Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ki Tissa - The Oral Law

Shemot 34:27: G-d said to Moshe, "Write these words down for yourself because it is through these words that I have made a covenant with you and Yisrael." 

Now G-d said to Moshe, "With the giving of the first Tablets you wrote a book of the covenant. This book contained the entire account from creation until the giving of the Torah. It was read so that all the people could hear it. The people responded to it, 'We will do and we will listen.' (Exodus 24:7) Do the same thing with these second Tablets, repeating everything that you did." This is the meaning of G-d's commandment, "Make for yourself these words." 

Some say that after the Yisraelim made the Golden Calf and violated the original covenant that G-d had made with them, they were required to make a new covenant. Moshe had to write a sort of receipt for the new conditions and obligations, indicating that they had been forgiven for their wrong-doings. They were forgiven on condition that from now on they would be obligated to keep all G-d's commandments and laws. 

G-d thus said, "Write for yourself these things for it is through these words that I have made a covenant with you and Yisrael." G-d commanded Moshe to write a contract stating a condition that the Yisraelim would keep all these words. 

G-d said, "I forgave them for the past and made a new covenant with them only because of your merit. For their own sake I would never have forgiven them at all." Go- therefore told Moshe, "I have made a covenant with you and with Yisrael." When G-d said, "with you," He meant, "through your merit." 

Another thing we learn from this verse is that "Things that are written in the Torah may not be recited orally, and things that are meant to be transmitted orally may not be written." 

The Torah consists of two parts, the Written Torah, (Torah Sheh-bichtav) and the Oral Law, (Torah Sheh-be'al Peh). This verse teaches us that the Written Torah may not be recited orally, and the Oral Torah may not be written, but must be transmitted by mouth from person to person. 

When G-d taught Moshe the Written Torah and the Oral Torah He told him, "Teach these to the Yisraelim." 

"L-rd of the universe," said Moshe, "Should I write down the Oral Torah and teach it to the Yisraelim from a script?" 

G-d said to him, "You may not do this. Write down these words, but it is by their oral tradition that I am making a covenant with the Yisraelim. The words that I am teaching you orally may not be written; rather you must teach them to the people orally." 

The reason that it is forbidden to write down the Oral Torah, that it must be taught orally, is because G-d knew that the Yisraelim were destined to be exiled and to be under the power of other nations. If the Oral Torah were written, the gentiles would translate it and include it in their religion, saying that G-d had chosen them in place of Yisrael and had given them the Torah. They would then be able to draw others to follow their false religion. 

However, since the Oral Torah may not be written, there is no reason to fear this. The only thing in writing is the Written Torah through which they cannot influence other people. The Written Torah cannot be fully understood or interpreted without the oral tradition. 

Some say that the Written Torah may not be transmitted orally because in the Torah many things are learned from extra or missing letters. Sometimes a word has a missing letter; in other cases an extra letter is added to a word. There are also places where tradition dictates that the word be read in a different manner than it is written. These things teach us lessons. 

If the Written Torah were taught orally, all these concepts would be lost. 

Similarly, the Oral Torah must be transmitted only orally and may not be written. Then each person learns it from his master and if he has any questions he can ask and no doubts will remain in his mind. However, if it were written down, a word might be ambiguous and the student would not have any way to interpret it. The ambiguity would therefore remain. 

This situation remained until the time of the Great Assembly (Kenesset Ha-Gedolah). The Oral Torah was transmitted by word of mouth and not written at all. However, after the time of the Great Assembly, the sages saw that the situation was deteriorating and they were concerned that the Torah would be forgotten. They therefore permitted parts of the Oral Torah to be written. 

However they only permitted the Oral Torah to be written. The prohibition against reciting the Written Torah aloud from memory still remains in force. 

It is forbidden to recite any portion of the Written Torah from memory. Therefore a person should be careful not to recite any part of the Written Torah without actually reading it. 

If one recites part of the Written Torah orally he is violating G-d's command, "Write down these words," as we explained earlier. He is also not rewarded for what he has learned. Although he is not involved in trivial matters, he is still working for nothing. The portion regarding the daily sacrifice (tamid) is recited every day as part of the Morning Service. Many people recite this orally. They also recite the priestly blessing, the morning psalms and the Shema. Most people know these portions by heart. We are therefore permitted to recite them orally, by heart. 

However, portions that most people do not know by heart may not be recited from memory. This is true even though an individual might have memorized them. 

Some say that if the reader (chazan)wants to fulfill the obligations of others, even though he knows the Shema or the like by heart, he should read it from a Siddur. If there is no prayer book available or if he is an old man who cannot concentrate on the prayer book, he should say the Shema silently and have the congregation read it aloud. In such a case it is not considered as if he is saying it for the sake of the people. Since he is saying it quietly, it is permissible for him to recite it from memory. 

Some people have the custom of reciting the Torah portion aloud along with the reader without looking in a text. This is not proper. Rather, one should take a text and read along out of the book. If he cannot do this, he should listen and remain silent. 

It is permissible for a blind person to recite portions of doe Torah by heart even though they are portions that are not usually memorized. This is not forbidden because he has no choice. 

The Written Torah was given in the merit of Yaakov while the Oral Torah was given in the merit of Avraham. 

Just as we have an obligation to believe in the Written Torah and to keep it, we also have an obligation to believe in the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah includes all the words of our sages in the Midrash and Talmud. If these teachings are sometimes surprising, it is only because of our own limited understanding. 

We see that the Oral Torah is more beloved to G-d than even the Written Torah. G-d therefore told Moshe that by the oral tradition of these words, "I am making a covenant with you and with Yisrael. I am only making this covenant because of the Oral Torah. I have made a covenant with you to be your G-d, to watch over you and that you not be under an angel like the other nations. All of this was only done because of the Oral Law." 

If a person laughs at the words of our sages or any other commandment legislated by them, his sin is very great. He is worthy of death, and in the next world he will be punished with boiling excrement. 

The Talmud relates that Rabbi Yochanan taught his academy that in the Messianic Age G-d would bring precious stones and jewels. Each jewel would be thirty cubits (45 feet) square. He would carve out of the stones pieces twenty cubits by ten cubits, like the gates of Yerushalayim, and stand them up at the entrance of Yerushalayim. 

One of the students heard Rabbi Yochanan's words and began to laugh to himself. "How can there be such large precious stones?" he asked. "Today one cannot find a precious stone even as large as a dove's egg. Where will there be precious stones that are thirty square?" 

Some time passed and this student was traveling by ship. He came to a far-off island where he saw the people quarrying precious stones that were thirty cubits square. The people were engraving them and trimming them down to ten by twenty cubits. 

"What is the purpose of these stones?" asked the student. 

They replied to him, "G-d will stand them up in the gates of Yerushalayim." 

When the student returned to the city he found Rabbi Yochanan and told him, "What you have taught is true. With my own eyes I saw what you described." 

"You foolish man!" said Rabbi Yochanan. "If you had not seen it with your eyes, you would not have believed!" 

With that Rabbi Yochanan fixed his gaze on this student and he was reduced to a pile of bones. 

The Talmud relates a story about Onkelos, son of Clonicus. This is the Onkelos who wrote the standard (Aramaic) translation (Targum) on the Torah. He was a gentile and wanted to become a proselyte. He wanted to know what the Jews were and what their destiny would be in the next world. This Onkelos was the nephew of Titus. 

Using the occult arts, Onkelos communicated with his uncle Titus, who was already dead. He asked him, "What nation is greatest in the World to Come?" 

"The greatest nation in the next world," replied the shade, "is the Jewish nation." 

"I wish to join them as a proselyte," said Onkelos. "What advice can you give me?" 

"It is very hard to observe the Jewish religion. They have many commandments that they must keep." 

"How are you judged in the next world?" 

"I am judged with the same fate that I decreed for myself. Everyday I am burned and my ashes are ground and scattered to the wind. Every day these ashes are gathered and re-formed into my body. Then I am burned again, and my ashes are again scattered over the seven seas." 

[Titus had commanded that his followers do this so that G-d would not be able to find him and punish him for his deeds.] 

After Onkelos heard this from Titus, he wanted to hear Balaam's advice. He communicated with him from beyond the grave in the same way. 

"What nation is the most important in the next world?" 

"The Yisraelim are the most important." 

"What is your advice? Should I become a proselyte and join them?" 

"Do not seek their peace or good as long as the world exists." 

"How are you punished in the world to come?" 

"I am immersed in boiling semen." 

[Balaam was punished in this manner for causing the Yisraelim to behave lasciviously with the Midianite girls.] 

Onkelos then communicated with the founder of Christianity. 

"Who is most important in the next world? 


"Give me advice: I wish to join them as a proselyte." 

"Seek their good but do not seek their bad points. Whoever touches them is like one who touches the 'pupil' of G-d's eye." 

"And what is your destiny in the next world?" 

"I am immersed in boiling excrement." 

"Why is this?" 

"It is taught, 'Whoever laughs at the words of the Jewish sages is punished in boiling excrement." 

All the prophets and sages in every generation received their portions on Mount Sinai. Moshe thus said to the Yisraelim that he was making the covenant "with those who are standing here with us today and with those who are not here with us today." (Devar 29:14) All the generations that would exist until the end of the world were standing at the revelation at Sinai. Every soul received its portion. Each prophet received the prophecy that he would declare in his generation; each sage received the mysteries of the Torah that he would teach to the people of his era. 

Moshe thus told the Yisraelim, "G-d spoke these words to your entire congregation. It was a Great Voice that did not end." (Devar 5:19) Moshe was saying that the voice on Mount Sinai would be heard by the souls of all the prophets and sages. After this G-d would not have to speak to each person individually; each person would have the portion that he received on Mount Sinai. It is therefore called a "Great Voice." From this voice, each one received his portion in the Torah, according to his level. 

There is no Jew who did not receive his portion on Mount Sinai. Some received a little and some more, each one according to the level of his soul. Even the lowliest Jew received at least one verse of the Torah and its explanation. 

When an infant is in its mother's womb, G-d gives it intelligence so that it can understand the portion it received on Mount Sinai. The individual is therefore not prevented from understanding it because of a lack of intelligence. The portion that he received must be revealed to the world by him and not by any other rabbi. 

However, the portion that each person received on Mount Sinai is not given to him so easily. He must be G-d-fearing and attach himself to G-d. He must work very hard to study Torah in order to understand his portion. Through his work, he purifies his physical being and then is able to reveal the portion that his soul received. 

If any one of these conditions is not met, the person is not able to realize the portion he received on Sinai. As a result of this, a person does not have any excuse on the great day of judgment when he is asked, "Why did you not study Torah? Why did you not at least understand the portion that you received at Mount Sinai? You might have worked hard, but you did not have enough fear of G-d; or you might have studied in order to win arguments with your friends or to show off your knowledge." 

The person will not be able to say, "I worked and this is all I could understand." If he were truly G-d-fearing he would know the portion that he received on Mount Sinai. 

If the person was G-d-fearing but did not work hard and only studied a little when he was in the mood, here too, he cannot excuse himself and say, "I was G-d-fearing but I studied and could not find anything." 

G-d will then tell him, "If you had worked hard enough you would have found the portion that you received on Mount Sinai." 

This is the meaning of the verse, "If you seek it like silver and like hidden treasures, you will understand the fear of G-d and you will find knowledge of the L-rd. For G-d gives wisdom from His Mouth, knowledge and understanding." (Mishle 2:4-6) The verse is saying, "If you were to seek the portion of the Torah that you received on Mount Sinai as you would run after or as you would search out a treasure about which you were told, you would find it. If you knew about a treasure you would make every effort to seek it out. Similarly, if you work hard on the Torah you can know G-d's knowledge. This is the portion that G-d gave you on Mount Sinai. But you must have fear of G-d; only then can you understand it. If any one of these conditions is lacking you will not be able to achieve anything. This is because 'G-d gives wisdom from His Mouth, knowledge and understanding.' The only thing that G-d does for you is to grant intelligence when you are in your mother's womb so that you can gain the portion that your soul received on Sinai. After this, G-d is no longer responsible. It is your choice whether to use this knowledge and intellect for the Torah or for worldly matters."

- MeAm Lo'ez

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