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Thought for the Day: When To Ask Why in Gemara

One of the things I truly appreciated about physics is that it knew its boundaries.  "Physics answers how, not why", is a fundamental part of the catechism.  On the other hand, physics certainly does answer questions such as, "Why is the sky blue?"  That's because the question is not really a "why" question, it is a "how" question.  That is, one is really asking how it happens that the sky appears blue even though it is being bathed in (white) sunlight.  A "why" question would be, "Why do you want to know how the sky gets its blue color?"

Learning gemara is like that also.  There are questions  that one needs to ask just to get p'shat.  There are other questions that may be interesting, but they are tangential to the discussion at hand.  There are other questions that really have no place at all in learning.  Consider the following gemara:
R' Chanina bar Egil asked R' Chiya bar Abba why it doesn't say "tov" in the first rendition of the aseres ha'dibros, while it does say "tov" in the later rendition.  R' Chiya bar Abba responds, "Before you ask me why it doesn't say 'tov', you should ask me if it says 'tov', since I don't know if it says 'tov' or not.  [...] Shmuel bar Nachum said because the [first tablets] were destined to be broken.  And therefore what?  Rav Assi said because chas v'shalom there should be an interruption in good for Yisrael"  (Bava Kama 54b/55a)
The first question that needs to be asked is simply, "What "tov" are we talking about."  Rashi says that R' Chanina bar Egil is asking why the command to honor one's parents written on the second set of tablets adds, "u'l'ma'an yitav lach" (in order to benefit you).  That's is all you really need to know to understand p'shat in the gemara.

Here are some tangential questions: How is it possible that R' Chiya bar Abba didn't know what was written on the tablets?  What does it mean that breaking tablets with "tov" on them would cause an interruption in the good to Yisrael?  The gemara says that "tov" is missing, how does Rashi know that mean "yitav"?  Is there any other way to understand what "tov" the gemara is referencing?  (There is, btw; "tov" is gematria 17 and there are 17 more words in the second set than the first.  See ArtScroll gemara for more on that.)

Here is a question that has no place: "Since HaShem knew the first set were going to be broken, why did He give them at all?"  In fact, you can never ask a question about HaShem's motivation; that is beyond us.  You can, of course, ask what am I supposed to learn from the way HaShem did things.  That is a perfectly appropriate question.  For mussar seder, though; nor for gemara shiur.


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