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Tuesday, January 5, 2010

What Happened to the Oral Torah and What Does This Have to do With Parshat Shmot?

Okay, I am not sure how to answer the second question in the title except to say that according to the midrash, the Children of Israel held on to certain oral traditions during their time in Egypt. This adherence to those traditions became key to their redemption. So maybe that is why I chose to digress on this issue here.

Someone once asked me: If this oral tradition really existed all the way back to the time of the Torah, why don't we see the Torah speak about it?

The simple answer is, well, it was an oral tradition--it doesn't necessarily come up in a written text.

However, I also pointed out that even in the Torah itself there are allusions to an oral tradition. We see, for example, that in Avraham's argument with God over the destruction of S'dom and Amora (Genesis 18:23-33) that Avraham challenges God's decision by implying that if God killed innocent people along with guilty ones, He would not be doing משפט mishpat (justice). This would not be such a strong argument unless Avraham knew what God considered to be justice and therefore implies that Avraham had a tradition in this regard. Merely referring to what might have been notions of natural law might not have been so convincing to the Ruler of the Universe. And, indeed, according to rabbinic tradition, one of the mitzvot given to Adam and then to Noah was for mankind to set up judicial systems. 

There are several other examples, especially later in Tanach but we'll leave that question for now.

My real question is: What happened to the Oral Torah?

We know that the primary encapsulation of the Oral Torah came to be written down first in the Mishnah around the beginning of the second century CE. Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi and his court were concerned, given the political climate and social realities of the time, that because the Jews were being pushed around and scattered that the oral tradition would be lost. In order to save it, they decided to write it down.

One of the salient features of the Mishnah is that it was written in a very terse language, almost a kind of code. The nature of the Mishnah is that one cannot simply read it in order to understand it. Much of the Mishnah is written in partial sentences and generally without clear references relating each point back to the written Torah. In order to understand it properly, it must be discussed.

So built in to the Mishnah is the notion that an oral aspect remains. It is a marvelous and unique sort of document in that regard.

It is clear to me that Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi was trying very hard to preserve as much of the oral nature of this tradition as possible.

However, the downside of this decision is that, well, the oral tradition came to be written in some form. We noted yesterday that a written text becomes fixed in a way that an oral text does not. The writing of the Mishnah, therefore, began a process of slowly freezing discussion that continues to this day.

There are several important points along the way from the Mishnah to present. I will mention some of them in my next posting.

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