Torah scroll at the Klausen synagogue in Prague, Czech Republic
Torah scroll at the Klausen synagogue in Prague, Czech RepubliciStock

As we complete the Torah cycle, I would like to discuss the meaning of the concept of Talmud Torah – “Torah study” – by tackling the following question: How can God’s Torah turn into the Torah of Man through study, as per the verse “And he shall learn HisTorah day and night”?

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Ta’anit 84, Halakha 5) brings the words of R’ Shmuel bar Nachmani:

“When Moshe came down from Heaven [with the Tablets], they were six tephahim (tephah = handbreadth) long and three tephahim wide; God Himself held the top two tephahim while Moshe held the bottom two tephahim, and there remained two tephahim in the middle. In wake of the deed [the Sin of the Calf] committed by the Israelites, God wished to snatch them [the Tablets] away. But Moshe’s hand filled with might and he grabbed them away from God. Of this God praises him and says ‘…in all the mighty hand’ (Devarim 34:12).”

The Maharal (in his book Tiferet Yisrael, Chapter 48) offers a fascinating commentary on this episode, suggesting that this picturesque image clarifies the true meaning of Torah study. This is what the Maharal writes:

“The Torah is the link between God Almighty, the Giver of the Torah, and Man, who is the Receiver of the Torah. For this reason, God Almighty held onto the top two tephahim, and Moshe held onto the bottom two tephahim [of the Tablets]. As to the two tephahim that remained in the middle – these are shared between God the Giver and Man the Receiver. This image exemplifies the absolute connectedness between man and God by means of the Torah. In fact, this is much like the case of two people holding one tallit on each end. The part of the tallit held by each one belongs to the holder; while the remainder is divided equally between them, and belongs to both. The same applies here.”

In its simplest sense, the study of Torah is meant to help us gain insight into the intentions of the Giver of the Torah. For this purpose, we have been given traditional and exegetical tools, such as the Talmudical hermeneutics (the middot, or methods, by which the Torah is interpreted), halakha Le’Moshe Mi’Sinai (laws communicated by God to Moshe which have no reference in the written Torah), etc.

The Maharal adds another important dimension to this notion. What is termed Talmud Torah – Torah study is an encounter; a dialogue between the eternal, unequivocal Torah of Hashem and anyone who studies it. Relating back to the image above, one might say that Torah study takes place in the “two tephahim in the middle,” in the zone shared by man and the Giver of the Torah Himself.

Since no two individuals are identical – in countenance, character, essence or the values particular to the period in which they happen to live – it follows then that the overlap between the two upper tephahim and the two lower tephahim can never be identical for any two individuals. In other words, every individual will interface uniquely with God’s eternal Torah and will interpret it subjectively.

Ostensibly, a huge difficulty arises from this notion: there is no one uniform Torah which belongs to all, but many individualistic Torahs created by each one’s personal experience of Torah study.

If such is the case, we have no choice but to say that even personal interpretation of the Torah may not be whimsical or capricious, but must be constrained by a set of exegetical anchors.

This idea appears in the introduction of the Ohr HaChayim HaKadosh to the Torah (Bereshit 1:1), in which he outlines an interesting method to validify any proposed commentary.

“Be informed, that we are given the permission to interpret the meaning of the verses by using consistent pathways of study (netivot ha’iyun) and by supporting our interpretation with sound and convincing evidence (yishuv ha’da’at), even if earlier exegetes resolved the verses differently. The reason being that we are not warned against deviating from the words of those who preceded us, but only in such case where new commentary will lead to different halakha rulings. In keeping with this you will find that the scholars of the Talmud did not have the authority to dispute the words of the Mishnaic scholars in matters of halakha; however, when it came to resolving the meaning of Torah verses, we can see that they gave different interpretations in many an instance.”

It follows then, that in contrast to the realm of halakha which is “less flexible”, Torah exegesis per se makes room for personal interpretation. Notwithstanding the above, it still does not allow complete exegetical freedom as in “any interpretation is permissible”, but must abide by two main criteria:

Netivot Ha’iyun – This refers to consistent pathways of study and interpretation. In other words, one must set exegetical rules, and use them consistently.

Yishuv Ha’da’at – It is our duty to offer convincing support for any interpretation we propose.

Indeed, it is evident that the Torah exegetes took the liberty to contest their predecessors.

Another crucial factor when it comes to personal commentary aiming to uncover the Divine truth, is to have profound and extensive knowledge of Torah exegesis in general. A broad and comprehensive understanding of the very vast existing commentary gives one a much broader perspective, from which one is then better able to fine tune his personal outlook.

Similarly, when it comes halakha, our Sages determined that the rulings of Bet Hillel would be followed and practiced, and not those of Bet Shammai – despite the fact that both schools reflected God’s truth – and the reason given for this decision was: “For they [the House of Hillel] were humble and modest. Not only would they learn Bet Shammai’s teachings in addition to their own, but would give precedence to the words of Bet Shammai.”

There are those who think that the halakha was set in accordance with Bet Hillel because their rulings were based on values such as tolerance, inclusion and other positive codes of behavior. However, it is my opinion that the ultimate halakhic ruling was not set in this manner. “The halakha is like Bet Hillel” is simply a natural consequence, stemming from the way this “house of learning” conducted itself. Their opinions were more well-founded, as they incorporated the concept mentioned earlier by the Ohr HaChayim – “Yishuv Ha’da’at“. The fact that they compared their own opinion to that of others led to more profound knowledge and a broader perspective on their part.

It now becomes clear why there is such a broad and diverse range of opinions when it comes to Torah exegesis. The Rambam’s underlying assumption, in his book Shemonah Perakim, that disputes arise from insufficient study and examination (“they did not toil enough in study”) – is hardly in keeping with the words of the Maharal. On the contrary, says the Maharal, dispute is the direct outcome of a profound personal bond with God’s Torah.

I would like to add something on a personal note. In the synagogue I attended as a boy there was an esteemed persona, in a sense larger than life; a true Torah scholar who combined Torah study with work.

For years, at the end of the Torah reading, he would approach me, and ask me in a grave tone if I would be so kind as to interpret a specific verse from that week’s Torah portion, with the excuse that he was hardly satisfied with his own interpretation. The situation was rather awkward and even embarrassing, and at first, I tried evading the challenge. But he continued to insist. No words would suffice in describing how challenging a task this really was, and how I had to muster all my creative skills in order to supply the goods, lest I disappoint him at our next encounter. In retrospect, this was my first meaningful connection with God’s Torah.

Additionally, it was noticeable that in any discussion, the man in question was the last to speak, and his opinion was readily accepted in most cases.

It was only years later that I understood that the fact that he was so attentive to others, and was able to incorporate their opinions and thoughts into his own, made his words well-rounded and more profound.

Let us conclude with the words of Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria, in his book Min HaPinkas HaPatu’ach (From the Open Notebook”):

“The voice of the Lord is manifest in strength” –
in the strength of each and every person.
It is the duty of every generation
to make the voice of God heard
in its own voice, style and language.

Yehuda Shtauber is Ohr Torah Stone’s Vice President of Education