Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Quoting Sources

The Talmud (Avos 6:6; Megillah 15a; Chullin 104b) tells us of the importance of quoting something in the name of the person who originally said it: It brings salvation to the world (commentators explain that this refers to personal salvation). Another passage (quoted in this post: link) describes the benefits to the original speaker of having a saying quoted in his name.

However, the Rambam often did not quote the source of his rulings. At the beginning of his commentary to Avos, he explicitly states that he will not be doing so and explains why. I quote here from the new translation of the Rambam's introduction to Avos, The Eight Chapters of the Rambam (R. Yaakov Feldman tr.), p. 23:

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It is important to know, though, that I did not originate the ideas expressed or the explanations offered either in these chapters or in my commentary [to Pirkei Avot], but they are collected from the words of the Sages in Midrashim, the Talmud, and in their other works, as well as from the words of earlier and later philosophers [Jewish and non-Jewish], and from the works of many others. Accept the truth from whoever utters it.

Once in a while, though, I will quote verbatim from a well-known work [without indicating that it is a quote]. There is nothing wrong with this, since I am not taking credit for what someone else already said, and because I hereby acknowledge [what I will be doing].

I also will not say, "So-and-so said this" or "So-and-so said that" because that would be unnecessarily wordy. Furthermore, it might make a reader who does not accept the author concerned think that what he said is harmful or has an untoward meaning that he is unaware of. Therefore I decided to leave out the author's name, for my aim is to help the reader and explain what is hidden away in this tractate.
How can the Rambam say that quoting the source of a statement is being "unnecessarily wordy" when the Talmud says how important it is? The Rambam repeats elsewhere (Iggeros Ha-Rambam, Sheilat ed., vol. 2 p. 441) that he sees no value in quoting the source, which is why he did not do so in his Mishneh Torah (he points out that he was following the style R. Yehudah Ha-Nassi in the Mishnah).

I'd suggest that there are two ways of looking at the act of naming the source of a statement (aside from refraining from taking credit for it). One is that you glorify the original speaker, i.e. it is an aspect that is tied to the person (gavra) who first said the statement. The other is that you strengthen the statement by connecting it to a famous and authoritative origin, i.e. it is an aspect that is tie to the statement (cheftza).

While many will read the praise in the Talmud for quoting a statement's source as relating to the gavra, it is possible (with only a little difficulty) to read them as relating to the cheftza. Perhaps the Rambam believed that the value in relating a statement's source is so that the listeners will take it more seriously. Perhaps the only reason it is good for a speaker to have his statements' quoted in his name is that it means that people take him seriously and therefore value his teachings more than anonymous sayings.

If so, it is understandable why the Rambam might think that he didn't want that extra help. He believed that what he had to say was so well-argued and well-constructed that it did not need any assistance. While in his time not everyone took his words as valuable in their own right, history has shown that the Rambam was generally correct.

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