Sunday 29 September 2019


R. Yosef Kapach's signature on a Jerusalem Rabbinical Court document together with R. Ovadiah Yosef and R Waldenberg.


Rabbi Yosef Kapach[1] (1917-2000) is widely considered to have been a world authority on Maimonidean texts. He compiled what is today regarded as the most accurate publication of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah - working as he did, not from printed versions but from manuscripts written in Rambam’s own hand.

R. Kapach produced a 23 volume edition of Mishneh Torah with his own extensive notes which compare - for the first time - each concept and ruling in the Mishneh Torah, to Rambam’s ideas on the same topic but taken from his other writings. The work also includes an anthology of about 300 additional commentaries as well. This allows the student to acquire a well-rounded overview of Rambam’s thoughts instead of just reading them in a vacuum.

Rabbi Kapach was highly respected and served for some decades on Israel's highest religious court.

Besides his impressive credentials, R. Kapach had some very interesting – some would say controversial - views on a number of pertinent and important issues affecting contemporary Judaism.

In this article, we will look at some of these matters through the eyes of one of his students, Professor Tzvi Langermann from Bar Ilan University, who refers to R. Kapach (Kafah) as “mori Yusuf”, my teacher Yosef.[2]


Scattered amongst the non-legal sections of the Talmud (0-500 CE) are many ancient statements that were once considered to have been innovatory science, but in the fullness of time have subsequently been replaced by more accurate scientific assumptions. 

The modern student of Talmud today is faced with the dilemma of either choosing to disregard modern science in favour of the Talmudic version, or to discard the current science. The choice becomes more than academic when general science crosses over into practical medical science.
Some claim that whatever is recorded in the Talmud is sacrosanct and is therefore not subject to alteration or review under any circumstances.

[NOTE: Our discussion is only concerned with scientific and non-Halachic issues, and it must be taken as obvious that no one is suggesting tampering with actual Halacha.]

Regarding Talmudic science, R. Kapach took a forthright and unabashed position. He followed a rationalist approach which he inherited from his grandfather R. Yichya Kapach – and openly and boldly claimed that the Talmudic statements on science, simply reflected the science of its day; and therefore was not part of the orally transmitted tradition from Sinai!

Thus, when the Talmud spoke of Halachic matters, those would have been part of the ancient oral tradition going back to Sinai. But the scientific, historical and medical matters recorded in the Talmud were merely a reflection of the general views of the world at that time, and were not, in his view, to be regarded as ‘holy’.


Regarding the matter of whether the sun revolves around the earth (which many contemporary Orthodox Jews still steadfastly maintain to be the truth) or whether the earth revolves around the sun, R. Kapach clearly maintained that the earlier belief that the sun revolves around the earth was not something that had its roots in Sinai. Therefore that assumption was not something one had to bend over backwards to try and support.[3]

R. Kapach writes:

“On the contrary... [the Talmudic scientific views are][4] due either to ...[the Sages’][5]...understanding and conclusions, on the basis of the astronomy of their day, or else they received it from the non-Jewish scholars...

It is important to know that this is the situation, because in our own day these concepts have changed from one extreme to the other.

Some things that were once the absolute truth have been totally destroyed.

If someone who does not know their source imagines that their source lies in a tradition of the Sages, he could make the same mistake with regard to things that really are a tradition of the Sages, ‘from person to person,’ and that are fundamental to Judaism.

Therefore, it is good to know the truth, so that if these [old astronomical ideas] are refuted, as they have indeed been refuted, it does not matter at all, and the matter has no bearing at all on the Jewish faith.”[6]

Langermann refers to the “danger of sanctifying the scientific claims of the rabbis” and echoes his teacher’s fear that:

“[w]hen discerning persons realize that these claims are wrong, as they surely will, they may be led to reject the entire tradition.”


Interestingly, although an avowed Maimonidean, R. Kapach said that the same applied to the relatively more recent science as recorded within his beloved Rambam’s writings (1135-1204). Rambam also wrote on scientific and medical matters as they were understood during his time, but he did not expect his readers to retain them in light of more accurate discoveries and developments he knew would take place in the future. 

[Again, of course, the purely Halachic writings of Rambam like those of the Talmud continue to retain their obvious authority.]

Concerning his teacher’s view, Langermann writes:

“Thus those assertions that have since been disproved, or at least rejected by the consensus of the scientific community, are wrong, plain and simple, and may be jettisoned.” 


Even though R. Kapach completely rejected the since disproved Talmudic and Medieval science which he never regarded as ever being part of the authentic Torah tradition, he nevertheless emphasized something Rambam said that is often overlooked:

Rambam explained that although much of Talmudic science had been displaced even in his day, nonetheless it is not an indictment against the rabbis of the Talmud because it still shows how they:

 made it their business to learn thoroughly the science current in their own time.”

The sages were interested in science! 

And the content of their scientific conclusions is not the crucial issue – what is important, is that they attempted to understand the science of their day to the best of their ability! Their intent was more important than their content.

R. Kapach maintained that if the Sages attempted to understand science, then there is no reason for us not to do the same today.


Some might argue that if a great rabbi, especially a Talmudic authority, pronounces on any issue, his verdict is not only final but he is actually speaking on behalf of the Torah itself (if not G-d Himself). 

This hypothesis is common and is known as Daat Torah.

According to this view, whatever the Talmudic Sages said, must certainly be Daat Torah and their views on science and medicine must of necessity be correct.

While many do assume this position, certainly in the view of Rambam, such a notion could not ever be entertained.

Professor Menachem Kellner, considered an authority on Maimonidean thought, writes that according to Rambam:

“Truth is absolute and objective; there can thus be no such things as intellectual (or spiritual) authority per se.

Statements are true irrespective of the standing of the person making them.

Maimonides could thus have no patience for the sorts of claims to rabbinic authority which underlie the contemporary doctrine of da’at Torah (charismatic rabbinic authority) in its various permutations.”


When it came to the much debated issue of religious and secular studies at Torah schools - relating to whether secular studies should be allowed at all and if allowed to what extent - R. Kapach was, to say the least, completely outspoken.

Some schools allow equal time allocation for both subjects while others only permit a minimal amount of secular literacy, and almost everyone only allows the secular to take place at the end of the learning day[7], and only permit the science that does not contradict their version of the Torah.

However, Langermann writes that his teacher:

“...Rabbi Kafah was quite distressed by this attitude.

In his view, the very dichotomy between ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ subjects, a self-evident truth in the mind of so many Jews, is misguided. In this matter as in just about every other, the rabbi's outlook was grounded in the thought of Saadia Gaon and especially Moses Maimonides.

Following their lead...Rabbi Kafah drew a sharp distinction between blind belief and true conviction...

A scientific education is a sine qua non for the attainment of sound convictions. Only the precise, impartial, critical, and rigorous method of the sciences can lead to this type of conviction. In addition, the strongest indications of the truth of the existence of God and other basic principles come from the investigation of the world of phenomena; and their investigation is the province of science.

The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that science, too, should properly be classified as limmudei qodesh, sacred studies.

Thus there is a first-class religious obligation (‘a mitzvah from the Torah’) to study science.”

And if that wasn’t controversial enough, he continues:

“Moreover, the rabbi held that much of what is generally taken to be limmudei qodesh is anything but holy.

He disliked the intricate analysis of purely hypothetical legal problems, something that many consider to be the acme of Torah study....

He listed the following sciences as obligatory: logic, astronomy, natural science (biology, zoology, physics), medicine, and language.”

In a similar fashion, Menachem Kellner writes:

“... Maimonides imports science... into the very heart of Torah.

Indeed the twentieth century’s leading Maimonidean, Rabbi Josef Kafih, went so far as to deny the possibility of secular studies (limmudei hol) for Maimonides: if a discipline yields truth, it is not secular.

One who has mastered what Maimonides calls (in the Introduction to the Guide of the Perplexed) the legal science of the Torah (i.e. the Talmudist) is thus inferior to one who has mastered the secrets of the Torah, i.e. the person who understands physics and metaphysics...

An enthusiastic Maimonidean such as Jacob Anatoli (thirteenth century) understood the implications of this clearly: in his eyes a scientifically trained Gentile is superior to a punctilious Jew who has no scientific training.[8]

This is one of those views that will either resonate innately withn - or utterly repel - the Reader. There is no middle ground here.

While some might scorn Rambam - and by implication, R. Kapach - for these views, others would laud them for their ‘wisdom to develop them and the courage to voice them.’


Either way, the impact of R. Kapach’s thoughts has been minimal despite his being recognized as one of the great authorities on Maimonidean texts and thought.

“Many of these ideas were developed by Rabbi Kafah in a short article which, though reprinted several times and translated into English, seems to have had little or no impact.”

R. Kapach was fatigued and frustrated by the attitude of the establishment and:

“...concluded that without some common ground of belief shared by the participants, argument or discussion is pointless.

Hence he would dispute with other Maimonideans with fury and passion; but he limited himself to dry exposition when writing for those whose world-views were far-removed from his own.”

He seemed to have resigned himself to the fact that his was a battle he could never win, having already witnessed his grandfather’s futile campaign to rid his fellow Yemenites of their belief in magic and theurgical mysticism.

Menachem Kellner acknowledges that hardly anyone took notice of R. Kapach’s views, and adds that the same was true of Rambam himself:

“None of these positions had much impact on Judaism after Maimonides, and many people today who revere his memory and devote themselves to the study of his Mishneh Torah would probably deny that he held them...”[9] 

Besides R. Kapach’s negligible influence on the contemporary study curriculum at schools, some of his students like Langermann, appear reluctant to even share some of their teacher’s other views on other issues. 

So, for example – whether Langerman felt he didn’t quite understand his teacher’s interpretation in a certain matter or whether he was simply reticent to express it – he writes:

“If I understood him properly, Rabbi Kafah may have gone even farther in his interpretation of Maimonides, but I cannot say more on this subject.”

Why could he not say more on the subject?


Some admittedly highly subjective questions follow:

Why is it that our (teenage) children can come home from school having been taught the most extreme midrashim and tacitly expected to take them literally – yet others can’t fully express the views of someone like R. Kapach?

Why can respectable organizations publicise and advise with impunity, all sorts of almost theurgical activities which are purported to heal and save – yet others can’t teach correspondingly radical views as put forth in commentaries such as Rabbeinu Nissim of Marseilles?

How can some peripheral, mystical and magical concepts be openly taught as if they were core Torah values – yet one hundred thousand pages of Rav Kook have been withheld from us?

Why are some of the normative, balanced and rational notions which Judaism is also rich in, often denied, ignored, suppressed or relegated to some vague category of non-authoritative status - and those that wish to study and teach such matters are compelled to do so apologetically!

Not everyone has to adopt these notions, and the masses probably never will, but at least they should be presented as equal and legitimate alternatives - which they, being rooted in Rambam surely are - for those who seek them. 

A whole new generation might find it easier to come back to Judaism.

‘Hilkach Nimrinhu leTarvaihu' ...Therefore let us express both (world-views)!

Or have these ideas been so repeatedly driven underground to the extent that they have, ironically, become a new hidden tradition of sod and nistar and secrets of Torah?

[1] Also known as Kafach, Kafih or Qafih.
[2] “Mori Yusuf”: Rabbi Yosef Kafah (Qafih) (1917-2000), by Y. Tzvi Langermann.
[3] Many, including the Lubavitcher Rebbe, had written in defence of the earlier hypothesis. He based his arguments around the theory of relativity.
[4] Parenthesis mine.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] R. Kapach’s commentary to Mishneh Torah, Yesodei haTorah, ch.3.
[7] The Lubavitcher Rebbe supported this notion based on the verse ‘kol hachelev lahaShem’, where the ‘fat’ or best part of the day was to be dedicated to Kodesh.
[8]Kafih J. Cross-roads: Halacha and the Modern World. Alon Shvut: Zomet; 1987. Secular Studies in the Rambam; pp. 109–16.
[9] From Moses to Moses by Menachem Kellner.


  1. "He compiled what is today regarded as the most accurate publication of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah -"
    that was certainly true years ago. today, serious scholars use r' yitzchak sheilat's rambam meduyak or r' makbili's one volume edition

  2. “Many of these ideas were developed by Rabbi Kafah in a short article which, though reprinted several times and translated into English, seems to have had little or no impact.”
    I was wondering if you were able to provide a link to this as I'd be very interested in reading this?
    Also, with regards halacha, a classic example being spontaneous generation, what exactly is our response? I accept that halacha is binding but does one accept it with the understanding that the premise it is based on is mistaken? I can live with this but others I've spoken to find this incongruous and feel it can't be that if something has been accepted as halacha that it's premise is wrong. That is must rather represent a deeper reality. What are your thoughts?
    You asked why it is that rambams school of thought is never presented as even authentic and authoritative. I wonder if it is in part due to questions like the one I just raised. Not everyone is happy to and able to deal with the idea that the greats of the previous ģenerations could be mistaken because if they were wrong in one thing, then who is to say they weren't mistaken in other areas. For the layman who either doesn't have the time, interest or maybe ability to fully grapple with these issues and fully explore the basis of all halacha and machshava it would a slippery slope to start saying this and that is probably wrong etc.

  3. Thank you Micha. I too could not access the English article, although it is quoted many times.

    Regarding the matter of spontaneous generation, I suggest an article by R. Dr Slifkin who is the expert on such natters, see

    The fact is, though, that there will always be divided opinion on issues such as these. And again, I believe that's healthy, but the problem is when one 'equal but different' view is denied expression.

    I agree that it is a slippery slope for the layman, however, my experience has been that when laymen are exposed to such approaches many (not all), cease being content to remain laymen.

  4. "[NOTE: Our discussion is only concerned with scientific and non-Halachic issues, and it must be taken as obvious that no one is suggesting tampering with actual Halacha.]"

    הנתקתה של האמונה הטבעית משרשה והתפרדותה מכל המקורות העליונים שלה, גרמה שתוכני המעשה של המצות אין להם בסיס על מה שיסמכו ושקר אין לו רגלים.