Was the great sage Rashbam Orthodox?


I have been noting in many of my writings that Jews are not required to believe everything that the general population of Jews believe because, as in all cultures and religions, the general population is insufficiently educated, do not think for themselves, rely on superstitious teachings, and live their lives with erroneous ideas. I wrote, educated people should study the laws of nature, think for themselves, and discard the foolish notions of the multitude. However, I also wrote that to sustain social harmony and to avoid disassociating oneself from Judaism it is necessary for Jews to follow traditional Jewish practices. Orthodoxy is a word created from two Greek roots which mean a person who accepts the “beliefs” of the general population. Orthopractic, also based on two Greek words, means a person who rejects many beliefs of the general population but follows their “practices.”

Many of the great Jewish thinkers were orthopractic and not orthodox because their intellect made it impossible for them to accept all the notions held by the masses. These people included Maimonides, Abraham ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and many others.

Rashbam, for example, rejected the notion that the Torah day began in the evening and insisted that it began at day break. While his understanding is contrary to the generally accepted belief, no one would say that Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam (c. 1085-1158), the grandson of Rashi (1040-1105), and the author of a superb Bible and Talmud commentary was not a well-respected Jew despite, according to his view, Jews celebrate the Shabbat at the wrong time: beginning Friday evening and ending Saturday evening, rather than beginning Saturday morning and ending Sunday morning, as the Torah requires.

Rashbam highlights his view that the biblical day began at daybreak in his commentary on Genesis 1:5. The Torah states that God performed certain acts of creation on the first day; then there was evening and then morning when the first day ended and God began new activities for the second day.

Apparently, the Jews changed the biblical practice during their exile in Babylon during the sixth century BCE. The temple ritual, however, did not change; sacrifices continued to start during the morning in the second-temple period, as they did before the biblical practice was changed.

This fact is seen in Exodus 12:10 in regard to the Paschal sacrifice that had to be brought and eaten on the fourteenth day of the first month, now called Nisan. The Torah states that it could only be “eaten until morning” when the fourteenth day ended.

Similarly, Leviticus 7:15 states that the thanksgiving and peace offerings must be “eaten on the day of the offering; he shall not leave any of it until morning” because that is when the new day started.

That the biblical day started in the morning and not at night can also be seen in why the Torah requires that the fire of the sacrifice burn on the altar all night in Leviticus 6:2. If the day started at night in biblical times, as it does in Judaism now, the daily offerings should have been brought at night when the day officially started, and the Torah should have required that the priests let the fire of these offerings remain on the altar until the next nightfall.

Another of many examples that can be mentioned is the story of the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel who forced Rabbi Joshua to obey him, which I told previously, but is worthwhile repeating.

Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 25a and Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:9 report that in the second century C.E. Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah, one of the senior rabbinical leaders after the destruction of the Second Temple rejected the testimony of witnesses who claimed to have seen the first sliver of the moon for the month of Tishrei, the month in which the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth fall. The witnesses’ testimony was accepted by Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel the Patriarch – the leader of the Jewish community and the head of the Jewish court. As a result, Rabbi Joshua understood the holidays, including Yom Kippur, to fall on a different day than that proclaimed by Rabban Gamaliel and his court.

“Rabban Gamaliel sent a message to [Rabbi Joshua], saying: “I command you to come to me with your staff and money on the day of Yom Kippur according to your calculation.” [Rabbi Joshua was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand he had to comply with the order of the Patriarch. On the other hand, he felt that carrying a staff and money on the day he knew was Yom Kippur was a violation of the law.] Rabbi Akiva found him grieving, and said to him: ‘I can prove to you that whatever Rabban Gamaliel has done is proper, for it says: “these are the seasons of the Lord, the holy assemblies, which you shall proclaim” [Leviticus 23:4, meaning that God has given the rabbis the right to decide when the month begins and their decision on this matter is decisive. Rabbi Joshua was persuaded.]…. He took his staff and money in his hand and went to Yavneh [where Rabban Gamliel lived] to Rabban Gamaliel on the day he [Rabban Gamliel] had calculated to be the Day of Atonement. Rabban Gamaliel stood up and kissed him on his head and said to him: ‘Come in peace, my rabbi and my pupil; my rabbi in wisdom, and my pupil, because you accepted my words.’”

This talmudic tale also teaches that Jews, such as the exceptionally wise Rabbi Joshua, must think for themselves but retain Jewish practices of the general population. The rabbis are not telling Jews that intelligent individual must abandon their views. They can continue to think as they wish, but must conform their behavior to the majority, for to do otherwise would endanger the survival of society.