Judaism: Studying the Oral Law
Rabbi Yair KahnThe writer teaches at the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion.
The concept of the written Torah is understood, and one must be sure to delve into it through an accurate reading of the Torah scroll, but what is the point of the oral law.
In contrast to the written Torah, the oral Torah should not be written.
It was only desperate historic conditions, which placed the continued study of the oral law in jeopardy that legitimized its transcription.
What does this indicate regarding the concept of the oral Torah?
Let us consider a sugya, topic, in Menachot (29b). Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: “At the time that Moshe ascended to the heavens, he found Hakadosh Baruch Hu sitting and tying crowns to the letters. He said in His presence: "Lord of the universe, who is delaying You?‟
He (Hashem) said to him: "There is one person who will live in the future, generations from now, whose name is Akiva the son of Yosef, who in the future will derive mounds of halakhot from each and every symbol (put by a scribe on the letters, ed.)‟.
He (Moses) said to Him: "Show him to me.‟ He (Hashem) said to him: "Go to the back and look‟. He (Moses) went and sat at the end of eight rows (in the class of Rabbi Akiva) and didn‟t understand what they were talking about at all. He became faint.
When they arrived at a certain point, his (Rabbi Akiva's) pupils asked him: "Rebbi, from where do you know this?‟ He told them: "It is a halakha given to Moshe from Sinai‟. This calmed him (Moses') down.
Why was Moshe calmed when Rabbi Akiva announced that it was a halakha given to Moshe at Sinai? If he didn‟t understand what Rabbi Akiva was talking about, shouldn‟t he have become even more distressed?
Wasn‟t this proof as to how distorted Torah had become?
It is the other way round. This Gemara is a clear indication of the legitimacy of human imput in the development of oral Torah. Moshe was distressed because all that Rabbi Akiva had taught was totally alien to him. Following Rabbi Akiva‟s pronouncement, Moshe realized that all that Rabbi Akiva had taught was in fact development of the Torah he had given to Israel and this awareness was the source of his relief.
The study of the written Torah is an act of total surrender and absolute acceptance of the Divine word. In contrast, the idea of the oral law is a divine invitation as it were, to use our human intellect to interpret God's Torah.
While the written Torah must be read with accuracy, without any divergence from the sacred words given to Moshe, the tradition of the oral law is a process through which the Torah's ideas are analyzed and conceptualized by the sages who pass it on, chachmei hamesorah.
In other words, the oral law is not a static transmission but a dynamic development of Torah.
This idea is clear from the introduction of the story as well. Moshe did not understand the meaning of the crowns on the letters and questioned their addition to the Torah. Hashem did not reveal their meaning to Moshe, but merely informed him that they will be interpreted in the future.
When Rabbi Akiva discovered the meaning of the crowns, he uncovered Torah layers that were never revealed to Moshe Rabbeinu. However, ultimately, what Rabbi Akiva was doing was teaching the Torah given to us by Moshe.