by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – January 6, 2011
In the Torah section of Bo, we find the first directive from G-d to the people of Israel as a whole. Before their miraculous exodus from slavery in Egypt, they are instructed regarding the preparation of a special lamb offering as well as other laws surrounding the Passover holiday that is to be celebrated in commemoration of this astounding event. This directive is to be followed later by a series of laws passed on by G-d to His people through their unique leader Moses and recorded in the Torah. After all the laws had been imparted to them, before the people of Israel enter upon the Land of Israel, Moses implores them to keep the laws of the Torah close to their hearts: “And you shall teach them diligently to your children and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Devarim 6:7).
The importance laid upon the Torah and its study was later reinforced after Moses’ departure. In the 9th century BCE, for example, Yehoshafat, then ruler of Judah, “sent to his officials . . .And with them the levites . . .and with them Elishama and Yehoram, the priests. And they taught in Judah and with them was the book of the Torah of the L-rd and they went about throughout all the cities and they taught the people” (II Divre HaYamim 17:7-9). Even later, as various groups – Samaritans, Ebionites, Essenes and Sadducees – began to wander from the path set for them in the Torah toward hellenism or asceticism and the like, then Sanhedrin leader Shimon ben Shetah, with the aid of his sister, then Queen Salome-Alexandra, laid the foundations for an elementary school system throughout the land to ensure that the Torah would be taught to all even at a young age, as the Torah itself prescribed (Jerusalem Talmud, Ketubot 8:11).
It is, indeed, this character of the Torah as a work to be studied by all, young and old, judge and carpenter, poet and barber, laborer and philosopher, that shaped the form and style in which the Torah was written. This Torah was not written as a philosophical or ethical treatise nor as a strictly historical record or legal code. Each form by itself would prove to be lacking. Only a select and inquisitive elite could appreciate a dry strictly philosophical or ethical treatise. To spur on inquisitiveness and allow philosophical and ethical truths to become matters ingrained into the very makeup and psyche of the Torah’s follower even from his youth, when, modern psychologists admit, the individual’s formative elements are most firmly established, on through the rest of one’s physical existence, more than just philosophical and ethical axioms or teachings are necessary. Consequently, the Torah included numerous laws, some for the sake of proper societal relations and some, with the aid of historic perspective (necessitating historical records), helped remind the people of Israel of various events and phenomena that, in turn, helped the people appreciate and fortify within their minds truths bestowed to them by G-d (see Judah Halevi, Kuzari 2:48-50; Maimonides, “Shemona Perakim,” chapter 4). Consequently, in the Torah, a unique blend of philosophical and ethical truths subtly couched among historical descriptions and legal prescriptions exists. However, to permit this unique blend to be studied, appreciated and accessible by all, especially at a time when preserving and copying literature involved long and expensive painstaking effort and diligence, the fundamental basis of study for the people of Israel could not be a voluminous set of treatises that a record of all philosophical and ethical truths and details of all precepts and pertinent historical records would entail, and for which Solomon notes, in Kohelet 12:12, there would be no end.
In light of the intended objective, the nature of the human makeup and the character of the times, a plausible and effective method was available to be employed by Moses and his successors – a method manifested in the contents of the Torah – namely, carefully selected verses that could be supplemented and amplified by an oral tradition aided by certain rules and common sense. In fact, Biblical researchers have found, orally preserved traditions were already in practice among other ancient nations. This practice could, then, also be used by the nation of Israel, as well as aided, in certain instances, by certain rules and, in other situations, by common sense.
Philosophical truths, such as G-d’s omnipotence, omniscience, unity and incorporeality, which could be properly understood and appreciated only by a highly advanced, educated and enlightened mind, had to be sparingly sprinkled among the Torah’s verses. G-d’s unity is expressed in the verse, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d, the L-rd is one” (Devarim. 6:4). G-d’s omnipotence and omniscience is alluded to in the account of the creation (Bereshit 1), for the ability to create the universe in a manner in which it stands to this day implies unfathomable knowledge and power (see Saadia Gaon, Emunot ve-Deot 2:4). And the verse, “Know therefore this and consider it in your heart that the L-rd is G-d in heaven above and upon the earth beneath” (Devarim 4:39) alludes to G-d’s incorporeality, for a corporeal being cannot reside in more than one location and, were He corporeal and “upon the earth beneath,” His presence would be perceptible to everyone’s senses (see Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Yesode ha-Torah 1:7-8). To have these philosophical truths any more explicit and pronounced in the Torah would only serve to confuse the young and the unenlightened who could not sufficiently comprehend these truths. Consequently, Maimonides explains, “The Torah speaks according to the language of human beings, i.e., expressions that can easily be comprehended and understood by all are applied to the Creator. Hence the description of G-d by attributes implying corporeality in order to express His existence, because the multitude of people do not easily conceive existence unless in connection with a body . . . .Whatever we regard as a state of perfection is likewise attributed to G-d to express that He is perfect in every respect and that no imperfection or deficiency whatever is found in Him. But there is not attributed to G-d anything that the multitude consider a defect or want . . . .Whatever, on the other hand, is commonly regarded as a state of perfection is attributed to Him, although it is only a state of perfection in relation to ourselves” (Moreh Nevukhim 1:26). More advanced and discerning minds, however, can cull true philosophical reality from the aforementioned verses and the like. Further elucidation of philosophical truth was apparently taught to Moses orally upon receiving the Torah from G-d (see Sh’mot 33:17-23). In all likelihood, Moses then taught these truths to Aaron, Joshua and the elders, each according to his capacity, who then taught them to whomever was prepared to absorb these truths, and these individuals passed on these truths to future generations.
Unlike philosophical truth, ethical truths could be more freely discussed, but, in order not to tax exceedingly the unenlightened mind, they could also not be overdone “for the desire of a person’s heart is evil from one’s youth” (Bereshit 8:21). As is evident from looking around us and at history, ethical behavior and its appreciation do not come easily to us. It must, therefore, be carefully and gradually developed and nurtured to be effectively instilled. Ethical truths, most famous of which being “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), were, therefore, sparingly scattered throughout the Torah, and, like philosophical truths, to be elucidated further by oral instruction.
Ethical truth, as well as philosophical truth, however, as mentioned above, could not become sufficiently fortified among us all – bricklayer as well as philosopher, young as well as old – without the aid of active habitualization that would acclimate the individual as much as possible toward an appreciation of that truth. Therefore, within a historical perspective, prescriptions and directives for action were liberally distributed throughout the Torah.
These directives, however, were also not completely elucidated in the written Torah. As Z.H. Chajes notes in his Mevo ha-Talmud: “The first of the . . .precepts may be sighted as an instance. ‘And G-d said unto them, be fruitful and multiply.’ Here it does not explicitly state whether this is a distinct command or just G-d’s blessing. And even if it is a definite command . . . what number of children is required? . . . .[Likewise regarding] the taking of the four species [on the holiday of Sukkot] . . . .From the written text we cannot know whether it was meant that they should be grasped by the hand or used to cover the sukkah . . . .The law prohibiting blood is also vaguely worded . . . .Also, in the verse ‘And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes,’ the written Torah does not give us any elucidation thereof [concerning their exact form and manner of application] . . . . Slaughter is derived from the verse, ‘And you shall slaughter of your herd and your flock as I have commanded you.’ . . . .The text indicates that Moses was taught the mode of slaughter . . . .Similarly the Biblical laws of the sukkah, shofar and lulav are not accompanied by written details, such as the dimensions of each of these articles . . . .And so there are many other Biblical precepts, such as the prohibition of certain articles of food or the abstention from food on Yom Kippur or the prohibition of work on Sabbath or holidays, regarding which the Biblical text only states the prohibition in general terms leaving us in ignorance of the extent of the prohibition of either the food or work in question.” To have completely and thoroughly specified in the minutest detail, every directive and prohibition in the Torah would have considerably enlarged its text, thus unnecessarily burdening the minds of the young and uninitiated who, when approaching this most fundamental and pivotal text in the early stages of their instruction, would be less comfortable and considerably disconcerted had they been initially confronted with an immense tome of thousands of pages. Moreover, preserving such a tome would severely stretch the available resources – time, expense and writing material – at a time preceding even the discovery of paper by centuries, let alone today’s use of convenient writing instruments which only several centuries ago were but a wild dream.
In light, then, of the intended character of the Torah’s text and the limited resources of the time, use was apparently made of a tool utilized by the ancients – memory. The detailed elucidation of the Torah’s written text could be committed to memory, especially were this committal to memory aided by a well thought out set of rules – or mnemonic devices – and by common sense. This plan could sensibly be exercised by way of Moses’ instructing those around him who could, in turn, instruct those around them, etc.; this generation could then instruct succeeding generations. Thus, the elucidation of the Torah’s written laws together with the rules to aid its recollection could be passed from generation to generation to those in each generation who remained devout, notwithstanding the number of individuals who strayed. In fact, Tannaitic testimony has it: “Moses learned from the voice of G-d. Aaron entered and Moses taught him the present portion. Aaron stood to the side . . .his sons entered and Moses taught them the present portion. His sons stood to the side . . .the elders entered and Moses taught them the present portion. The elders stood to the side and the entire people entered and Moses taught them the present portion. There were thus in Aaron’s hand, four [recitations]; in his sons’ hand, three; in the elders’ hand, two; and in the hand of the entire people, one. Moses left, and Aaron repeated to the rest the present portion. Aaron left, and his sons repeated to the rest the present portion. His sons left and the elders repeated to the rest the present portion. There were thus in the hand of all, four [recitations]” (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 54b). This testimony that describes how each topic in the Torah was taught by Moses to the people expands upon and clarifies Yitro’s plan for his son-in-law Moses to instruct the people in all “the ordinances and the laws” and to inform them of “the path wherein they shall walk” and the concurrent establishment of “officials over thousands, officials over hundreds, officials over fifties and officials over tens” who shall be capable of judging “the people at all times” (Sh’mot 18:20-22). If there were any questions of the law that posed special difficulty, this could be brought to the attention of the supreme scholars, elders or judges for resolution, as we are advised in the Torah: “If there arise a matter too difficult for you in judgement . . .then you shall arise and you shall ascend to the place which the L-rd your G-d shall choose. And you shall come to the priests, the levites and to the judge who shall be in those days . . . .And you shall do according to the word which they shall speak to you . . .you shall not veer from the word that they will speak to the right or left” (Devarim 17:8-11). As a result, the Tanna R. Jose notes that in the early days there were no legal disputes among the people of Israel, for every law that provoked doubts was ultimately brought to the attention of the supreme court on the Temple mount, voted on and decided according to the majority view (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 88b).
Gradually, however, history would demand some changes. After the Persian conquest led by Cyrus the Great, Israel’s population was already dispersed throughout the countries of Egypt and Babylonia in addition to the Land of Israel. Persecution at the hands of the Seleucids extended to curtailing devotion to the Torah, and hellenistic inclined Sadducee priests and rulers as well as other ascetic groups began to contort the word of the Torah to their liking, followed by ruthless physical and religious oppression at the hands of Roman procurators. The people of Israel were, by now, spread throughout Babylon, Damascus, Asia Minor, Alexandria, Elephantine, Cyrenaica, Macedonia, North Africa and Rome; and when the Romans razed the second Bet HaMikdash (Temple), to which many in the aforementioned locations would visit periodically, the last major physically centralizing factor was lost, and, after the Bar Kokhba defeat of 132 CE, obviously not soon to be renewed. After the last stand of the people of Israel against Rome, 90 percent of the people were now outside the land of Israel after having drifted along the Roman laid network of roads that extended to the Rhine, Danube, Tigris and Euphrates rivers into the mainlands of Asia, Africa and Europe. The infiltration into Torah practice and belief, persecution of those devoted to the Torah and the complete de-centralization of the people of Israel demanded a modification in the manner in which Torah law and lore would be taught and passed from generation to generation. The former oral memory-oriented instruction required a certain degree of stability that no longer existed.
Scholars in Babylonia and the Land of Israel embarked on an ambitious project: setting down a detailed elucidation of the Torah text in writing and recording numerous ethical truths as well as imparting various philosophical truths – couching these philosophical truths in aggadic narrative because of their esoteric nature. The Babylonian version alone, known as the Babylonian Talmud, was a compilation of the discussion and work of some three thousand individuals – Tannaim, Amoraim, Sevoraim and Geonim – over a period of about six centuries, comprising 63 books and about three million words including a vast periphery of human knowledge – jurisprudence, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, anatomy, chemistry, botany, architecture and ethics. The Talmud now offered the many scattered Jewish colonies throughout the world’s continents a means of preserving the laws and truths with the aid of much less oral instruction and memorization, a phenomenon necessitated by the unsteady times leading into the Middle Ages. To be sure, the need for oral instruction could not be done away with. Philosophical truth, particularly, since it requires an especially enlightened mind to be appreciated, was couched in sometimes very fanciful aggadic narrative, whose exposition could be unraveled and revealed only through oral instruction and mental analysis.
The Talmud first consisted of the Mishna. The Mishna was codified into six divisions, consolidating, in cryptic Hebrew prose, the discussions of several centuries of Tannaim up to and including the time of the Mishna’s chief editor, R. Yehudah ha-Nasi, second century CE patriarch of the Jewish community. As Jewish settlements became more and more dispersed through the entire world and Jewish scholarly academies spread out through Sura, Pum Baditha, Lydda, Bnei Brak, Sichnin, Sepphoris, Tiberias, Acre and Caesarea, so did the seat of the supreme court of elders of the people of Israel, prescribed by the Torah as the ultimate arbiter of legal issues, become more and more unsteady, moving from its location at the Temple mount to the marketplace, to another location in Jerusalem, then to Yavneh, to Usha, to Shfaram, to Bet Shearim, to Sepphoris and to Tiberias (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 31a). As the supreme court was nearing collapse and, as a result of the unstable times for Jews in general, many questions arose requiring resolution, Amoraic scholars decided to, once and for all, discuss and resolve numerous issues and record these for posterity in the Gemara as the supplement to the Mishna. As a result, the Mishna and Gemara together in the form of the Talmud would forever preserve the written Torah’s elucidation, utilizing testimony of years of orally preserved legal details, analytical discussion and orally preserved hermeneutical rules described by the first century CE Tanna, R. Ishmael, in Sifra on Vayikra which further elucidates upon the description of the first century BCE Tanna and patriarch, Hillel the Elder, for the benefit of facilitating Jewish devotion to the path paved for us by G-d.
G-d paved for us a path to philosophical and ethical truth that would be instilled in us by means of practice, behavior and discipline molded by the written Torah, its oral elucidation and, as prescribed by the written Torah (Devarim 17:8-11), by the scholars of each generation. All those laws that were now diligently and deliberately discussed, resolved and recorded never to be forgotten were now left to us to obey by way of our discipline and desire to instill in ourselves “the way of G-d”. To be sure, it would have been in G-d’s power to continually and forever periodically announce to everyone all the requisite laws and practices. However, we read in the written Torah that G-d’s laws and practices are “not in heaven” (Devarim 30:12). Explicit and direct communication from G-d does not guarantee obedience. Like children who ignore the authority of their parents and their explicit and direct warnings, so numerous simple-minded members of the people of Israel ignored the authority of their Creator and His explicit and direct warning not to serve “other gods” (Shmot 20:2) during the event of the “golden calf” (Shmot 32). Besides, it is not for us to accept G-d’s word because we are taken aback by some explicit magnificent occurrence but because of our recognition of and desire for the truth expressed in G-d’s word (see Maimonides’ commentary on Mishna Avot 1:3). Thus, the path of the Torah was placed in our hands, although initially G-d had to introduce wondrous signs to ensure the establishment and installation of the word of G-d among the people of Israel within a nucleus of devoted individuals who could preserve the vitality of G-d’s word before the eyes of all who may care to pursue it.
The installation of philosophical and ethical truth with aid of disciplined behavior impelled by G-d allows us to vitalize that part of our person that we share with G-d – the “image of G-d” (Bereshit 1:27) – that immaterial essence that serves as the seat of our creativity and ingenuity and, because of its incorporeal nature, is not subject to physical destruction and thus continues to live even after the death of the physique and maintains meaning in our lives. As the renown 12th century thinker and scholar Maimonides notes in his Moreh Nevukhim 3:54, the acquisition of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, titles and honors as well as the refinement of the body are of a temporal and temporary nature limited to our physical existence. Only the vivification of our psyche by the internalization and analysis of the universe’s truths can possibly be enjoyed even after all bodily pleasure ceases and, therefore, should be pursued by us. In light of this, the Tanna R. Jacob tells us that “this world is like a hallway to the world to come [i.e. the existence of the psyche after the death of the physique]; prepare yourself in the hallway in order that you may enter the banquet room [i.e. our immortal existence vitalized by universal truth ingrained and truly fortified with the aid of the Torah against the backdrop of our physical existence in this world]” (Mishna Avot 4:16).
The study and teaching of the Torah, therefore, played a key role in the framework of Torah law. The study of the Torah was not to be used as “a crown wherewith to aggrandize oneself nor a spade wherewith to dig” (Mishna Avot 4:5). Nor is everyone to follow the exact same path in the study of Torah; as the chief editor of the Mishna, the patriarch R. Judah ha-Nasi, points out, “One can only study from where his heart desires” (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 19a). But study one must, each as his personal circumstances permit; an exercise that will lead to immortal bliss of one’s psyche, otherwise known as the soul or spirit.
It is, therefore, in recognition of the significance of this study that each morning we declare: “Blessed are you, O L-rd our G-d, king of the universe, who has sanctified us by your commandments and commanded us to occupy ourselves with the words of the Torah. And please L-rd our G-d make pleasant the words of your Torah in our mouth and in the mouth of your people, the house of Israel, so that we and our offspring and offspring of your people, the house of Israel, may all know your name and study your Torah for its own sake, blessed are you O L-rd who teaches the Torah to His people Israel. Blessed are you O L-rd our G-d, king of the universe, who has chosen us from all nations and given us His Torah, blessed are you O L-rd the giver of the Torah.”