Friday, February 15, 2008

priviledge vs. egalitarianism: why children of talmidei chachamim do not become talmidei chachamim

Nedarim 81 tells us that talmidei chachamim usually do not produce children who are talmidei chachamim “shelo yomru yerushah hi lahem”, so that it should not be said that the Torah is an inheritance for them. Ran and Rosh offer two very different interpretations of this line. Ran explains that the children of talmidei chachamim feel a sense of entitlement in their learning and do not strive as hard as others. In the end, this lack of effort catches up with them. Torah is not genetic; it is not an inheritance - without work and toil, one cannot succeed. According to the Ran, the gemara’s lesson is directed at the children of talmidei chachamim to not rely on their pedigree as a guarantee of success.

Rosh (and Tosfos) on the other hand explain that children of talmidei chachamim do not become talmidei chachamim themselves lest all others who do not come from a lineage of scholars simply give up hope of ever succeeding in learning. The lesson of the gemara is directed at the hoi polloi: scholarship is not for descendents of the intellectual elite alone, but is within reach of all.

I do not fully understand this Rosh. According to the Ran, the gemara is simply expressing a rule of thumb about human behavior: when we think we have something coming, we work less to achieve the desired goal. But according to the Rosh, the behavior of the children of talmidei chachamim has nothing to do with the outcome. It is not their lack of effort which prevents the children of talmidei chachamim from becoming scholars in their own right, but it is G-d’s intervention, done for the sake of demonstrating egalitarianism. Doesn’t this intervention interfere with the bechira (free will) of children of talmidei chachamim to achieve what they can on their own merits? Or to put it another way, is it fair to take away the achievements of a minority for the sake of levelling the playing field and creating a more egalitarian distribution?


  1. Your question is a good one and I don't have an answer.

    Whatever the reason is it doesn't seem to apply anymore. We have a number of dynastic families in the Torah world today.

  2. 1. Everyone needs siyata dishmaya to become a "asukei shmaitsa aliba de'hilchesa", and that siyata dishmaya is witheld. i.e., the interference is only the witholding of assistance, like by Acheir and teshuva.

    2. Your question assumes the fact that children of gedolim have a natural predilection for gadlus. This is partly because we all stand in our father's footsteps, and partly because Torah machzeres ahl achsania shelo. So here, again, the interference is only that the child does not have the advantage that having a father who is a talmid chacham usually confers.

    3. You will find this blog interesting. It's not mine, but I like it anyway:
    The reason I mention it here is because in this weeks episode he talks about why (Yoma 72b) the son of a Kohein Gadol inherits the position while there is no such rule by the son of a Mashuach Milchama.
    (I disagree with his yesod that gadlus is heritable and aggressiveness and leadership is not. I would say the opposite, as we find that we say Beis Halevi (Levi'ah) and Beis Aharon (Kehuna)and Beis Yisroel (Malchus), but we don't say "beis yir'ei hashem." I always say that this is a raya that yiras shamayim doesn't go be'yerusha, an observation that has helped me explain certain people's behavior.)

  3. I always complain about failure to cite sources, so:
    Siyata dishmaya for asukei shma'ata-Megilla 6b.
    Acheir and Teshuva-Chagiga 15a.
    Torah Machzeres-Bava Metzia 85a.

  4. Your approach to the gemara sounds good, but I'm not sure. The lashon of the Ran describing these children is "she'al rov einam b'nei torah". Just removing the advantages these children may start with should level the playing field - why does it produce a "rov" who do not follow the right path? The Rosh introduces the idea of this being brought about deliberately by G-d, so I ask - would G-d deliberately create a rov of "ainam b'nei Torah" so the rest of us don't feel disadvantaged?

    >>>We have a number of dynastic families in the Torah world today.

    I was thinking about this as well, but am not sure it is true at all. Can you think of more than a select few of father-son combinations, where both are gedolim (excluding chassidic dynasties)?

  5. Anonymous2:07 PM

    Chasam Sofer on Yackov and EIsav or (yitzchok and Yishmael)talks about here

  6. Perhaps the Rosh is also expressing a rule of human behavior? In fact, I can give you a choice of two:

    1) the son sees the achievements of the father, and thinks, how can I rise to that level?, and in his discouragement does not give the necessary effort

    2) others perceive the son as his father's son--that is, all his reputation is because of his relationship to his father--and assume his achievements were easier because of who his father was, and by doing so they don't accord him the status of a Talmid Chacham, even if he really is one.

  7. Kishnevi has a point, though it doesn't address the Rosh. Let me tell you from experience, that the son of an illui or other great man, if he does well, people say, Well of course, he's so and so's son. If he tanks, then it's all him.

    Families that have borne the Torah for generations? Why should I mention the ones besides the obvious Soloveichiks and Kotlers, when it will only arouse ayin hara problems which I don't believe in anyway puh puh.

  8. Sons of Talmudei Chachamim inherit their father's genes, so they tend to be smarter than the average person.

    I'd throw in the Kanievskys as well, although I'm not sure how far that goes.

  9. All good points, but you guys are not helping me with the Rosh.

    Also, just to comment on one of the other points, true a ben talmid chacham is assumed to have an advantage and so may not get as much credit for his hard work, but I don't doubt that there are many great talmidei chachamim who never receive any notice because they are unrelated to someone with a famous last name - the last name confers a tremendous benefit that cannot be ignored.

  10. Mike S9:39 AM

    I couldn't find the Rosh you mentioned quickly (indeed, any Rosh at all to 81a), but it is not at all clear that Tosphos and the Ran disagree. It may be that Tosphos describes the reason, while Ran describes the mechanism. That is, Ran gives an explanation of the psychology, while Tosphos suggests a reason why HaKadosh Baruch Hu made people that way.

  11. Anonymous2:29 PM

    I don't think the Ran says what you quote him as saying.
    He says that Hashem erases the natural proclivities of sons of bnei Torah so that all people will work hard in acquiring Torah.
    The real chidush in the Ran is that Hashem is not really interested in whether there are talmidei chachomim in the world. What Hashem wants is that there be ameilus in Torah. For that reason, it's kedai to nullify natural talent, so that everyone should know that if you horeveh you succeed.

  12. I wrote - "Ran explains that the children of talmidei chachamim feel a sense of entitlement in their learning and do not strive as hard as others."

    The lashon of the Ran is - "lo yilmidu torah m'achar she'heim somchim she'yerusha hi lahem".

    I don't see anything in there about Hashem's intervention erasing natural proclivities. I do see the words saying that complacency does.

  13. Anonymous1:11 AM

    The Gemara asks why children of t'ch are not t'ch. The Gemara answers because "shelo yomru yerusha hee lahem." The Gemara doesn't say "mipnei she'omrim yerusha hee lahem." The Ran says "lo yilmedu Torah mei'achar she'heim somchim she'yerusha hee lahem." He doesn't say "she'einam lomdim Torah mei'achar she'heim somchim she'yerusha hee lahem." He says that the problem is not that they won't become t'ch. He says that if they would, as is natural, become t'ch, they won't bother learning with ameilus. And, apparently, being a t'ch without ameilus is a bad thing. So they need to be forced into ameilus because it won't come naturally.

  14. ironically, the rosh's son wrote the tur.