In the previous blog we spoke about the origin and the relationship between the written and oral Torah’s. We established that the people of Israel, during the vast majority of their stay in the desert, lived and learned – almost exclusively – the oral Torah, as the written one was only written just before Moshe’s death. For more info – look here. In this blog I would like to get down to the nitty-gritty of the issue of the oral Torah: when, where and why?
But first I will apologize for not having blogged in a while. There were many reasons why I didn’t but the two most important ones were my students and that I am trying very hard now to finish book number 2. With HaShem’s help I have finished the content and will soon put on the finishing touches, editing, book cover and the rest. WH”h I hope to get it done before the beginning of Elul zman.
As I have worked long and hard on all of the topics that I set before you, I would like to say that I feel that the content of book two is very yesodosdik (very fundamental) for a Jew to know. To quote the words of the amazing book Chovos haLevovos by Rabbenu Bachyeh, it’s not enough for a Jew to wander around in this world ASSUMING that he has emmuna in HaShem because his parents told him so. Even greater than that is to KNOW, with clear knowledge that HaShem runs the world and gave us a Torah that is so incredible and so holy. One of the great stumbling blocks that exists in this area is what our sages, ob”m, call da mah lehashiv le’apikoris (know how to respond to the words of an apostate, see Tractate Kiddushin 29a (I think)). They learn this from the verse in the first chapter of the mitzvah of Krias Shema which says veshinantam le’vanecha, (and you shall review them with your children), which is a general commandment to teach the Torah to one’s children. However our sages, ob”m, take note of the odd word veshinantam, which is incredibly uncommon. They explain that there is an extra, additional aspect being noted in the Torah here concerning the teaching of Torah when they say veshinantam, she’yehiyu divrei Torah mechudadin beficha, it’s that the word veshinantam, the language of sharpness, is to enunciate that our understand of the Torah should always be sharpened, like a sword, so that we know how to answer an apikorus. This is because… we all have a little one inside of us trying to detract from the greatness of Torah.
In any case in book number two, while explaining and giving sources to answer question number two “Does G-d know me?” I also, wH”h, (with HaShem’s help) give a thorough examination and explanation to give a solid base (a solid CORE) for the truth of our holy Torah while addressing all of the skepticism’s of our loud-mouthed detractors. Da mah lehashiv.
In any case – onward with today’s topic!
The Mishna, which forms the core of the oral Torah, is a bit of a conundrum, a bit of a puzzle, to most people. After all, we all know that the Mishna was written by Rabbi Judah the Prince, fondly called “Rebbe” in the Mishna, isn’t that right?
Well, yes, but … no. Did Rebbe have a hand in the formulation of the Mishna? Yes. Did Rebbe write the Mishna, well — that’s where things get a little weird for several reasons.
Where did the Mishna come from?
The TRUE answer to this question is that Mishna originated with Moshe Rabbenu, (Moses, our teacher). In this regard Rebbe neither wrote it nor did he formulate it. As we mentioned in the previous blog and also in the blog on Jewish Time there WAS ALWAYS AN ORAL TORAH. Not one generation in this world has gone by that has not been in possession of an oral Torah throughout history. However our massorah has been lost as to the content of Torah before the giving of Torah at Sinai because it became, essentially, irrelevant from that point in time and on. After all: we don’t keep the Torah because our pre-Sinai forefathers did, because they didn’t. We don’t even keep the 7 Noahide laws or even the mitzvah of bris mila (circumcision) because they did. We keep them because we were commanded to do so from Sinai. But to keep laws from Sinai requires that we be able to retain them and that’s where the Mishna comes in. Moses, our teacher, was the forebear of the Mishna. All that was Torah was taught via the construct called Mishna. The reason for this was that it was the key to retaining all of the knowledge that was taught to them at Sinai. This is stated clearly in the Babylonian Talmud in several places. (See Tractate Berachos 5b, for example which brings a derasha of Reish Lakish on the verse in Exodus (24:12) which says “Ascend to me on the mountain and stay there, and I will give you the two Tablets of stone, and the Torah and the Commandment (mitzvah) which I have written to teach them” That “the Torah” refers to the written Torah, whereas “the mitzvah” is the MISHNA. The Gemara ends with the lesson “this teaches us that all of them (the Torah, the Nevi’im and Kesuvim, the Mishna AND the Gemara) were given at Sinai”).
The word “Mishna” is based in the root-word “shaneh” or “sh’nei”, which means “to do it again/a second time”. The purpose of Mishna, always, was and is memorization. The reason for this is quite simple: the entire basis of an oral Torah? Memory! In order to insure that the oral Torah remained oral it required a base material upon which the topic could be memorized and that was exactly what the Mishna was all about.
However, the Mishna in the times of Moshe was different because there was no standard model. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Who wrote/organized the Mishna?
The Mishna is not the proprietary product of Rebbe alone. In fact there is a significant amount of material that was made by many others along the way. For example: in Tractate Yuma 14 Rav Huna teaches us that the author of Tractate Tamid was Rabbi Shimeon ish ha’Mitzpeh.
The truth is that the entire basis for the work of Rebbe was started by none other than Rabbi Akiva and was continued by his student Rabbi Meir.
Why do I say that? It’s because of the issue of the “stam Mishna” that we find throughout the Talmud. There are two statements that the Gemara makes concerning “stam” Mishnayot: “a stam Mishna is like Rabbi Akiva” and “a stam Mishna is like Rabbi Meir” (Sanhedrin 86a). This is based on the fact that the Talmud (Tractate Gittin 67a) calls Rabbi Akiva an Otzar Balum, (an overflowing storehouse), which Rashi explains (to paraphrase) that he learned everything and then organized it categorically. This was one of the traits that allowed Rabbi Akiva to be so great. It was his great work, and the work of his students after him, that formed the basis of the entirety of the written versions of the oral Torah that would be made in the future.
What did Rebbe do for the Mishna?
Like all great works this one was no exception. It still required a lot of work, especially as it was not quite finished yet. It was Rebbe and his Beis Din (court) who finished this monumental work. To do this they took the basic format that was developed by Rabbi Akiva, his students, and colleagues and developed the final version of what became THE Mishna.
Clearly it was a monumental work.
The Rambam writes, in his introduction to his “Explanation of the Mishna”, that although the oral Torah was forbidden to be taught from written material, it was, however, permissible for a Rav to write down material from the oral Torah on private documents in order to help him facilitate it’s memorization. Rebbe collected all of the private/secret documents and utilized them to formulate the final version of the Mishna.
The reason for this work, other than the fact that he could, is because Rebbe lived at a pivital point in history and he knew it. He did not have ruach hakodesh, (the holy spirit), but, as the Gemara teaches us “a wise man is better than a prophet”. He realized that the state of the Jewish world was on the precipice of immense and immanent change and that if something were not done NOW there was a significant danger that “the Torah would be forgotten in Israel”. This is what the Gemara in Tractate Berachos 63a tells us es la’asos le’HaShem, “it is a time to do for (the sake of) HaShem”, heferu Toratecha, “as they have (or could/will) desecrate Your Torah”. The Gemara explains it as meaning that for the sake of keeping the Torah there are certain rules which are allowed to be “bent”. One such rule is that the oral Torah can become a written one. So write it he did!
The Jews, during Rebbe’s lifetime, were concentrated in two places in the world: Israel and Babylonia, but change was coming. Rebbe foresaw that the Jewish world was going to begin to spread and that if there was no way to unify the basis of learning of the entire oral Torah there was a tremendous problem in that the Torah could become “like unto two Torah’s”. Therefore the “standard” model of the Mishna had to be created.
That is Rebbe’s contribution to the Torah world.
To sum up:
We have always had Mishna, we just never had, up until the days of Rebbe, a standardized edition of the Mishna. Until Rebbe every Rabbi would teach his students the fundamentals of the Mishna in the language and standard he saw fit. From the time of Rebbe and onward there was only one standard: that of Rebbe, and the entire Jewish world accepted it.