3/02/2005

A Lesson in Basic Talmudic Vocabulary

This will sound like a nit-picking point, but it's not. It revolves around the meaning of the Talmudic word 'teiku', which was apparently invoked by R' Matisyahu Solomon at the Siyum Daf Yomi last night. While there's much to be said about his speech, which encourages the bracketing of any somewhat difficult question, I'd like to address his implied meaning of the term 'teiku', why it's wrong, and why that's dangerous. I'll leave the rest of the deconstruction and critique to others.

His implication is that 'Teiku' is a non-answer. If we don't know the answer, we throw up our hands and say 'teiku', which leaves the question open. This understanding is corroborated by the myth that I grew up with, namely, that 'teiku' stands for 'Tishbi yetareitz kushyot ve-ibayot" - 'Tishbi (i.e., Elijah the Prophet) will answer challenges and questions'. The implication is that our knowledge is insufficient, but at some point the tools for discovering a correct answer will be restored to us.

That's not what 'Teiku' means. It most probably is a derivativr of the Aramaic verb 'to stand' (kah), thus 'it will stand', or to the Aramaic verb for weighing (tkl), thus, 'it is balanced'. Either way, the implication is that we have arrived at a stalemate, which is an endgame scenario. Teiku answers the question; the answer is - there is no way to have a definite outcome; tie; stalemate; deadlock. Modern Hebrew reflects that - the term for a 'tie' - like in a soccer match - is 'teiku'.

There's much evidence for this - linguistic, the context in which it's used in the Gemara, and the contexts in which it's not used in the Gemara. Rambam always paskens a 'teiku' as a 'safeik', but often will take a side on an 'ibaya de-lo ifshetta' (unanswered question), which means that he regarded teiku as a bona fide psak. Furthermore, the Taz holds that 'chisaron yedi'ah' (lack of knowledge) doesn't qualify as a safeik - important lesson there: no excuse for doubt that arises from ignorance.

The danger of the first (wrong) position is that it's a cop-out. We don't have access to the answers. We forgot. Woe is us. We're ignorant. Let's rely on a miracle. It's the ultimate in lack of self-confidence, and it's not a way to proceed through life.

The other (correct) understanding acknowleges that there are some questions that simply don't have cut-and-dried answers. Sometimes there are claims that compete with each other in an irresolvable way. Instead of copping out of a difficult situation, the Gemara acknowledges the validity of both claims and declares a stalemate. It's an exercise in true intellectual humility, not this self-effacing pious garbage that sometimes passes for it.

R' Matisyahu stated that teiku is 'a wonderful answer'.

'Hilchesa kavasei ve-lo mi-ta'amei' - he's right that it's a wonderful answer, but he's wrong about what that answer is.

10 comments:

dilbert said...

Great blog and great posts. I will comment when I can think of something erudite to add.

ADDeRabbi said...

Thanks,
I first heard 'pshat' in 'teiku' from someone who i believe is a 'lantzman' of yours (CM) when i was a lad of 17.

Michael said...

I agree that "teiku" means we've determined that two viewpoints are equally balanced -- which means that we've examined them thoroughly, which is not what it seemed R. Solomon was advocating -- but I'm not sure whether "teiku" is an affirmation of a non-answer or an admission of not being able to arrive at an answer.

Although Rambam's terminology that you cited inclines me to think it's the latter. And if it's the latter, then the literal meaning of "teiku" would not contradict what I would call a rashei tevot midrash on the word "teiku."

R. Nachman -- I don't recall exactly where -- has another, complementary drash. He says that eventually the final "nun" will be supplied to form the word "tikkun." I'm pretty confident that the "nun" represents the 50th gate of understanding, the time when insoluble problems find resolution...

... when ontological dualisms refract back into ontic monism :)

Michael said...

BTW, I very much enjoy reading your thoughts.

ADDeRabbi said...

good points, Michael. it could be stalemate as an endgame scenario, and it could be indeterminacy.

Great idea from R' Nachman - reading that back into modern philosophy, one can suggest that the 'nun' represents 'noumena', ontic monism.

BTW, I saw your blog; no fair, you're reading Halakhic Man; you got the reference! (and you apparently read to Godol and his comments)

Michael said...

I even commented a number of times on the Godol's blog, but all those post disappeared with the Koton's demise.

And mon Rabbin, all is fair in Talmud :)

dilbert said...

a landsman of mine? hmmmm. please email me and tell me about it.

dilmadilbert@yahoo.com

micha said...

I think R' Solomon implied the wrong question. The question isn't "Why does science indicate an older universe than we know it to be?" It's "What exactly happened during ma'aseh bereishis?"

To which I believe the answer truly is "Teiqu!"

But, according to the Maharal, neither nevu'ah nor chokhmah can get us to the answer, creation is simply too far beyond our ken. So, only the peshat, not the derash, of the word applies.

See also "Trends in Resolving Torah and Science"

Anonymous said...

The "myth" you mention is discussed in the Mosaf HaAruch, written about 500 years ago.
Ayin sham, erech taf-kuf.
MYG

ADDeRabbi said...

a 500 year old myth is still a myth.
no doubt, it's a useful myth (some might argue), but a myth nonetheless.
though, perhaps 'myth' is the wrong term. 'mnemonic device', 'cutesy vort', 'misunderstanding' - all work.
point is, if it forms our basic understanding of the Talmudic term, we're gehockt in a tzoores.