Fundamentals of the Jewish Faith
Chapter Ten: The Oral Torah (Part 3)
Some reject the notion of the Torah’s oral tradition for other, text-based
reasons, as when the written text seems to differ from the traditional
understanding of it or when the two seem to contradict each other. Others
are bothered by more illusive inconsistencies and vagaries.
And so Ramchal offers a number of principles to explain some things. He
suggests, for example, that “there are concepts that are cited in only a
general way in writing”, in the Torah text, “whose details are (only)
explained in the (oral) tradition”. And so what appears to be a vague
statement in print proves to be a hint of much more to come, which the
Oral Torah provides. Sometimes, Ramchal adds, the written Torah is
purposefully vague or ambiguous just to allow for things to be spelled out
in the oral tradition. And there are indeed some very rare occasions when
the words don’t seem to say what the tradition says they do, but the
contradictions prove not to be as blunt as they first appeared to be when
they’re delved into, and most of the time both understandings are
legitimate under different circumstances.
The important thing to know in the end, though, is that the oral tradition
offers us the keys to understanding the written text, so when the two
don’t seem to be in synch, they actually are when understood in depth.
For, as Ramchal put it, “G-d, the author of the Torah, wrote it in a
specific style with detailed rules (of interpretation)”. It follows then
that we would have to “follow these rules” if we “want to understand its
The art of discerning the rules is termed “Hermeneutics”, and there are
three famous formulations of=2 0them: Hillel’s seven, Rabbi Eliezer Ben
Yose HaGelilli’s thirty-two, and Rabbi Yishmael’s thirteen (which are
recited daily in the Morning Prayer service). That’s not to suggest that
any one of these three teachers initiated their rules, for the fact of the
matter is that they each merely enunciated the tradition they received
from their teachers which ultimately derived from Moses.
Rabbi Yishmael, for example, makes these points about the written text,
among others: specific forms of logic can be relied upon, particular terms
are used in different contexts to imply the same idea in various
circumstances, some suggestions can be relied upon while others cannot,
certain very specific patterns are utilized to make precise points wh ile
others are meant to make other ones, certain items are specifically listed
out of context to make a point, two dissonant statements can be harmonized
when seen in the light of a third, and more.
Other principles include: ribbui ("inclusion") and mi'ut ("exclusion"),
which allude to specific textual exclusions or limitations; nekudot, when
the dots that are placed over certain letters in the text serve as signals
to specific meanings; gematria, where identical numerical value of words
and phrases speak to relationships between them; notrikon, when the
letters of a word represent the initial letters of other words and thus
allude to another kind of relationship; and more.
The underlying idea is that the written Torah is something of a
hieroglyph -- a rich but spare coded text that alludes to a wealth of
matter that’s only discernable to the trained eye.
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has translated and commented upon "The Gates of Repentance", "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason
Aronson Publishers). His works are available in bookstores and in various
locations on the Web.