Traditional Judaism counts 613 individual commandments (mitzvoth) in the five books of the written Torah. In many ways, the commandment to study Torah (cf. e.g. Deuteronomy VI, 9 and XI, 19-21) is central to all of the others.
At the foot of Mt. Sinai, before ever encountering the intricacies of those 613 commandments, Israel declared to Moshe: Kol asher dibbér Ha-Shem na‘ase vënishma‘ (“Everything which Ha-Shem has said, we shall do and we shall hear,” Exodus XXIV, 7). Obviously, one has to learn what to do and how to do it before doing it; as the Oral Torah tells us, Éyn bur yëré’ chét’ vëlo ‘am ha’aretz chasid (“A fool does not fear sin, nor is an ignorant man pious,” Avoth II, 6).
But it is much more than that. Torah study is intended to be the centrality of the Jew’s spiritual and intellectual life. King David expressed this ideal when he began his compendium of religious poetry: Ashrei ha’ish asher lo halach ba‘atzath rësha‘im, uvëderech chatta’im lo ‘amad, uvëmoshav létzim lo yashav. Ki im bëThorath Ha-Shem cheftzo, uvëThoratho yehge yomam valayla (“Happy is the man who does not follow the advice of evil-doers, and does not stand in the way of sinners, and does not sit in the dwelling-place of scoffers. But rather his desire is in the Torah of Ha-Shem, and in His Torah he constantly delves day and night,” Psalms I, 1-2).
Traditional Jews echo this every morning, as they ask: Avinu, av harachaman, hamërachém, rachém ‘aleinu vëthén bëlibbéu bina lëhavin ulëhaskil, lishmoa‘ lilmod ulëlamméd lishmor vëla‘asoth ulëqayyém eth kol divrei talmud Torathecha bë’ahava, vëha’ér ‘éyneinu bëThorathecha vëdabbéq libbénu bëmitzvothecha (“Our Father, merciful Father, have mercy on us and place in our hearts discernment to understand and to elucidate, to listen, learn, teach, guard and do. And to fulfill all the words of study of Your Torah with love, and enlighten our eyes with Your Torah and cause our hearts to cling to Your mitzvoth”). Indeed, set to music, these very words are a popular, well-known song in Orthodox circles.
And again, every evening, we declare: Torah umitzvoth, chuqqim umishpatim othanu limmadta; ‘al kén Ha-Shem Elo-heinu bëshochvénu uvëquménu nasiach bëchuqqecha vënismach bëdivrei thalmud Torathecha uvëmitzvothecha lë‘olam va‘ed, ki hém chayyeinu vë’orech yameinu uvahem nehge yomam valayla (“Torah and commandments, laws and judgments You have taught us; therefore, Ha-Shem our G-d, when we lie down and when we get up we converse about Your laws and we rejoice in the words of the study of Your Torah and in Your commandments forever, for they are our lives and the length of our days, and we review about them by day and by night”).
So how does this mitzva manifest itself?
The Torah as it has come down to us was clearly designed for analysis and study. As Professor James Kugel eloquently puts it: “The Bible’s irregularities are the grains of sand that irritate the oyster-like Jewish interpretive tradition to construct pearls around them.”
A careful reading of the written Torah, 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 written 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.
(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.
(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 in vain for this commandment in the written Torah.
All of the above are prima facie evidence for the necessary existence of another necessary component to fill those gaps and reconcile the apparent contradictions. This component is known as the Oral Torah, the Torah shebë‘al peh.
There are numerous references throughout Tanach (the term used to refer to the entire Hebrew Bible) 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, e.g., in the written Torah itself: 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 yittënu kol ha‘over ‘al hapëqudim … (“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.
Torah study, then, involves not merely the reading of a text or even its contemplation as “devotions,” but far more importantly the analysis and mining of that text for critical insights. Hqfoch bah vahafoch bah dëchola bah, the Talmud enjoins us: “Go over it and over it, for everything is in it.” It is our guide and instructor, informing and mandating every action of our lives on Earth. The published record of the oral component given to Moshe as well as more than thirty-three centuries of applied research according to the rules handed down to him is contained in the Talmud, midrashim, and the voluminous later commentaries built on the basis which they lay down.
It will already have been noted that all of the quotations cited above are in Hebrew (albeit transliterated for the reader’s convenience). This was deliberate, for serious Torah study can only be conducted in the original Hebrew and Aramaic languages. To deal only with translations always entails dealing with the translator’s interpretation of the text, which may or may not be accurate. There are definitely cases in the Torah text of what I call “creative ambiguity,” in which more than one way of understanding the text is possible, and even recommended, all of which are worthy of exploration.
As a case in point, consider Deuteronomy XXV, 17-18: Zachor eth asher ‘asa lëcha ‘Amaléq baderech bëtzéthëchem miMitzrayim. Asher qorcha baderech (“Remember what ‘Amaléq did to you on the way as you were coming out of Egypt. That he [did something] on the way”).
The problem with the word qorcha describing that “something” is that, depending upon the root it is derived from, it can have any of three meanings. If the root is quf-réysh-hé, the word means “happen, occur” and the phrase means “who happened upon you on the way.” Alternatively, the same root can be rendered in the sense of qeri, a form of spiritual defilement which “happens” to one, thus “who defiled you on the way.” Finally, if the root is quf-yyud-réysh, the word means “cool” and the phrase means “who cooled down your ardor on the way.”
All three of these possibilities are implicit in the word as it occurs, and are exploited by the Talmud to tell us something about the nation involved, ‘Amaleq: that they believed the universe was ruled by chance and accident, rather than G-d; that their attacks on Israel in the desert had the effect of defiling them, and of cooling their ardor to proceed to Sinai and receive the Torah. Any attempt to translate the phrase cancels out some of this richness of meaning, and delivers only a superficial understanding of the matter being discussed.
Since Torah study is expected to be the primary occupation of one who pursues a traditionally meaningful Jewish life, it stands to reason that its insights must be deep and profound, such that its depths can be plumbed with profit both by beginners, children, and by experienced, practiced adults. It should also be obvious that it is fraught with danger. There is always the temptation of what may be termed the “Protestant fallacy”, i.e. that the Torah is written down and available for anyone to read and make of it what he will.
It is to prevent this, primarily, that the greater part of Torah was in fact left oral, encoded, if you like, in the written text. It is simply not possible to pursue the life envisioned by Torah without a teacher, a teacher who, himself steeped in Torah learning, can serve to impart its values and methods and himself serve as a living Torah scroll, the embodiment and repository of those values, the exemplar of the effects of those methods. For Torah study is not by any means a purely intellectual or spiritual exercise; its principles are to be internalized, applied to hone and refine the character of the learner, and result in a life which strives ever more to be a qiddush Ha-Shem, a sanctification of G-d’s holy name, as the Talmud tells us. Sheyëhé shém shamyim mith’ahév ‘al yadeinu (“that the name of Heaven be beloved because of us”).