Parshat Yithro 5783: Revelation at Har Sinai and the Oral Torah

Shalom Friends;

This week, our Parshat HaShevua, Parsha Yithro is being sponsored by Pesach and Ann Chapler and family of Ramat Beit Shemesh dedicated for a total, complete, refuah Shleima for Yosef Azriel ben Chaya Michal. To the Chapler family, many thanks for your sponsorship and for your continued kindnesses.

You can celebrate a Simcha — a birth, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a Chassuna or other Simcha event in your life, or commemorate a Yahrtzeit of a loved one, or for whatever other reason by sponsoring a Parshat HaShevua.

Please forward to your relatives and friends and encourage them to sponsor a Parshat HaShevua. And please be in contact with me with any questions, or for further details.

Best Regards,

Moshe Burt
skype: mark.burt3

Parshat Yithro 5783: Revelation at Har Sinai and the Oral Torah

by Moshe Burt

We open this year’s Parshat Yithro with an excerpt from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Parsha summary in his sefer, “Unlocking the Torah Text,” Sefer Shemos:

On the first day of the third month after the liberation from Egypt, the B’nei Yisrael arrive at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamp at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moshe ascends the mountain where Hashem speaks to him concerning the selection of the B’nei Yisrael as Hashem’s chosen people. Moshe descends and shares Hashem’s message with the nation, whereupon they exclaim: “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do.”

Hashem delivers a series of instructions to Moshe preparatory to Revelation, including the commandment of hagbala (to set a boundary around the mountain, preventing the B’nei Yisrael from ascending during the onset of Revelation).

With thunder, lightning and the sounding of the Shofar, the Revelation at Sinai begins, as Hashem conveys the Ten Declarations. (Rabbi Goldin cites Sefer Shemos Perek 20, posuk 1) and notes that the Torah does not refer to them as Mitzvot — Commandments, but as Devarim — declarations or utterances.

As this author has noted on various occasions, many years ago, back in Philadelphia — in the “Old Country,” this author heard a vort from Rabbi Pinchas Yehoshua Kaganoff (presumably attributed to Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch) who illustrated how the words of the written Torah (Torah Sh’bektzav) are equated like the shorthand notes a student takes in a class or a lecture, whereas the Oral Torah (Torah She’b’al Peh) provides the details, the full picture.

Rabbi Goldin relates that he and a friend took on reviewing Rambam’s introduction to his (Rambam’s) commentary on the Mishna to gain a greater understanding of the nature and process of Oral Law. Rabbi Goldin concluded that the Rambam’s perspective on the Oral Law is of pivotal importance to Judaism. He now provides a short outline of a lesson he would teach in various university classes (ibid, page 153):

Simultaneously with the Revelation of Written Law at Sinai, Hashem launches an oral process of law. This Oral Law [Torah She’b’al Peh] is transmitted over the generations until it is first officially codified in writing, for fear of its being lost, by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi in the Mishna (circa 200 CE) and the The Talmud Bavli in Babylon [Bavel] (circa 500 CE). The development of the Oral Law continues beyond the editing of the Talmud, to this day.

Concerning the authority of the oral tradition the Talmud testifies: “Rabbi Chiya bar Abba stated in the name of Rabbi Yochanon: ‘Hashem revealed to Moshe the details of the Torah, the details of rabbinic thought and all that the scholars are destined to innovate.'” (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Megillah 19b)

The Midrash adds, “Even that which a diligent student is destined to state before his teacher was already given to Moshe at Sinai.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Midrash Rabbah, Sefer Vayikra, Perek 22, posuk 1)

[This author’s note on his Rav: HaRav Chaim Zev Malinowitz, Sh’lita, z”l, a highly regarded Dayan, was the Executive Editor of the Artscroll Talmud Bavli, while also serving as Rav of Kehillot Beit Tefillah Yona Avraham until his passing a little over three years ago.]

Rabbi Goldin now discusses the approaches to the Oral Law of various scholars and describes the five essential components of of the Oral Law (ibid, pages 154-162):

Some scholars… take a literal approach to the Talmudic and Midrashic statements concerning the Oral Law, maintaining that Hashem revealed every element of Halacha to Moshe in prophetic vision, prior to the law’s unfolding. The Ran, for example, claims that all rabbinic opinions destined to be offered across the face of history, even disputing opinions, were fully shown to Moshe at Sinai. (Rabbi Goldin citing Drashot HaRan, drash 7)

The Rambam, on the other hand, views the development of Halacha very differently. His position, clearly defined in his introduction to his commentary on the Mishna, accepts the notion of a law that develops over time based on a process which is rooted at Sinai.

Central to the Rambam’s approach is the recognition of five distinct, separate component parts of the Oral Law. Each of these sections possesses unique attributes and is essential to the functioning of the Law. Together, they form an ingenious legal system that is rooted at Sinai, yet remains totally relevant and applicable to this day.

Peirushim Hamekubalim mi’pi Moshe (commentaries received directly from Moshe) and Halacha l’Moshe mi’Sinai (law given to Moshe at Sinai).

These first two sections of Oral Law share one distinct feature: both are received, directly and unchanged, across the ages from Moshe.

The first segment consists of commentary on the text [“text” meaning written — Torah Sh’bektzav], which Moshe transmits directly to the nation.

The second segment contains a group of additional unwritten laws conveyed by Hashem to Moshe at Sinai simultaneously with the written text. These laws are subsequently handed down by Moshe to the people [such as laws regarding Tefillin or the multitudes of laws concerning weights].

Peirushim Hamekubalim mi’pi Moshe and Halacha l’Moshe mi’Sinai are exceptions to the general rules of Torah She’b’al Peh, in that these sections of Oral Law, according to most authorities, reflect characteristics usually reserved for the Written Law: the laws within these sections are immutable [adjective: unchangeable, changeless] and non-debatable. Once a specific law is acknowledged as a Peirush Hamekubal mi’pi Moshe or a Halacha l’Moshe mi’Sinai that law is no longer subject to critical discussion and must be observed as stated.

By insisting that Moshe descend from the summit of Sinai armed not only with the Written Law but with information that only he possesses, Hashem establishes at least three important principles which will become
critical to the unfolding of the entire Oral Law.

1/ Not everything is written down. The Torah text is incomplete and cannot be understood as a freestanding document. …Oral elaboration [noun: worked out with great care and nicety of detail] is necessary for the understanding of the text. In this way, the first two sections of Oral Law “prime the pump” of the Halachic process.

2/ Rabbinic authority is essential to the Halachic process. This… role becomes more pronounced as Moshe moves from simply transmitting the law to interpreting and even creating law. Moshe… emerges as the progenitor [noun: a biologically related ancestor, a person or thing that first indicates a direction, originates something, or serves as a model] of rabbinic authority across the ages.

3/ Human involvement is essential to the development and transmission of law. The law received at Sinai and beyond cannot be transmitted simply through the handing over of an existing text. Personal involvement in explaining, interpreting and eventually creating law is essential.

The third section of Oral Law, Hadinim Shehotzi’u al Darchei Hasvara (laws that are determined through the application of hermeneutical [adjective: of or relating to interpretative; explanatory] principles and logical method), is in many ways the most pivotal and the most revolutionary. As Am Yisrael moves away from Sinai, they will confront issues not clearly addressed in either the Written Law oe in the first two G’d-Given sections of the Oral Law.

Every aspect of our lives, in every generation, ties into our Judaism and our observance of Halachic law. Hashem takes a dramatic, revolutionary step by handing Divine law over to man for interpretation and application. Using rules of study transmitted together with the Oral Law at Sinai. the rabbis are charged with analysis of the text and with the application of its laws to ever changing times and circumstances. Hashem, Himself, agrees to accept their conclusions as law.

The definition of truth within the Halachic process has changed. Truth is no longer defined by objective fact but, rather, by loyalty to the process. If two contradictory positions are presented by experts in the law, both having been arrived at through appropriate study of the text and loyal application of the rules, both positions are true. For the sake of unified observance, however, decisions must… be made, and the law itself dictates how this is to be done. The rule is simply stated: majority rules. When possible (as in the days of the Sanhedrin), votes are taken and the majority opinion becomes law. Loyalty to the Halachic process preserves the process and is more important than any one specific decision.

[The final two sections of Oral Law are] Gezeirot (Rabbinic decrees) and Takanot (Rabbinic edicts).

Gezeirot are laws created by the rabbis for the purpose of protecting existing Torah law. Examples of Gezeirot include muktza (items forbidden to be handled on Shabbos or festivals), the requirement to wait between consumption of meat and milk, numerous Shabbos prohibitions, etc. The authority of the rabbis to legislate gezeirot is derived from the biblical commandment “And you shall guard My charge.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Sefer Vayikra, Perek 18, posuk 30) This statement is interpreted to mean “Create protection for My charge.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 21a) The legislation of gezeirot is generally understood to have ended with the close of the Talmud (although some gezeirot were apparently enacted during the Geonic era. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rabbeinu Asher on Shabbos 2:15)

Takanot, on the other hand, were laws created by the rabbis to respond to changing circumstances with the Jewish community. Wide-ranging, takanot deal with all aspects of Jews’ lives and can best be understood as “course corrections” built into the Halachic system to safe-guard the flow and ultimate goals of Halachic law across the ages. The very term takana, in fact, derives from the root l’takein, which means “to fix” or “to correct.”

The historical study of takanot is fascinating, as these laws provide windows into various eras of our history. Through the research of takanot, we gain a glimpse of the pressing issues concerning which the rabbis felt the need to legislate in their particular place and time. One early takana… across the ages… concerns the laws of pidyon shvuyim (the redemption of captives). According to Torah law the redemption of captive Jews from an enemy is an overarching obligation, with no upper limit placed upon the efforts which must be exerted. (Rabbi Goldin citing Rambam, Mishne Torah, Matanot La’evyonim 8:10) The Mishne, however, issues a startling ruling: “One may not redeem captives for more than they are worth.” (Rabbi Goldin citing Talmud Bavli Gittin 45a) The Talmud explains this takana to mean that the community may not accede to exorbitant demands made by hostage-takers, Doing so, say the scholars, would bankrupt the community or ensure, Heaven forbid, additional hostage taking. (Rabbi Goldin again citing Talmud Bavli Gittin 45a)

Takanot are not afterthoughts, mandated because of the inability of the original law to respond to new circumstances. The opposite is true. Takanot are an integral part of the system from the outset, built-in safety valves to allow Halacha to adapt.

[Takanot are] an essential… process… which preserves both the law and its fundamental goals.

This author would add an addendum to the discussion of Takanot, as it pertains to the laws of pidyon shvuyim and Medinat Yisrael and in our times: acceding repeatedly to exorbitant terrorist demands in exchange for captured Jews begets repeated additional hostage taking. Hopefully, the current government will have learned and internalized this lesson.

Rabbi Goldin concludes (ibid, page 163)

Were Moshe to attend a class today dealing with the attitude of Halachic law towards, for example, genetic engineering, he would have no idea what the participants were talking about. Yet every aspect of the laws discussed in that class could somehow be traced back to sources in the Written Law, Oral Law and legal process received by Moshe at Sinai.

Therein lies the brilliance of Halacha: a legal system rooted at Sinai which remains as timely, relevant and applicable as if it were revealed today. This system, more than anything else, has guided and preserved our people across the centuries, enabling us to reflect Hashem’s Will in our daily lives.

May we, the B’nei Yisrael be zocha that our brethren — the refugee families from Gush Katif be permanently settled and be made totally whole — be totally restituted for all that was stolen from them, that the thrice expelled families of Amona be restored to their rebuilt homes and the oft-destroyed Yeshiva buildings in Homesh be rebuilt, all at total government expense; due to alt-leftist-agendized, supreme court legalized Yassamnik gunpoint. Baruch Hashem that our dear brother Jonathan Pollard is now in his third year at home in Eretz Yisrael and has embarked on a new chapter in his life. May Esther Yocheved bat Yechiel Avraham have an aliyah in Shemayim and may her spirit and memory continue to lift Jonathan to at least 120 years. May the MIAs be liberated alive and returned to us in ways befitting Al Kiddush Hashem — as with the return in April, 2019, via Russia, of the remains of Zachariah Baumel, as should the remains of the two chayalim from the Gaza War of eight years ago. May we have the courage and strength to stand up and physically prevent the possibility of Chas V’Challila any future eviction of Jews from their homes and prevent Chas V’Challila the handing of Jewish land over to anyone, let alone to enemies sworn to Israel’s and Judaism’s destruction and eradication. And may we soon and finally see the total end to the Communist Chinese corona virus pandemic and all like viruses. May we fulfill Hashem’s blueprint of B’nei Yisrael as a Unique people — an Am Segula, not to be reckoned with as with “the nations” and may we be zocha to see the Moshiach, the Ge’ula Shlaima, as Dov Shurin sings; “Ki Karov Yom Hashem Al’Kol HaGoyim”, the Ultimate Redemption, bimhayrah b’yamainu — speedily, in our time”, — Achshav, Chik Chuk, Miyad, Etmol!!!

Good Shabbos!
Moshe Burt, an Oleh, is a commentator on news and events in Israel and Founder and Director of The Sefer Torah Recycling Network. He lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh.