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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why is there an Oral Torah I

Now that we have concluded our discussion concerning the importance of learning the Oral Torah, and specifically Gemara, we now turn to the related question of "Why is there an Oral Torah?" To further clarify the question we will ask this on each part of the Oral Torah: Halakha l’moshe m’Sinai and Peirushim ha’Mekubalim, laws created through interpretation or logic, and Gezerot and Takkanot.

Halakha l’moshe m’Sinai and Peirushim ha’Mekubalim

Why did G-d decide to give an incomplete written law while leaving its full explication to oral tradition? This question is particularly strong with regard to Halakha l’moshe m’Sinai and Peirushim ha’Mekubalim which cannot be derived through interpretation. The strength of these laws derive solely from oral tradition.

R. Yehoshua Heller of Telz (Ma’oz ha’Dat, pg. 36) writes that asking why the Torah is split into two is like asking why G-d made it so that the ears and the eyes are on two different parts of the face. We don’t know why but we believe that G-d had His reasons. Nevertheless, in this case, there are plenty of plausible reasons to suggest.

First, there is the practical consideration that the entire Torah is too large to be written down (Eruvin 21b). This is especially relevant in the ancient world which did not benefit from the printing press. Therfore, it was the norm for there to be oral explanations of a written text in ancient times. However, this doesn’t explain why some narratives are extremely long or repetitive while law sections are very short. It was certainly possible for “most of the Torah to be in writing and the minority oral.”

Second, perhaps orality was the norm and the written word the exception. It appears from Tanakh that law was reduced to writing as part of the covenant-making process between G-d and Israel (e.g. Shemot 24:3-8; Yehoshua 24:25-26). Writing law is associated with covenant-making since, in the case of the Torah, the laws are the stipulations of the covenant. At least some of the provisions of the covenant must be written down which serve as a paradigm – “this and all other laws like it.” This approach is further bolstered by the generally accepted theory that Shemot, Vayikra and Devarim are in the form of ancient Near Eastern vassal treaties. See R. Shamah's essay.

Third, an oral tradition forces a student to learn from a teacher. This is important for a number of reasons. This ensures a close-knit relationship with a teacher which in turn ensures a close-knit community; the Torah is personal, not just an intellectual topic and thus can only be kept and understood within a covenantal community and culture. Orality also insures that the covenant remains the private treasure of the covenental community; the Nations of the world only have access to the written word, not the oral teachings (Tosefot on Gitten 60; Pachad Yitzchak, Chanukah 1:2).

Lastly, the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:71), R. Tzadok (Likkuitei Ma’marim 104b), Maharatz Chayes and R. Hirsch in his letters, teach that oral transmission is a more reliable form of communication because it includes personal involvement with the teacher (gestures, tone of voice, context etc.).

Laws created through interpretation or logic and Gezerot v'Takkanot

Why did G-d leave His will partially obscured and unrevealed from Israel? Why are many of the details concering Biblical laws left to the Sages to discover and determine? This is particularly bewildering in light of the amount of disagreement among the Sages.

There are two basic approaches to this question. The first approach suggests that human interpretation is necessary in order to maintain the fluidity and adaptability of the Torah. R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner (Hakdama l'Dor Revi’i based on Midrash Shmuel; Sefer Ikkarim 3:23; See See Sota 5:2 and Ketav v’Hakaballah Devarim 23:3) argues that the purpose of the Oral Law was to allow the judges and sages of each generation to adapt the halakhah to contemporary circumstances (Devarim 17:8 -11). It was to preserve this adaptability that writing down the Oral Law had originally been forbidden. A written text of the Oral Law, necessarily embodying a particular set of interpretations of the Written Law, would have greatly narrowed the power of the Sanhedrin to reinterpret the Written Law. R. Glasner writes:

“Even though the Torah was given complete and one is forbidden to add to it or subtract from it… [even] a prophet may not innovate anything--this refers only to adding to, or subtracting from it, but permission is given to every authorized court to interpret it and derive new laws. This too is similar to the Creation, for though no human has the ability to create ex nihilo, but he [has the ability] by combining separate [already existent] forces and elements to provide a hidden internal combination. Creation and the Torah are similar in this; the only difference is that while Creation was given to all mankind to manipulate, the Torah was given only to the Chosen People, the Israelites; it is ours, to love and perfect, to meditate on it with self-sacrifice in order to attain the light in it that will reveal to us new lights which give content to our spiritual lives.”


“For it is true that it was the will of the blessed Commander to divide the Torah into two -- written and oral -- so that the spirit of each generation would achieve realization by understanding the holy Torah and its commandments. In this sense there is a partnership between Man and G-d. But only the spirit of the nation and its sages when dwelling on its land, and living a full national life, secure in its independence from every direction, with no admixture of the spirit of the nations of the world. For, only when the holiness of the Jewish nation could develop securely in its own land was the Torah given over to be explained and interpreted according to the understanding of the contemporary judges whose judgments were to be followed even if they said "right is left" or "left is right," but not when the nation is scattered among the other nations and its sages oppressed by the yoke of physical and spiritual exile, when all the influences of the nations of the world are buffeting them and destroying the holy spirit within them."

The purpose of writing down Mishna and later the Gemara was to create an authoritative and binding source for halakha. Thus, when the Mishnah was redacted the Sages no longer disagreed with their predecessors (See Kesef Mishna, Hilkhot Mamrim 1:2).

The second approach focuses on the importance of interpretation in religious life. As Susan Handelman points out, the thirteen hermenutical principles are a part of the prayer service - interpretation is part of Divine service! Interpretation and application of the law insures that Torah will be an all-consuming task (Devarim 6; Yehoshua 1:8; Tehillim 1, 19, 119). Furthermore, in order for Divine service to be internalized Man must be active (see Seforno on Bamidbar 28:6). In Kabbalistic terminology, the Oral Law is “hitaruta d’l’tata” – awakening from below (see Tanchuma, Noach #3).

However, human interpretation almost by definition means that there will be disagreement and confusion; apparently, G-d values creativity over clarity!

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