Yelamdeinu Rabbeinu: The Exclusivity of the Oral Law
The Form of an Ancient Halachic Sermon
Like sermons today, ancient Jewish homilies took a variety of forms, and were given in a variety of contexts. One ancient genre of Jewish homilies is called the ילמדנו yelamdeinu (“may he teach”), aptly named as the homily begins with the formula ילמדנו רבינו (“Let our master teach us”), and is followed by a halachic question. These yelamdeinu homilies all share the same structure:
- A member of the audience poses a halachic question.
- The darshan, the person giving the homily, then answers the question using prooftext(s) from Tanakh.
- Through a series of associations and further prooftexts, the darshan progresses to the first line or lines of the Torah portion for that day.
The Process not the Question is the Key
The initial halachic question is usually not difficult, and is in fact one whose answer is generally known both by the darshan and the common population. The challenge for the darshan is to get from the halachic question to the beginning of the Torah portion. A successful yelamdeinu homily would connect the initial halachic question to the beginning of the Torah portion for the day through unexpected connections; congregants might subtly indicate their rapt attention by inserting noises of satisfaction and surprise during the homily.
Can a Translator Look at the Torah Scroll? A Yelamdeinu Text from Midrash Tanhuma
We will look at one example of a Yelamdeinu midrash, which appears in Midrash Tanchuma (“Vayera” 6).
ילמדנו רבינו מי שהוא מתרגם לקורא בתורה, מהו שיסתכל בכתב?
Teach us, our rabbi, may the one who is translating the Torah for the reader look at the scroll itself?
The challenge for the darshan in this case is moving from this halachic question to Gen 18:17, a section from Parashat Vayera וירא, which began the Torah reading:
וַֽי-הֹוָ֖ה אָמָ֑ר הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה.
And Yhwh said, “Should I hide from Abraham what I am going to do?”
The verse bears no direct relationship to the initial question, and therefore the thrill of the audience is to listen to the darshan move from this question about the translator of the Torah portion to what God said to Abraham concerning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The Role of the מתורגמן (Translator)
Since many people in the congregation could not comprehend the reading of the Torah portion in Hebrew, in antiquity, the translator of the Torah portion stood near the Torah reader to translate the Hebrew into the common vernacular, typically Aramaic. The initial question of the midrash is whether a translator may look at the Torah scroll while translating for the community. The answer is:
כך שנו רבותינו: המתרגם אסור לו להסתכל בס”ת ולתרגם כדי שלא יאמרו תרגום כתוב בתורה.
Thus our Rabbis taught: The one translating is forbidden to look on the Sefer Torah while translating, lest [a spectator] say that the translation is in the Torah (itself).
The midrash observes that if the one translating were to look at the Torah scroll while doing so, the translations might be confused with what was actually written in the scroll, and thus the translation would also be considered God’s verbatim revelation. This is a problem from the rabbi’s perspective, since they believed that God’s words only are found in the Torah.
The text makes the inverse claim as well:
והקורא אסור ליתן עיניו חוץ לתורה שלא נתנה התורה אלא בכתב…
The person reading [the Torah] may not look away from the Torah scroll, for the Torah was only given in writing…
The midrash cites Exodus 34:1b as proof:
וְכָתַבְתִּי֙ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים
And I will write upon the tablets the words…
In this citation, God tells Moses that God will write the words that were on the first tablets onto the second set. Moses’ job is to hew the stones (Exod 34:1a), but it will be God who will write the words upon it. Through this prooftext, the midrash argues that the precise words written in the Torah are God’s words. Stated another way, God’s mode of revelation of the Torah is the written word. This explains the answer to the halachic question: the public reading of the written word requires looking at the scroll, while the spoken word (translation/recitation) requires orality, and the two may not be mixed.
“Write for Yourself” vs. “By the Mouth”
Subsequently in the midrash, Rabbi Judah ben Pazi identifies Exodus 34:27 as directly pertinent to this issue:
כְּתָב לְךָ֖ אֶת הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה כִּ֞י עַל פִּ֣י הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה כָּרַ֧תִּי אִתְּךָ֛ בְּרִ֖ית וְאֶת יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Write for yourself these things, (for) according to these things I made a covenant with you and with Israel.
The beginning of the verse, “Write for yourself these words…” is evidence for ben Pazi that the Torah was given in writing, while the second half of the verse, “…for according to these words I made a covenant with you and with Israel” refers to the Oral Torah. In order to make this argument, the darshan is performing a play on the phrase על־פִי in the verse, which may be translated idiomatically or literally.
Idiomatically, the phrase means “according to,” and this is the rendition found in most modern translations. The phrase, however, literally means “by the mouth,” that is, orally, and thus could be understood to refer to the oral Torah (תורה שבעל פה), specifically the Mishnah. The midrash uses this pun to articulate that the performance of Torah translation is also given by God as oral revelation, just as the text is written revelation. Together, the weekly reading and translating of the Torah on each Shabbat are a symbolic reenactment of God’s giving of the Torah to Moses at Sinai.
The midrashic homily continues, further elucidating the play on words and how the distinction between the oral and written laws is connected through the midrashic prooftext in Exodus:
א”ר יהודה בר סימון כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת ישראל על ידי מה ע”י כתב לך ועל ידי על פה אם קיימת מה שבכתב בכתב ומה שבע”פ על פה כרתי אתך ברית ואם שנית מה שבכתב על פה ומה שבע”פ בכתב לא כרתי אתך ברית.
Rabbi Judah bar Simon said, “For based on these things I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” [This was done] through writing and through word of mouth, “for these words are by mouth” (Exod. 34:27). If you preserve what is in the writing in writing and what is by word of mouth by word of mouth, “I have made [a covenant] with you.” But if you change what is by mouth into writing and what is in writing into words of mouth, “I have (not) made [a covenant] with you.”
Rabbi Judah bar Simon contends that maintaining the distinction between written and oral Torah is covenantal. If Israel maintains the written law as written, and the oral law as oral, the covenant will stand. If, however, the written text becomes oral, or the oral law gets written down, Israel has abrogated the covenant.
Moses Wants to Write the Mishnah but God Objects
The midrash continues and relates a discussion between Moses and God, where Moses wants even the oral law (i.e. Mishnah) to be written down:
א”ר יהודה בר שלום בקש משה שתהא המשנה אף היא בכתב, וצפה הקדוש ברוך הוא שאומות עתידין לתרגם את התורה ולהיות קוראין אותה יונית והן אומרין אנו הן של ישראל, א”ל הקב”ה למשה “אכתב לו רובי תורתי” וא”כ “כמו זר נחשבו.”
Rabbi Judah bar Shalom the Levite said: Moses wanted the Mishnah also to be written down, but the Holy One foresaw that the peoples of the world were going to translate the Torah and read it in Greek. Then they would say, “we too are Israel.” The Holy One said to him (Hosea 8:12): “Should I write the full abundance of my Torah for you?” If so, “They would have been reckoned as strangers.”
God refuses to accede to Moses’ request that the Oral Law be written as well because he foresees that in the future, nations would translate the written Torah, read it in Greek, and claim that they themselves were also Israel.
In answer to Moses, God offers a proof text from Hosea 8:12, “I wrote for him [only] many [but not all the] laws,” that is, the written Torah, and as a result “…they are accounted as something foreign.” The plural “they” refers to the nation(s) that claim to be Israel once they have the written law in Greek.
Implicit here is an underlying context in which early Christians (and other non-rabbinic Jews) claimed to be Israel, the true heirs of God’s covenant. This text makes it explicit that those using the Greek translation only, and thus claiming to be the true Israel, are not, in fact, the true inheritors of God’s covenant: they are “as something foreign.”
The “Mystery” of the Mishnah
The oral law (the Mishnah) is therefore something only appropriate for the true initiates, the righteous of the Lord. The darshan explains:
וכ”כ למה מפני שהמשנה היא מסטורין של הקדוש ברוך הוא ואין הקב”ה מוסר מסטורין שלו אלא לצדיקים שנאמר סוד ה’ ליראיו.
And why all this? Because the Mishnah is a mystery belonging to the Holy One, and the Holy One reveals his mystery only to the righteous. Thus it is stated, “The secret of the Lord is for those who fear him” (Ps. 25:14).
Writing down the oral law would make it easily accessible for all the nations, as easy as it is for the nations to translate the written law into Greek and make claims that they too are Israel. Instead, this section justifies the election of Israel through the unique access to the oral law, as delivered through the rabbis.
Mystery Cults in the Hellenistic World
This midrash is alluding to the popular mystery cults of the Hellenistic period, where only those who undergo the proper initiations (mystai) are allowed to learn of the mysteries of that cult, that is, its meanings and secrets. The word מסטורין is a Greek loan word, referring directly to the Hellenistic mystery cults. This allusion is reinforced through the use of the word סוד (“sod”), which here means “secret knowledge.” The darshan is intending to impart to his audience that those with access to the oral law are the elect elite—just like those who participated in the Hellenistic mystery cults. Having made his main point, he is ready to connect it to the weekly Torah reading concerning the impending destruction of Sodom, now found in the middle of Genesis 18.
Arriving at the Main Verse: Concluding the Derasha
The midrash brilliantly connects the mystery religions to Genesis 18:17: “Should I hide from Abraham what I am going to do (הַֽמְכַסֶּ֤ה אֲנִי֙ מֵֽאַבְרָהָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר אֲנִ֥י עֹשֶֽׂה)?” Since those with access to the oral law are the elect, and God is choosing to share God’s mysteries with Abraham here in Genesis, Abraham and his descendants are the true recipients of true mysteries.
Although the following verses in Genesis are not mentioned here, they too are an important subtext of this midrash. Gen 18:19 reads:
כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְ-הֹוָ֔ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְ-הֹוָה֙ עַל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו:
For I have chosen him in order that he may command his children and his household after him so that they may keep the way of the Lord to do what is right and just.
Abraham instructing his children and future offspring bears the markings of an oral tradition, perhaps even the oral law, which the midrash has called God’s mystery. This implies that Abraham already received the oral law. Abraham, representing all Israel, is elected by God, and hears God’s mysteries, as reflected by Genesis 18:17: “Should I hide from Abraham what I am going to do?” And Abraham will orally pass on these mysteries to all future generations of Jews, thereby distinguishing them from other groups who might also accept the written Torah.
And with that, the darshan has, in a clever and entertaining way, connected the initial halachic question to the Torah portion and offered a novel way of reading Gen 18:17-19; God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to be exclusive participants in God’s own mystery cult: Rabbinic Judaism.
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February 25, 2016
October 18, 2019
Dr. Shayna Sheinfeld is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. She received her Ph.D. in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism from McGill University. Sheinfeld has published articles on the pseudepigrapha, apocalypses, and the reception of Jewish scripture in early Rabbinic and Christian circles. Her latest article, “The Euphrates as Temporal Marker in 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch” is available in the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Dr. Sheinfeld also writes extensively on pedagogical practices in the classroom.
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