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Many answers on Mi Yodeya include sources, often from rabbinic literature. Many times the entire answer can be a quotation from such a source.

I would think that the simplest and best way to pose a source-based answer is to simply say "Source A says XYZ". A can be a Talmudic passage and XYZ can be the content of the passage either translated or summarized. However, I often see posts where a source is used to answer the question, but the source is not cited directly. For instance, an answer might say "according to this Wikipedia article the Talmud says XYZ" or "So-and-So wrote an article about this citing the Talmud which says XYZ".

To me it seems that such answers have lower value. Why cite a secondary source when a primary source is available? When citing a secondary source, one is relying on the authority of the secondary source (which might not be very authoritative) instead of relying on the authority of the primary source. (In fact, if I am reading something and it cites a secondary source instead of the primary source it sometimes raises suspicion of obfuscation.)

(I understand that sometimes an answerer can find a secondary source but lacks the background to engage with the primary source, or the secondary source does not give enough information to locate the primary source. However, I think that one can usually find the primary source with some degree of effort, and if the primary source cannot be found or understood then the secondary source should not be used as an answer.)

I think that an obvious exception is where the answerer is citing a secondary source to bolster the authority of the primary source. For example, if I can just cite a Talmudic passage, or I can cite a rishon citing the Talmudic passage, the latter presumably has more value because it shows that the rishon ruled according to the Talmudic passage in practice. Similarly, if I can cite a rishon or I can cite a later responsum citing the rishon, the latter has more value because it shows that the posek ruled according to the rishon in practice.

(Even within this exception, I would think that it would still be better to cite the primary source in addition to the secondary source.)

But barring this exception, is there any value to citing secondary sources? If not, how should one treat answers that cite secondary sources? (E.g. edit, downvote, comment, etc.)

(It is possible that someone would cite a secondary source because that is what led them to find the particular primary source, but I don't think that is a necessary level of attribution.)

An example of the type of answer I am referring to is this (nothing against the particular user).

  • @DoubleAA I completely agree with your answer there, but I don't think that any of those 7 permutations precisely address the question here. Your last three options are primary sources and your first three options are secondary sources that don't mention primary sources. I'm asking how a non-authoritative secondary source adds value to a primary source such that it is worth citing, all the more so in place of the actual primary source. – Alex May 15 '18 at 14:33
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  • @IsaacMoses Your link definitely illustrates my point about suspicion. – Alex May 15 '18 at 17:30
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I agree that secondary sources that simply quote primary sources are generally less valuable than the primary sources. Some exceptions:

  • If the secondary source is authoritative in its own right and more familiar to many readers than the primary source, could be valuable to include the reference to it. For example, many (most?) comments of Rashi on Torah are actually quotations or paraphrases of Midrash, but Rashi is a more familiar and accessible source to many readers than various Midrashim.

  • If the secondary source translates the primary source, then the translation constitutes both added value and a layer of interpretation that belongs to the translator. In those cases, as in all cases of quoting translations, I recommend crediting the translator, at least by link/reference.

If the secondary sourcing layer adds no value, and you have the ability to replace it with a direct citation of the primary source, I think it makes sense to edit the post to make that substitution. If you're not sure whether the secondary source adds value, if you don't have direct access to the primary source yourself, or if you just don't have time to make the edit yourself, you can comment politely to suggest the substitution.

If an author or editor doesn't have access to the primary source itself, but wants to cite it for its own authority, it makes sense, as a matter of intellectual honesty, to point out where the quotation came from in a parenthetical note or footnote.1 That way, if the secondary source quoted incorrectly, that can be traced, and someone else can verify the primary source directly, it's easy enough to remove the note.

You should upvote, downvote, or not vote based on your feeling for the overall usefulness, non-usefulness, or anti-usefulness of the post in question. I personally would be very unlikely to downvote a post simply because it cites a secondary source when it could have gone a level deeper, especially if the information presented is useful, and it's presented clearly. But your votes are your own.

1. For example, see my edit to the post offered as an example in the question.

  • I was thinking of something like this answer which cites a Wikipedia article citing a rishon – I don't believe that the fact that a rishon is cited by wikipedia adds any value or authority, and the Wikipedia article makes it easy to find the original source. – Alex May 15 '18 at 14:39
  • @Alex I think this answer addresses that case, doesn't it? – Isaac Moses May 15 '18 at 14:40
  • Yes, I just wanted to highlight that that is the main focus; I edited the example into my question as well for clarity. – Alex May 15 '18 at 14:44
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    Regarding your bullet points, perhaps another case is where the secondary source elaborates on the primary source, or explains something more clearly (though this might already fall under "adding a layer of interpretation") in which case it might be better to quote the secondary source (or at least also quote the secondary source). E.g. in this answer I quoted the Aruch Hashulchan but I noted at the end that the Aruch Hashulchan is essentially an elaboration of Tosafot. – Alex May 15 '18 at 17:38
  • @Alex, I was addressing "secondary sources that simply quote primary sources." – Isaac Moses May 15 '18 at 21:06
  • That is a fair point. – Alex May 15 '18 at 21:28

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