Breira – Backwards Causation…?

Breira

The Talmud debates whether there is such a thing as ‘breira’ or not. ‘Breira’ literally means clarification, but in the Talmudic debate that I’m talking about, it would better be translated as retroactive clarification…. or something like that.

If a legal system allows for breira, then agents are allowed, in certain circumstances, to say, ‘x is true as of now, t1, if and only if y happens at t3’.

In some contexts, the principle sounds pretty intuitive. I have a legal right to make certain stipulations before I transfer some of my property to you. For instance, this book of mine is now yours, as long as your promise never to lend it to So-and-so. I have the right to place such stipulations upon the transfer of my property to others. But the following stipulation, invoking the principle of breira, seems to be just as intuitively proper: ‘This envelope of my money is now, at t1, given over to you, as long as you hop three times at t3.’

If this stipulation is allowed then, at t3, if you hop three times, it turns out that you owned that envelope of money ever since t1. If you don’t hop three times, it turns out that you never owned that envelope of money. It’s still mine!

Well, let’s look at what you did at t2. Did you spend the money, or did you wait to see how things would pan out? If you spent the money, then your failure to hop at t3 will turn your spending of the money at t2 into an act of theft. If you do hop three times at t3, then that will cause you spending of the money at t2 to have been a totally legal act, in which you spent money that was already yours.

On the surface of things, this could be construed as a case of backwards causation. Your hopping at t3 causes certain things to be the case at t2.

Of course, this all depends upon our ontology of events and actions. You didn’t cause an event to happen at t2 merely by hopping at t3. Rather, you caused a past event to fall under a certain description. Had you not hopped, you would have caused the same event at t2 to fall under a different description, that of theft. But you weren’t causing past events to occur merely by hopping at t3.

As Linda Zagzebski pointed out to me, this seems no different from my causing your past beliefs about my future to become knowledge by acting as you predicted. This isn’t really backwards causation.

But, as my friend, Greg Robson, pointed out: if you think that the moral quality of an action is an objective or essential property, then this does, at the very least, look weird, that you can reach back and change said moral property of an action from later on down the time-line.

Surely part of the Talmudic controversy is about whether the stipulation actually makes sense – I’m sure there are all sorts of epistemic and metaphysical questions one could ask about phrases of the form ‘x is true as of now, t1, if and only if y happens at t3’. I would though be interested to hear people’s thoughts. Does this look like backwards causation? Why does the stipulation make sense or fail to make sense?

What can explain the halakhic consensus that these stipulations are okay in rabbinic areas of law but not okay in Biblical areas of law? Of course, we could explain this with the principle that in cases of doubt we rule stringently in Biblical cases and leniently in Rabbinical cases. But accepting the well-formedness of a breira stipulation will not always be a leniency, sometimes it will result in a stringency. A large body of halakhic opinion argues that without exception there is breira in rabbinic law and there isn’t breira in Biblical law. Why should that be? I have my theories, but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

 

Related Posts
16 Comments
  1. Looks interesting. I learned some of the b’reira stuff last year but not enough of it. Can you send ma’areh m’komot, i.e. references? I’ll have a look and get back to you. Terrific topic.

  2. I’ll get on to it, but in the meantime, there’s a pretty thorough treatment of the topic in the Encylopedia Talmudica – but it doesn’t get into the philosophical issues, obviously.

  3. Dani Rabinowitz

    Sam,
    Fascinating points you raise. This topic surely deserves more philosophical development. While I can’t say much about Robson’s comment, I do want to raise an objection to Zagzebski’s point and in so doing perhaps open up one possible avenue in which to pursue solutions to the breira problem. The orthodox position vis-a-vis knowledge of the future, is that propositions about the future are either true or false. This being the case I can know things about the future. I recently read Aristotle’s piece on the ‘sea battle’ and couldn’t see how people interpreted he to mean that propositions about the future are neither true nor false. Even some of the medievalists didn’t take him that way, as do many modern scholars of Aristotle. Debates over interpretation aside, it follows that your acting as I previously believed does not entail that I caused your prior beliefs to turn from mere belief into knowledge. At t1 you wither knew how I was going to act or didn’t. Perhaps in this thought lies an insight for the breira problem. Here is the rough idea. At t1 when you say “this money is yours if I hope three times at t3” that conditional is either true or false at t1. When I do in fact hop at t3, I do not thereby cause the money to be mine as of t1 since it was mine all along. One way to spin the issue if breira is thus to draw it out of metaphysics and into epistemology; that is, though the money was really mine as of t1 I only come to know that it is mine as of t3. (Since I don’t know at t1 whether you will jump or not, I do not know at t1 whether the money is mine or not.) It remains for further discussion to determine how this distinction might account for the additional distinction between the role of breira in biblical law and its role in rabbinic law.

  4. Stefan Goltzberg

    Very interesting problem. Have a look at the chapter 3 of “Talmudic Argument” by L. Jacobs on this issue.

  5. Thanks Stefan, I must get round to seeing that chapter. I’ll see if they have it in the library here in the Gush.

    Dani.

    As I understand the classical interpretation of Aristotle (or at least a classical reading), he wants to deny that either of the disjuncts, ‘p’ and ‘not-p’, have a truth value, when p is the proposition expressed by ‘there will be sea battle tomorrow’, but that he still wants to say that the disjunction itself, ‘p or not-p’ is true. This obviously seems to destroy the classical truth-functional analysis of the dinjunction. But for that reason, Aristotle is generally thought, or often thought, to have subscribed to a tensed view of logic (and perhaps to an attendant metaphysics of presentism – or at least, a growing-block theory).

    The idea would be this: the truth value of p is not yet settled, but it will be settled one way or the other by tomorrow, and for that reason, the truth value of ‘p or not-p’ is already settled, even though the truth value of both disjuncts is still up in the air.

    Your suggestion is different.

    Your suggestion is that the truth-value of p, where p is some proposition about the state of affairs tomorrow, is already settled. The problem is merely epistemic. We don’t know what its truth value is, even though it has a truth value, because the future is beyond our epistemic reach. But, we do know that it is either true or false, and thus we know the disjunction to be true. This holds on to a classical analysis of disjunction, a conception of logic as tenseless, and perhaps to an attendant metaphysics of eternalism.

    So, let’s go with you, and assume, for the sake of argument, that eternalism and/or a tenseless view of logic are right.

    Yes. I’m with you that, assuming what we’ve agreed to assume, at t1, the proposition that you know what I will do at t2, already has a truth value. You just don’t know what that truth value is because the future is beyond your epistemic grasp. When t2 becomes your present, you’ll be in a position to know what has been the case ever since t1, namely that you did/didn’t know (delete as applicable) at t1 what I would be doing at t2.

    Fine.

    Likewise. When you spend that cash at t2, the proposition that your spending of the cash at t2 was a theft, already had a truth-value, even before you decided to hop, or failed to hop, at t3. If you hop at t3, then it was always the case that you spent your own money at t2. If you fail to hop at t3, then it was always the case that you stole my money at t2. All that happens at t3 is you find out what was always the case about t2.

    But… this whole analysis, which, admitedly makes beautiful sense of breira, seems committed both to eternalism/tensless view of logic, and, it would seem, to logical fatalism – the idea that the nature of logic reveals to us that the future has already, in some sense or other been written. Every proposition about the future already has its truth-value settled, even if you don’t have epistemic access to what those truth-values are. This seems to undermine the claim that you could possibly have some control over your own future.

    Of course, there are many ways out of the problem, including free-will compatablisms in all of their various varieties, but it looks like you’ll at least owe us an answer.

    So, now, let me put the question like this.

    Assume a tensed view of logic, and/or a metaphysics of time that doesn’t allow that the future already exists – assume presentism or the growing block. Then you can’t say that at t1 the truth-value of the proposition that you know what I’m going to be doing at t2 is already settled. Propositions about the future don’t have truth-values. This I take it is the classical Aristotelian view.

    Likewise, when you spend that money at t2, there is not yet any fact of the matter as to what you’ll be doing at t3, and thus the truth-value of the proposition, uttered at t3, that your spending of the money at t2 was theft, is not yet decided at t2.

    Assuming all of this, it does start to look like I caused your past belief to be knowledge by acting as you predicted, and it does look like you caused your past spending of money to be a theft by failing to hop.

    The knowledge example is easier to escape. The presentist/tensed-logic theorist can just deny that knowledge about future contingents is possible (a la Gersonides). You made a good guess. You knew the statistical likelihood. But you didn’t know. Even if your guess turned out to be right. It fell short of knowledge, because knowledge is either a relation to facts, or to propositions that are true at the point of knowing them, and there was no fact of the matter, and the proposition had no truth-value at the point of your believing it. You can know, at t1, that ‘I’ll either do p at t2 or not do p at t2’, but that’s just to know a necessary future rather than a contingent one, and on these Aristotelian lines, the disjunction can be true even though neither of the disjuncts are true yet.

    So the presentist/tensed-logic theorist gets out of the knowledge problem. But breira seems more tricky for them.

    They can’t use your escape route Dani, because that relies upon eternalism/tenseless-logic. So it really starts to look as if they’re going to be committed to this weak form of backwards causation. Weird. So our intuitive case of breira, I think, can be put as a problem for them.

    Alternatively, just as they might want to say that knowledge about the future is simply impossible, they might want to say that stipulations of the breira formulation simply don’t make sense and therefore fail to have any effect upon the legal status of things. But why say that? The stipulation certainly seems to make sense, no?

  6. Aaron Segal

    Sam, a few thoughts:
    1) I think it would be better to put the problem not in terms of backward causation (which many philosophers find entirely unproblematic) but in terms of “power over the past”, i.e. the power to act in such a way that if you were to act that way, the past would have been different (which many philosophers do find problematic). In other words, the problem you’d be raising is that it seems like accepting the breirah-like efficacy of such stipulations robs one of the freedom to do otherwise than what one in fact does (hopping or not). [It seems like in your response to Dani that this might have been what you intended from the beginning.]

    2) But even putting the problem that way, there are certain assumptions you have to make to get the problem off the ground. In the literature on logical/theological fatalism (which is a very large literature at this point!), two important distinctions were drawn early on. One is the distinction between having the power to act in such a way that you if were to so act, your so acting would *cause* the past to have been different (strong power over the past) and having the power to act in such a way that if you were to so act, the past *would have* been different (weak power over the past). So suppose you hop – it very well might be that you had the power to not hop, and if you had done so, the past would have been different; but it doesn’t follow that were you not to hop, your not hopping would have *caused* the past to be different. Maybe it would have, but you need to argue for that or at least make it seem compelling. [And the same is true of your claim if you prefer to put the problem in terms of backward causation, period.]

    But even more important in this context is that even philosophers who think that you never have weak (or strong) power over the past will concede – so long as they’re not logical fatalists – that you can have weak power over the so-called *soft* facts about the past (rather than so-called *hard* facts), like its being *true* at t1 that I will eat lunch at t2 is a soft fact about t1. The distinction between soft and hard facts is not an easy one to draw (perhaps the easiest way, but of course least helpful, is to draw it in terms of which facts one has counterfactual power over!), but a common thought is that facts that obtain at t1 are hard facts about t1 iff they are intrinsic to t1 (to use Chisholm’s terminology, they are “rooted at t1”). Now, it seems to me that the legal-halakhic facts you point to that obtain at t1 (and later) are not hard facts about t1, since they obtain at least partly in virtue of what’s going on at times later than t1 (I should emphasize that the “in virtue of” here is *not* to be understood causally; it’s that those facts are (at least partially) *constituted by* the goings-on at later times. So it seems like you’re assuming that no one can have power – weak or strong – over even soft facts about the past. But that’s not very plausible. (And if you would rather put the problem simply in terms of backward causation, it seems even less plausible to claim that no event can cause some soft fact about the past to obtain.)

    3) But perhaps we can “rescue” the problem if we think about the difference between breirah and t’nai in general. Distinguishing between them is a vexed topic, and one of which I have never had a satisfactory grasp. But one thought – which may encounter some difficulty with a few cases – is that when halacha allows for the use of breirah, what’s going on is that a person’s *intention* at t1 – and not just the legal status of some object or person (as in an ordinary tnai)- is being determined by events at t2 (Briskers would, I think, have none of this; on their view, one can’t have a conditional intention, let alone one that is conditional on future events. All you can have is conditional legal/forensic status changes.) And quite plausibly, the fact that a person has a certain intention at t1 is a *hard* fact about t1. So perhaps we could put your problem not in terms of the legal status of the object – which, if it would be a problem, would be a problem no matter what one holds about breirah! – but in terms of the intention formed when one makes a stipulation that some Tanaim recognize as being effective, and in a way that involves breirah. Put the problem this way: suppose I say that I intend for my eruv to be to the East if the Chacham comes to the East, and I intend for my eruv to be to the west if the chacham comes to the west. And suppose halacha says this “stipulation” (although it’s hard to see it as a stipulation) makes sense, and that indeed, your intention depends counterfactually on the comings and goings of the Chacham. Then it seems like you’ve somehow robbed the Chacham of his freedom just by making this condition – bizarre!

    4) The connections you draw in your response to Dani between the presentism/eternalism debate and fatalism is a bit obscure. It’s not clear why we should think that eternalism creates any special difficulties in the vicinity of fatalism; eternalism is an ontological doctrine, not a doctrine about the truth of future contingents. Most presentists will *agree* that future contingents have truth values, and are no uniformly false (or true); this is what creates the so-called “grounding problem” for them, i.e. what grounds the truth of the propositions about the future if the future doesn’t exist? (or in its more moderate version, how can truth supervene on being if “being” is so meager on their view and yet they recognize the truths that others do?). But the assumption is that there is a *problem* here, because they want to hold on to the truths about the future (and the past). [Of course, not every presentist or growing-block theorist will agree to this though.] As a matter of fact, if there’s a fatalist problem in that debate, Mike Rea has argued that the problem is for the presentist (“Presentism and Fatalism”).

    1. Response to point 1

      ‘I think it would be better to put the problem not in terms of backward causation (which many philosophers find entirely unproblematic) but in terms of “power over the past”, i.e. the power to act in such a way that if you were to act that way, the past would have been different (which many philosophers do find problematic).’

      Having just come back from this conference at the University of St. Thomas, I’ve very much been influenced by Linda Zagzebski’s presentation on these sorts of topic. The special property that the past has, in order to get both theological fatalism, and possibly logical fatalism going, is what Okham called the accidental necessity of the past.

      It’s supposed to be a trivial assumption about the past that everyone will accept. The idea is that even though much of the past could have been different, and is thus contingent, there’s nothing that can be done to change it now. In our seminar, I think we were able to demonstrate that the thesis of the accidental necessity of the past is not equivalent to the mere denial of the possibility of backwards causation. But, if backwards causation is possible, then that would destroy, seemingly, the accidental necessity of the past. Which philosophers find backwards causation entirely unproblematic? I’m sorry… I’m not up to date on any philosophical literature, because I don’t read. But it does seem to me that to accept the possibility of backwards causation is to deny the entirely plausible accidental necessity of the past.

      ‘In other words, the problem you’d be raising is that it seems like accepting the breirah-like efficacy of such stipulations robs one of the freedom to do otherwise than what one in fact does (hopping or not). [It seems like in your response to Dani that this might have been what you intended from the beginning.]’

      I don’t understand what you’re saying here exactly. My point is this: either you say:

      a) It was true all along that the money I spent at t2 was mine to spend, because I hopped at t3; I just didn’t know this fact at t2, but it was true already.
      b) There was no fact of the matter at t2 as to what I would do at t3.

      The first route, Dani’s route, suggests that the problem is entirely epistemic and illusory. But, as you say, ‘it seems to rob me of the freedom to do otherwise than what one in fact does.’

      The second route doesn’t rob us of our freedom, but it seems to give us the bizzare power to change the past, taking a morally neutral fact and making it a crime.

      Response to point 2

      As I understand the distinction between a weak power and strong power over the past, the distinction could be put like this. Leicester City Football club, against the odds, score the opening goal against Manchester United. Wayne Rooney, who plays for Manchester United, has the weak power over the past to ensure that that goal, which would have been the winning goal had no-one from Manchester scored within the remaining time, will not turn out to have been the winning goal. But, he doesn’t have the strong power over the past to cause that goal not to have been scored – it’s been scored already.

      The reason, as you’re right to point out, that this example of mine is so uncontroversial is that Leicester’s scoring the opening goal is a hard fact, whereas, until the time on the referee’s watch runs down, it’s a soft fact that it was the winning goal – a soft fact that will become hard if no-body from Manchester equalizes before the time runs out.

      The question, and perhaps this was what Greg Robinson was getting at, is this: is the moral quality of an action a hard or a soft fact? If there are theorists that think, and I believe that there, moral qualities of actions to be hard facts about them, then breira either gives rise to the bizarre power to change hard facts about the past, or, it gives rise to a counter-example to their ethical theory – a soft fact about an ethical quality of an action.

      I accept that the form of the sentence, as uttered at t2, ‘This spending is such that it will be a theft’, makes it look like it’s expressing a soft fact – it shares the formal qualities of ‘I am such that I will eat lunch later’ that make that sentence express, at the time of utterance, a soft fact about the world at the time of utterance. But if the moral quality of an action is some sort of essential feature of that action then, I think, things get a little bit more complicated. Perhaps that, for those with the relevant ethical and metaphysical background assumptions, could be called the breira problem

      Response to point 3

      I hope that what I’ve said already, ‘rescues’ the breira problem at least for certain ethical theorists. But I’m interested in what you’re saying here; creating an intentional correlate of the breira problem. But I’m not sure I get how the Chacham’s freedom has been compromised here. Can you explain the example again? Sorry!

      Is the idea like this: because I intended x to be an eruv only if the chacham comes to town from the east, then either the chacham’s later coming causes me to have had the intention that I had (presumably changing a hard fact about the past), or, I have somehow robbed the chacham of his freedom, and bound him to come in the direction that he comes. Is that what you meant?

      I’m fascinated, but Why not respond to that simply by saying that if conditional intentions are possible, then they are soft?

      Response to point 4

      ‘The connections you draw in your response to Dani between the presentism/eternalism debate and fatalism is a bit obscure. It’s not clear why we should think that eternalism creates any special difficulties in the vicinity of fatalism; eternalism is an ontological doctrine, not a doctrine about the truth of future contingents.’

      I think I was addressing Presentists of the peculiar Aristotelian variety, as I understand them, who argue that atomic propositions about future contingents simply have no truth value. The proposition that there will be a sea battle tomorrow is neither true nor false, even though the molecular proposition that there will be a sea battle tomorrow or there won’t be a sea battle tomorrow is already true. Those presentists don’t suffer from a grounding problem because they don’t think that propositions about the future have a truth-value in need of grounding. I think Gersonides holds this view about propositions about the future. What was his view on breira, I wonder?

      I accept that presentists who think of propositions about the future as having truth-values shouldn’t be distinguished from eternalists in this context, even though they alone suffer from the grounding problem that you talk about.

      The basic reason why I think eternalism can give rise to fatalism is this. The fact that the future already exists seems to give it the same sort of accidental necessity that we attribute to the past. Even if I have freed will, analysed in terms of the actions of my counterparts in other possible worlds, what I don’t have, is any sort of power over the future of my world, that already exists. The whole aim of fatalistic arguments is to transfer the accidental necessity of the past over to the future. Eternalism seems, to me, to do this somewhat automatically. I admitt that I may be confused.

      Eternalism is very often coupled with a tenseless view of logic. Many propositions might be time indexed, such that when I say, ‘it’s raining’ I mean that its raining at some specific time, t. But, the truth of propositions hold eternally and unchangingly. Well, on this account, it would seem that propositions about what I’m going to do tomorrow have always had a constant truth-value. This seems to be just another argument for logical fatalism that follows merely from the logical doctrine of tenslessness, which is very naturally coupled with eternalism.

      I must read Mike Rae’s paper. Sounds interesting.

  7. Aaron Segal

    Two more quick points:
    1) Eli Hirsch’s article, “Rashi’s view of the Open Future: Indeterminateness and Bivalence,” in Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, is dedicated to understanding Rashi’s approach to breirah from the standpoint of philosophy of time (and bivalence), and is obviously relevant to this discussion.

    2) Not to beat a dead horse (from several months ago), but however exactly the “problem” is put, I don’t think the halakhic position of certain Tanaim about breirah commits them to views about time, causation, counterfactuals, or freedom. I *do* think that philosophical approaches about those topics can help illuminate the positions of those Tanaim. Sam disagrees. But that difference of opinion shouldn’t affect the “first-order” debate that’s being conducted here – or at least I don’t think so. It would be very interesting, though, if it turned out that it did.

    1. I have Eli Hirsch’s paper somewhere in my inbox and yes, it sounds like essential reading for this topic.

      Finally, about our ongoing debate about the metaphysical significance of halakhic disputes, I think it’s too early in the day to see whether this discussion, or research intro breira, will lend weight to either side! But I’ve been careful to look at the problem somewhat abstractly, outside of the context of any Talmudic sugya per se. We have a stipulation over a property transfer, not found in the Talmud, that sound intuitively binding, probably to most secular ears too. Now let’s investigate if allowing the stipulation to be binding arises in any deep philosophical problems. If it does, then I think we’ll have a good explanation for those in our tradition who inveighed against breira. But maybe we won’t find any deep philosophical problem. And, even if we do, we’ll have to explain the relationship between breira, Biblical law and Rabbinical law.

      In short I’d simply love to arrive at the following sort of conclusion, but it may not be possible: In Biblical law, or some areas of it, we’re really concerned with metaphysical reality, and breira simply can’t work; in Rabbinical law, we’re not concerned with metaphysical reality at all, and so anything, even breira, can go.

      But, the more I think about it, the less I’m convinced. If there is a deep philosophical problem given rise to by breira in one area of law, it seems to me that there should be in the other too. Even if rabbinical categories are just socially constructed fictions, the problems, if there are any, will still arise, I think.

      This might be grist to your mill Aaron, because it might demonstrate that the Talmudic argument, and the psak that the sages eventually arrived at, had nothing to do with deep philosophy. But that doesn’t mean that the questions I’m raising, if indeed I am succeeding in asking any questions of anyone, aren’t in and of themselves, interesting … I suppose!

  8. Eiran Davies

    As you can imagine Sam, I’m totally untroubled by the idea of reverse causation, but would put it differently. I would merely state that we change the past. Not being a “real” Philosopher, I will probably find it challenging to substanciate such a bold claim, without sounding silly, but here goes…

    If we accept that statements of fact are only ever made relative to the observer, and their objective truth cannot be established, then their relative truth is only ever established by consensus. That is to say, we define our reality by agreeing that it exists.

    Our view of the past, and thus our consensus as to its existence per se is entirely dependent on the present. In the most minimal way, since our present is constantly changing, then so must our past.

    Another way of seeing this, is that if our actions in the present can change our future, then why not the past?

    I’ve been reading a lot about quantum theory recently, and all of what I’ve just said above makes perfect sense in the quantum world. Its even observable!!!

    It makes sense to me on a macro scale too, but perhaps I’m alone…

    1. First of all Eiran, welcome to the site. And, don’t be intimidated by all the philosophical jargon. The best arguments are often made in the simplest language possible.

      I’m not surprised, given our conversations, with your attitude to breira, so let me just raise what I take to be the costs to your position.

      On the one hand, if reality itself is completely socially constructed, and constructed wholly in the present, so, unlike a building where each floor is built upon the one that was built before it, reality, including the history of the universe, is to be conceived as a socially constructed item that is wholly reconstructed in each moment, then, it would seem that radically changing the past is totally within the realms of possibility – though we’d have to say more about the mechanisms of construction that society uses, and so on and so forth, before we could be sure that radical backwards causation is really a live option. Perhaps the way that we are constituted forces us to have a certain degree of loyalty to previous constructions.

      Well, this is weird for so many reasons that I don’t really know where to start.

      Was the world actually flat until it popped into something more like a ball when a sufficient number of people opted for the new conception of earthly shape? I’d love to have seen that happen. Can we change the past to include a camera-man to capture the world’s popping into a ball?

      Okay, so I’m being facetious, but, on your view, why do natural disasters happen, what is wrong with our social building mechanisms such that we, for some reason or another, subconsciously decide to create tzunamis?

      So, though I find any version of your radical constructivism to be deeply unsatisfactory, I see that for it, breira potentially poses no problem!

  9. Having spoken today briefly to Rav Ezra Bick, it seems that I’ve probably been making one big Talmudic error:

    What we’ve been talking about, so far, is stipulations of the form: ‘x is true as of now, t1, if and only if y happens at t3′

    The basic kind of dilemma I’ve been trying to push is of this form:

    Either, the truth-value of x is settled at t1, but we just don’t know what it is until t3, which might entail, as I’ve tried to argue, something like fatalism. Or, the truth-value of x at t1 isn’t settled until t3, and then it looks as if t3 is causing something to happen at t2, and that thing might well be hard fact rather than a soft one.

    But here’s where I’ve gone wrong: there’s more than a good chance that this isn’t what the Talmud is calling breira!!

    What I’ve been calling the breira formulation is really known as tnai meachshav – ‘a condition as from now’. So the question for the real Talmudists, and Rav Bick did a good job of explaining this to me, but I couldn’t type it up and do justice to it, is this: what is breira!?

    But that doesn’t mean that the foregoing discussion has been at all to waste, even if it turns out that we’ve been talking about tnai meachsav all along, and not breira. Although I believe that some people think that Rashi thought that tnai meachshav and breira were the same thing – for which Rashi gets attacked.

    Eli Hirsch has sent me an unpublished essay on the topic, which I’m free to pass on to interested others, once I’ve read it, perhaps I’ll have a better idea. He says that he disentangles tnai meachshav and breira – so I’m looking forward to reading it.

    In the meantime, I want to keep discussing tnai meachsahv, because that is what seems to me like a potential case of backwards causation and all of the discussion above has been a fascinating start.

    1. Aaron Segal

      I don’t think it’s exactly right to say you *haven’t* been talking about breirah. The confusion here is due, I think, to the fact that ”breirah” doesn’t pick out a type of *case* at all, as much as a type of halakhic mechanism or ruling. And clearly enough, it applies (at least according to some sugyot) in cases which involve no stipulation at all, like the case of brothers who divide an estate, and the question is whether we employ or apply breirah to say that from the time of the father died, the estate was already divided in the manner it would eventually be divided.

      But it’s also clear that it is sometimes applied to stipulations – like the guy who puts an eruv techumin in two different places and says that the question of which will be the eruv depends on which direction the chacham goes to, and those stipulations *seem* to be ordinary cases of t’nai (me’achshav), even if a bit complicated. Which raises the question: does every t’nai me’achshav require breirah to “work”? It’s with respect to that question that Rashi may hold yes, but most of the Rishonim (and Achronim) say no. They draw different distinctions between the cases that do and the cases that don’t – the topic of distinguishing them is what I referred to in my previous comment as a vexed topic – and on some of the ways they draw the distinction, it would come out that the case you described does require breirah (namely, that it’s not in your power – you who made the condition – to fulfill it) and on other ways not.

      But I had suggested (and I still suggest) that we *do* focus on the breirah claim, since an ordinary t’nai me’achshav (w/o the need for breirah) doesn’t really raise the interesting issues you want to discuss. Breirah, on the other hand, raises some interesting metaphysical issues (about freedom) whether we are talking about a case of stipulation or not.

    2. Aaron Segal

      Oh, and please send me Eli Hirsch’s paper when you have a chance.

  10. Eli Hirsh has kindly given us permission to post his unpublished paper on Breira here.
    For anyone who is interested, and I really think it will help us clarify various matters, both Talmudic and Philosophical, please follow this link: Eli Hirsh’s paper on Breira

    Again, thanks to Eli Hirsh for allowing us to share this on our website. He’s also happy for it to be quoted and/circulated.

  11. I think, once we’ve got various Talmudic distinctions and data more straight it might be worth rewriting this blog post, and starting a new thread. But that’s a mission for another day.
    Incidentally, Eli’s paper gives us many of the Talmudic sources that we’d need to be acquainted with.
    But I’d like to return to examples, eventually and for various reasons, that could be set outside of any specific legal system, like the one with which I started.

Leave a Reply