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A Rav told me that when it comes to science and nature, the Talmud can say incorrect things (i.e. about animals, cosmology) because they were going by the Greeks and Romans. (Where he gets permission to say what details in the Talmud we can reject and what we must believe, I do not know.) But he said that the Talmud is considered to be the true and reliable Oral Law when it comes to Halacha and history. So my question is, is the Rav right, and how should we take statements in the Talmud that appear to make incorrect statements about history?

Now, I know for some things, you can argue about what they say. For example, although historians and archeologists dispute a lot of stories the Talmud has on the Churban and actions of Roman Emperors, you can say perhaps the historians made mistakes. And where it discusses Adam and Noah and things like that, you can say they are speaking in terms of whatever allegory it is that Genesis means in the level of Sod.

But there are still things that just cannot be explained away. For example, history of the Persian Period discussed in the Talmud is so different from indisputable evidence that there were more kings of Persia, that the period lasted over 100 years longer than the Talmud and Seder Olam Rabba says (even resulting in our 5776 calendar of being about 165 years too short), that there is no way to say that Achashveirosh was the father of Darius, etc. I also know that not all Rishonim are as faithful to Seder Olam Rabba and what the Talmud says about historical events, so this is nothing new.

But in light of what I was told, how do I answer this question? Must we, can we, further shrink the range of topics in which we can and should trust our Chachamim?

  • Why would you assume that chazal would put the same effort in persevering history as they would the law? There is halakha that guarantees the accuracy of the oral law, but science, midrash, and histories have no such safe guards. – ShamanSTK Jan 20 '16 at 1:56
  • @ShamanSTK I don't know. I'm not asking about halacha, just history. I am asking if the Rav was right, this is what he said. And I mean it's not like the Talmud isn't loaded with conflicting opinions on halacha (not to mention stories about halachos we no longer have because it was lost cuz just this or that Rabbi knew it, or that someone who was really right is not accepted because they're a minority), not too different from what they say about history. – Aaliyah Jan 20 '16 at 2:55
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Generally speaking, there are two main approaches. Some say that saying that Chazal were wrong (in anything) can be close to epikorsut, while others say that they could have been wrong regarding anything that relates to sciences, history, etc., since their knowledge of these subjects was like any learned person's knowledge (the Rambam is a noted supporter of the latter approach).

This is a very wide subject, so I'll refer you to a very interesting article, full of sources, about this whole subject of Chazal vs known facts (especially section 4). And another one.

  • Could you explain here the basic reasons behind the former school of thought, and how the Rambam deals with that? Also does anyone distinguish between belief in Chazal's historical versus scientific statements? – Aaliyah Jan 22 '16 at 4:22
  • Sure. The basic reasoning is that Chazal cannot be wrong because they are guided by Hashem and their words will always be relevant (for us learners). They explain "mistakes" that we find in Chazal in several ways. For example, in some contradictions, one simply didn't understand Chazal's meaning correctly, or the scientific fact correctly. Or Chazal wrote a "fact" as a spiritual allegory to be understood in another sense than the simple scientific fact. I found a Maharal about Chazal's history, but not compared to sciences. daat.ac.il/daat/vl/bhg/bhg6.pdf ("עוד בספר") – Cauthon Jan 22 '16 at 11:43
  • I'm not sure that answers my question. Why do we have to say Chazal are prevented from making mistakes by God? And why does Rambam disagree? – Aaliyah Jan 24 '16 at 4:26
  • Also you may do well to translate what you cite. – Aaliyah Jan 29 '16 at 22:28
  • @Cauthon Is this just an unresolved makhlokes, or is there actually an accepted answer? – crmdgn Apr 4 '16 at 17:37
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I will only address your question about the history, not other scientific inconsistencies in the Talmud.

  1. [Strangely] The Jewish nation didn't have a tradition of writing things down. Think about it - tracing history requires a systematic, dedicated and centralized recording of events. But G-d didn't command us to do that, so we didn't.

  2. [Strangely] We didn't have a tradition of counting years. The current system of Anno_Mundi is, unfortunately, not a tradition, it was reestablished by [probably] Rambam based on previous Rabbinical sources (like Seder Olam), but the Jews never recited a year's number on Rosh Hashana, for example.
    .
    The Tanakh itself never attributes an event to an "absolute" year Anno Mundi, but only "since event X", be it the Exodus or coronation of a king.

  3. We learn it from the way the Torah reflects the history - very hmmm inconsistently. If the Torah is our example - the Talmud is not far from it.

  4. Historical facts are never a נפקא מינא to anything Halachic. So if one says it happened in 50AD and the other says in 350AD this does not change anything in the Halachah, which is the main business of the Sages. Therefore, it is never a true מחלוקת, only a "some say".

But seriously now, I think the main reason for that phenomena is a bit deeper: Judaism tends to deal with ideas rather than implementations. Let me explain:

The roots of history events are rooted in "Kabbalic" concepts - what a nation represents (Egypt, Rome etc), what a person represents (a King or a general or a wise man), what a place represents and what the time represents in general terms. Interactions between those ideas teach us about the big heavenly plan. However, the details of their implementations (why it happened exactly there in that time by those people) are only known to G-d, and therefore are not of our [direct] concern.

For example, we know [from the beginning of the Creation - תהו ובהו וחושך] that the Second Temple will be destroyed by descendants of Eysov, i.e. Edom, approx. in the year 4000 Anno Mundi. But the details of what year exactly, who exactly will be the emperor and how exactly it will be executed are not of our interest.

  • The identity of Edom does have a nafka mina for the purpose of marriage. – Heshy Aug 27 '18 at 23:09
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    "Historical facts are never a נפקא מינא to anything Halachic. So if one says it happened in 50AD and the other says in 350AD this does not change anything in the Halachah, which is the main business of the Sages. Therefore, it is never a true מחלוקת, only a "some say"." Unfortunately maseches Avoda Zara 9a disagrees with this robust presumption. – user6591 Aug 28 '18 at 2:30
  • @user6591 +1 It was really close. Do you mean writing years in loans an not remembering the exact year after the destruction? This dispute is clearly hypothetical - the Jews never officially counted the years after the destruction - it was too impractical. – Al Berko Aug 28 '18 at 18:00
  • Chazzal wouldn't say צא וחשוב about something hypothetical – user6591 Aug 28 '18 at 20:35
  • @user6591 Where's the system mentioned? – Al Berko Aug 28 '18 at 21:44
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What may seem like a mistake in our flesh dies can really be true just on a higher and deeper level, like the famous argument about the galaxies where we see how on only a spiritual level they were right.

When it comes to Jewish law, it is not decided on spiritual, deeper, and more meaningful ideas, rather on fact.

No, they never made mistakes, and over time we see more and more how even what scientists software mistakes are really true like the question whether the Sun goes around the Earth.

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    you know not using punctuation while your choice greatly detracts from the meaning to us that is of your words being as we arent in your head if you decide to contribute from your knowledge to this site i recommend highly in fact that you begin to compose your answers in a manner which is understandable to the general public that is the only way we as a community can converse and exchange ideas effectively and efficiently – Double AA Apr 8 '16 at 21:05
  • I might try my hand at editing-- particularly the auto correct. – ephraim helfgot Apr 10 '16 at 3:01
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    S​o​f​t​w​a​re? – Adám Jun 9 '16 at 5:52
  • Your last point is unclear. Are you suggesting that modern scientists believe the sun goes around earth? If you're referring to scientists of old, are you familiar with the fact that the Gemara also believed that to be the case? – Chaim Jun 10 '16 at 2:42

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