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It is clear from the Shulchan Aruch that one should ideally stay away from certain types of books - not just on Shabbos, but the whole time.

In Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 307:16 it writes the following:

מליצות ומשלים של שיחת חולין ודברי חשק כגון ספר עמנואל וכן ספרי מלחמות אסור לקרות בהם בשבת ואף בחול אסור משום מושב לצים ועובר משום אל תפנו אל האלילים לא תפנו אל מדעתכם ובדברי חשק איכא תו משום מגרה יצר הרע ומי שחיברן ומי שהעתיקן ואין צריך לומר המדפיסן מחטיאים את הרבים: הגה ונראה לדקדק הא דאסור לקרות בשיחות חולין וספורי מלחמות היינו דוקא אם כתובים בלשון לע"ז אבל בלשון הקודש שרי וכן נ"ל מלשון שכתבו התוס' פרק כל כתבי וכן נהגו להקל בזה

One may not read on Shabbos secular books of phrases and parables, books of passion (such as Emanuel) and war books. One may not read them during the week as well because it is a “sitting of scoffers” and because one is “removing Hashem from one’s mind”. Books of passion have an extra prohibition of arousing one’s evil inclination, and therefore the authors, the duplicators and of course the publishers cause the masses to sin. RAMA: It is noteworthy that it is only prohibited to read secular writings and war books when they are written in foreign languages, but when written in Lashon Hakodesh it is permitted. That is what I see from Tosefos in Perek Kol Kisvei (Shabbos 116b), and people are accustomed to being lenient with this. (Sefaria translation)

Indeed the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 90:11 seems to open this is up to cover even more of history, as he includes in the איסור:

וְכֵן סִפְרֵי מִלְחָמוֹת וְסִפְרֵי דִּבְרֵי הַיָּמִים שֶׁל מַלְכֵי אֻמּוֹת הָעוֹלָם

And similarly, books about wars, and history books dealing with worldly kingdoms [and governments] (Sefaria translation)

  1. If I could please focus on 'Sipurei Milchamos' specifically, how exactly do we define this? - Would there be a problem with majoring in the subject of History in University? Or do we say that war is only one facet of history and therefore not enough of a reason to not pursue it.

And,

  1. What would be the parameters, there are numerous Universities in the UK (and probably further afield) that offer a 'War Studies' degree. Would taking this degree option be outright contravening this halocho as the whole three years of study centre around the topic of war including the history the politics and strategies?
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The "history" that many early authorities discussed (see Rambam's commentary on Pirkei Avos where he distinguishes between useful speech and useless, who cares what king such-and-such built?) was hagiography focused only on the greatness of particular kings, with a very flimsy commitment to the truth at best. That's very different than (hopefully) modern academic history, which is a search for the historical truth.

Rabbi Frand has a tape on secular studies in which he quotes this idea from R' Yaakov Weinberg zt'l; I've heard it from many others as well.

(The same would certainly go for the academic study of war today, which [hopefully] also highlights failures.)

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    Where is this Rambam? – robev Sep 10 at 16:13
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Just wanting to add a source to what @Shalom said: the Tiferet Lemoshe from the Maharts Hayes, Chapter 1, explain the importance of knowing history, especially that of Israel. He asked why then did the Rambam write what he did; that Chronicles of Arabs, their Politics and genealogies, is waste of time. He answered that those were impossible stories and also erotic ones (Agavim?).

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  • EzrielS That is what was in my answer which received so many down votes. That the language of Shulchan Aruch quoted is actually a modest way of mentioning such things. And contextually it also suggests this idea. But subtlety of language appears to be lost these days. – Yaacov Deane Sep 11 at 0:46
  • @YaacovDeane well i'm not sure, you see that as a "Drachic" vision of what wrote the Choulhan Arouh. Have you got a proof of what you said that Milhamot being read as Mlachmot ? Never see that personnally. What I did is not a "conceptualization" as you did, but more a "contextualization". – EzrielS Sep 11 at 9:23
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It is quite possible that the English translation from your quotation used from the Hebrew is incorrect. The Hebrew is:

מליצות ומשלים של שיחת חולין ודברי חשק כגון ספר עמנואל וכן ספרי מלחמות

Which they translate as:

One may not read on Shabbos, secular books of phrases and parables, books of passion (such as Sefer Emmanuel) and war books.

But a better conceptual translation based upon the context might be:

Metaphorical (both משל and מליצה), humorous (as in ליצן), profane language (like joke books, דברי חול) about joining together and inserting (לחם) and touching or handling (משל) and love novels (דברי חשק), like Sefer Emmanuel and also books of pornography... (again from the verb root לחם which can also mean joining together or inserting)

So too, from Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, the addition of chronicles of the Monarchies of the nations of the world supports this idea. These chronicles recount in great detail the extreme excess and indulgences of their rulers. Think, for example, of Emperor Caligula. Their lifestyles with harems and debauchery are a mockery and perversion of the concept of G-d's Kingship, which is especially emphasized on Shabbat.

And a named example of such mockery from Shulchan Aruch is Sefer Emmanuel which is likely one of the books written by Immanuel of Rome. The style of his books as recounted under the Wikipedia sub-heading for his works illustrates his highly educated, mockery of Torah teachings.

But in contrast, when these subjects are found in the Sifrei Kodesh (perhaps only in Hebrew as noted by the Rema), like for example Shir HaShirim from Shlomo HaMelech, they are a true sanctification of G-d's name and His Kingship.

And so the presumption of the question, that it is dealing with history, is incorrect. That the subject is about indulgence of the Yetzer HaRah by way of coarse, material, bodily excesses.

And in fact countless examples of history books can be found from our Sages, like for example Seder HaDorot, Igeret of Sherira Gaon, Shem HaGadolim or Sefer Yosiphon, to name only a few. And many of them, like Sefer Yosiphon, recount wars that occurred in great detail. Majoring in history at university is not prohibited.

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    There's no justification for this "conceptual" translation. A look in the Beis Yosef shows he's merely putting together what the Rosh writes in the name of Rabbeinu Yona, which is מליצות ומשלים של שיחת חולין ודברי חשק, and what Tosafos writes in the name of Rabbeinu Yona, which is אותן המלחמות הכתובים בלע"ז. No one would read Tosafos to mean what you are suggesting, so just because the Shulchan Aruch put the two statements together, doesn't mean he is intimating some sort of euphemism. – robev Sep 10 at 15:51
  • Beis Yosef, Rosh, Tosafos – robev Sep 10 at 15:52
  • @robev You are completely missing the point. You don't have to read the word המלחמות as "HaMilchamot" meaning 'The Wars'. It can also be read "HaM'lachmot", which can have a polite and modest meaning of 'those who connect'. That 2nd meaning can be referring to 'devekut' in terms of a holy understanding or as sexual connection in a coarse physical sense. In the context of the rest of the quote in Shulchan Aruch, the 2nd meaning makes more sense than the idea of foreign language books on historical warfare. – Yaacov Deane Sep 10 at 17:37
  • I'm not missing the point. I'm proving why you have to read it as referring to wars, as any other reading is untenable. – robev Sep 10 at 17:46
  • @robev Reading the Rosh in the name of Rabbi Nechemiah only supports what I wrote in my answer. And the Tosafot too. "בשטרי הדיוטות" is exactly the kind of sarcastic interpretations of Torah texts done in Sefer Emmanuel. – Yaacov Deane Sep 10 at 17:49

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