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This Week's Old Testament: What Are Jews Learning at Synagogue Today?

Judaism and Christianity may justly be termed two religions divided over a common book.

That book, of course, is what Christians term the “Old Testament”; Jews know it as Tanach: an acronym made of the initial letters of Torah, the first five books, also called Chumash, from the Hebrew word chamésh, “five”; Nëvi’im, “Prophets,” comprising 21 works authored by and recording the words of prophets; and Këthuvim, “Writings,” comprising another 12 books.

To this, some Christians (Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox) append a group of texts, for the most part extant anciently only in Greek, known as the Apocrypha, “hidden” or “secret” books. Protestants join with the Jews in not accepting these into the Canon.

All Christians, of course, append yet another set of texts, the “New Testament,” also composed in Greek, which they believe to modify and to an extent supersede Tanach, especially parts of the Chumash (hence the terms “old” and “new”).

This discussion will focus on the Chumash, which is also known in Jewish sources as the Torah shebi-chthav, the “Written Torah.”

For over three millennia, traditional Jewish civilization has accepted this document to be what it claims to be, the actual words of the Almighty, transcribed by Moshe (“Moses”) on Mt. Sinai from G-d’s dictation, and the constitution of the nation of Israel, which Torah sources tell us was officially founded on 6 Sivan 2448 A.M. (anno mundi, or “in the world-year,” a Latin term for the traditional Jewish calendar. Sivan is a month in the late spring, 6 Sivan occurring fifty days after the onset of Passover. The current year is 5776.)

It has long been the accepted practice to read the Torah scroll in the synagogue in a series of weekly readings (commonly called parashoth or “divisions”), so arranged that all five books, from Genesis through Deuteronomy, are covered in the course of a single year. That cycle is just about to begin again, with the reading of Parashath Bëréshith, on the sabbath which falls on October 10 this year.

I’ve been asked to undertake a regular series of articles covering the themes of these parashoth, to be published on a weekly basis, much as if I were giving a talk in a synagogue. This article is intended as the introduction to the series, which will necessarily be tailored so as to be read by people who aren’t Jewish but might be interested in how we read and interpret Scripture.

I said above that “Torah sources” tell us when the founding of the Jewish nation took place, for Jews believe that when Moshe was up on the mountain he was also given a set of definitions, explanations, and rules for applied research in the written Torah. This we know as the Torah she-b’al peh, the “Oral Torah,” transmitted to all of Israel when Moshe taught and explicated the scroll be brought down from Sinai with the Tablets. Just as the New Testament is the living, breathing heart of Christianity, no less is the Oral Torah the living, breathing heart of traditional Jewish civilization.

As these will also be a necessary part of these discussions, a little familiarization is surely in order.

A careful reading of the Chumash, whether in the original Hebrew or in a modern translation, reveals that it covers all the major categories of legislation needed for a functioning society. Yet that same careful reading will reveal many places in which otherwise inexplicable gaps, seeming contradictions, and cryptic references occur were they not filled by the Oral Torah. Here are a few examples:

(1) Israel are enjoined to observe the Sabbath, and to refrain from performing on it any mëlacha. Indeed, performing a mëlacha on the Sabbath is so serious that it potentially carries a death sentence (cf. e.g. Exodus XXXV,2). Yet, exactly what is covered by this crucial term is never defined in the Chumash; it is left to the Oral Torah.

(2) In Deuteronomy XXIV, 1-5 we meet with a technical discussion of the details of divorce without ever having considered the formalities of marriage. These are explained in the Oral Torah.

(3) Two apparently contradictory passages are Exodus XII, 15, which seems to say that Passover lasts seven days, and Deuteronomy XVI, 8, where it appears to last six days. These are reconciled and explained in the Oral Torah (Pësachim 120a).

(4) As a final example, in Deuteronomy XII, 21 we read that animals are to be slaughtered for sacrifice and meat, ka-asher tzivvithicha, “as I commanded you.” You will search the Chumash in vain for the commandment; it is to be found only in the Oral Torah.

There are numerous references throughout Tanach to the existence of the Oral Torah beside the written Torah, where we find it said that Israel received Toroth, plural of Torah, at Sinai (the minimum of the plural of course being two), e.g., in the Chumash: Exodus XVI,28, XVIII,16-20 and Leviticus XXVI,46; in the Prophets: Isaiah XXIV,5 and Ezekiel XLIV,24; and in the Writings: Psalms CV.45, Daniel IX,10, and Nehemiah IX,13. There are also frequent references to mishpatim (“judgments”, i.e. laws derived by the application of the rules of exegesis, as contrasted with chuqqim, laws which are simply Divine decrees, in e.g. of the above Leviticus XXVI,46 and Nehemiah IX,13). The verse from Daniel above also refers more obliquely to these extensions, which are also evident in such statements as (Exodus XXX,13): Zeh yittenu kol ha-‘over ‘al ha-pëqudim… (“This each one who passes in the census will give….”), clearly referring to a coin of specific size and weight which Moshe was shown in delineating the commandment of the half-sheqel still observed to this day.

As the result of religious persecutions, the first of which immediately followed the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the Second Century CE, the Oral Torah began to be reduced to writing in three stages.

First came the publication of the Mishna by Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi in the Second Century. Then, the publication of the Talmud Yerushalmi (“Jerusalem Talmud,” so-called even though Jews were at the time forbidden to live in Jerusalem), and the edited “lecture notes” of the great academies of the Galilee by Rabbi Yochanan bar-Nappacha in the Fourth Century. The third stage was the publication of the Talmud Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud, the accumulated lecture notes of the two great academies in Babylon (modern Iraq), in the Fifth Century.

These texts are accepted by all Jews as the Oral Torah.

The Oral Torah was originally left oral because Judaism is a learned religion, handed down from father to son, rabbi to student, and G-d wished that each previous generation serve as role models by imparting the teachings directly to the next. Even today, it requires years of intense study under experienced teachers to reach the point where one acquires the methodology and can independently negotiate the written texts of the Talmud while avoiding what the Talmud terms gilluy panim ba-Torah she-lo ka-halacha (“revealing improper facets in the Torah”).

The Jewish attitude has never been to say that the book is on the shelf, go ahead and read it. In the course of those years of study, life-long relationships between teacher and student are developed.

The Mishna forms the basis of the Oral Torah, and is the springboard for the discussions developed in the Gemara, the “lecture notes” referred to above. Both words are derived from terms (in Hebrew and Aramaic, respectively) which mean “learning,” and the Mishna and Gemara together comprise the Talmud (itself derived from the more general Hebrew word for “learn”). Mishna is derived from the root of the verb found in Deuteronomy VI, 7: …ve-shinnantam le-vanecha ve-dibbarta bam (“…and you will teach them to your sons and speak of them”). The underlying meaning is repetitive, rote learning for memorization; the unusual word bam is taken by the Talmud to refer to both the written and oral Torah, the first letter, beyth, being the first letter in Genesis, and the last letter, mem, being the first letter of the Mishna.

Given, then, as demonstrated above, that there must be an Oral Torah, can the Jewish people rely on anything besides tradition or blind faith that the Talmud is the Oral Torah?

The Talmud itself provides us with some interesting corroborating evidence (all of the citations in what follows are taken from the Mishna specifically), which will also serve to indicate the sorts of questions dealt with in the Talmud and by modern rabbis today.

Leviticus XIII-XV contains a detailed description of a medical condition called tzora‘ath, often mistranslated “leprosy.” The Oral Torah also discusses aspects of this condition, and in Nega‘im VI, 1 specifically addresses a person present at Sinai who exhibited symptoms of the condition, and asks if he was subject to the restrictions which had not been known before the Torah was given. The Mishna “grandfathers” him in.

In Numbers XXXV, 9-34, Israel are commanded to designate six ‘arei miqlat, “cities of refuge,” for those guilty of manslaughter or negligent homicide. In the Mishna (Makkoth II, 4) it is specifically ruled that even though three of the cities had been designated by Moshe before the conquest of the Holy Land, they were not operative until the completion of the conquest and designation of the remaining three.

In Leviticus XIX, 23-25, the laws of ‘orla, under which fruit tress may not be harvested for the first three years after they begin bearing, are discussed. In ‘Orla I, 2, the problem of young fruit trees planted by the Canaanites and captured by Israel is discussed (they are ruled exempt from ‘orla).

In Numbers XXVII, the case of the daughters of Tzelofechad, who died in the desert without a male heir, is discussed. The Mishna (Bava Bathra VIII, 3) discusses technical details of the division of the inheritance amongst the girls.

In addition to the above examples, the Talmud also contains numerous other rulings made by Moshe and his immediate successor, Yehoshua‘ bin Nun (“Joshua”), at the very dawn of Jewish history, all of which serve to confirm and corroborate that the Oral Torah in our possession is indeed the one alluded to in the biblical citations supra.

These rulings are almost as old as Israel, and no one with an unprejudiced mind would think that these rulings were proposed after the events to which they relate, “theoretically,” as it were. It is simply absurd to suggest that later rabbinical authorities ruled concerning, e.g. tzora‘ath at Sinai. What would have been the point? Who would have been affected by such a ruling?

The written Torah makes it very clear that the revelation of Torah ceased with Moshe (cf. e.g. Deuteronomy XIII, 1), and it provides for its administration by the rabbinical authorities in the generations which followed. Thus, in Ibid., XXX, 11-12, we learn that the Torah is lo ba-shamayim, “not in the heavens,” but in the hands of human beings (cf. also Bava Metzia‘ 59b). In Numbers XI,16-17, Moshe established the first Sanhedrin; in Deuteronomy XVII, 9-11, rabbinical leadership is established.

Along with these works, there are various collections of homiletic interpretations called midrashim which survive from the Talmudic period, ranging from historical observations and metaphors to highly esoteric thoughts, as well as many hundreds of commentaries written by rabbis through the ages, which often incorporate insights from the Talmud and midrashim. More are published every year. These, too, will be grist to my rabbinic mill, and I will try to cite them carefully so that the reader will understand just who and what is being offered.

I will strive for general clarity; all discussions and interpretations will be based on the original Hebrew text as I translate it, not on any other particular “version.” The only version we accept as authoritative is the original.

So please join me as we explore the fruits of 3328 years of Jewish thought and Biblical scholarship.