Mountains Hanging by a Hair

Ki Tissa By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 18, 1995 / 5755 | Torah Commentary

The Mishnah, edited by Rabbi Judah the Patriarch around the year 200, describes the laws of Shabbat as “mountains hanging by a hair,” because its vast legal articulation rests on such a slight scriptural base. The comment is disarmingly candid and wholly accurate. From the Torah itself we know that the weekly observance of Shabbat is to be the centerpiece of the Israelite religious edifice, yet we garner very little about how the Torah understands the concept of rest.

In this week’s parasha, for example, we read: “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh you shall cease from labor; you shall cease from labor even at plowing time and harvest time (Exodus 34:21),” or in next week’s: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day (Exodus 35:3).” Both laws do suggest the sanctity of the day. But nowhere in the Torah do we find a single set of regulations that spells out in detail the manner in which Shabbat is to be celebrated. It is the theological meaning of Shabbat that we learn from the Torah (witness the culmination of the first account of creation or the reasons given for its observance in the two versions of the Ten Commandments) and not the proscriptions and rituals that set it apart.

Yet when we open the Mishnah we discover 24 complicated and detailed chapters on what constitutes the proper commemoration of Shabbat. No less striking than the amount of material is the nearly total absence of any biblical references to buttress the many injunctions assembled. They are presented straightforwardly and self-confidently as long- accepted practice. And indeed the Mishnah conveys clearly for the first time the full extent of what it means to abstain from work on the sabbath. But along the way we run into concepts and definitions we would never have dreamed of from the few stray remarks in the Torah on the subject.

The elaboration of Shabbat by the Mishnah is but one striking example of the perplexing relationship between the Torah and Mishnah, the first two normative texts of Judaism. The earliest effort at a codification of Jewish practice after the Torah, the Mishnah looms as an independent and co-equal partner, a bold expansion and systematization of the Torah’s legal portions. The Mishnah is not a commentary on the Torah; nor does it regularly seek to ground its definitions of what is permitted and forbidden on verses from Scripture. The Mishnah is simply the oldest instance of what the Rabbis came to call the Oral Torah as opposed to the Written Torah, and as I tried to show a few weeks ago (Parashat Yitro), they claimed that it too went back to the revelation at Sinai.

Judaism, as we know it, evolved in the space between these two charged texts. If they made up the walls of the dwelling, the Talmud became its roof which gave closure to the space within. The lack of interfacing between the Torah and Mishnah triggered a never-ending effort by the generations to follow to connect them exegetically by identifying possible scriptural sources for mishnaic law. That is the basic function of what later became known as the Talmud: the desire to bridge, integrate and harmonize the two disparate foundation texts of Judaism. The dialectic between them infused Judaism with unlimited intellectual vitality.

An early educational curriculum recorded in the Mishnah stipulated three levels of learning: At five a Jewish child is to start with the study of the Bible. At age ten, he should advance to the study of Mishnah. And then at fifteen, he finally reaches the level of Talmud. Since this curriculum predates by centuries the editing of either the Palestinian or Babylonian Talmud, its use of the term “Talmud” can only refer to the intellectual activity to which I have alluded: namely, the felt-need to derive the laws of the Mishnah from the verses of the Torah through exegetical ingenuity. And this relentless quest for integration is also the oldest stratum of our present talmudic texts.

I shall offer but one memorable sample of this pervasive bridging phenomenon in the Talmud from this week’s parasha. In chapter seven of the Mishnah on Shabbat we find the startling declaration that there are 39 major types of work that may not be performed on Shabbat. To be sure, to define precisely the limits of permissible work is the critical issue in conceptualizing a weekly day of rest, but there is absolutely no hint in the Torah of such a list. Nor is there any recourse to the Torah by the Mishnah itself to justify it.

The connection is made for us by the Talmud (Shabbat 49a) where the quest is raised for the scriptural basis of this list. The answer could not be more inventive: the list springs from our parasha! After God completes giving Moses lengthy instructions (more than six chapters` worth) on how to make the Tabernacle and its contents, the very next passage reiterates the centrality of Shabbat: “And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelite people and say: Nevertheless you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you (Exodus 31:12).” It is the sequence and proximity of the two subjects which allows the Talmud to infer that the building of the Tabernacle was halted on Shabbat (see Rashion the verse in the Torah) and that the labor forbidden on Shabbat is identical with the labor required to erect the Tabernacle. The way the Torah orders its material often provides an opening for a deep reading.

The truth is that Torah and Mishnah are inextricably linked. Without the other, each one would be truncated and less comprehensible. The Mishnah’s minute and meticulous treatment of Shabbat is wholly posited on the grand theological conceptions of the Torah. Remove the spirit of the latter and the former ends up a heap of lifeless proscriptions. By the same token, without the Mishnah’s fervor for details, it would be exceedingly difficult to transform theology into ritual or the mundane abode in which we live into a holy temple. Linked by the Talmud, Torah and Mishnah affirm the sanctity of time over space. Shabbat takes precedence over the building of the Tabernacle because for Judaism God is more accessible through one dimension of existence rather than the other.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Chancellor Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tissa are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld