Some Thought on R. Yosef Engel’s Scholarship

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By Rabbi Dovid Markel

R. Yosef Engel (1858-1920) was a brilliant and unique scholar—the likes of which the world rarely sees. Born in Tarna, Galicia in the year 1858 and living to the young age of 62, he dazzled the world with the breadth and depth of his works which span the corpus of Talmudic thought. Though never having studied in traditional yeshivot—being primarily an autodidact he developed a unique Talmudic methodology and was one of the pioneers in what has become known as the Analytical School of Talmudic scholarship. While of the over alleged one hundred works that he authored only seventeen remain, those works are remarkable tour-de-force of depth, breadth and novel thought.

Engel was the un-bifurcated consummate gaon who weaved the various streams of Judaic thought into a cohesive picture. He would use agada to explain halakha, halakha to explain agada and bring Talmudic proofs to Kabbalistic concepts[1]. For him Torah was a singular unite and the divides between sections was artificial. While at first glance the relationship between sections may not be apparent a deeper look—according to Engel—reveals that inherent association.

In Zevin’s Sofarim V’Sefarim he writes the following concerning Engel’s Talmudic proficiency[2]:

There is a unique path that the author has in all his compilations; “independent proficiency” not found in those that are great in Torah and not common is (Torah) books. [He exhibits] proficiency of comparisons and surprises, revealing the point of comparison of the idea being analyzed in places that we would never have thought of. The reason is not due to the fact that “the words of Torah are impoverished in one place and wealthy in another,” for if the “one place” is revealed and articulated, the “wealth” is available to anyone who has “a hand in Talmud.” However, there are places that the “wealth” is covered and hidden; the “pearl” is concealed by “earthen shards.” Standard proficiency, even when it is great in the quantitative aspect, will not be sufficient to locate those hidden treasures. The unique sensitivity of the author recognizes the logical point that is hidden in a well-known idiom of Razal; he reveals it and displays it for all. His broad proficiency—in the normative delineation—assists him in adding to that point copious references from the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud and from all of the “rooms of Torah” of the Talmudic library.

While many have the ability to locate the central theme of a Talmudic section, Engel had the ability to see how the seemingly trivial aspects of a Talmudic section were central as well. This was due to his study not only analyzing the section under-discussion but locate the conceptual paradigms that were conveyed in it as they pertain to a general Talmudic clause. Engel did not only know Talmud, he was a master of Talmud and employed the keen ability to manipulate the data and trick out new modes of thought.

R. Yosef Engel’s methodology was a highly original methodology of study. Having never studied in a standard Yeshiva—being primarily autodidactic—he developed an idiosyncratic style with distinctive characteristics that are typical in all his works. While the Brisker method of localized analysis is often imitable that don’t have an intimate proficiency in the entirety of Talmudic thought, a student of Engel cannot truly replicate Engelian dialectics until they themselves are proficient in the totality of the Judaic corpus. Engel’s comparisons incorporate the entirety of Talmudic thought, and each concept derived is not from a single locale, but rather through a creative analysis of copious sources.

Indeed, it is perhaps due to this reason that although the Brisker method has become a popular system for Talmudic study, while Engel’s method—as it deviates from Brisker analyses—has not.  While a student of Engel can gain perspective in his creative perception of Talmudic reasoning, and develop their own methodology that are a shadow of Engel, they themselves cannot truly be Engelian themselves until they have a thorough competence in Talmud, deductive reasoning, and philosophical thought.


Facets of Engel’s methodology


While there are various facets that constitute the nature of R. Yosef Engel’s scholarship—all of which necessitate an in depth study, there are three points which he especially exemplified: (a) creative proficiency, (b) organization and classification, (c) Shoresh HaDin—the conceptual identification of the root of the law through a distinctive method of analytics.

While cursory thought does not suggest that identification of categories is particularly unique, it is in fact symptomatic of an especially unique and independent mind. Classification is not merely to discuss rules and categories that every Talmudist knows exist, but primarily to creatively see entire classifications, rules, and categories in areas that had gone un-noticed.

This indicates a perspective to Talmud unlike the vast majority of Talmudists and the ability to strip away the specific case under-discussion, instead seeing the inherent logic that guides it. When one views the Talmud with a fresh mindset—escaping the previous held rubrics—they create a paradigm shift in Talmudic analytics and create new categories of thought where others saw nothing. While standard Talmudic study locates the central sugyot and within those sugyot locates a central theme, Engel had the ability to view each Talmudic discussion—even those that seem minor or agadic—as central. For the inherent reasoning of these discussions often holds considerable importance to create an entirely new conceptual category.

An additional facet in Engel’s learning that was constructive in development of new categories was an in-depth knowledge of all of Talmud—and other Judaic works. For while the student of Brisk dealt primarily within the rubric of monetary law, laws of Ishut, and Kodshim—viewing Talmud from a narrow paradigm—Engel’s Talmudic study covered the length and breadth of the Talmud. He was able to step back and look at the bigger picture and the underlying logical implications of all of Talmud. As such, instead of viewing Talmud within a certain system of legal analysis, he was able to step back and cull the essential principles of the entirety of the Talmud. It is partially due to this reason that the type of categories that he deals are entirely different than the classifications of those before him.

As an independent thinker who was autodidactic he did not view Talmud from the rubrics imposed upon him by teachers or studied in the usual schools but individualistically created entirely novel conceptions. Schooling is indeed a double edged sword; for while an academy teaches a student how to think, and study, it creates a monolithic community where its members all think in a similar manner. It is often therefore the autodidactic that creates—not part of the normative academy—who as an outlier develops an entirely novel methodology of thinking.

One of the central characteristics of Rabbi Yosef Engel’s Halachic methodology is his persistent search for Shoresh HaDin­—the philosophical conceptual roots underlying Halachic ideas. In Engel’s Lekach Tov and Atvan D’Oraytha he analyzed many of the same questions tackled in the Lithuanian analytical academies and he discovered and categorized Halachic axioms and principles that had never previously been identified.


The Analytical School


Usually when one ruminates concerning the conceptual study of Talmud, one conjures the images of Reb Chaim of Brisk, Reb Shimon Shkop and the rest of what has been termed as the “Analytical School”.[3]

Rabbi Chaim of Brisk is considered to be the father of the analytical school, and Rabbi Shimon Shkop as the father of discovering the reasoning of the law; a feature that was not present within the school of Brisk.[4]

What this imagery elicits is perhaps a common misconception that the conceptual school of Talmudic study was a “Mitnagdic” development of the schools of Lita, and that even if later on it was adopted by Chassidim, its origin is nonetheless Mitnagdic. However, a study of Engel’s work shows that he developed similar methodology that seems to have been directly adopted from his work directly from his work.

That R. Yosef Engel’s works were studied in Lithuanian Yeshivot is indicated by many first-hand accounts and in biographical sketches of R. Yosef Engel’s life. In the work Ishim VeKihilot—in an article marking forty years after the passing of R. Engel, the author writes:[5]

In truth, in the great Yeshivot and amongst authentic Torah scholars—even in Lithuania—which was distant from the spiritual influence of R. Yosef Engel, they respected him as a gaon of his generation who enriched the Talmudic library in his many works…He was involved in all types of pilpul,[6] with an individualistic approach…When there began to be communication between Poland, Lithuania and Galicia and the students of the Lithuanian yeshivot became aware of R. Yosef Engel’s works, they saw within them a great light in Talmudic pilpul. They began to study his works, his novel thought, and his chakirot. Indeed, they found in many of his ideas a basis and foundation to open their talents in understanding the words of the Talmud and the Rishonim. His chiddushim were also of tremendous assistance to the younger yeshiva students because the various chidushim that were sevarot and chakirot were well explained in a crystal clear manner—easily understood by those that were just beginning to study proper Talmudic pilpul.

Additional testimony comes from a handwritten approbation from R. Morderchai Gifter, the Rosh Yeshiva of Telz (Ohio), to the work Yosef Ometz which analyzes and comments on R. Yosef Engel’s Atvan De’Oryayta. There he writes:

When I was young man in Telz (Lithuania) the work “Atvan De’Orayta” was of the works of ritcha de-oryrta (the fighting of Torah) of the Yeshiva students. His chakirot in the roots of Halacha were a pleasurable source to add and to be mepalpel in his proofs and disputations.

Telz was considered the elite of the Lithuanian yeshivot; there too R. Yosef Engel was greatly respected and his work influenced their thought process.  This pithy remark is very telling as to the similarity of R. Yosef Engel to the analytical approach and intimates as well that he greatly influenced the impressionable young minds of the Telzer yeshiva students. Surely this influence also affected the mature thought of these Talmudists as well.

Indeed, R. Yosef Engel was offered the position to be Rosh Yeshiva of Telz but he turned it down saying “I am too old to deal with young students.[7]” What is fascinating is that R. Shimon Shkop himself is quoted as saying that his style of learning was developed from the study of R. Yosef Engel’s works.[8] R. Shimon Shkop is recognized amongst the greatest Talmudists of the analytical school—this testimony is of considerable importance when analyzing R. Yosef Engel’s relationship to and influence upon 19th century Talmudic development.[9]

In his Lekach Tov he analyzes the nature of the concept of Shlichut;[10] whether the obligation of a time bound commandment commences at its actual time or prior to it, whether certain commandments are essential commandments (Chiyuv Atzmuti) or merely the negation of their opposites (Shlila), whether quality outweighs quantity or vice versa, whether the quantity of time outweighs quality, whether an effect can be more stringent than its causes and many other important Chakirot—that are relevant through the length and breadth of Talmud.

In his Atvan D’Orayta, which is probably his most popular work in the “yeshiva world”, he likewise deals with many of the same questions posed by the Lithuanian Roshei Yeshivot. Whereas, for the most part, in this sefer he deals with specific sugyot, as opposed to general principles,[11] he nonetheless discusses these matters using an analytical method that bears remarkable similarities to the discussions of these issues as they appear in the works of the Lithuanian analysts.

An example of this is a study of the concept of mit’asek be’chalavim v’arayot as it is found in R. Yosef Engel’s Atvan D’Orayta and the manner in which the Lithuanian analyst, R. Elchonon Wasserman examines the same question in his Kovetz Shiurim.

The Talmudic discussion revolves around the verse (Vayikra 4:23) “If his sin that he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring his offering; an unblemished male goat.” The Talmud (Krithuth 19a) understands that one is only responsible for a sin if there was intent, however, if a person committed a sin in a manner of mit’asek—an act that lacks purpose and intent—he is not responsible for his action.[12]

In discovering what type of action would be exempted as being without purpose, the Talmud (ibid, 19a-b) states:

R. Yehoshua stated: It says, “That he has committed”: it must be known to him wherein he sinned. And for what purpose does R. Eliezer employ the word ‘wherein’? — To exclude unpurposed action. To what kind of unpurposed action does he refer? If it is concerning chelev or incestuous intercourse, surely he is liable! For Rav Nachman said in the name of Shmuel: Unpurposed eating of chelev or unpurposed incestuous intercourse is subject [to an offering] because, after all, [the offender] has derived a benefit thereby. — It rather refers to unpurposed labor on Shabbat, in which he is exempt, because [on Shabbat] the Torah only forbade purposive work.

In analyzing the difference between chelev and incestuous intercourse (in which the offender is not exempt because, after all, “[he] derived benefit thereby”) and prohibitions that must be “purposive” for liability to apply, R. Yosef Engel explains:[13]

This is only possible in a situation…where what the Torah forbade is the act itself. In such a case, when he had no intent it is as if he did nothing at all and did not transgress the Torah prohibition.

However, in regard to eating and incestuous intercourse the Torah was not particular about the action—but rather about the experience of pleasure; that a person should not derive pleasure from the consumption of chelev or from incestuous intercourse. In support of this notion, the Talmud (Shavuot 17b) states concerning a man who was cohabiting with a niddah and immediately withdrew with a “live” organ, that he is liable for kareth, since “his withdrawal is as pleasant for him as his entry,” (see there). What is understood from this is that although the separation is not an act of cohabitation (biya)[14]—and on the contrary, it is a withdrawal—nonetheless, since it involves the pleasure of cohabitation (biya), it is forbidden.

The difference between an act in which Torah forbids the action, as opposed to an act in which Torah forbids the pleasure derived from the action, is used by R. Elchonon Wasserman, as well, in explaining this Talmudic discussion.

In his Kovetz Shiurim, R. Elchonon Wasserman explains:[15]

We find that there are two types of commandments: a) In which the action done by the individual is the essence of the mitzvah.  b) In which the main mitzvah is the effect of the action, for example, redemption of captives or procreation…[16]

Similarly, this differentiation exists regarding prohibitions, for example when the [Torah] forbids the act from being done. However, if the act is done [absentmindedly] on its own, the Torah is not at all particular about it. An example is the labor of Shabbat and the like. In such a circumstance an unintentional act is permitted—as it cannot be considered that the person did the act, but as if the act was done of its own accord….

This can also be explained regarding unpurposed action (mit’asek); in such a case the verse teaches that it is regarded as if the act was done of its own accord and not through the individual. Therefore, there is no prohibition. However concerning chelev and incestuous intercourse in which the act itself—irrespective of the individual—is forbidden, in that the he derives pleasure from the forbidden consumption; even if it cannot be considered that he [consciously performed the act] but that it was done of its own accord, nonetheless, the Torah was particular that a person should not derive pleasure from forbidden food. It is because of this that if a person derives unpurposed [pleasure] from chelev he is liable, because in such a case it is of no consequence that the verse teaches us that it is as if the act was done of its own accord.

Here Rabbi Wasserman’s analysis is almost indistinguishable from that of R. Yosef Engel who distinguishes between a case in which the prohibition is the act and a case in which the prohibition is the pleasure derived from the act. The resemblance is not merely that they both resolved the issue in the same manner, but is rather indicative of a similarity in the methodology of analysis and study[17].

In the Brisker school this kind of analysis of shtei dinim (two rules) is commonly used to resolve difficulties. Instead of answering a particular question directly, the root of the issue is analyzed. When the underlying intent of the law is understood, the question automatically falls away. Both Engel and Wasserman did this in the above case. Rather than trying to explain that by its very nature pleasure involves intent, as others attempted to deal with the question,[18] they defined the essential differences between the various Torah prohibitions and commandments, and the difficulty dissipated on its own.

R. Elchonon Wasserman was born in 1874 and began his studies in Telz when he was 15 years old, in the year 1890[19]. His work Kovetz Shiruim was printed from a student’s notes of his shiurim. Engel’s Atvan D’Orayata—originally published in 1891—was popularly studied in Telz, especially by the younger students[20]. It is therefore quite plausible that R. Wasserman was first exposed to R. Engel’s writings as a young student in Telz. Moreover, since the various works of R. Wasserman were indeed written by his students, it is very possible that Rabbi Wasserman was aware that he was using Engelian constructs in his lectures—though this may have either been unnoticed by his students or omitted when they wrote down his teachings.

Being that Engel’s writings were already published in 1891, when many of the second generation analysts were students, it is highly plausible that Engel’s various works influenced their methodology of thought.[21] Sadly however, this influence—which is very important in understanding the cross-pollination of Polish and Lithuanian Talmudic scholarship—has yet to be researched in any serious manner.


A Taste of His Works


Not only did he write on Talmudic thought, but he weaved Talmud, aggadah, Kabbala, philosophy and the study of logic into a cohesive whole. Though the bulk of Engel’s kabalistic writing are not extent examples of where he sees Kabbalistic thinking in Talmudic writing is found in R. Yosef Engel’s Shev D’Nechemta[22]. There he writes[23]:

This that Michael is the angel of kindness and Gavriel the angel of judgment, besides for being accepted in the true wisdom,[24]  is expressed in many places in Talmud, Midrash Rabba, and Tanchumah. I have gathered them in another place in my agadic writing. I will mention one example as there is a chidush in it.

He goes on explain the Talmudic discussion (Bava Metzia 85b) comparing R. Chiya and his sons to the patriarchs to the Talmudic discussion (Bava Batra 75a) that the angels on high have the same dispute as the sons of R. Chiya. He intimates from this that the lishitatei of each opinion is due to their root in either kindness or judgment.

Engel’s first work—Lekach Tov—for which he sought approbations carries approbations from R. Avraham of Sochatchov, R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, R. Shmuel Engel, R. Shmuel Engel and others. The work is broken down into seventeen halachic principles—the numerical value of טו”ב—and is the first work where Engel deals with conceptual halakhic classifications.

In his preface Engel writes in poetic prose[25]:

I thank G-d with all the feeling of my soul…that his wisdom is the thought of my heart, in their I contemplate from morning to evening, he even His kindness provided me with a quill to write, to write on a tablet the children of my examinations, I brought me to this point, and today I reached there, the day that my present work is being published, that speaks of many general halakhic concepts, and over the breadth of the Talmud—with G-d’s help it reach expands to, most of its objective is to clarify confusions of the roots of Torah, and to find a source for them in the corners of the Babylonian Talmud according to my strength and ability with the help of my living redeemer…

The intent of the work is as he writes to analyze roots of Torah from all corners of the Talmud. The opening page echoes this intent writing “The work Lekach Tov will discuss general principles and roots of the Talmud.”

While in the preface of the work Engel writes that in style it is similar to his work Atvan D’orayta there is an important difference between the two works. While Atvan D’Orayta deals with specific Talmudic sugyot, his Lekach Tov deals with principles that have bearing on the gamut of Talmudic thought.

Amongst the central legal principles discussed in Lekach Tov are: (1) the nature of Shlichut[26], (2) the legal parameters of a post factum action (di-avad), (3) if the legal responsibility of a commandment (chiyuv hamitzah) commences at the time when the action must be performed, or even before the time of the commandment (zman hamitzvah), (4) if there are biblical restrictions that serves as a preventive means, rather than an inherent prohibition in and of itself, (5) the nature of a mitzvah done through a sin—if it is an essential invalidation (psel atzmuti), or rather that it causes the action not to be accepted (sh’eno mitkabel l’ratzon). Similarly are certain commandments an essential need (chiyuv atmuti) or the negation of its opposite (shilat davar),[27] (6) if the logic of modus ponens (mima nafshach) is applied to a rabbinical prohibition, (7) if quantity outweighs quality, (8) if quantity of time outweighs quality, (9) if a supplementary matter can at times be stricter than the primary substance (iy matzinu tafel chamur m’ikar).

On each point Engel provides copious sources throughout the Talmud that exhibit not only great proficiency, but more so creativity of sources and his ability to locate a conceptual underpinnings of seemingly unconnected sugyot which he employs to prove his notions.

Atvan D’Orayata, Engel’s second work, which means the letters of the Torah, is a book that contains 27 sections corresponding to the 27 letters of the Hebrew Alphabet. Though Engel writes in the preface to Lekach Tov that his work Atvan D’Orayta is similar to Lekach Tov “in its nature, quality, and structure,” in actuality they are somewhat different.

In the preface of the work, Engel seems to be cognizant that the work is not of the same standard as Lekach Tov, writing:

The dear reader should not be surprised that I only brought before you this small (work), for I had troubles that prevented me from fulfilling my intent of a lengthy (work). I was forced to fulfill the expression “if you have printed a little you have printed.[28]” It is my prayer to the Him, blessed be He, that just as He has helped me in his mercy to compile this small amount that I compiled, He shall help me to speedily publish my many other writings in halakha and agada.

The primary difference between the works are twofold: (a) While Lekach Tov focuses primarily on general discussions that have import to the entirety of Talmudic thought, Atvan D’Orayta instead deals—for the most part—with localized sugyot. (b) While a prominent facet of Engel’s work is his copious proofs from throughout the Talmud to prove his ideas, in Atvan D’Orayta the analysis is much more localized to the specific matter under discussion.

Ironically, it is perhaps these differences—that Engel did not seem happy with—that seemed to have caused the work to become popular amongst budding Talmudists—as Atvan D’Orayta is by far Engel’s most popular work in the Yeshiva community. The localized discussion in analytical method and manner of discussion more similar to the Lithuanian method engendered an affinity towards the work causing it to be studied by young students to develop their Talmudic prowess.

R. Mordechai Gifter, the Rosh Yeshiva of Telz (Ohio), testifies that “Atvan De’Orayta was of the works of ritcha de-oryrta (the fighting of Torah) of the Yeshiva students” in his day in Telz[29], and it still Engel’s most learned work in the Yeshiva world. The Avnei Nezer remarked about the work “that one who regularly studies the work develops the best methodology of study[30].”

Just as Talmudic abstractions were found in Brisk, they were also found in R. Yosef Engel’s school of thought.[31] In describing the philosophical methodology of Rabbi Yosef Engel, Rabbi Menachem Kasher writes in his Mifane’ach Tzfunot[32]:

Rabbi Yosef Engel zatzal of Krakow, in his works Gilyonei HaShas, as well as his other works, shows tremendous proficiency in all the “chambers of Torah” to their depth and breadth, similar to the Tzafnat Pane’ach. Before him were revealed many works of the Rishonim that the Tzafnat Pane’ach did not at all use. He employs the same methodology of “abstract conceptions that have large significance,” and accordingly based his amazing works, Lekach Tov, (Warsaw, 1893), the two volumes of Beit HaOtzar, Tzinuim LaTorah, and Atvan DeOrayta. In his analysis and logic he is similar to the Tzafnat Pane’ach in tens of places…He likewise uses in his explanations The Guide to the Perplexed and Milat Higayon of Rambam…and elucidates (Talmud) in many places according to philosophical principles.

While philosophical conceptualizations abound in the thought of Rabbi Yosef Engel, we will suffice with two examples that Rabbi Yosef Engel applied to Talmudic reasoning.

The first is the question of what is stronger, quality or quantity, in his work Lekach Tov,[33] and the second is whether a cause must precede the effect, in his work Beit HaOtzar[34]:

While the question of quality vs. quantity is not a standard question in Talmudic literature, Rabbi Yosef Engel creatively shows that the Talmud actually discusses this concept in twenty-six places. What this indicates is that not only was he thinking in terms of the philosophical implications of Talmudic laws, but his incredible familiarity with Talmud. Not only was he proficient (Baki) in Talmud, but through his creative mind he was able to see conceptual implications in numerous places where others did not.

The question revolves around whether there is truth in Ran’s statement concerning desecrating Shabbat for a sick person. The scenario in question is whether, given the choice, a person should slaughter a kosher animal for the sick person’s consumption or to feed him meat that is not kosher.[35] Ran rules that it is better to slaughter kosher meat rather than to serve him non-kosher food. This is so, even though slaughtering an animal on Shabbat is a capital offense, whereas eating non-kosher meat is merely a prohibition. Ran’s reasoning is that although slaughtering the animal seems to be a stricter prohibition, it is only a single prohibition, whereas eating non-kosher meat is a prohibition that is transgressed with each kazayit that is swallowed.

Rabbi Yosef Engel strips away the specific problem of this case, and views it as a purely conceptual issue. “What is worse, one strict prohibition or many light prohibitions?” Or to put the question more conceptually, “does an abundance of quantity outweigh quality?”

Though it would be superfluous to bring all twenty-six Talmudic proofs that Engel cites to ascertain a conclusion to this question, we will suffice with the sixth proof he brings, which due to its simplicity, how it affects the above question can be easily appreciated.

Rabbi Yosef Engel comments on the Mishna (Avot 3:15) “All is foreseen and freedom of choice is granted. The world is judged with goodness, but in accordance with the amount of man’s positive deeds.”

On this Rambam comments:[36]

One’s greatness is not achieved in the measurement of the greatness of the action, but rather according to the amount of actions. This is to say that greatness is accomplished in performing a good act many times—with this the acquisition is acquired; not in a person doing one great act of the good deeds, for in this itself the acquisition is not acquired. An example of this: a person who donates to a person in need a thousand dinar, at one time and to one person, will not acquire the trait of philanthropy through this one great act as one would accomplish through giving the same thousand dinar through a thousand acts. In giving each dinar philanthropically he acts philanthropically a thousand times and attains it (the quality of philanthropy) in a strong manner. However, in this one act, in which the soul was awakened with a great awakening for a good act; afterwards (the inspiration dissipates)…This is what is meant in the statement “all is in accordance with the amount of man’s positive deeds and not according to the deed.[37]

Engel understands from Rambam’s explanation that quantity has an advantage over quality. What is interesting about this proof, is that Engel himself realizes that what he sees in Rambam is not exactly what Rambam himself writes—and that from Rambam himself one cannot prove this concept.

Indeed, the manner in which Engel quotes Rambam is not quite what Rambam writes. In quoting Rambam, Engel writes:

In Avot (3:15) [it states] “all is in accordance with the amount of man’s positive deeds.” Rambam there explains that when one gives charity a hundred times, even though each time he gives one peruta, his reward is greater than were he to give one indigent a hundred peruta. This is so, though the excitement (hitpa’alut) of giving a hundred peruta at once is a greater philanthropy, nevertheless, many excitements (hitpa’alut) are greater than one great excitement (hitpa’alut)—this is the case concerning all the mitzvot. This is what is meant by the statement “all is in accordance with the amount of man’s positive deeds,” rather than saying, “according to the greatness of the deeds,” because many small actions are greater than one great action.

The focal difference between Rambam’s explanation and Engel’s explanation is that Rambam is discussing how to engrain a positive character trait into a person’s psyche, whereas Engel interprets it in regard to how G-d views the action and rewards him accordingly. According to Rambam there is no proof that quantity outweighs quality on an objective level—he only explains the subjective effect on the individual; whereas Engel, who interprets the Mishna to mean the way G-d judges and rewards the person for his actions, sees the Mishna as discussing the objective advantage of quantity over quality.[38]

Concerning the discrepancy between what Rambam actually writes and what Engel derives from it, Engel writes:[39]

Although, according to the reasoning the Rambam, of blessed memory, gave in his explanation, there is no proof; see there well, nevertheless, according to the reasoning of the Ran, mentioned above, he is not forced to (explain the Mishna according) the reasoning of the Rambam of blessed memory. Rather, he can explain the Mishna similarly, not with his reasoning, but with Ran’s reasoning that “abundance of quantity outweighs quality.” It is for this reason that the Mishna states “all is in accordance with the amount of man’s positive deeds,” and did not say “according to the greatness of the deeds;” this explanation in straightforward.

Engel is aware that he is reinterpreting Rambam creatively to explain the concept that “abundance of quantity outweighs quality,” although this interpretation is not conclusive in Rambam.

However, what this proof strongly exhibits is the remarkable conceptual creativity Engel employed when reading texts. He did not merely read them and master their content; he tried to understand them at the root of their conceptual implications. When reading Rambam’s logic of how to acquire positive character traits, he saw the question of quality vs. quantity. Although Rambam’s discussion of the concept was on a psychological level, Engel plummeted the depth of the reasoning, which gave him the keen ability to reinterpret it and ingeniously apply it to a different question.

This proof then, serves as a perfect example of how Engel’s reading of Talmud and its commentary was not limited to simply what the text said, but more significantly, he stripped the texts down to their philosophical and logical implications.

The second place that we will mention is in Rabbi Yosef Engel’s work, Beit HaOtzar,[40] regarding his rule of Ba’in Ke’echad.

The discussion there revolves around the verse (Shemot, 29:14) regarding the chatat offering that brought to sanctify the kohanim and the altar: “But the flesh of the bull, its hide and its dung you shall burn in fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.”

In explaining the reason this offering was burned outside the camp Chizkuni (ad loc) explains:[41]

The reason why this offering is burned is as the verse explicates, “it is a sin offering.” This is the reason why the offering is burned, because it is brought to purify the altar, as stated, (ibid 29:23) “you shall purify the altar.” Now, the altar is only completely consecrated with the blood (of the chatat). It therefore emerges that at the time of the slaughtering it was as if there was no altar and therefore it cannot be eaten and must be burned.

Rabbi Yosef Engel is bothered, as modus ponens, if the sacrifice is not valid it has no ability to consecrate the altar, and if it is not invalid then why is it burned? Additionally, how can it indeed consecrate the altar when in order for the sacrifice to be validated, its blood must be sprinkled on an already consecrated altar?

To answer this question, Rabbi Yosef Engel employs the reasoning of ba’in ke’echad—that the two things are as if they happened simultaneously:

However, so that Chizkuni’s reason not be completely illogical it can be explained that in truth the validation of the chatat is only due to the concept of “ba’in ke’echad.” The offering consecrates the altar, and through their being an altar, by derivative, the chatat is validated. However, this idea of ba’in Ke’echad is only employed to validate the chatat in terms of consecrating the altar for offering and sprinkling (blood), however, it does not have the ability to validate the offering for eating, being…that when there are two things in which one is a cause for the other, such as in our case, in which the validation of the chatat is the cause for the consecration of the altar and the consecration of the altar is the cause for the validation of the offering. This being their case, in truth, there is a logical absurdity, since a cause must preface the effect and the effect of a cause is akin to the preface of time. See this elucidated in Milat Higayon of Rambam (Ch. 12). By extension, the effect comes after the cause. It is therefore absurd that this effect will again be the cause to the effect that caused it. For how can something that happens later be a cause for something earlier (which can only be applicable in a conceptual cause, not an actual cause)? [However, the explanation is that logical absurdities] are only pertinent in a human being, who is under the constraints of time and the concept of before and after. However, concerning the Almighty, in whom all is above time and (for whom) there is no concept of before and after, it is indeed possible that two matters can happen at once—even though one is the cause and the other is the effect.[42]

To explain the matter of how the chatat can be both a cause and an effect, Rabbi Yosef Engel discusses the philosophical principle as elucidated in Rambam’s Milat Higayon, in addition to the Kabbalistic principle that G-d is not limited by this logical incongruity.[43]  Instead of seeing a question of the chatat, in his philosophical conceptualization of Talmud Engel sees a discussion of cause preceding effect.

These two examples are merely a taste of the copious instances in which Engel strips away the external discussion to reveal core principles that the Talmudic discussion revolves around. It is our hope that R. Yosef Engel’s work will be more seriously researched, studied and appreciated by the greater Jewish world. It is indeed incredibly unfortunate that such an incredibly revolutionary gaon is often overlooked by those seeking to enrich their methodology of Talmudic study.

[1] In the preface to Engel’s Agadic work Shev D’Nechemta he writes “G-d should bestow his kindness upon me, and continue to support me to publish my many novella on halakha and agada.” This work is a prime example of Engel connecting the various facets of Torah. See for example Mamar 3 (New York 2013) pp. 315-322 where Engel brings 14 halakhic proofs whether on tosefet mikri akira (that adding is considered uprooting) to explain an agadic thought.

[2] R. Shlomo Zevin, Sofrim V’Sefarim, (Tel-Aviv 1959) pp. 150-151

[3] See for example Chaim Saiman, Legal Theology: The Turn to Conceptualism in Nineteenth-Century Jewish Law, (Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2005/2006)) pp. 39-100 throughout the entire analysis he only discusses the facet of Brisk—completely ignoring the influence of Polish Talmudists in this field. Though in passing, Solomon mentions the possible influence of Rosen in conceptual Talmudic methodology, he nevertheless completely ignores the Polish Talmudists.

[4] Reb Chaim is famously quoted as saying that his methodology is discover the “what” (vos) as opposed to the why (farvos). However, such is not the case regarding Reb Shimon Shkop who focuses on the why more than the what. See Shai Akavya Wosner, Chashiva Mishpatit Beyishivat Lita, Braei Mishpato Shel Reb Shimon Shkop, (Ph.D dissertation, Hebrew university 2005) Pg. 41ff.

[5] Moshe Shinovitz, Ishim V’khilot (Tel-Aviv 1990) Pg. 183

[6] This seems to be an allusion to the method of analysis that was popular in Lithuania.

[7] Tzvi Zev Friedman, Tiferet Yosef, Toldot R. Yosef Engel, (Monsey, 2006) Pg. 56 FN 111 that heard this from R. Mordechai Gifter the Rosh Yeshiva of Telz. See as well Shimush Chachamim, pg. 142 R. Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel of Baltimore.

[8] Tzvi Zev Friedman, Avrech 1 (Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan 5774) from the diary of R. Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman the Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Yisroel of Baltimore.

[9] See as well ז’ ורהפטיג “, יסוד האחריות על נזקים במשפט העברי”, בר אילן, ספר השנה יג (תשל”ו ), מחקרים במשפט העברי, ירושלים תשמ”ה, עמ’ 211-228

[10] Discussed by R. Shimon Shkop, see later for a discussion of R. Yosef Engel’s influence on Shkop.

[11] However, see klal yud, which discusses whether or not time bound commandments or rabbinic edicts apply to the cheftza (object) or to the gavra (person), klal yud gimmel on the definition of oness—whether it removes the obligation or whether the person is obligated although he is unable to perform his obligation, klal chof gimel on the ramifications of the lack of intent (kavana) versus the negation of intent, klal yud zayin on the parameters of hefker and klal chof about prohibitions that are in the pe’ula (act) and the kabalat hape’ula (the effect).

[12] Mit’asek means “absentminded action”. It connotes a transgression resulting from an unpurposed act in which there was no intention to commit the prohibition.

[13] Atvan D’Orayta, Klal 24 ot 5. Ba’Inyan Mitasek Ba’Chalavim U’verayot Chayev, Sh’ken Nehene (Jerusalem 2014) pg. 352

[14] Literally translated as entering. What is understood is that the act of withdrawal carries the same prohibition as the act of entrance—though they are opposite actions. This is because here the Torah is not concerned about the act, per say, but about the pleasure of the act and the pleasure in withdrawing is similar to the pleasure of entering.

[15] Kovetz Shiurim Vol. 2 23:6  Ba’Inyan Mitasek, V’davar Sheino Mitkaven (Tel-Aviv 1989) Pg. 44

[16] He goes on to discuss the various ramifications of this conceptual difference. R. Yosef Engel also discusses the cases he mentions: See Atvan De’Oryata, Klal 22 Sec. 3 (Jerusalem 2014) pp. 337-339 that discusses the exact parameters of the commandment to procreate. There, R. Yosef Engel comes to the conclusion—similar to R. Elchonon Wasserman—that the mitzvah is the ultimate effect (totza’ah) of giving birth to children, whereas the essential action (guf ha-ma’ase) is only a preparatory act (hechsher mitzvah). During the discussion Engel comes to the same conclusion about circumcision as well. This is similar to the conclusion that Wasserman arrived at above and in a letter he wrote to R. Menachem Kasher, Miluyim, Kovetz Ha’Arot where he writes “in a situation where the primary command is the result of the action, such as procreation.” In the above letter R. Elchonon Wasserman also arrives at the same conclusion concerning circumcision (note 34), Kovetz Ha’Arot 11:1, and Kovetz Shiurim Ketuvot, 249-250.

[17] Another example of the similarity between their analytical thinking is in Kovetz Inyanim, Chulin (Benei-Berak 1975) pg. 23. There R. Elchonon Wasserman differentiates between shechita and treifa in the same manner that R. Engel does in his responsa Ben Porat, Vol 1, 4:1 and 9:6. See as well Kuntras Divrei Sofrim (Tel-Aviv 1989) pg. 92 where R. Wasserman overtly quotes a question asked by R. Engel in Atvan D’Orayta concerning the law of demai. Kovetz Inyanim (Benei Berak 1983) pg. 6 also brings a conversation about demai discussed by R. Engel, Atvan D’Orayta, 6, Beit HaOtzar Vol. 1:122, 1:125 whether there is a prohibition of demai in a case that a person consumed demai (grain of an individual who is not known to be careful on terumot and ma-asrot), that in retrospect teruma was indeed given—though there had been no knowledge at the time of consumption. This same question and proofs are also employed by Engel. See as well Kovetz Inyanim, Chulin pg. 41 where the same logic is used by R. Engel in his Beit HaOtzar 1:37, Kovetz Inyanim, pg. 28 where a discussion of rubo k’kulo is the same as Engel’s discussion on the topic Lekach Tov 14:3

[18] See R. Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, the “Steipler Gaon” in his work Kehilat Yaakov, Shabbat 35 Ba’Inyan Mitasek Ba’Chalavim U’verayot Chayev, Sh’ken Nehene. (Benei-Berak 1989) pp. 97-99. There, after discussing the opinions of R. Yosef Engel and R. Elchonon Wasserman he disagrees with R. Yosef Engel and comes to the conclusion that hana’a achshavei—that the pleasure itself is important—and it is considered that one had intent for the pleasure. Meaning to say, instead of saying that there are commandments where the Torah is not particular about the intent (or act itself) but rather what results from the act (the pleasure), he explains that there is no essential difference in the type of commandment (there aren’t two dinim). Rather, when a person has pleasure, it is as if they had intent. This reasoning is a more standard method of reconciling the difference between chelev and Shabbat, and explaining the concept of “shken nehene,” (deriving pleasure).

[19] He studied there under R. Eliezer Gordon and R. Shimon Shkop until 1897, studying afterwards in Brisk under R. Chaim Soloveitchik. In 1910 he was appointed by R. Yisroel Kagan, “the Chofetz Chaim” as the Rosh Yeshiva of the mesivta in Brest-Litovsk, serving as the head of various yeshivot until he was murdered at the hands the Nazi’s in 1941, may their memory be obliterated.

[20] In a handwritten approbation to the work Yosef Ometz, R. Mordechai Gifter (Rosh Yeshiva of Telz) writes: “When I was young man in Telz (Lithuania) the work “Atvan De’Orayta” was of the works of ritcha de-oryrta (the fighting of Torah) of the Yeshiva students. His chakirot in the roots of Halacha were a pleasurable source to add to and to be mepalpel in his proofs and disputations.” See as well Moshe Shinovitz, Ishim V’khilot (Tel-Aviv 1990) Pg. 183 which makes a similar claim.

[21] In Norman Solomon’s, The Analytic Movement in Rabbinic Jurisprudence. (Ph.D. Diss. University of Manchester, 1966) pp. 67-120 he discusses 12 analysts; of those analystsit appears that at least 6 were students during the time that R. Engel’s works were published and others seem to have been influenced by his writing as well—as we will see further in this study.

[22] In the preface to Engel’s work printed posthumously by his son-in-law, he records that Engel had twenty works on kabbala “within which he shows the basis of kabbala in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud.”

[23] Ma-amar 1

[24] An epithet for kabbala.

[25] This lends for awkward translation.

[26] See section 2.1 for more details of this discussion, and that Wosner mistakenly believed that this original question was first discussed by R. Shimon Shkop.

[27] An example of this is the responsibility to eat in a sukkah, or not to eat outside of a sukkah. While it seems like a trivial difference, Engel shows the various halakhic implications of this differentiation.

[28] The words דפסת מועט דפסת are a play on the expression תפסת מרובה לא תפסת, תפסת מועט דפסת.

[29] In a handwritten approbation to the work Yosef Ometz. See as well Moshe Shinovitz, Ishim V’khilot (Tel-Aviv 1990) Pg. 183 that as well claims that it was a popular work to study in the 19th century Lithuanian Yeshivot.

[30]Tzvi Zev Friedman, Tiferet Yosef, Toldot R. Yosef Engel, (Monsey, 2006) Pg. 42 in the name of the Gaon of Tchebin.

[31] In describing Brisk, R. Josef B. Soloveitchik writes, Ma Dodekh MiDod, 28 (Ha’Doar 1963) this translation is taken from Lawrence Kaplan, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Philosophy of Halakha, 7 Jewish L. Annual 150 (1988). “Torah scholars used to denigrate those who studied the laws of kashrut [kosher laws]: only those who were about to enter the rabbinate would study this area of the law. Who could guess the day would come [with the development of the Brisker approach] and these laws would be freed from the bonds of facticity, external and common sense explanations, and become transformed into abstract concepts, logically connected ideas that would link together to form a unified system…. Suddenly, the pots and pans, the eggs and onions disappeared from the laws of meat and milk; the salt, blood and the spit disappeared from the laws of salting. The laws of kashrut were taken out of the kitchen and removed to an ideal halakhic world… constructed out of complexes of abstract concepts.” In this example of the laws of Kashrut being more than practical law, but more importantly abstract conceptualizations, R. Yosef Engel is a peer to this approach, in addition to R. Yosef’s Engel’s section of Lekach Tov (klal 3) that deals with the conceptual roots of the halachic concept ta-am ka-ikar, whether or not tam is the essence, or is merely like it—which has little baring on the practical law, but is a chakira primarily for its own sake, R. Yosef Engel has a work dedicated to the laws of Yorah De-ah that deal with kashrut—Otzrot Yosef, Yorah De-ah. One would expect that the law would be dedicated to practical law, but here too, R. Yosef Engel is much more interested in the halacha as an abstract study than a practical one.

[32] Jerusalem (1976) pg. 33 Mefane-ach Tzfunot is a work dedicated to the methodology of The Rogatzover Gaon and the author saw various similarities between the two figures as will be discussed.

[33] Lekach Tov, Sec. 15 (16)

[34] Beit HaOtzar, (Piyetrikov, 1906) Vol. 2, Pg. 22

[35] Yuma___ citation needed.

[36] Yitzchak Shilat, Mesechet Avot, Im Pirush Rabbeinu Moshe Ben Maimon, (Jerusalem, 1994) Pg. 59

[37] In Maimonides version of the Mishna, the words “and not according to the deed” are part of the mishna’s formula.

[38] Engel does not explicitly say that his interpretation is not found in Rambam, as he posits his interpretation as it were Rambam’s. He only hints that it is not actually what Rambam said in his discussion of applying this logic to Ran’s question.

[39] Lekach Tov (Benei-Berak 2002) Sec. 6 Pg. 240

[40] Piyetrikov (1908), Pg. 22, Sec. 2 Ba-in Ka-achad.

[41] Another interesting aspect of this section is his use of biblical commentary to elucidate a Talmudic rule. This is somewhat atypical in Talmudists who were not always proficient in Biblical literature.

[42] This section deals with the origins of Rabbi Yosef Engel’s philosophical model of understanding Talmud and it’s relation to the thought of Maharal. It is interesting to point out that Maharal as well (Gevurot HaShem, Ch. 22, and other places) elucidates that a cause must come before its effect and that they cannot happen simultaneously. Maharal writes: “When one nourishes and sustains he is prior to the other; for he is the cause that through him the other receives nourishment…Just as one says ‘this person is before the other’ when he comes before him in time, so too it is true that the cause comes before the effect. For the cause comes before the effect.” See as well Ketzot HaChoshen, Sec. 75.

[43] One would wonder how Rambam himself would elucidate on this principle as Maimonides does believe (See Guide to the Perplexed) that G-d is bound by matters that are logically absurd. Perhaps though in this instance where the absurdity is the concept of time, Rambam would not consider it absurd that G-d is not bound by time as according to Rambam, time—and perhaps the derivative of cause and effecte are—as well a creation.

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