What Did We Receive at Sinai?

Ki Tissa By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 14, 1998 / 5758 | Torah Commentary

At the end of the Torah reading in the synagogue, the scroll is spread and lifted so that everyone might see its hand-written script. Simultaneously, the congregation affirms out loud: “This is the Torah that Moses set before the people Israel; the Torah given by God, through Moses” (a composite of two verses, Deuteronomy 4:44 and a phrase repeated several times in the book of Numbers, 4:37,45; 9:23; 10:13). Having just finished a liturgical reenactment of the original national experience at Mount Sinai, we declare the text of this scroll to be the repository of that revelation.

At first blush, we might think that this is the full extent of what was transmitted at Sinai: the five books of Moses, what we call the Torah, and no more. But in this week’s parasha, in the briefest of comments by Rashi, we get a hint of another body of literature given to Moses during his forty-day seclusion atop the mountain. Moses has soothed God’s anger, the calamity of the Golden Calf is contained, and the broken tablets will be replaced. God invites Moses to ascend Sinai again, instructing him to: “write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel (Exodus 34:27).”

Rashi takes the opening words of the verse in a restrictive sense and comments critically: “But you are not permitted to write down the Oral Torah.” The emphasis is on the word “write,” implying that God was also communicating other commandments to be preserved in an oral state. As so often, Rashi compressed a rabbinic discourse into a nugget. In Rashi’s talmudic source, Rabbi Yohanan even dares to claim that the Oral Torah is far larger than the written. Why else would our verse have used the allusive preposition “al pi – in accordance with,” which immediately elicits in the minds of any rabbinic Jew an association with the Hebrew phrase for Oral Torah – Torah she-be-al pe? In other words, our verse, as read by the Rabbis and Rashi, alludes to the creedal proposition of two Torahs, one Written and one Oral, as the legacy of Sinai and the foundation of Judaism.

The introduction to the Teaching of the Sages [Pirkei Avot] enunciates this proposition overtly and unequivocally. “Moses received Torah from God at Sinai. He transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, the Prophets to the members of the Great Assembly (Siddur Sim Shalom p. 603).” The key to understanding the passage is the absence of the definite article “hey – the” before “Torah.” Contrastingly, in the verse we declaim in the synagogue, the word “Torah” carries the definite article, “this is the Torah,” clearly pointing to the Written Torah from which we have just read. The omitted article in the Teachings of the Sages suggests a broader conception of Torah, both Written and Oral. Indeed, we need not be reminded that Moses received the Written Torah at Sinai, because the Bible tells us that often. Rather, the intent is to establish what is not self-evident, namely, that the Oral Torah of the Sages also goes back to Sinai. The sayings we are about to read are not the product of human wisdom alone, but part of a religious chain reaction that began at Sinai.

The Teachings of the Sages constitute a tractate of the Mishna, edited in its final form by the patriarch Rabbi Yehuda the Prince about the year 200. I have long felt that its opening assertion of the revelation of two Torahs can readily serve as an introduction to the entire corpus of the Mishna. Its authors, the Rabbis, represent a new leadership in the transmission of Torah, unlike any that preceded it. Their profile is drawn deftly by their immediate forerunners, the members of the Great Assembly, who purportedly guided Jewish destiny in the early centuries of the second Commonwealth. The three precepts preserved in their name, which follow on the heels of the chain of transmission, make of the Rabbis the custodians of the Oral Law: “Be cautious in rendering a decision; rear many students; build a fence to protect the Torah.” Put differently, the Rabbis collectively and individually are to play a judicial, educational and legislative role predicated on their mastery of the unfolding nature of the Oral Torah. Unending interpretation would keep the Written Torah responsive to ever-changing circumstances and sensibilities, creating the remarkable phenomenon of a biblical canon without closure.

Today the Oral Torah is studied and transmitted through the medium of a written text. We turn to the tomes of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds and the vast anthologies of Midrash to savor and fathom the exegetical virtuosity and religious power of the ancient Rabbis. But for many centuries the old ideal prevailed, though by the time Rashi penned his comment in the 11th century it had long been abandoned. It may have been, as some scholars have argued, that an oral tradition, by virtue of its innate pliability, may be more susceptible to modification.

Nevertheless, a midrash on the verse with which we began suggests other considerations, such as competition with Christianity. The midrash depicts a Moses slightly overwhelmed by the prospect of having to commit the Mishna to memory. Yet God would not relent because one day the Written Torah would be translated into Greek, making it available to the civilized world. Eventually the other nations would appropriate it as their own and claim to be the true Israel. To forestall such dispossession, God chose to treat the Mishna as a body of esoteric knowledge. When the different claimants appear, God will tell them: “Only those of you who are also in possession of My hidden knowledge are My children and that is none other than the Mishna which was given to memorize.” And this is what the Prophet Hosea meant when he had God say “If I were to write down most of My Torah, it would soon be rendered alien (8:12).”

Against the backdrop of a world awash with mystery religions offering esoteric tidings of salvation, this midrash has a ring of historicity. The early Christians had in fact made adroit use of the Hebrew Bible in Greek form to convince many a pagan that they were not the bearers of a new religion. The negative view of that translation by the midrash reflects bitterness at a project of Jewish universalism gone sour. With the triumph of Christianity, Judaism turns inward. Finally, the crisp, cadenced prose of the Mishna’s Hebrew was honed to be memorized. Rarely has a legal codification been set to such poetic rhythms. It was crafted to be transmitted orally.

So what are we to make of the rabbinic claim that the Oral Torah is coterminous with Sinai? I am prepared to concede that it must emerge the moment the Written Torah appears as a codified text, as the religious foundation of the Jewish colony reconstituted on its native soil in Jerusalem at the end of the sixth century B.C.E. under Persian suzerainty. Incomplete and hardly self-explanatory, the Written Torah begs for exposition. As prophecy declines, the canon becomes an ever-flowing spring of divine wisdom through the filter of human study. The covenant has crystallized into sacred scripture and Israel into “the people of the book.”

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