Proving The Oral Law
By Rabbi Yair Hoffman • Five Towns Jewish Times
Sometimes people need a boost in their emunah. This week’s parashah, Re’eih, provides us with an interesting boost, as well as food for thought. There is a fascinating verse that describes the notion of shechitah, Jewish slaughter.
The verse states, “You may slaughter your cattle and small animals that G-d has given you, in the manner that I have prescribed” (Devarim 12:21). And yet nowhere in the written law is there any previous (or further) instruction as to how to slaughter.
A bit earlier we find another interesting verse. The pasuk (11:18) tells us that one must place frontlets (“totafos,” tefillin) between the eyes. But nowhere does the Torah tell us what these frontlets are.
There are parts of the Bible that are difficult to understand—indeed they are almost inexplicable to the uninitiated. Yet Jewish tradition sheds enormous light on these areas, as does the archaeological record.
All devout Jews believe that Moses brought down the Torah from Mount Sinai in the year 2448 after creation—approximately 3,321 years before the present year, 5769. (Christians, Muslims, and Mormons believe that various additional scriptures—the Gospels, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, etc.—later also became part of the bible, but they too believe in the Sinaitic revelation of the Five Books of Moses.)
Jewish tradition, known as the Oral Law (Torah she’be’al peh), provides us with the full explanation of the issues described above. Regarding the frontlets, Jewish tradition tells us what they are: sections of the Bible must be written on parchment and carefully placed inside leather boxes. An animal hair must be wrapped around the parchment, as well. The leather boxes must be completely square and completely black. These are frontlets. These traditions go all the way back to Moses—in the language of the sages, they are “halachah l’Moshe miSinai.” The archaeological record has turned up many of these frontlets dating back to Biblical times. The point is that if you believe in the Bible, you cannot believe that Moses delivered the bible free of any oral explanations.
Similarly, we have a tradition as to five different requirements for the slaughter of an animal (see Chulin 28a). These traditions, too, date back to Moses.
Perhaps a modern-day illustration of the concept of an oral tradition would be useful.
Imagine you are having surgery. You proceed to the surgeon’s office and he tells you something extraordinary: In the medical school at which he was trained, there was a newfangled, experimental curriculum; there were no teachers, only textbooks. There were no people to orally hand down traditions or surgical techniques, no one to teach the doctor how to actually perform surgery. But the theory that the medical school relies upon is that all (or almost all) that the doctor needs to know is contained in the textbook. Would you let this surgeon, who was never shown any surgical techniques in practice, operate on you? Not quite!
And yet this is what some people would have you believe regarding the Bible: “G-d gave the Jewish people a book through Moses. Period. End of story.”
No—quite the contrary. Any thinking person would realize that Judaism is a way of life, and the oral explanations surely do exist. Indeed, there were a number of Christian scholars throughout the generations who recognized this. The greatest Christian biblical commentator was a fellow by the name of Nicolaus de Lyra, (c. 1270–1349 CE). De Lyra was a French Franciscan who recognized and based a good portion of his commentary on the Oral Law.
Until de Lyra, Christian biblical interpretations were collected in something called the Glossa Ordinaria. This was a compilation of the thoughts on scripture of the church fathers. It is true that Jerome, author of the Vulgate translation of the bible, consulted with Jews on various meanings, but since then the church fathers have been pretty much on their own. De Lyra wrote a work called the Postillae Perpetuae, which culled much of the information of the Oral Law of the Jews from the commentary of Rashi. The work is in Latin and quotes freely from Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, the greatest of the Jewish Biblical commentators.
For example, in Sefer Yeshayah (Isaiah), the first verse says, “The vision of Yeshayahu the son of Amotz which he saw concerning Yehudah and Yerushalayim in the days of Uziyahu, Yosam, Achaz, and Yechizkiyahu, kings of Yehudah.” On this verse, Lyra writes as follows: “Filii Amos. Et ut dicit hic Rabbi Salomon iste Amos et Amasias rex Juda fuerent fraters, et sic Esaias fuit de genere region.” Translated into English, this means: “And as Rabbi Salomon (Rashi) says here, “Amoz1 and Amaziah, kings of Judah, were brothers, and thus Isaiah was of royal birth.”
When we examine the words of Rashi, we see as follows: “Said Rabbi Levi, this matter is a tradition in our hands from our forefathers. Amotz and Amatzia, king of Judah, were brothers.”
Clearly, Nicolaus de Lyra both appreciated and reckoned with the oral traditions of the Jews.
And he was not the only one. Origen, a church father who died in 253, writes of Jews that sat down with him and gave him some of their oral traditions concerning the explanations of various passages and laws in the bible (Migne: Patrologia Graeca, II, column 62f). Jerome, who lived from 331 CE to 420 CE, also accepted many of the oral traditions of the Jews, and in his preface to the Chronicles mentions one of his three Jewish teachers by name, Bar Chanina. Indeed, a Christian scholar writing about Jerome in The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge writes that Jerome “was hampered too much by Jewish tradition”! (Vol. VI, p. 127; the author’s name is O. Zockler.)
It is inconceivable that Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses) would deliver the Torah to the Jews without oral traditions. While these traditions were highly regarded by the most intelligent of the Christian commentators, these traditions have been wholly ignored by the masses of bible students.
Now that we have demonstrated the existence and truths of the Oral Law, let us go on to explore the role of Moshe. In both Jewish eyes and in the gentile world he was known as the lawgiver. G-d chose him because of his remarkable character, and G-d would certainly not have chosen someone of low intellect to be the conduit of the Word of G-d.
One aspect of Moshe’s job was to ensure the continuity and integrity of the Bible, the oral traditions, and the Jewish people. It has been over 3,300 years—how well did he do? Surprisingly enough, the Jews are still around. To quote Mark Twain (“Concerning the Jews,” Harper’s Magazine, September 1899):
“The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
And the Bible as well has survived remarkably intact. A comparison of the texts even of the schismatic movement that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls reveals remarkable symmetry and correlation with other Bible texts. A comparison of the 304,000-some-odd words of the Bible, from the Sephardic world to the Yemenite world to the Ashkenazic world, yields only two differences: The spelling of the words “petzua dakah” in Devarim 23:2 and whether the first word in Bereishis 9:29 is “Vayehi [kol yemei Noach]” or “Vayihyu.”
Josephus, the famous historian, boasts of the long tradition of accuracy that has characterized the transmission of the Jewish scriptures and traditions (Contra Apion I:6, Thakeray 6th ed., p. 175, 181). Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud informs us of a special class of scribes called “book correctors” who lived in Jerusalem, were paid by the Temple treasury, and spent their time ensuring that the texts did not get corrupted.
When the Jews of Alexandria were first approached regarding the translation of the Septuagint, they were well aware of the concept of text corruption, so they sent to the Kohein Gadol in Jerusalem to obtain an exact copy (letter of Aristeas, found in Aristeas to Philocrates M. Hadas, 1951, No. 30, p. 111).
Given Moses’ remarkable track record in setting the foundation for the survival of the Jewish people and of the Bible, surely he also took steps to make sure that the Oral Law would be transmitted to future generations, safeguarding the authenticity of the whole Torah.
Look at the fathers of this country. They created documents that have stood the test of time. The Declaration of Independence is still a source of enormous inspiration. The Constitution remains a remarkable document that serves as a beacon of light to democracies the world over. No sane American questions the authenticity of these documents or that they continue to affect and inspire us to this day. How much more so do logic, truth, common sense, and the historical record reveal the veracity of our Jewish traditions. Moses would not have had it any different.
1. “Amos” in the original refers to Amotz (Anglicized as “Amoz”), not to be confused with Amos (the prophet). In the Latin alphabet, the letter S represents the sounds “tz,” “sh,” and “s.”