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Did Moses Receive the Torah from Mount Sinai?

By Amos ben Ami

The first statement in the Mishnaic Tractate, Pirkei Avot, (Ethics of the Fathers) begins with the statement that "Moses received the Torah from Mount Sinai and passed it to Yehoshua…". Probably of all teachings, this is the most popular teaching and is well known by all whom read the Mishna, and especially the Ethics of the Fathers.

One must realize that the language of the Mishna was composed by the veritable and exacting sages of the Mishnaic period. It was collected and compiled, codified and edited by none other than the most famous in name and greatest in wisdom of all of the sages, Rabbi Judah the Prince. This absolute genius whose abilities for exactitude have yet to be surpassed by any, made certain that our Mishna met the most exacting standards for exactness in the usage of words. Therefore when we see some verbiage or wording that appears illogical or cumbersome, we must realize that there is something more than meets the eye hidden in the Mishna.

With this introduction firmly in mind, we can begin to analyze and dissect the above Mishna.

First let us remember that the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai took place shortly after the Jews left Egypt. Subsequently they spent some forty years wandering in the desert. During this period, many events transpired that are included in the Torah. Many battles and wars were waged, many calamities were overcome, and many laws were given in a time related historical perspective. The daughters of Tslephachad brought the necessity of detailed laws of women's rights in cases of property inheritance. The deaths of Aaron the High Priest's sons brought forth the detailed laws of drinking wine while serving in the Sanctuary.

Even more difficult to understand is that if all of this were written down in the Torah why did the people who received the Torah from Moses not seem to heed the word of G-d. In all of the cases in which the Children of Israel sinned they could have read the Torah which they received in their first year after leaving Egypt and realized the punishments that awaited them.

Did Moses not give the Torah to all of the Jewish people? Why does it say that he passed it on only to Yehoshua? And if that be the case, how can the people be held liable for something that they did not have access to?

In reality, the Torah that Moses received at Mount Sinai was what is called the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah is not the same as the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is the explanations of the Torah that was designed by G-d to accompany the Torah.

As an example, we are all familiar with kosher slaughter. Are you aware that the details of kosher slaughter of animals is not given in the Torah? The Torah states that we should slaughter the animals as we have been instructed to, but nowhere in the Torah are the instructions.

Consider Tefillin. In no place does the Torah specify what Tefillin are; how they are to be constructed, and what is to be included inside them. Yet everyone agrees on what is inside the Tefillin; these laws are well known. How did they become so accepted and known if they are not written in the Torah?

What about something as common as a Mezzuzah? Everyone has them on their doors. But in no place in the Torah does it tell us exactly what is written in them. It does not tell us that they must be rolled up - it would seem more logical that they should be opened!

The explanation is as follows:

The Torah that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai was not the written Torah. The Torah that is written was concluded by Moses on the day of his death, some forty years after he came down from Mount Sinai. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai was the Oral Torah, all of the laws with all of their respective details and explanations.

The Oral Torah was given to Yehoshua, and then to the wise men of each generation, the Elders, to be able to give life and meaning to future generations who sought out the meanings in the conflicting and uncertainties of the Torah. They had the need to know and to memorize all of the laws in all of their details and explanations. This is the Oral Torah that he passed on to Yehoshua and the Elders. The written Torah was given to all of the Jews.

Today, for us, the Mishnah and Talmud comprise the teachings of the Oral Torah. These are the explanations that Moses gave down to the Jews on Mount Sinai. This is the important reason that we must study the Oral Torah along with the Written Torah. Without the explanations of the Oral Torah, we can never properly understand the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is the inner life and vibrancy of the Written Torah. Without its study and understandings, the Torah would cease to be a meaningful document.


from the September-October 2004 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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