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Studying History (Weekday and Shabbat)

May 15, 2020 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

I’ve heard that some classic Jewish sources write that the study of history is a waste of time and should not be done, in particular on Shabbat. Is this true?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Thank you for raising the interesting issue. You are right that classically, the study of secular history was very much looked down upon, if not entirely forbidden. Tosafot (Shabbat 116b s.v. “v’kol she’kain”) writes that one may not read stories of wars on Shabbat, and even during the week there is no reason to permit them since reading them is the equivalent of spending time in “the company of scoffers” (see Psalms 1:1). This opinion is brought in Jewish law (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 307:16) without debate, equating such books to works of fantasy and romance. At the same time, later authorities mention a few past works on Jewish history by name (such as Sefer Yosippon (not to be confused with Josephus) and Sefer Yuchsin), which have ethical value and so are permissible (Mishna Berurah 58).

This stands in contrast to the study of the sciences, which is generally held in esteem by the Sages. Maimonides writes that studying the beauty and wisdom of the natural world brings a person to love and fear of God (Mishne Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 2:2), and so certainly should be a part of a person’s life curriculum. By the letter of the law, science may be studied on Shabbat as well (Shulchan Aruch O.C. 307:17, Mishna Berurah 65; see here).

At first blush, it sounds like the Sages had a very condescending view of the humanities as opposed to hard science. Non-Jewish history is just a bunch of empty tales about kings, empires and wars, of no practical value or relevance to us today.

However and not ironically, it is important to recognize the historical context in which such rulings were given. Tosafot cited above, probably writing in the 13th century, referred to non-Jewish history as “wars”. He no doubt had such works in mind as the tales of King Arthur’s court and The Iliad and the Odyssey. Such works were basically fantasy and were of little relevance or value to Jewish scholarship. More generally in fact, until fairly recent times, “history” books did not contain serious scholarship as we know it. It was often the likes of royal chronicles, inflated tales of a nation’s heroic history, more propaganda than fact. It had almost no intellectual value and often little historical value as well.

It is clear that most works on history written in more recent times are quite different and potentially of much greater value. In fact, a number of later authorities discuss the importance of studying history. Some see an allusion to this in the Torah itself (Deut. 32:7): “Remember the days of the world; understand the years of each generation.” R’ Avraham Karelitz (Emunah u’Bitachon 1:8) writes that the understanding of past events is highly instructive to the wise, and should form the basis for their wisdom – a variation of the more famous (in one version): “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” The same sentiment is expressed much earlier by R’ Yaakov Emden (Mor U’ketziah O.C. 307:16).

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (comm. on Deut. 32:7) writes that we should fathom history “with the ears of Isaiah” – recognizing Hashem’s controlling hand in history. R’ Elchanan Wasserman likewise wrote a lengthy piece on the importance of properly understanding the past (“Ma’amar Zechor Yemos Olam”), in which he writes that properly understanding world events and God’s relationship with mankind is a form of seeing the Torah in action – how Torah principles apply to human affairs. However, just as Torah study requires guidance, so too (as Deuteronomy continues): “Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders and they will say to you.” The study of history and current events can strengthen our relationship with God, provided we view it through the proper lens. For viewing God’s plan unfolding in history is seeing the Torah in action.

As a result, there is no question that the study of history today, if done properly, is a worthy endeavor, no longer “the company of scoffers” it once was. In terms of studying it on Shabbat, it is less clear. To begin with, preferably we should study only Torah on Shabbat (Shulchan Aruch 307:17, MB 65). Beyond that, classic Jewish law permitted science (while forbidding “books on wars”), as well as a few specific works on Jewish history because they bring a person to ethical behavior and fear of God. That would not even seem to extend to most works on Jewish history, unless they were written by God-fearing Jews from a religious perspective. Some contemporary books on Jewish law likewise forbid reading secular history on Shabbat (e.g. The Shabbos Home, Vol. 1 pp. 57-58), while others more generically permit “educational books”, not distinguishing between different subjects (Shemirat Shabbat K’Hilchata 29:47).

I was in touch with a great rabbi about this topic, who wrote me that clearly science is distinct from the humanities since it enables us to appreciate the wonders of God’s creation. On the other hand, the “wars” which earlier authorities forbade clearly has little in common with the history books of today, and there is certainly an argument to permit them on Shabbat today, especially since some altogether permit lighter reading on Shabbat for the sake of the enjoyment of Shabbat (see Menuchah Shelaimah p. 235).

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