Trusting in the Process of Torah Mi-Sinai
Writing the Torah and Passing on Oral Torah
Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31), the shortest portion of the Torah, mentions Moses’ completion of the torah twice [all translations mine unless otherwise noted]:
דברים לא:ט וַיִּכְתֹּב מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וַיִּתְּנָהּ אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי לֵוִי הַנֹּשְׂאִים אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ-הוָה וְאֶל כָּל זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut. 31:9 And Moses wrote this torah, and delivered it to the priests the sons of Levi, who bore the Ark of the LORD’s Covenant, and to all the elders of Israel.
דברים לא:כד וַיְהִי כְּכַלּוֹת מֹשֶׁה לִכְתֹּב אֶת דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל סֵפֶר עַד תֻּמָּם. לא:כה וַיְצַו מֹשֶׁה אֶת הַלְוִיִּם נֹשְׂאֵי אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ-הוָה לֵאמֹר. לא:כו לָקֹחַ אֵת סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֹתוֹ מִצַּד אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וְהָיָה שָׁם בְּךָ לְעֵד.
Deut. 31:24 And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this torah in a scroll, until they were finished, 31:25 that Moses commanded the Levites, who bore the Ark of the LORD’s Covenant, saying: 31:26 “Take this scroll of the torah, and put it in the side of the Ark of the LORD your God’s Covenant, that it may be there for a witness against you.”
In his introduction to Mishneh Torah, Maimonides explains that this text refers to the written Torah; however, the interpretation, i.e. the Oral Torah, was given over to Joshua.
כל התורה כתבה משה רבינו קודם שימות בכתב ידו. ונתן ספר לכל שבט ושבט וספר אחד נתנהו בארון לעד. שנאמר לקוח את ספר התורה הזה ושמתם אותו וגו’.
Our master Moshe wrote the entire Torah, by hand, before he died. He then gave a scroll to each and every tribe, while one scroll was put in the Ark as a witness, as it says: “Take this scroll of the torah, and put it,” etc.
והמצוה שהיא פירוש התורה לא כתבה אלא צוה בה לזקנים וליהושע ולשאר כל ישראל. שנאמר את כל הדבר אשר אנכי מצוה אתכם אותו תשמרו לעשות וגו’. ומפני זה נקראת תורה שבעל פה.
And the commandment, which is the interpretation of the Torah, he did not write, but rather he commanded the Elders, Joshua, and the rest of all Israel regarding it, as it says (Deut. 13:1): “The entire matter which I command you to do today, you shall guard to perform it,” etc. For this reason, it is called the Oral Torah.
Oral Torah from Sinai
Maimonides clarifies the mechanics of the transmission of the Oral Law:
אף על פי שלא נכתבה תורה שבעל פה למדה משה רבינו כולה בבית דינו לשבעים זקנים. ואלעזר ופנחס ויהושע שלשתן קבלו ממשה. וליהושע שהוא תלמידו של משה רבינו מסר תורה שבעל פה וצוהו עליה. וכן יהושע כל ימי חייו למד על פה. וזקנים רבים קבלו מיהושע.
Even though the Oral Torah was not written, our master Moses taught it in its entirety, in his court, to seventy elders. Eleazar, Phineas and Joshua — all three of them —received from Moses. However, Moses our master gave over to Joshua his disciple the Oral Torah and commanded him concerning it. Similarly, Joshua taught orally all his days, and many elders received from Joshua.
Maimonides is basing himself on one of the most famous tractate openings in the Mishnah (Avot 1:1):
משה קבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע ויהושע לזקנים וזקנים לנביאים ונביאים מסרוה לאנשי כנסת הגדולה.
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.
In Maimonides’ understanding, the “Torah from Sinai” here is the Oral Torah, which was taught to everyone but given over specifically to Joshua. This oral component is an integral part of every one of the mitzvot.
כל המצות שניתנו לו למשה בסיני בפירושן ניתנו. שנאמר ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן והתורה והמצוה. תורה זו תורה שבכתב. והמצוה זו פירושה. וצונו לעשות התורה על פי המצוה. ומצוה זו היא הנקראת תורה שבעל פה.
All of the commandments given to Moses at Sinai were given along with their interpretation, as it says, “And I will give you the tablets of stone, the law and the commandment” (Exod. 24:12) — “the law” refers to the Written Torah, “and the commandment” to its interpretation. And we were commanded to follow “the law” according to “the commandment.” This “commandment” is what is called the Oral Torah.
Laws from Sinai in Rabbinic Literature
Surprisingly, only three times in the Mishnah, “a rule to Moses from Sinai” (halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai) is invoked. In one case, Nahum the Scribe testifies before Rabban Gamliel about how to leave a corner for the poor if the field contains two types of wheat (Pe’ah 2:6). His testimony buttresses the anonymous ruling in the previous paragraph.
אמר נחום הלבלר מקובל אני מרבי מיאשא שקבל מאבא שקבל מן הזוגות שקבלו מן הנביאים הלכה למשה מסיני בזורע את שדהו שני מיני חטין אם עשאן גורן אחת נותן פאה אחת שתי גרנות נותן שתי פאות:
Said Nahum the Scribe, “I have received from R. Miasha, who received [it] from his father, who received [it] from the Pairs, who received [it] from the Prophets, a rule to Moses from Sinai, regarding one who sows his field with two types of wheat…”
Similarly, Yadayim 4:3 records a lengthy debate regarding what tithe is to be taken in the lands of Moab and Ammon in a Sabbatical year, a matter defined as ma’aseh zekenim, “an enactment of the Elders.” After being informed of the ruling of the majority, Rabbi Eliezer concurs:
בכה רבי אליעזר ואמר (תהלים כה) סוד ה’ ליראיו ובריתו להודיעם צא ואמור להם אל תחושו למנינכם מקובל אני מרבן יוחנן בן זכאי ששמע מרבו ורבו מרבו עד הלכה למשה מסיני שעמון ומואב מעשרין מעשר עני בשביעית:
R. Eliezer wept, saying, “‘The secret of the Lord is with those that fear him and he will show them his covenant (Ps. 25:14).’ Go and tell them, ‘Do not be anxious about your vote. I have received from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his master, and his master from his master, a rule to Moses from Sinai, that Ammon and Moab give poor man’s tithe in the Sabbatical year.’”
The third usage is a bit different. The Mishnah is discussing what Elijah will do with Jewish yichus (lineage) issues when he comes, and R. Joshua’s tradition comes not at the end as a ratification but as the opening salvo in a prolonged aggadic debate (Eduyot 8:7).
אמר רבי יהושע מקובל אני מרבן יוחנן בן זכאי ששמע מרבו ורבו מרבו הלכה למשה מסיני שאין אליהו בא לטמא ולטהר לרחק ולקרב אלא לרחק המקורבין בזרוע ולקרב המרוחקין בזרוע.
Said R. Joshua, “I have received from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his master, and his master from his master, as a rule to Moses from Sinai, that Elijah is not going to come to declare unclean or to declare clean, to put out or draw near, but only to put out those who have been brought near by force and to draw near those who have been put out by force.”
These three cases show that the Sinaitic tradition is not confined to strictly halachic matters, nor is it used to stifle or even settle debates. So what is its purpose and nature in Rabbinic usage?
Torah Mi-Sinai of the Future
Although Torah mi-Sinai refers to laws and explanations Moses received in the past, both Talmuds indicate that Torah mi-Sinai paradoxically includes what later generations may innovate. The most famous and systemic or comprehensive example is Resh Lakish’s comment in b. Berachot 5a, which glosses Exodus 24:12 (paraphrased by Maimonides above):
ואמר רבי לוי בר חמא אמר רבי שמעון בן לקיש: מאי דכתיב ואתנה לך את לחת האבן והתורה והמצוה אשר כתבתי להורותם, לחות – אלו עשרת הדברות, תורה – זה מקרא, והמצוה – זו משנה, אשר כתבתי – אלו נביאים וכתובים, להורותם – זה תלמוד; מלמד שכולם נתנו למשה מסיני.
R. Levi bar Chama said further in the name of R. Simeon ben Lakish: “What is the meaning of the verse (Exod. 24:12): ‘And the LORD said to Moses, Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give you the tablets of stone, the law and the commandment which I have written to teach them’? ‘Tablets of stone’ — the Decalogue; ‘the law’ — Scripture; ‘the commandment’ — Mishnah; ‘which I have written’ — the Prophets and Hagiographa; ‘to teach them’ — Gemara. This teaches that all these were given to Moses from Sinai.”
According to Resh Lakish, the Sinaitic revelation extends from God’s words in the Decalogue, to the rest of the Five Books of Moses, Mishnah, Nach (Prophets and Writings), and even the Gemara, i.e., Resh Lakish’s own words. All of these can be traced to Sinai.
R. Yochanan has a similar statement (b. Megilla 19b), which he supports with a gloss on Deut. 9:10:
ואמר רבי חייא בר אבא אמר רבי יוחנן: מאי דכתיב ועליהם ככל הדברים אשר דבר ה’ עמכם בהר מלמד שהראהו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה דקדוקי תורה ודקדוקי סופרים, ומה שהסופרים עתידין לחדש, ומאי ניהו – מקרא מגילה.
Rabbi Chiya bar Abba said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “What is the meaning of the verse, ‘and on them was written according to all the words the LORD spoke with you’? This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, showed Moses the minutiae of the Torah, the minutiae of the Scribes and the innovations that would be introduced by the Scribes. And what are these? Reading the Scroll of Esther.”
A similar derasha on the same verse appears in the Jerusalem Talmud. This time, the expounder is R. Joshua ben Levi, who takes note of specific particles attached to words in the verse (i.e., “and,” “according to,” and “the”) and claims that these represent a form of Torah that God gave Moses at Sinai (j. Pe’ah 2:4):
ריב”ל אמר: עליהם ועליהם כל ככל דברים הדברים מקרא משנה תלמוד ואגדה אפי’ מה שתלמיד ותיק עתיד להורות לפני רבו כבר נאמר למשה בסיני…
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: “‘on them’ ‘and on them,’ ‘all’ ‘according to all,’ ‘words’ ‘the words,’ Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggada — even that which a veteran student is destined to teach before his master — were all told to Moses at Sinai…”
“Even What a Student Teaches his Master Counts as Torah from Sinai”
The final category, “that which a veteran student is destined to teach before his master,” builds on a point hammered home in a series of statements found earlier in the same tractate (j. Pe’ah 1:1), which traces this phenomenon of “student revelation” to the foot of Sinai itself:
היה ר’ יוסי בר’ בון בשם ר’ לוי כך היתה הלכה בידם ושכחוה ועמדו השנים והסכימו על דעת הראשונים ללמדך שכל דבר שבית דין נותנין נפשן עליו הוא מתקיים כמה שנאמר למשה מסיני…
Rabbi Jose son of R. Bon said in the name of Rabbi Levi: This was the ruling in their hands, but they forgot it. So the latter ones arose, and their view accorded with that of the former ones. This teaches you that a matter to which the court devotes its soul will end up in accord with what was told to Moses at Sinai…
ר’ יוחנן בשם ר’ בניי ר’ חונה בשם ר’ תורת אמת היתה בפיהו דברים ששמע מפי רבו ועולה לא נמצא בשפתיו אפי’ דברים שלא שמע מפי רבו.
Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Banai and Rav Chuna in the name of Rabbi: “‘A law of truth was in his mouth’ (Mal. 2:6) — matters he heard from his master; ‘and injustice was not found on his lips’ — even matters he did not hear from his master.
According to this text, students of Torah have the ability to correctly intuit the halacha as it was presented to Moses, even when no one actually knows or remembers the rule as it was stated.
How Can Debates be Sinaitic?
Since Torah mi-Sinai encompasses the totality of aggadic and halachic exploration, this necessarily means that even the disputes, debates, and discussions which make up the bread and butter of the Oral Torah come from Sinai. This is reflected in Midrash Tehillim (12:7):
אמר ר’ ינאי לא ניתנה דברי תורה חתיכין, אלא על כל דבור שהיה אומר הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה היה אומר מ”ט פנים טהור, ומ”ט פנים טמא, אמר לפניו רבונו של עולם עד מתי נעמוד על בירורו של דבר, אמר ליה אחרי רבים להטות, רבו המטמאין טמא, רבו המטהרין טהור.
Rabbi Yannai said: “The words of the Torah were not given cut-and-dried; but for each and every matter, the Holy One, Blessed be He, told Moses 49 ways to declare pure and 49 ways to declare impure. He said to him: Lord of the Universe, when shall we ever clarify the matter? God said: ‘Follow the majority’ (Exod. 23:2) — if the majority say impure; it is impure; if the majority say pure, it is pure.”
According to Rabbi Yannai, the multiple, sometimes contradictory, ways of interpreting the Torah are a positive feature, not a flaw, of Torah mi-Sinai.
Trust in a Process not Belief in a Dogma
Torah from Sinai thus encompasses everything that Rabbinic Judaism claims as Torah: not only the Five Books of Moses, but the Prophets, the Writings, and, most importantly, all of Midrash and Halacha, can be traced back to Sinai. God shows, tells, and teaches Moses everything on Sinai in these various aggadic portrayals.
These aggadot do not aim to portray history, but rather theology: the idea that Sinaitic revelation is a unique experience in human history, and all else derives from it. To believe in Torah mi-Sinai is to believe in a millennia-long process of revelation. This development demands that the court devote its soul to the matter, considering, weighing and debating all possible interpretations. The verdict of the majority, de facto, becomes the true application and realization of God’s word.
This concept would have been invaluable to the Rabbis in establishing the reliability of Rabbinic traditions, especially in a world in which the Oral Torah could be challenged, as it was by the Sadducees (and later in history by the Karaites). This is the function Torah mi-Sinai serves in Rabbinic Literature and Rabbinic Judaism.
The Modern Misunderstanding of Torah Mi-Sinai
As we just saw, Torah mi-Sinai expresses a continuum of revelation upon which Moses, Amos, Antigonus of Socoh, and Rabbi Ammi all reside. It has nothing to do with the question of Mosaic authorship of the Torah, which the Rabbis took for granted, give or take a few verses. On the contrary, m. Sanhedrin 10:1 lists among those who have no portion in the world to come, “one who says… that the Torah is not from heaven (האומר…אין תורה מן השמים).” A baraita in b. Sanhedrin 99a uses this same phrase, in the same way:
כי דבר ה’ בזה – זה האומר אין תורה מן השמים. ואפילו אמר: כל התורה כולה מן השמים, חוץ מפסוק זה שלא אמרו הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא משה מפי עצמו – זהו כי דבר ה’ בזה. ואפילו אמר: כל התורה כולה מן השמים, חוץ מדקדוק זה, מקל וחומר זה, מגזרה שוה זו – זה הוא כי דבר ה’ בזה.
“Because he has despised the LORD’s word” (Num. 15:31) — this is one who says that the Torah is not from Heaven, and even if he says that the entire Torah is from Heaven, except for that verse which was not spoken by the Holy One, Blessed be He, but by Moses independently, this is “Because he has despised the LORD’s word.” Even if he says the entire Torah is from Heaven except for that minutia, that inference, that analogy, this is “Because he has despised the LORD’s word.”
The Rabbis’ fear is that people will claim that Moses (or a later sage) invented a given verse or halacha. In other words, the concern is not giving too little credit to Moses, but too much. Presumably, this is why the Tannaitic view that Joshua wrote the final verses of the Torah (b. Bava Batra 14b-15a) is uncontroversial, since it does not deny that the Torah is God’s literal word.
In the classical rabbinic idiom, Torah mi-Sinai does not refer to the doctrine of Mosaic authorship, though it is often used this way in the modern vernacular. Perhaps the term seemed especially fitting as a response to critical Bible scholarship, which doesn’t directly challenge Torah from Heaven as much as it challenges Torah from Moses. Whether this is how the popular usage came about or not, we must be very circumspect about re-appropriating rabbinic principles with specific meanings for modern polemical purposes. Instead, Torah mi-Sinai may serve the opposite function, as it gives us the framework for an inclusive narrative of continuous rediscovery and ongoing revelation. The attempt to understand the Torah’s origins in light of contemporary academic scholarship can be framed as part of that narrative.
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Rabbi Yoseif Bloch is an Orthodox rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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