Now that we have seen the sources here – we can begin understanding when we say it is a liability to rely on the authority of the Sages and when one is obliged to do so. First, we should quickly note, that the Sages we are referring to here are the Sanhedrin.
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (The Ohr HaChaim, 17th Century, Morocco) in his commentary on Tractate Horayos, deals with this problem. He first was aware of the Sifrei and unaware of the Yerushalmi and asked the question like this:
He erred in his understanding of “it is an obligation to listen to the words of the Sages”: Since we are told “Thou shalt not stray from the sentence which they shall show thee” and it is said that even if they tell you on right that it is left and left that it is right we must not stray – how is this an error? And indeed, one is commanded to do, by the Holy One, Blessed be He, whatever the Sages instruct him to do, so indeed, he is doing a Mitzvah, so why should he be liable…?
He first answers according to his own reasoning. He makes a distinction between rulings where he is told by the Sages to do something – and rulings where the Sages merely deem something permissible 2. In our Mishna, the court ruled that forbidden fat was permissible, but of course, nothing obliges this sage/scholar to partake in all that is permissible. Therefore, he should have abstained.
But then he continues:
Furthermore, based on what I have found in the Yerushalmi which says:
“Maybe if they tell you on your right that it is your left or your left that it is your right you should listen to them – we have learnt – “to go right or left” – until they tell you on right that it is right or on left that it is left”
At first glance, it would seem that the Yerushalmi argues on what we have said, that even if they are instructing you on left that it is right you should listen. But in truth 3 it seems that they are not arguing at all, they are talking about two separate things 4 and do not disagree in principle.
When we say, even if they say on right that it is left etc. this is referring to the general populace who are not learned and skilled in Torah analysis 5. Of such people, their knowledge is not considered “knowing”. Therefore, they should bow their heads and do what they have been instructed by the Sages…
But someone who is learned and skilled in Torah analysis, who’s knowledge is real, should have protected himself and abstained…
He then quickly notes a problem with this reasoning.
But in truth, according to this reasoning, we must resolve why is it that a “rebellious elder” is liable? He too is instructing based on his own knowledge. Therefore, we must say that since the Torah teaches us elsewhere regarding a rebellious elder, we must derive that that the verse here is teaching us regarding right and left is that if the court permits something which he believes is forbidden, he should not permit himself to partake in it, as I have written.
Based on what he has written, it may seem like we are no longer making a distinction between a sage/scholar and the general population (regarding their liability to abstain from things they believe the Sanhedrin had erroneously deemed permissible). This, obviously, can not be, as this distinction is explicit in our Mishna/Gemara. We must therefore interpret what the Ohr HaChaim is saying to mean that the notion that someone who is not knowledgeable in Torah, should rely on the Sages interpretation of something even when it conflicts with his own, is so obvious that the Sifrei which says to follow the rulings of the Sages even if they tell you “your right is left” should not be interpreted this way. Rather, it should be interpreted as he did in his initial answer, to include even a sage/scholar who believes that the Sanhedrin erred.
(I don’t mean to imply that this is obvious that general populous should rely on the Sages even when they think they are wrong. Indeed, the Ohr HaChaim was willing to allow for this interpretation of the Sifrei until he came across his problem with the “rebellious elder”. I’m simply pointing out that this is how we must understand it according to the conclusion of the Ohr HaChaim.)
If you’re reading this and have noticed that with all this, we haven’t answered the basic problem that the Sifrei and the Yerushalmi used the exact same verse to derive opposite ends 6, we may eventually examine other’s who deal with the textual contradiction more in-depth. I assume that the Ohr HaChaim would be happy to answer a boilerplate answer like that one derivation is just used as homily or, as Tosafos sometime says “perhaps there is some drasha” that allows for the two disparate interpretations given different contexts.
We should note another thing which is implicit in the rejecting of his second answer based on the “rebellious sage” question. The Ohr HaChaim seemingly does not allow for a distinction between one’s personal actions and instructing others. On the first page of Horayos, it is explained that a “rebellious sage” is only liable if he instructs others to take action. This is something we will eventually explore.Follow Dew of Your Youth on Social Media!
- The Sifrei learns that one is obligated to listen “even if it seems to you that they are telling you that right is left and left is right” whereas the Yerushalmi and seemingly the Bavli interpret this to mean only if they tell you right is right and left is left.
- We will soon see that this is a distinction that will pop up many times in many different places. We should note however that there are certain limitations to this. For instance, we will see that in certain places The Sages discouraged or sometimes forbade people from following an alternate understanding of the Torah, even when the fulfillment alternate opinion doesn’t necessarily diminish from the performance of the accepted understanding. A possible example of this is the Berachos Chapter 1, Mishna 3.
- He actually says אחר האמת which translates as “after the truth”, I am not familiar with this particular phrasing.
- those reading the original will notice that I have taken out many of the Talmud-isms and borrowed phrasing to make it easier for a general audience to read, but have made no intentional omissions to his reasoning.
- He writes גמיר וסביר, of course, he must not mean that both are necessary as it is clear from the Gemara that one of these is enough to make one liable.
- To phrase the problem slightly differently: despite all of the Ohr HaChaim’s distinctions regarding which cases said verse means “meaning a” and in which cases said verse means “meaning b”, we still must deal with the fact that on a textual basis we are deriving two mutually exclusive meanings from the same verse and are not acknowledging the contradiction.