With an Eye on Eternity - Chapter 10

Become a Supporter Library Library

With an Eye on Eternity

Chapter 10

Chapter 9 | Table of Contents | Publisher's Note
This Book in One Big Document

10. The Oral Law and The Talmud

[The following section is somewhat technical, for it deals with the mechanics and technicalities of the Written Torah and the Oral Law. Therefore, it is not for casual or quick reading. If you are a Yeshiva student or "Ben-Torah" it will bepart of your daily fare. For the layman, it is something to work on when you feel like biting into a challenge. If you need help, don't hesitate to ask someone to help you with it. At most, all it requires is some help accompanied by a desire to understand.

Although a mastery of this particular chapter should not be considered a prerequisite for studying Torah, still a general idea of the first part of this chapter, which illustrates the basic link between the written Torah and its Oral Law explanation, is most important.]

The Master of the Universe did not wish to write the Torah in such a simplified form that no explanation would be required. Quite to the contrary, He wrote in it many concealed things (devarim stumim). The true meaning of the concealed material is impossible to fathom by any man in the world without access to the explanations which were handed down through a chain of tradition (kabbalah), one which begins with G-d, the Author of the Torah, Himself. Examples of this concealment involve such mitzvohs as the mitzvoh of tefillin and the mitzvoh of mezuzoh, in regard to which we find commandments in the Torah. Those passages which deal with these commandments offer no explanation whatsoever as to what they actually are. [So how then could one know how to observe the commandments of the Torah?]

However, the truth is that the Master intentionally concealed the true meaning of His words for reasons known only to Him. However, all which He concealed in the written Torah (The Bible) He taught to Moshe Rabeinu orally, and from him the tradition - masorah (literally meaning "handing over") - was transmitted to the Sages generation after generation. Through this Oral Law tradition, the meaning of all passages are fully explained and make it possible for us to understand how to fulfill every aspect of the mitzvohs in just the way the Master wishes them to be done.

The harmonious interweaving of the contents of the Written Torah and their explanation, by way of the Kabbalah, is divided into three categories:

[Masorah and kabbalah constitute interchangeable terms. Both refer to the body of Oral Law explanations which was passed on from generation to generation. Masorah, which means handing over, focuses on the one handing over the knowledge, that is, the giver. In contrast, kabbalah means receiving; it spotlights the receiver. Each is part of the chain of tradition which comprises all of the knowledge embodied in the Oral Law. Therefore, they are one and the same. Because the secret wisdom of Torah (sodos haTorah) can only be acquired by receiving it orally from another, we also refer to it by the term kabbalah. However, as you see here, the term kabbalah is also used as a general term to describe the total body of Oral Law knowledge.]

The first): Torah passages with subject matter which is stated only in general rules of ambiguous terms. These do not specify details, but the details are filled in and fully explained by the masorah (or kabbalah). [Example: the aforementioned passages dealing with tefillin and mezuzah.]

The second): Torah passages, the textual meaning of which is uncertain because they can be interpreted in many ways [which conflict with one another], and for which the Oral Law masorah established the definitive explanation.

The third): Still more complicated Torah passages, in which, if we were to adhere faithfully to the text, then the implied intent emerges in one form; but the masorah states that the desired intent [of G-d] is radically different from the obvious interpretation. Regarding this category, our Sages z"l said, "The halacha [the authority of the Oral Law] supersedes the text." "halacha okeres es hamikra" (Sota 17b). Only a few passages fall into this third category. Most importantly, even here, if one takes the pains to probe the depths of the obvious interpretation, he will find that the literal meaning of the text neither contradicts the halachah entirely nor opposes it fully. Instead, upon close analysis, it is found that the text in its literal posture is being extrapolated in a certain vein and within certain delimitations.

Also, among those concepts which we have received from the masorah of the Oral Law is this one: The Author of the Torah, G-d wrote it in a specific format and utilized a unique set of rules. If we want to understand the intention of the Author, we must analyze and interpret the Torah according to those rules and the specific format which He employed. It follows that it may be possible to explain a passage in a manner which fits the text well, or to explain the text in what appears to be a still more fitting way, [than the Oral Law explanation]. Nevertheless, such an explanation will not be a true one for the particular passage because the intent of the Author Himself was a different one. These rules and their format make up the "13 Rules Through Which the Torah is Interpreted" "yud gimmel middos shehatorah nidreshet bahen," along with their full compliment of details.

One must also know that the core of all of the laws contained in the positive commandments (mitzvohs aseh) and in the negative prohibitions (mitzvohs lo sa'aseh) were all handed down from Moshe Rabeinu. Also, the Sages received the tradition that the teachings of the masorah are alluded to in the Written Torah (remazim heim b'Torah shebichtov) through various hints, and these hints themselves follow specific formulas known to the Sages. It was common knowledge and acknowledged by them that it was G-d's desire that we exert ourselves in this area in order to pinpoint those places in the text where the written Torah hints at the Oral Law rulings.

Not surprisingly, we find in the Talmud that each of the Sages went to great lengths to identify and define the hints in the text which, in his opinion, produced the most faithful match to the masorah's ruling. This is why you will often find in the Talmud discussions involving a search for proofs [from the Biblical text] for a specific law [known to us through the masorah] and disputes in some cases between the Sages about the validity of certain proofs. In some instances, you will find that, in the light of a simple logical explanation of the passages in question, the proofs will not fit adequately. However, the reason is as we have stated before: the law itself was known to the Sages by way of the masorah. What the Sages were attempting to do was to pinpoint the particular passage which hints at this law in the written Torah, all the time following through in the aforementioned procedures.

The Sages did not claim that the interpretation they gave to the text [serving as the source of a particular law] was the textual intent of that passage. What they meant to state was that this was what G-d, the author of the Torah, had inserted in that passage to serve as a desirable hint about the particular law and that the hint was discovered by the method used for the discernment of such allusion. The hint was only meant to provide an additional facet to what He wanted to express through the literal meaning of the text [the peshat]. Our sages sometimes term this allusion as asmachtah ("a support").

All of the material which we have been discussing relates to the various types of mitzvohs and laws of the Torah. However, when we deal with the category we call aggadohs (the sections of the Talmud and midrashim which deal in ethics and other non-halachic matters), other principles are involved. These I have explained in a separate essay ["Essay on the Aggodahs"].

Besides [the laws handed down through the masorah] there are other laws which comprise the "Rabbinic laws" (takanos chazal). [These were added in the generations after the receiving of the Torah and are invoked to fortify Torah observance.] Even in these cases, very delicate hints can be found in the passages of the Torah; this, too, is called asmachta. However, this variety of "asmachta" is much more superficial than is the first type which we have mentioned. The basic intent of this secondary type of hint is to serve as a focal point [or peg] for remembering a particular law. Nonetheless, our Sages did not refrain from viewing these Rabbinic laws as ones which have also been incorporated into the Torah's texts as hints - although in some cases the allusions may be very remote ones. Such hints as incorporated into a passage rest upon prescience, seeing into the future (tzipiyah b'asidos), for all is foreseen by G-d and He hinted [in His Torah] about everything [which will ever occur]. However, this particular area [the Rabbinic Laws] is not at all part of the explanation of the commandments. Therefore He alluded to them in a very abstract manner.

There are also other details of law which were not handed down, and the Sages derived them through logical reasoning processes or through the "13 Rules of Interpretation" [as mentioned previously]. Disputes can arise in regard to these laws. The decisionrendered, based also on a set of rules for deciding such disputes, is binding upon us. We must follow and fully abide by them. We cannot allow the fact that there is a dispute in the matter to weaken to any degree the validity of the final decision. This is exactly what G-d commanded us: if there be a dispute regarding the laws of the Torah, it must be decided by the bais din [when the Temple existed it was the "Sanhedrin," the Highest Court which decided], and the decision which emerges must be obeyed in an absolute fashion.

It has also been passed down to us by way of the commandment, "You shall not turn aside from that which they tell you, either to the right or to the left" (Deuteronomy 17:11). "Lo sasur min hadavar asher yegidu l'cha yamin u'smol," the Master intended that (a) the Jewish Courts and their Sages be empowered to issue decrees and to legislate laws, and (b) that we all are obliged to follow them, and (c) that no one may violate their directives in any manner or form. We must realize that all of these laws were legislated by the Sages to ensure the observance of the mitzvos of Torah itself and to do what is desirable in the eyes of G-d. These laws, then, are to be observed just as meticulously as all of the mitzvohs of Torah must be observed. Moreover, it has been passed down to us by the masorah that the intention of this commandment [of following the instructions of our Sages] is that we make "fences around the Torah."

It would have actually been appropriate that G-d Himself command us in the Torah about these very same laws. However, it was His desire that the laws originate through our own efforts and that we ourselves be the ones to initiate certain mitzvohs [the Rabbinic laws] according to the format of His Torah. He also desired that we do this by following the specific regulations and limitations which He provided for this purpose.

Therefore, there is no difference between our obligation to follow the commandments which have been explicitly expressed in the Torah and our duty to follow the enactments and decrees of our Sages (takanos chazal u'gezerosaihem). For, it was G-d's desire that we observe these [laws legislated by the Sages] along with those expressly-stated in the Torah. Likewise, just as the violation of expressly stated Torah laws is considered a rebellion against G-d's word, so too is the violation of any laws promulgated by the Sages. No distinction is made between the two types other than that which the Sages themselves have made. That is, where a bona fide doubt exists in cases of Torah law in regard to whether something is forbidden or permissible, doubt is resolved on the side of the stricter opinion; and, in cases of Rabbinical laws, the doubts are resolved in favor of the more lenient option.

Another example of such divine differentiation can be found among those laws belonging to the category of the negative commandments: adulterous relations by Torah ruling are punishable by koress (to be "cut off" spiritually) or by death sentences which are decreed by bais din. [The implementation depends on the particular adulterous relationship - for there are various Torah punishments for the respective kinds of forbidden sexual relationships.] In contrast, the wearing of shatnes [wearing a garment containing wool and linen is only forbidden by a negative commandment with no capital punishment involved.] Or, to cite another example: it is forbidden to derive any benefit from meat and milk [cooked together] yet cheilev (forbidden fat), although forbidden to be eaten, one may derive benefit when used for non-food purposes. These distinctions are there solely because they represent the boundaries established by G-d's will. However, our obligations are to observe the commandments within the specific, designated limits. In regard to the applicable limits, there is no difference whatsoever between one variety and another.

It follows then that for this specific reason the Sages saw fit to discuss so extensively [in the Talmud] many of the laws and decrees they promulgated. They discussed them in great detail and clarified their nature in complicated disputes, though they be only Rabbinic Legislation. In terms of binding obligation upon us to carry out these regulations, it was considered by them of equal importance that we obey the Rabbinic Laws and decrees and follow them as faithfully as the commandments of Torah itself. The only difference is that is was G-d's desire that the Rabbinic Laws come about in a special fashion, through our own efforts. Therefore, it is the very same, whether He commands us to put in tefillin between our eyes - or He commands us that we legislate decrees upon ourselves for the safeguarding of Torah. All it means is that the form of discharging one particular mitzvoh is in such and such a manner, and the form of executing another is in a different manner. The common denominator in both is that they represent the fulfillment of G-d's will and comprise acts of obedience to His Decree.

Included among the explanations which define this particular commandment our Sages have received [of following the words of the Sages] is this: power lies in the hands of the bais din to set aside a Torah regulation (yesh koach b'yad bais din l'vatel davar min haTorah) when it is done for the purpose of safeguarding the Torah itself.

This power is limited to a law which is set aside in a passive way (b'shev v'al ta'aseh) but not in an active way (b'kum aseh). It was upon this principle which the Sages made their decrees regarding the use of the shofar and lulav on Shabbos, as explained in the Mishna and Talmud. The Rabbis legislated that we refrain from fulfilling these mitzvohs because of the chance of inadvertently violating Shabbos. This was done by employing the authority of the masorah handed down to them (Rosh Hashanah 29b, Sukkah 42).

Chapter 9 | Table of Contents | Publisher's Note
This Book in One Big Document

With an Eye on Eternity is published by
The Kest-Lebovits Jewish Heritage and Roots Library
and is distributed by Feldheim Publishers
© 1994 Rabbi Yehudah Lebovits

Ohr Somayach Institutions is an international network of Yeshivot and outreach centers, with branches in North America, Europe, South Africa and South America. The Central Campus in Jerusalem provides a full range of educational services for over 685 full-time students. The Jewish Learning Exchange (JLE) of Ohr Somayach offers summer and winter programs in Israel that attract hundreds of university students from around the world for 3 to 8 weeks of study and touring.
Ohr Somayach International. Send comments to: [email protected]
Ohr Somayach International is a 501c3 not-for-profit corporation (letter on file) EIN 13-3503155 and your donation is tax deductable.