Shiur #30: Torah Study (4) Moshe and the Development of the Oral Law

  • Harav Baruch Gigi

I. Introduction

            In the previous shiur, we noted the dual nature of the tradition which the Rambam points out in his introduction to the Yad Ha-chazaka.

            One concept indicates the connection between those who study Torah in the later generations and the Torah that was given to Moshe at Sinai by the Almighty. The purpose of this idea is to present every Torah student as one who learns directly from God, (by virtue of his clinging to the Giver of the Torah who chose His nation Israel with love).

            The second concept is the development of the Torah, generation after generation, from Moshe to Rav Ashi. To this we may add the transmission of the tradition from Rav Ashi by way of the Sabora'im, the Ge'onim, the Rishonim and the Acharonim until this very day.

            The importance of the first concept is clear, but what is the significance of the second concept? Why does the Rambam find it necessary to outline the course of the progression of the transmission of the Torah at such length?

II. The Torah of Man

            The first and most basic principle lies in the very mission of transmitting the tradition. This is the essence of the Oral Law – it can only be preserved by faithful transmission from one generation to the next; from father to son, and from master to disciple. Any severing of this transmission, God forbid, would cause the Torah to be forgotten in Israel. Blessed is our God who has delivered His world and His Torah into the hands of trusted protectors, His nation Israel who preserve the Torah and hand it down with love and devotion from generation to generation.

            However, the matter is deeper than this. God does not just want a direct transmission of the Torah as it is. If He had desired this, the Torah should have been wrapped up and handed down unchanged for all generations. The Torah, however, is not simply an object that must be carefully monitored and delivered as is to the next station. God desires the Torah of a man who studies the Oral Law, understands it, and adds his own insights based on his understanding.

            This is the importance and significance of the Oral Law, which enables the Torah to flourish and develop, to grow and multiply. The connection between the Written Law and the Orally-transmitted Law is like a hammer breaking a rock in pieces. As Chazal say in tractate Chagiga:

And he also took up the text and expounded: "The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails well planted are the words of masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd" (Kohelet 12:11).

Why are the words of the Torah likened to a goad? To teach you that just as the goad directs the heifer along its furrow in order to bring forth life to the world, so the words of the Torah direct those who study them from the paths of death to the paths of life.

But [in case you think] that just as the goad is movable so the words of the Torah are movable; the text says: "Nails."

But [in case you think] that just as the nail diminishes and does not increase, so too the words of the Torah diminish and do not increase; therefore the text says: "Well planted;" just as a plant grows and increases, so the words of Torah grow and increase. "The masters of assemblies" - these are Torah scholars, who sit in manifold assemblies and occupy themselves with the Torah, some pronouncing unclean and others pronouncing clean, some prohibiting and others permitting, some disqualifying and others declaring fit. Should a man say: How shall I learn Torah in these circumstances? Therefore the text says: "All of them are given from one shepherd" - One God gave them and one leader uttered them from the mouth of the Lord of all creation, blessed be He; for it is written: "And God spoke all these words" (Shemot 20:1). Also make your ear like a funnel and have a perceptive heart to understand the words of those who pronounce unclean and the words of those who pronounce clean, the words of those who prohibit and the words of those who permit, the words of those who disqualify and the words of those who declare fit. (Chagiga 3b)

III. The Crowns of the Letters of the Torah

            Chazal expressed this idea in a famous Midrash in tractate Menachot, which describes an encounter between Moshe and Rabbi Akiva (or to be more precise, between Moshe and Rabbi Akiva's teachings):

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: When Moshe ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters. Moshe said: Master of the Universe, who stays Your hand (why can’t You give the Torah as it is)?

He answered: There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, named Akiva bar Yosef, who will expound upon each tittle heaps and heaps of laws.

[Moshe] said to Him: Master of the Universe, permit me to see him.

[God] said to Him: Go back. Moshe went and sat down in the eighth row of students [and listened to the discourses upon the law]. Not being able to follow their arguments he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master: How do you know it?, and the latter replied: It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai, he was comforted.

Thereupon [Moshe] returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said: Master of the Universe, You have such a man and You give the Torah through me!

[God] said to him: Be silent, for such is My decree…. (Menachot 29b)

            It stands to reason that the ascent described here is the ascent mentioned in Parashat Mishpatim:

And the Lord said to Moshe, Come up to Me to the mountain, and be there: and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah, and the commandments which I have written, that you may teach them. (Shemot 24:12)

Moshe ascends on high to receive the Torah, in order to bring it down and deliver it to the people of Israel. When he gets there, Moshe finds God affixing crowns to the letters. As I understand this, the affixing of crowns means that God wishes to give Moshe the Written Law at this time. The crowns that God affixes to the letters symbolize the Oral Law; they are allusions and connective links stemming from the Written Law. These allusions are what allow for the midrashic expositions and the creativity of the Oral Law.

At this stage, the crowns are secrets encrypted in the Written Law. These secrets will be decoded by those who study the Torah throughout the generations, in accordance with the needs of the particular generation and the time period, and in accordance with the directing hand of God's Providence which dwells in the Batei Midrash of each generation. As it is stated:

And you shall come to the priests the Levites, and to the judge that shall be in those days, and inquire; and they shall tell you the sentence of judgment: and you shall do according to the sentence, which they of that place which the Lord shall choose, shall tell you. (Devarim 17:9)

And as Chazal have said: "This teaches that it is the place that conditions [the act]" (Sanhedrin 14b). The place where God's Shekhina rests and illuminates the eyes of the Sages in their studies is where you shall come to inquire after the sentence of judgement.

            Moshe, who understands that God is affixing encrypted crowns in His Torah, does not understand why God does not spell out everything explicitly, without secrets or encryptions. Moshe asks God: "Master of the Universe, who stays Your hand?" As Rashi explains:

Who stays your hand – that You must add crowns to that which You have written. (Rashi, Menachot ad loc.)

Rashi says that Moshe is asking God: Why don't You give the entire Torah with all of its secrets and mysteries revealed from the start? Why don't You spell everything out clearly, without crowns and allusions?

            God answers him and says that a certain man will live in the future and he will expound heaps and heaps of laws on each and every tittle of these crowns. Moshe understands that this man will be exceedingly unique, and that he alone will be allowed to receive the entire Torah with its crowns and mysteries. Therefore, Moshe wishes to see this man, his personality and his special talents.

IV. Go Back

            God answers Moshe and tells him to "go back." Moshe must retreat in order to enable him to encounter Rabbi Akiva. This retreat apparently alludes to Moshe's request in the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, "I pray You, show me Your glory" (Shemot 33:18), and God's answer, "And you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen" (Shemot 33:23). Moshe asks to see God's face, but God allows him only to see His back, not His face.

This verse has been explained in many ways. For our purposes, I wish to suggest as follows: Moshe wishes to understand the ways of God's governance of His world. This request is spelled out in the Gemara in Berakhot:

"I pray you, show me Your ways." Moshe said before Him: Master of the Universe, why is it that some righteous men enjoy prosperity and others are afflicted with adversity, some wicked men enjoy prosperity and others are afflicted with adversity?  (Berakhot 7a)

            According to one opinion in the Gemara, the opinion that seems to accord with the simple meaning of the text, Moshe's request was not fully answered:

For Rabbi Meir said: Only two [requests] were granted to Moshe, and one was not granted to him. For it is stated: "And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious" (Shemot 33:19), although he may not deserve it; "And I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy" (Shemot 33:19), although he may not deserve it. "And He said, You cannot not see My face" (Shemot 33:20) A Tanna taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha: The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe as follows: When I was willing, you were not willing [to see My face]; now that you are willing, I am not willing. (Berakhot 7a)

            God answers Moshe that man cannot know God's ways. He can understand them in hindsight, but He cannot understand them before they are employed. Man can only achieve any type of understanding retroactively. As the prophet Malakhi said: "Then you shall return, and see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serves God and him that does not serve Him" (Malakhi 3:18). Only after the great and terrible day of God arrives will man be able to understand God's ways.

            Based on this, we can explain Moshe's request to see Rabbi Akiva. Moshe asks to understand the mystery of the crowns given to Rabbi Akiva from the outset. That is to say, he seeks to understand what is special about these crowns. Nevertheless, God tells Moshe to "go back;" as if to say: You will be able to see and understand these things only when you look backwards, but not when you observe them directly.

V. Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash

            Moshe does not arrive in the Beit Midrash for a direct encounter with Rabbi Akiva. At this stage, there is no dialogue between the Written Law and the Oral Law.

            When Moshe arrives in Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash, he sits there like any other student. Moshe listens, but does not understand what is being said. The Torah that he hears seems so different from the Torah that he had received on Mount Sinai. Moshe understands that this Torah is more profound and meaningful than the Torah that he had received. Crowns and heaps and heaps of laws are affixed to Rabbi Akiva's Torah, and Moshe feels exhausted and full of despair.

            Suddenly, the moment arrives when a question echoes within the walls of the Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash. In answering, Rabbi Akiva links his Torah to the Torah of Moshe, and it turns out that the words of Rabbi Akiva are "a law given to Moshe at Sinai." Rabbi Akiva's perception of the relationship between the two Torahs is so different from Moshe’s perception! Rabbi Akiva's perception is "face to face." He is very familiar with the path leading from Moshe's Torah to his own teachings; all the stages through which the tradition passed as it was handed down from Moshe to him.

Moshe's perception, in contrast, is that of looking backwards. Even at this stage, even after he is in Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash, Moshe does not understand what is being said there. He understands that in some hidden way the words are connected to his Torah, and that this is "a law given to Moshe at Sinai."

Moshe is comforted by the very fact that this is not a different Torah completely detached from his own teachings. His Torah, it turns out, has not disappeared, but continues to exist in other forms. Even though neither the content nor the path leading from his own Torah to Rabbi Akiva's teachings is clear to him, Moshe knows that Rabbi Akiva's teachings rest upon and draw from his own Torah.

VI. For Such is My Decree

            After reaching this understanding, Moshe turns once again to God and asks: You have such a man and You give the Torah by me! Moshe's outcry indicates his feeling that it would be right for Rabbi Akiva, who sees the full picture and the relationship between Moshe's Torah and his own teachings, should give the Torah to the people of Israel, since he understands the development from the Written Law to the Orally-transmitted Law. The Oral Law grew in a wondrous manner in Rabbi Akiva's Beit Midrash, as Chazal said in a different Midrash:

And it is written: "These are the things which I have done, and I have not forsaken them" (Yeshaya 42:16). It is not written: "which I will do," but rather: "which I have done," which I have already done for Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. Things that were not revealed to Moshe were revealed to Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. "And his eye sees every precious thing" (Iyov 28:10) – this is Rabbi Akiva and his colleagues. (Bemidbar Rabba, 19)

            God's reply to Moshe is: "Be silent, for such is My decree." With your "looking backwards," you do not understand the matter, but with my looking forward, says God, this is what must be. "For such is My decree," the decree of God, who sees from the beginning to the end, and who sees the end from the beginning.

            God's plan was that Moshe should receive the Written Law and give it to Israel. This cleaving to God is Moshe’s personal trait and it dictates absolute adherence to the written word. Therefore, when doubts arise, Moshe does not resolve them in accordance with his own understanding, but rather he seeks to hear the word of God directly: "Stand still, and I will hear what the Lord will command concerning you" (Bemidbar 9:8).

The Oral Law begins to develop in the generation after Moshe. Already in Yehoshua's generation we hear of laws that were initially forgotten and then restored by Otniel ben Kenaz. This gradual development continued from generation to generation, until the great leap forward made by Rabbi Akiva and his disciples. They are the root of the Oral Law, and it is they who developed it into a comprehensive and massive corpus, as is stated in the Gemara in Sanhedrin:

For Rabbi Yochanan said: An unattributed Mishna is Rabbi Meir; an unattributed Tosefta is Rabbi Nechemya; an unattributed Sifra is Rabbi Yehuda; an unattributed Sifre is Rabbi Shimon; and all of them are in accordance with Rabbi Akiva. (Sanhedrin 86a)

Moshe, who sees himself as representing the Written Law, understands that Rabbi Akiva represents the Oral Law, and wishes that the entire Torah be given by way of Rabbi Akiva. But God, who desires a Torah of man alongside God's Torah, wants Moshe to give the Written Law, while Rabbi Akiva is charged with disseminating the Oral Law.

VII. And They Say: "It is a Law Given to Moshe at Sinai"

            This ideas find additional expression in another Midrash, Oti'ot de-Rabbi Akiva:

…And because Moshe said: "But I am slow of speech and of a slow tongue" and "I am not an eloquent man" (Shemot 4:10), he merited that the Holy One, blessed be He, said of him: "My servant Moshe is not so… With him I speak mouth to mouth" (Bemidbar 12:7-8), and he merited saying: "These are the words" (Devarim 1:1).

And because Moshe said: "And what are we" (Shemot 16:8), he merited that the Holy One, blessed be he, said to him: You say that you are slow of speech and of a slow tongue; by your life, I will open your mouth and allow your tongue to speak more than all other people. For all the chambers of the Torah and all the treasures of wisdom that I have on high will be revealed only through you, as it is stated: "And I will be with your mouth, and teach you what you shall say" (Shemot 4:12). If it says: "I will be with your mouth," why does it say: "I will teach you"; and if it says: "I will teach you," why does it say: "I will be with your mouth"? Rather, "I will be with your mouth" means that I will open your mouth and allow your tongue to speak, and "I will teach you" refers to the treasures of wisdom that that the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed to him, so that he would see the entire order of creation with his wisdom.

As it is stated: "My servant Moshe is not so, for he is the trusted one in all My house." It does not say: "in My house," but rather: "in all My house," teaching that the Holy One, blessed be He, appointed Moshe over all of Israel, and over all the treasures of the Torah, and over all the treasures of wisdom, of understanding, of knowledge, of the Garden of Eden, and of life, and He showed him all the precious gifts of this world and of the world-to-come.

But when Moshe saw behind the Curtain, he saw sets of scribes and sets of members of the Sanhedrin in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, expounding the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings in forty-nine ways, as it is stated: "The words of the Lord are pure words: silver refined in a furnace upon the ground, purified seven times (shiv'atayim)" (Tehilim 12:7), (And what is shiv'atayim? These are the forty-nine faces of Moshe's Torah…); at that time Moshe saw the constellation of Rabbi Akiva behind God's Curtain, who was sitting and expounding the letters of the Torah. For every crown of every letter he gave three hundred and sixty five explanations of the Torah. He immediately filled with fear and dread and said: I have no business serving as God's agent, and I have no business with the words of the Torah. As it is stated: "O my Lord, send, I pray You, by the hand of him whom You will send" (Shemot 4:13).

It was revealed before the Holy One, blessed be He, what was in the heart of Moshe. What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He sent him to Sangazel, the angel of all wisdom and understanding. What did he do? He seized Moshe, and led him somewhere else, and showed him behind the Curtain of God, myriads and myriads of the constellations of Sages and wise men and members of the Sanhedrin and scribes, sitting and expounding the reasons of the Torah, and Scripture, and Mishna, and Midrash, and Halakhot, and Aggadot, and traditions, and additions, and saying: "It is a law given to Moshe at Sinai." Immediately he was comforted. (Otiyot de-Rabbi Akiva, letter tzadi)

            According to this Midrash, it was God's intention to give Moshe the Oral Law as well. But Moshe saw the members of the Sanhedrin expounding the Torah, and was unable to integrate himself into the process. Moshe then said to God: "I have no business with the words of the Torah… Send by the hand of him whom You will send," meaning Rabbi Akiva. But then God calmed Moshe down by showing him those same members of the Sanhedrin expounding the vast expanses of the Oral Law, and basing their words on the laws that were given to Moshe at Sinai.


            As we mentioned at the beginning of this shiur, this concept that leads from Moshe to Rav Ashi and passes through Rabbi Akiva is the arrow of the development of the Torah. God desires the innovations that His children introduce into His Torah in every generation, and He Himself sits on high and occupies Himself with His children's Torah, with what this child says and with what that child says.

The two concepts meet. The arrow leading from Rav Ashi in the direction of Moshe and the mouth of the Almighty, which joins those studying the Torah across the generations to the word of God at Sinai meets the arrow leading from Moshe to Rav Ashi, which develops the word of God in the Oral Law into the Torah of man which grows out of its source in the Written Law and decodes the crowns of the letters in every generation in accordance with the needs of the time. The two concepts join together to connect every student to God's Torah, both the written and the oral.

As is stated in the liturgy: "When the Written Law joins with the Oral Law, 'His left hand is under my head, and His right hand embraces me' (Shir Ha-Shirim 2:5)."

(Translated by David Strauss)