this as the opinion of someone who looks forward to the resumption of animal sacrifices." – Maurice Mizrahi May 7 '19 at 3:08
  • See here for solutions to the sacrifices issue. But to clarify, is your answer that given that the Rambam has criticized the Talmud/Sages on other occasions it's perfectly reasonable that he's criticizing here too, or is your answer that given that the Rambam has criticized the Talmud on other occasions, the statement "would that all passages in the Talmud were like that!" is referring to those very statements that he has criticized (and is this a criticism)? – Alex May 7 '19 at 3:19
  • @Alex -- I am not sure I appreciate the difference. The Rambam seems to be dropping hints. It's up to us to interpret them according to the glasses we wear. – Maurice Mizrahi May 7 '19 at 3:27

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