Halakha After Wittgenstein: Halakhic Meaning As Everyday Use, part 2 – צירופים חדשים

Halakha After Wittgenstein: Halakhic Meaning As Everyday Use, part 2

Eli Friedman

25 July 2019
Reading time: 40 min read

A boy learns how to don Tefillin by observing the way in which his father dons his own Tefillin, not when he reads the laws of Tefillin in the Shulkhan Aruch. Acquiring the Halakhic language does not proceed reality – it takes place in reality!

This determination of whether an object is muktzeh does not take place in a private language, nor is it an a priori one. Rather it is a determination directly based on the way that people in a certain language relate to the vessel that is subject to discussion.

The Halakhic determination is not a conscious decision as how best to classify objects or actions, but rather an observation of the Halakhic practice as it plays out in real life.

Jews learn to be Jews when they grow up in a cultural-context, which inculcates in them the Jewish world-picture, and infuses the Jewish words and concepts with meaning.

Emmanuel DYAN from Paris, France [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

Thinking about Halakha as a language in the way Wittgenstein describes it, points at the way Halakha is embedded in Jewish everyday life.


B. Wittgensteinian Philosophy of Halakha

Two Models of the Philosophy of Halakha

After Wittgenstein, we can describe two models of the ‘philosophy’ of Halakha which can be found in the seemingly opposed approaches of Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (The Rav), and his son, Professor Haym Soloveitchik.1  For the ‘Rav’, who synthesized the conceptual-analytical ‘Brisker’ method with neo-Kantian a priori analysis, Halakha is a closed and idealist system which imposes itself on reality, independent of reality itself:

When Halakhic man approaches reality he comes with his Torah, given to him at Sinai, in hand. He orients himself to the world by means of fixed statutes and firm principles. An entire corpus of precepts and laws guides him along the path leading to existence. Halakhic man, well furnished with rules, judgments and fundamental principles, draws near the world with an a priori relation. His approach begins with an ideal creation, and concludes with a real one. To whom may he be compared? To a mathematician who fashions an ideal world and then uses it for the purpose of establishing a relationship between it and the real world, as was explained above. The essence of Halakha, which was received from God, consists in creating an ideal world and cognizing the relationship between that ideal world and our concrete environment in all its visible manifestations and underlying structures. There is no phenomenon, entity, or object in this concrete world which the a priori Halakha does not approach with its ideal standard. When Halakhic man comes across a spring bubbling quietly, he already possesses a fixed, a piori relationship with the real phenomenon: the complex of laws regarding the Halakhic construct of a spring. The spring is fit for the immersion of a zav (a man with discharge); it may serve as mei hatat (waters of expiation); it purifies with flowing water; it does not require a fixed quantity of forty se’ahs; etc (See Maimonides, Laws of Immersion Pools, 9:8). When Halakhic man approaches a real spring, he gazes at it and carefully examines its nature. He possesses, a priori, ideal principles and precepts which establish the character of the spring as a Halakhic construct, and he uses the statutes for the purpose of determining normative law; does the real spring correspond to the requirements of the ideal Halakha or not?

Halakhic man is not overly curious, and his is not particularly concerned with cognizing the spring as it is in itself. Rather, he desires to coordinate the a priori concept with the a posteriori phenomenon.2

The Rav describes Halakha as a closed language-game which precedes reality and absorbs its inner definition from the tradition and theoretical Halakhic discourse. ‘Halakhic Man’, the learned-speaker of the Halakhic language, arrives at the real-life context with previously prepared definitions. This description of Halakha by the Rav can be seen as a language-game, since the Halakhic concepts are not understood by anyone outside of the analytical tradition. Only people in the language-game will understand and speak ‘Halakhically’. Yet the ‘Halakha’ here, can only be described, not observed. The Rav is not interested in real-life Halakhic usage or context. On the contrary, the use of Halakhic language in reality is the last station after the Halakha has gone through a long process of abstract and rigorous study by the Halakhic Man.3 The Rav’s Halakhic language-game isn’t interested in everyday language and its context.

A fundamentally different description of Halakha is offered in Professor Haym Soloveitchik’s highly influential essay ‘Rupture and Reconstruction.’ He writes:

Halakha is a sweepingly comprehensive regula of daily life-covering not only prayer and divine service, but equally – food, drink, dress, sexual relations between man and wife, the rhythms of work and patterns of rest – it constitutes a way of life. And a way of life is not learned but rather absorbed. Its transmission is mimetic, imbibed from parents and friends, and patterned on conduct regularly observed in home and street, synagogue and school… Did these mimetic norms—the culturally prescriptive–conform with the legal ones? The answer is, at times, yes; at times, no. And the significance of the no may best be brought home by an example with which all are familiar—the kosher kitchen, with its rigid separation of milk and meat—separate dishes, sinks, dish racks, towels, tablecloths, even separate cupboards. Actually little of this has a basis in Halakha. Strictly speaking, there is no need for separate sinks, for separate dish-towels or cupboards. In fact, if the food is served cold, there is no need for separate dishware altogether. The simple fact is that the traditional Jewish kitchen, transmitted from mother to daughter over generations, has been immeasurably and unrecognizably amplified beyond all halakhic requirements… This reconstruction of practice is further complicated by the ingrained limitations of language. Words are good for description, even better for analysis, but pathetically inadequate for teaching how to do something. (Try learning, for example, how to tie shoe laces from written instructions.) One learns best by being shown, that is to say, mimetically. When conduct is learned from texts, conflicting views about its performance proliferate, and the simplest gesture becomes acutely complicated.4

Professor Haym Soloveitchik describes Halakha as it can be found in everyday life. An attempt to preempt reality with theoretical-textual Halakha causes the Halakha to veer off course. Halakha is meant to be transmitted orally, which emphasizes Halakha’s use in everyday contexts. A boy learns how to don Tefillin by observing the way in which his father dons his own Tefillin, not when he reads the laws of Tefillin in the Shulkhan Aruch. Acquiring the Halakhic language does not proceed reality – it takes place in reality! The processes of socialization and cultural transmission are mimetic ones that occur when a child learns Halakhic language while watching the way it is used in life.


First and Second Languages

It can be suggested that the two types of language-games described by the Rav and Professor Soloveitchik can best be distinguished as a mother-tongue and a second language. A mother-tongue, or first language, is characterized by its unreflective character. A native English speaker does not hesitate to understand that when somebody says ‘Hello’ or waves his hand back and forth at him, he is being greeted. He knows intuitively and immediately how to respond appropriately to the gesture, and how to be present in the interaction without pausing to reflect or ask ‘What is the meaning of the word Hello?’ On the contrary, someone who acquires a second language will not (at least at first) speak unreflectively. Instead, he is compelled to ask himself ‘What is the meaning of the word ‘Hello’?’ when he encounters it, since he does not naturally know how to use it in language.

We can understand later Wittgenstein’s everyday language-game as a mother-tongue, and early Wittgenstein’s philosophical description of language as a second language. When Wittgenstein describes the meaning of a word as it is used in everyday language, he is pointing to language that the speaker knows how to use, without the need to pause, reflect, and ask ‘What does that word actually mean?’. Language does not precede reality, but rather occurs within it. Although the philosophical-logical language-game may be a mother-tongue for philosophers and scientists, it ultimately examines reality in the manner of a second-language. Scientists and philosopher speak logical-philosophical terms fluently once they learn how to use them, but their language-game is a game of examination, reflection, and describing the ‘essence’, as opposed to observing everyday practice. In a second language we may eventually come to think in first-language terms, but only after a process of adaption and translation.

When Professor Haym Soloveitchik speaks of Halakha, he describes a scenario in which the Halakhic players know how to ‘use’ Halakha in their daily reality, without the need for reflection on its ‘essence’. Halakha exists for children in the way in which their parents use it, and people that know how to speak it do not need to turn to books or abstractions in order to comprehend its meaning. As a result of living within the Halakhic life-form, people know how to speak the Halakhic language. The Halakhic term of tefilla, prayer, is as real to the Halakhic Jew that prays, as is the shirt on his back, and the ‘Hello’ that his neighbor waves to him when he passes by on the street. He does not need to ask ‘What is it?’ since he knows how to use them in life, just as he knows how to use the words he absorbed in his first-language. However, the Rav’s Halakhic Man speaks the Halakha as a second-language (even though in practice, in life itself, he still speaks Halakha as a mother-tongue!). He attempts to understand Halakha through abstract analysis. He tries to arrive at the ‘essence’ of the Halakhic object, to understand what it truly is, and only afterwards will he approach reality. The meaning of Halakha is not its use in life, but rather matching the ‘name’ to the ‘object,’ to the Halakhic essence, as Augustine attempted to do with words. Even if he knows the Halakhic terminology in reality (as a mother-tongue, and as Wittgenstein will say of Augustine’s personal language), when he arrives at reality he will coerce himself to undergo an act of reflective comparison between the analytical Halakhic definition and its actual usage in life. Thus we can say that Rav Soloveitchik is describing the specific language-game of talmud torah. It has its own set of rules and functions as a closed language, yet when it comes to observe Halakha, it does so as a philosophical-logical language-game, unlike late Wittgenstein’s everyday linguistic approach. Rav Soloveitchik’s talmud torah plays a pivotal role as one language-game in the Jewish-Halakhic life-form, and it even impacts other language-games in the life-form. Yet it is fundamentally limited to the beit midrash, the study hall, and to those that come to engage in analytical discourse. It may not shed significant light on the other language-games of the Halakhic life-form (of which it is seemingly attempting to discuss), and it may even prove problematic when attempting to give Halakhic pesak, or ruling.

It is my contention that Halakha most closely follows the approach of Professor Haym Soloveitchik which is akin to Wittgenstein’s later thought. Examinations of three different Halakhic discussions help illustrate that ‘The meaning of Halakha is its use in life.’ It is important to keep in mind that under this approach, the body of Halakha, broad and intricate, is a life-form. Behind it lies a world-picture, with certain assumptions about the ways of life and reality. In it, there is a web of language-games, like the kosher kitchen, the Shabbat table, prayer in shul, and talmud torah. Through this examination it can be seen that the role of the posek, the Halakhic decisor, and Halakhic literature is to serve as road signs that attempt to point their constituents in the right direction. Ideally, the posek must walk the path of late Wittgenstein, as Professor Soloveitchik describes, to understand the usage of the Halakha in the language-game that is present in the Halakhic literature. The posek must observe the reality that unfolds before his eyes and make the appropriate inference – in the Halakhic life-form, from within the world-picture of Halakha.


The Laws of Shabbat – Muktzeh in Broken Vessels

The laws of ‘muktzeh’ (literally: ‘allocated’) mandate which objects can and cannot be carried or moved on Shabbat.5 There are a few types of ‘muktzeh’, each one referring to a different kind of vessel, with different parameters regarding their usage and carrying on Shabbat.6 One type of muktzeh is ‘muktzeh maichamat gufo’ or, ‘muktzeh by way of itself’. Only a vessel that has a form of permitted usage for a person on Shabbat may be carried. An object without use, like sticks and stones, is called ‘muktzeh machamat gufo.’ and is forbidden to be carried or used on Shabbat. Determining whether an object belongs to the realm of Shabbat is essentially a determination as to whether the object is considered a useful vessel on Shabbat or whether it is an object without a useful purpose. The Mishnah and Talmud state:

Mishnah: All vessels that may be moved on Shabbat, their shards may be moved along with them, as long as they are suited for some purpose. Shards of a large bowl may be used to cover the mouth of a barrel. Shards of a glass vessel may be used to cover the mouth of a cruse. Rabbi Yehuda says: As long as they are suited for a purpose similar to their original use. Shards of a large bowl must be suited to pour soup into them, and shards of a glass vessel must be suited to pour oil into them.

Gemara: Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: This dispute in the mishnah is only with regard to a case where the vessels broke on Shabbat eve, as this Sage, Rabbi Yehuda, holds that if they are suited for a purpose similar to their original use, yes, it is permitted, and for some other use, no, it is prohibited. And this Sage, the Rabbis, hold: Even if they are suited for some other use, it is also permitted. But if the vessels broke on Shabbat, everyone agrees they are permitted. The reason for this is since they were designated for Shabbat use and consequently considered prepared at the onset of Shabbat due to their original vessels, it is permitted to move the shards as well.7

The mishnah determines that broken vessels are still considered vessels as long they are suited for some purpose. So long as the bottle cap that was detached from the bottle is still fit to cover a bottle, it remains a bottle cap, or vessel. The question arises when an object loses its ability to serve its original purpose, yet may still be useful in other aspects. When a bottle cap falls and is disfigured, yet may still be used for activities such a monopoly or skelly8 – is it still considered a vessel, or does it belong in the garbage? The commentators disagree on the matter, giving expression to both sides of the argument.9 In other words, when looking at the way people relate to broken vessels that have become nullified from their original use, there are some situations in which the shard is treated as garbage, and there are other situations in which the bottle cap would be reused for an alternative purpose, assuming that there is one. Whether or not an object is a vessel is inherently related to the way in which people use that particular vessel (or broken vessel) in reality. This is made explicit by a guideline cited by the mishnah which states, ‘All vessels that may be moved on Shabbat, their shards may be moved along with them, as long as they are suited for some purpose‘ – and afterwards lists examples of such accordingly. This determination of whether an object is muktzeh does not take place in a private language, nor is it an a priori one. Rather it is a determination directly based on the way that people in a certain language relate to the vessel that is subject to discussion. The posek is asked to observe the way in which this vessel is used in real life. The Shulkhan Aruch further describes the parameters for determining whether an object is considered “vessel” or just a piece of garbage:

A shard of clay that was broken on a weekday, and is still befitting to cover a vessel, is permitted for carrying, even in a place in which there are no vessels that it can cover; and if it was thrown away into the garbage before Shabbat, is it forbidden to carry since it has lost its use as a vessel. And this is specifically in regards to shards of clay, since it originally was a whole vessel, but anything that has no original correlation to a vessel, like sticks and stones, even though may be befitting to serve a cover to a vessel, they may not be carried.10

A shard of clay, as opposed to a stick or stone, is still considered a vessel even in the absence of other vessels that it may cover, since it is befitting in general to serve a certain use. However, once a vessel is thrown into the garbage before Shabbat, it has been proven that the shard has lost its status as a vessel in the eyes of its owners.

In order to better understand the way in which objects absorb meaning from their contextual use, it is worthwhile to go back to Wittgenstein’s example of chess. The ‘King’ on the chessboard carries a certain meaning as long as it remains on the board in a game. A person playing the game understands fully well that the meaning of his ‘King’ being ‘killed’ is that he has lost the game.11 In the language-game of chess, the claim that ‘All you did was knock over a piece of wood, you didn’t ‘kill’ anything’ is not a meaningful one. It is clear to all the participants in the language-game of chess that the ‘King’ is more than just a ‘piece of wood’. Yet someone walking in the woods that finds a piece of wood that is shaped like a king, did not find anything more than a piece of wood, and any excitement on his part would seem a little bit strange to his friend walking with him. Objects absorb their meaning from within the context that they can be found in. Like in the laws of muktzeh, an object bears a certain meaning in a cultural context and in a certain language-game, and that meaning cannot be invented or removed. In the Halakhic language game, a piece of clay on the kitchen counter is a vessel on Shabbat whereas a piece of clay thrown into the garbage is garbage.


The Laws of Shabbat – Borer (The Act of Selecting)

We previously noted that objects are similar to words in the way that they bear and receive meaning. Yet what about actions? In order to mold and create the Shabbat language-game, the Torah and Halakhic literature also point to permitted and forbidden types actions – the thirty-nine melachot – the forbidden labors. These actions come from two potential sources- the work of the mishkan, which the Jewish people carry in their collective consciousness (a linguistic archetype for what constitutes as work in their eyes), or, alternatively, from the list of actions necessary for basic industrial processes in time of the Talmud, such as preparing bread, a book, or clothing.

One of the thirty-nine prohibited labors listed is the act of ‘borer, or, ‘selecting’. Its basic meaning is the separation of something wanted from something unwanted. The action is characterized by the process of preparing bread, which included separating the stalks of wheat from their stems and sifting the flour from waste.12 The issue often arises regarding food preparation or eating that requires a certain element of separating the food that one wants from waste or undesired food. The Talmud attempts to address this issue, yet opens with a slightly puzzling statement that lists permitted and forbidden acts of selection: ‘The Sages taught – If there were types of food before him, one selects and eats, selects and puts aside. And one may not select, and if one did select, he is liable to bring a sin-offering.’13

Is selecting allowed or forbidden? It is not very clear. In order to understand the beraita, is it imperative to understand the context in which it was recorded. When doing so, it becomes clear that the meaning of an action is not determined by its title or formal definition, but rather through the manner in which it is done and the situation in which it takes place. With this in mind, the various interpretations of the amoraim become clear:

(1) Ulla said: It is saying as follows: One selects and eats for that day, And selects and puts aside for that day. And one may not select for the next day. And if one did select for the next day, he is liable a sin-offering. (2) Rather, Rav Ḥisda said: One selects and eats less than the measure, selects and puts aside less than that measure. And one may not select the measure, and if one did select, he is liable a sin-offering. (3) Rather, Rav Yosef said: One selects and eats by hand, selects and put aside by hand. With a tray [kanon] or with a plate, one may not select. And if he did select, he is exempt, however, it is prohibited. And one may not select with a sieve or with a sifter. And if he did select he is liable a sin-offering. (4) Rather, Rav Hamnuna said: One selects and eats food from the waste, selects and puts aside food from the waste. However, one may not select waste from food, and if he did select, he is liable a sin-offering. (5) Rather, Abaye said: One selects and eats if he is removing food for immediate use, and similarly one selects and puts aside for immediate use. However, one may not select for use later that same day. And if he did select, he is considered like one who selects for storage, and he is liable a sin-offering.14

Each amora tries to fill in the missing words from the Talmudic discussion. The Talmud is referring to multiple situations – one in which selecting is allowed, and one (or two) in which it is forbidden. Each amora tries to point out what each situation is, by assuming that the meaning of the word ‘selecting’ is sanctioned by its context and situation, and not by the essential meaning of the word. They do so by opening up the linguistic-gap of the beraita, and suggesting the ‘missing words’ in order to make sense out of it. The meaning of the beraita would be obvious if two people were having a real life conversation about which selecting constitutes work (in the factory or kitchen for example) and which selecting constitutes eating (during a meal, at the table). The speakers of the conversation would intuitively comprehend by way of everyday language which selecting is work and which selecting is done while eating. This is similar to the case where builder ‘B’ understood ‘Block!’ to mean ‘Bring me a block!’ even though ‘A’ only said one word. The Augustinian approach, however, will not successfully understand the contextual nuances embedded in the body language of the speaker when he says ‘One may select and eat, yet one may not select and eat’, since he is looking for the ‘essence’ of the word ‘select’, not its dynamic and contextual meaning. Searching for the ‘essence’ of the word ‘select’ here will bring no avail to understanding the beraita or the Halakha. According to the Wittgensteinian approach, each amora tries to resolve the meaning of the sentence by filling in the contextual gap via its missing words.

The Halakhic ruling, following the amoraim’s hermeneutic attempts to understand the beraita, is that the permitted selection is the selection of food (and not waste), by hand (and not with a vessel), and for immediate use (not for later use). This ruling attempts to point out which actions take place in a work-like situation. After refining the understanding of the intent to forbid ‘selection’, many food-eating situations which involve ‘selection’ are in fact allowed. This stands in contrast to actions connected to industrial processes and more serious cooking and food preparation. There are actions which bear the name ‘selection’ and are considered work, and there is borer that is considered ‘by way of eating’, in which the selection is not part of a ‘linguistic picture’15 or situation of selection that is considered labor. To emphasize this point, the Ramban rules that all the aforementioned conditions don’t apply when someone is eating, and he is even allowed to remove the waste from the food (in seemingly direct contradiction to the beraita’s conclusion!), since it is ‘by way of eating’.16 Continuing this line of thought, the Rabbis were divided on a few situations of selection, as to whether they constitute ‘working’ or ‘eating’.

Can one select a food from its own kind or is that considered forbidden selection? According to the Taz, this is the archetype of problematic selection, since ‘It is obvious that there is borer because the food that he wants to put aside’ is considered waste.17 When there are two types of foods they are already separated. However, a person that wants to select amongst one type of food (like one fish from another), is already in a ‘linguistic picture’ of selection (for example, the fish retailer in the market that selects a specific fish from a pile of its own kind for his customer). On the other hand, the Terumat HaDeshen sees this type of situation as ‘by way of eating’: ‘It is not considered selecting unless one is selecting food from amongst another type, and not from its own’.18 The act of forbidden ‘selection’ is only when a person has two different foods mixed together. He removes the food that he doesn’t want, and leaves behind the one that he does.

Are selecting clothes or dishes allowed on Shabbat? On one hand, the term ‘selecting’ is conferred upon these actions, while on the other hand it is ‘by way of taking clothes or dishes’. The Taz suggests that the rules of selection apply to clothes and dishes too, and there too, one must specifically select the one he wants.19 When a person begins to sort clothes or dishes, he enters a ‘linguistic picture’ of cleaning, sorting the house, and preparing – the types of behavior that the thirty-nine melachot are trying to distance one from. On the contrary, the Ohr Sameach claims that borer only applies to things that are actually mixed together.20 Even if sorting clothes or dishes is technically selecting, clothes and dishes are objects that stand by themselves, and in sorting them there is no borer or actual association of problematic work.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach formulates the permitted and forbidden act of “selection” as drawing its meaning from the context of the daily character of the action:

I too think that just as cleaning dishes on Shabbat… is not considered borer… since they often get dirty and then cleaned, it is not called borer (selecting) but rather cleaning dishes… as to the allowance to select food from waste or to cut a vegetable in order to eat it immediately, it is also allowed since it is called eating and not ‘selecting’ or ‘grinding’… we see that even in actions forbidden from the Torah we follow the name that is called (and not the name formally conferred upon the action).21

The Halakhic life-form, like a language, does not function on the level of consciousness per se, but rather in an unreflective fashion. The Halakhic determination is not a conscious decision as how best to classify objects or actions, but rather an observation of the Halakhic practice as it plays out in real life. In order to determine whether ‘A’ ‘selected’ or not, we need not look at the technical name of his action, but rather whether the usage of his action is done in a ‘linguistic picture’ or situation of work and ‘selection’, or, ‘by way of eating’. The concept of borer has vague boundaries, yet those vague boundaries do not prevent.the posek from successfully speaking about the term borer by pointing to the character of the action in reality, without locating its ‘essence’, or perfect definition.

Praying In Any Language

As described by Professor Haym Soloveitchik, Halakha is conveyed through its mimetic dimension, learned by observing parents and absorbed from surrounding environments, without reference to written rules. For a Jew to pray, he needs to know how to pray, and what it means to be in the midst of prayer. This event cannot be bred out of thin air and is deeply connected to the way that prayer is shaped in real life.

There are a few mechanisms which facilitate the ‘linguistic-picture’ or language-game of prayer – such as the minyan, the shul, lashon hakodesh, and tefillin. These mechanisms create the setting for the language-game of prayer, just as the building and the hardhats create the linguistic-picture of construction. ‘Block!’ in the construction language-game means ‘Bring me the block so that we can use it in construction’. Reciting ‘ashrei yoshvei vey’techa’ – in the context of a minyan in a shul, when there is tefillin on the head and the arm – means a ‘real’ conversation with God for the praying Jew. Saying ‘ashrei’ outside of this context, in English (Blessed are those that dwell in your house) constitutes the uttering of a few words, void of the intended meaning and holiness. The location of the person and the context which he is in, determines the meaning of his words and actions. Only if he is in the ‘linguistic-picture’ of prayer will his prayers ‘be received’. Only in the context of a minyan, in a shul, on Yom Kippur – will one feel that they are truly standing trial before their creator.

The Mishnah in tractate Sotah lists the prayers and rituals that can be recited in any language, and then proceeds to describe those that must be said in Hebrew:

These are recited in any language: The portion of a woman suspected by her husband of having been unfaithful [sotah]; and the declaration of tithes, Shema; and the Amida prayer; and Grace after Meals; and an oath of testimony, and an oath on a deposit. And these are recited in the sacred tongue: The recitation of first fruits and the ritual through which a yavam frees a yevama of her levirate bonds [ḥalitza]; blessings and curses the Priestly Benediction; and the blessing by High Priest; and the portion of the king; and the portion of a heifer whose neck is broken; and anointed for war when he addresses the nation.22

The Mishnah asserts that prayer can be said in any language. Seemingly, a person can pray the amida in his mother-tongue, yet birkat kohanim must be said in Hebrew. The Talmud discusses the question of tefilla, and sharpens the parameters for allowing prayer in any language:

It is stated in the mishnah that the amida prayer may be recited in any language. The reason for this is that since prayer is a request for divine mercy, one may pray in any way that one desires. The gemara asks: But may prayer really be recited in any language? But didn’t Rav Yehuda say: A person should never request in the Aramaic language that his needs be met, as Rabbi Yoḥanan said that with regard to anyone who requests in the Aramaic language that his needs be met, the ministering angels do not attend to him, as the ministering angels are not familiar [makkirin] with the Aramaic language? The Gemara answers: This is not difficult, as that statement of Rabbi Yoḥanan is referring to the prayer of an individual, who needs the support of the angels, whereas this statement of the mishnah is referring to communal prayer.23

The Talmud challenges the Mishnah – how can one pray in any language? The angels do not speak Aramaic. The angels, the servants who tend directly to God, only speak the holy language – Hebrew – and no other language can successfully pass on to God through them.24 What the Talmud is suggesting, similarly to Wittgenstein’s insights, is that when praying in a language other than Hebrew, the praying subject does not find himself in the ‘linguistic-picture’ of prayer. Instead, he is simply ‘saying words’. He needs to use the holy language and text in order to situate himself in the language-game of prayer.

Yet the Talmud concludes by noting the nuances of the prayer language-game: ‘This is not difficult – that case (holy language) is referring to an individual, who needs the support of the angels, whereas this case (any language) is referring to communal prayer.’ When a person is praying in a minyan in a shul – he can say the words or content of the siddur in his mother-tongue. This maintains the intimacy of his speech, since the context of communal prayer bestows upon him the notion that his prayer is prayer, by situating him in a ‘linguistic-picture’ of tefilla. When a person is alone however, praying in his room in his home, he requires the holy language in order to properly situate himself in the language-game of prayer.

(1) It is possible to pray in any language one desires. This is the rule when praying together with a congregation, however an individual praying alone should only pray in the Holy Language. (2) However, some say that this (requirement to only pray in Hebrew) only applies when one is asking for his own personal needs, such as praying for someone who is ill, or for some painful episode in his household, however when reciting the regular liturgy established for the congregation to recite, that may be recited in any language. (3) Furthermore, some say that even an individual requesting his own personal needs may pray for them in any language he wishes to pray, except for in the Aramaic language.25

The Shulkhan Aruch lays out a few Halakhic options as to what is considered prayer: (1) Communal prayer (Shul, Minyan, etc.) or the holy language provide the context of tefilla, within which words bear the meaning of ‘literally praying to God’. (2) Tefilla (shemonah esrei for example) in the format enacted by Chazal, passed down from generation to generation, does not need the holy language or the communal context, since it constitutes a context of tefilla. Spontaneous and expressive prayer however, which comes from the heart and not from the text, does indeed need the holy language in order to bear the meaning of ‘literally praying to God’. (3) Prayer in any language, even alone, is prayer (since he understands what he is saying and truly means it), unless it is specifically the language of Aramaic, since one who prayers in Aramaic senses that even though they are praying in an old and holy language, it is not the old and holy language, and therefore, it isn’t really tefilla.

We will summarize the process with the words of Rav Shagar, referring to prayer in light of Wittgenstein’s insights:

As Wittgenstein explains, the believer’s actions and utterances emanate from a state of mind; they do not report upon a state of mind. Rather than being a feat of consciousness or spirituality, faith resides in the situation, in a life of commitment to the various mitzvot and customs… This stance of mine is linked to the halakhic ruling to the effect that even though mitzvot require intention, when one, for instance, dons tefillin in the synagogue without awareness of his action, the very context – his presence in the synagogue – is considered intention enough that he is seen as having fulfilled the mitzva. This is because intention, like faith, is not so much a mental action as it is an action’s context. When one is fulfilling the mitzva of donning tefillin, one’s practical position lends meaning to the action, beginning with the words that one uses to describe it. We are discussing a man who got up in the morning and proceeded, without devoting conscious thought to it, to occupy himself with tefillin – and not with mere black boxes or cubes. By contrast, one who has not encountered a Jewish lifestyle, and is unaware of the function of tefillin, won’t see tefillin – only a pair of boxes with strange straps dangling from them. Our very use of the word “tefillin” in relation to these objects constructs our world in a certain way. And the position in reality of someone who dons tefillin, meaning the relation of his action to other people and objects, is embedded in the use of the word.26


Summary: Halakha After Wittgenstein – We Will Do And Then We Will Understand

The ‘Philosophy of Halakha’, at its core, is built upon borrowed paradigms from other fields of thought. In this essay, we have attempted to explore the ‘Philosophy of Halakha’ in light of models taken from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language. Though late Wittgenstein challenges the notion that words contain meaning in and of themselves, Augustine, and even early Wittgenstein supposed that every word represents an object, or a picture of reality. Late Wittgenstein denies this and claims that ‘the meaning of a word is its use in the language’. The context is that which bestows meaning upon a word, and only from within the context, or the ‘language-game’, do speakers use words properly and ‘understand’ their meaning. Language-games are situations, or ‘linguistic-pictures’, in which all words find expression. They include a wide array of non-verbal components (such as body language and clothing) that mold the situation and provide context for words. Language-games are real life and everyday happenings, not theoretical contexts. Therefore, the meaning of a word is its use in everyday language, within a variety of contexts. Language-games are embedded in life-forms, and behind them lie world-pictures, with certain assumptions about life and reality that play out in the situation.

Judaism, and Halakha in particular, are characterized by being a collection of actual practices that constitute a communal life-form for the Jewish people. Jews learn to be Jews when they grow up in a cultural-context, which inculcates in them the Jewish world-picture, and infuses the Jewish words and concepts with meaning. This requires one to be embedded in a collective tradition that functions in everyday life. As opposed to the a priori ‘Halakhic Man,’ Professor Haym Soloveitchik understands Halakha to be that which operates and exists in a real-life, by way of its use within context. True, there are many Jewish language-games, and talmud torah, as described by Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik is one of them. Yet when seeking to understand Halakhic meaning or give Halakhic pesak, the approaches of later Wittgenstein and Professor Haym Soloveitchik are crucial. Jews play the Halakhic language-game, and this language-game is everyday life – at the Shabbat table, and in shul. The attempt to turn away from Jewish everyday life towards abstraction and conceptual analysis bears relevance only in the “linguistic-picture” of talmud torah in the Beit Midrash. When coming to determine Halakhic pesak, however, it is necessary to observe the use of Halakha within the language-games that exist within the web of the Jewish life-form.

After studying the discussions pertaining to muktzeh, borer and tefilla, it is evident that Halakhic ‘rulings’ take place in light of observing the character of an act, object, or term from within the context it is lived. Whether a shard is still considered a vessel cannot be determined outside of everyday life. The way which the object is used is what determines the appropriate Halakhic category that it should be placed in. Is a certain action permitted or not on Shabbat? At first glance, borer, or ‘selecting’, is forbidden on Shabbat, and any act which bears the name ‘selecting’ should be forbidden. Yet the Halakhic discourse elegantly reflects that there is both permitted selection and forbidden selection. Looking at the situation and context of the action is what determines its permissibility and appropriateness, placing it in a certain ‘linguistic-picture’. Is praying allowed in any language? In order to pray, once must be in the language-game of tefilla, otherwise it is not prayer, rather just the ‘saying of some words’. There are a few ways to be situated in the ‘linguistic-picture’ of prayer. The holy language, tefillin, a minyan, and a shul – each constitutes a context which places a Jew in the occurrence of prayer. The Talmudic dicussion asserts when a Jew can pray in his mother-tongue based on the awareness of these contexts and dynamics. The Halakhic life-form is a deep and vast playing field of expressions and actions spanning the generations, situated within the Jewish communal setting. The job of a posek and the Halakhic literature is to serve as road signs that point to and uncover the Halakhic norms from within the ‘linguistic-pictures’ in which they exist, and to expose and enlighten the awareness as to what is happening there.27

The meaning of Halakha is its use in life. Life cannot be preceded, nor can the meaning embedded within its language-games be altered or manipulated. In order to encounter Halakha, and to live it, we must observe, and not search for its essence or ask what it really is. We ought to, like our forefathers ‘do and (only) then, understand’.28c



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