Uncovering Different Kinds of Torah Passages
Sections of the Torah that Have Special Status in Rabbinic Literature
Rabbinic literature exhibits several approaches to the status of the revelation of different parts of the Torah, approaches that differ substantially from that of Maimonides. I have chosen from among the many sources several examples in which this phenomenon is particularly significant.
We will begin with the approach found in the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Megillah (3:7), in which the singularity of particular parts of the Torah is expressed in the obligation to recite blessings before and after reciting them:
Rabbi Jonathan the Scribe came here from Gufta. He saw Bar Avuna the Scribe reading the Song of the Well and reciting blessings before and after it. He said to him: “Is this done?” He responded: “Do you still not know this? All [biblical] songs require blessings before and after them.” It was asked of Rabbi Simon. Rabbi Simon said in the name of Rabbi Joshua b. Levi: “The only passages that require blessings before and after them are the Song of the Sea, the Decalogue, the curses in Leviticus, and the curses in Deuteronomy.” Rabbi Abahu said: “I had not heard this, but these words make sense in connection with the Decalogue.” Rabbi Jose said in the name of Rabbi Bon: “The last eight verses of Deuteronomy require blessings before and after them.”
In the parallel passage in the Babylonian Talmud, there is a narrower reference to the topic with a different halakhic implication:
A Tanna taught: “When one begins [reciting the blessings and curses that are read on fast days] one begins with the verse before them, and when one concludes, one concludes with the verse after them.” Abaye said: “This is taught only with respect to the curses in Leviticus, but with respect to the curses in Deuteronomy, one may break.” What is the reason? The former were spoken in the plural, and Moses spoke what God said. But the latter were spoken in the singular, and Moses said them himself (b. Megillah 31b).
This source notes that there are verses in the Torah that were spoken by Moses and not by God. This fits the plain meaning of the biblical texts, but it is the very statement that the Gemara in Sanhedrin defines as despising the word of the Lord!
“…One who says ‘the whole Torah is from heaven except this verse, which was not said by the Holy One blessed be He but by Moses himself’ is included in ‘because he despised the word of the Lord’” (b. Sanhedrin 99a).
The commentators sensed the contradiction between the plain meaning of the biblical texts and the Gemara in Sanhedrin, or else just the contradiction between the Talmudic passages. Nahmanides (1194-1270) and others claimed that although Moses spoke the words himself and, therefore, they began as human words, at some stage God had them written down and thus they became words of the living God. Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (Ran, 1320-1376) also went in this direction, but in light of the ruling of Abaye, which argues that there is a difference between these verses and the rest of the Torah, he claims that at the end of the process there remained differences in status between these words and the rest of the Torah.
“Torah from Heaven” or “Law of Moses from Sinai”
The expressions “Torah from heaven” and “law of Moses from Sinai” appear in rabbinic literature with various meanings that do not fit the image or context of a dictated Torah. In some instances, the word “Torah” describes only parts of the Pentateuch. The expression “law of Moses from Sinai” is applied, at times, to laws that were not spoken at Sinai.
The passages that discuss Moses’ rebuke of the people in the book of Deuteronomy are not the only ones that describe differences in the level of revelation of different verses. The following midrash (Lev. Rab. 1) describes the receiving of the Torah in a number of stages and in different types of revelation:
A different interpretation: ‘He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke’: From here they said that a boor is better than any scholar who does not have sense. Know that this is true: Come and learn from Moses, the father of wisdom, father of the prophets, who brought Israel out of Egypt and by whose hand several miracles were performed in Egypt, ‘wonders in the land of Ham, awesome deeds at the Sea of Reeds’ (Psalm 106:22). He went to the highest heavens and brought the Torah from heaven, and he was involved in the building of the tabernacle. Yet even he did not go in to the Holy of Holies until He called him, as it says: ‘He called to Moses, and spoke…’
Leviticus Rabba tells the story of the formation of the Torah in a completely different way from the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Megillah. As I understand it, the Torah that was given at Sinai according to the authors of this midrash is the Book of the Covenant and the commandments relating to the tabernacle. Although it is possible to suggest a broader position, it would still be confined to Genesis and to the events preceding the revelation at Sinai at most. According to this description, the “Torah” that was given from heaven at Sinai does not include the divine revelation to Moses described in the book of Leviticus, let alone all the narrative events after the revelation at Sinai.
The difference between these views recalls the debate mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud:
Rabbi Ishmael says: “The general principles were spoken at Sinai and the details at the tent of meeting.” Rabbi Akiva says: “The general principles and the details were spoken at Sinai, repeated at the tent of meeting, and repeated a third time in the plains of Moab” (b. Chagigah 6a, b. Sotah 37b).
“The Torah” as a Term Referencing Particular Revelations or Sections
The rabbinic sources that we have seen suggest a view that the Torah was given in the variety of revelations described in the verses according to their plain sense. In different places, the rabbis used the expression “Torah from Sinai” and “from heaven” in order to comment on a particular revelation, or alternatively on the truth of words of Torah, and not as a precise description of the means of their transmission. We have seen this usage in the words of the poskim, the Rishonim, and the Acharonim with respect to the status of the Decalogue. In Sifre Deuteronomy (Ha’azinu, 306) it is clear that the Rabbis call only the revelation at Sinai “Torah from heaven”:
A different interpretation: ‘Hear O heavens and I will speak’(Deuteronomy 32:1): This refers to the fact that the Torah was given from heaven, as it says: ‘You have seen that I spoke to you from the heavens’(Exodus 20:19). ‘And let the earth hear the words of my mouth’(Deuteronomy 32:1):on which the Israelites stood and said, ‘All that God spoke we will obey and we will hear’(Exodus 24:7).
Similarly, in connection with Jethro’s counsel and the Book of the Covenant mentioned at the end of Parashat Mishpatim, Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (12) cites Rabbi Joshua b. Levi, who refers to Parsahat Mishpatim alone as “Torah.” Another source that may be interpreted this way is found in the debate in tractate Gitin (70a), which presents the opinion that the Torah was given in individual scrolls (and not sealed) and that therefore not the whole Torah was given at Sinai.
The Babylonian Talmud in Sanhedrin interpreted the idea of “Torah from heaven” that appears in the Mishnah as describing the means of transmission of the Torah, but as is generally the case in rabbinic literature, the expressions “from Heaven” and “from Sinai” do not always indicate the means of transmission to people. Rabbi Nehemiah in Kohelet Rabba(5:2) includes under the heading of “law of Moses from Sinai” the additional writings (tosafot) of the house of Rabbi and Rabbi Nathan, and even what a senior student will say to his teacher in the future:
Rabbi Nehemiah says: ‘The greatest advantage (yitron) in the land is his’ – Things that seem extra (meyutarin) in the Torah, such as the additional writings of the house of Rabbi and the additional writings of Rabbi Nathan, and the laws of sojourners and slaves—even these were given to Moses at Sinai. And, for example, the laws of fringes (tzitzit), phylacteries (tefilin), and mezuzot are included in “Torah,” as is written (Deuteronomy 9:10): ‘The Lord gave me the two stone tablets written by the finger of God, and on them was according to all the words’; and it says there (Deuteronomy 8:1): ‘all the commandments that I am commanding you, etc.’ Not only ‘all’ but ‘according to all’; not only ‘words’ but ‘the words’; not only ‘commandments’ but ‘the commandments’. This means that scripture, the Mishnah, the law, the Talmud, additional writings, legends, and even what a senior student will say to his teacher in the future were all given to Moses at Sinai.
Likewise, the Jerusalem Talmud implies that there are legal rulings that are considered ‘law of Moses from Sinai’:
Rabbi Lazer said: “Everywhere where they learned truth(be-emet), it is the law of Moses from Sinai.”
The problem is that “they spoke in truth (be-emet)” is also said about things that are clearly rabbinic in origin. Thus, Rabbi Asher b. Yehiel (Rosh, ca.1259-1327), referencing Rabbi Isaac b. Samuel of Dampierre (Ri the Elder, 1115-1184), writes:
Ri (Isaac of Dampierre) says that we do not find anywhere that the rules of what invalidates a ritual bath are “law of Moses from Sinai.” And if we do find a source that states this, we should interpret it in accordance with the meaning of this phrase in the baraita in Chagiga [3a]: “There is a law of Moses from Sinai that the lands of Ammon and Moab are subject to the laws of the poor tithe in the sabbatical year,” which means only: This is a clear ruling, as if it were a law given to Moses at Sinai. Moreover, any time the term “in truth” (be-emet) is used, it is a law [of Moses from Sinai, so to speak], as it says throughout the Talmud regarding matters of rabbinic origin.
We find this in the Babylonian Talmud(Megillah, 19b), where Rabbi Chiyya b. Abba says in the name of Rabbi Yochanan that even innovations that will originate in the future, and not only things that will be said, as in Kohelet Rabba, are “law of Moses from Sinai.”
Rabbi Chiyya b. Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: What is the meaning of ‘And on all of them was according to all the words that the Lord spoke to you on the mountain’? It teaches that the Holy One blessed be He showed Moses the minutiae of the Torah and the minutiae of the scribes, and the innovations that would be introduced by the scribes. And what are these? The reading of the Book of Esther.
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May 14, 2014
December 29, 2020
Rabbi David Bigman has been the Rosh HaYeshiva at Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa since 1995. Before becoming Rosh HaYeshiva at YMG, he served as the Rabbi of Kibbutz Maale Gilboa, and as the Rosh HaYeshiva in Yeshivat haKibbutz HaDati Ein Tzurim. He was one of the founders of Midreshet haBanot b’Ein Hanatziv.
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