Sunday, June 11, 2017

Yeridos hadoros

It occurred to me that one reason great scholars of the past appear far smarter than they were is because generations of subsequent scholars have ironed out their work and added layers of supposed depth. A large part of this is the assumption that when a scholar contradicts himself, the solution is never that he changed his mind, or forgot what he had said possibly decades earlier, and certainly not that he made a mistake. Instead, the "apparent" contradiction is reconciled. So a taana's words accrete the clever insights of amoraim  and geonim who lived hundreds of years later, rishonim who lived a thousand years later, and continues to have depth added by current achronim. These centuries of accreted cleverness contribute to the perceived greatness of the taana, who is assumed to have meant all the things that later scholars attribute to him. All of these insights are seen to reflect the scholarship and intellect of the taana, and he appears far more brilliant than he may have been.

So too with amoraim, geonim, etc., but each epoch of scholars has a couple of centuries less worth of clever commentary than the one before it. The older a source is, the more commentary and clever reconciliations is has accreted. So the older the source, the greater it seems, and we have a seeming confirmation of yeridos hadoros.


  1. Definitely a point. T remember when I was studying English in school we spent many days analysing a poem called "flag", and finding ever deeper insights into the intricate meanings of the poem.

    Then the poet visited the school, and we asked him whether he meant any of this. He just laughed, and said no, but write it in the exam and you'll get full marks.

    Given that nobody is ever allowed to assume a dead rabbi is wrong, you can imagine how much this affect is multiplied.

    Another aspect is that people are naturally nostalgic. We all pine bask to the 'good old days' when everything was perfect. And so extending further back, if things were perfect when we were 6 thirty years ago,imagine how perfect they must have been 300 years ago, or 3000 ago.

    Another aspect to consider is survivorship bias. We interact with people all the time, and hear their views whether or not their views are worth listening to. But if we come across the opinions of someone who lived hundreds of years ago, his views must have been compelling enough to survive the test of time. Thus we naturally form a bias that people from the past were all intelligent.

    I can think of quite a few other biases at play to produce the yeridos hadoros myth, but i think this comment has gone on long enough as it is.

  2. And it all starts with finding hidden meanings, new laws, fanciful reconciliations in the Torah.