“And G-d spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, saying, Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them, that when they come into the land that I am giving them, they shall rest the land, a Sabbath to HaShem.” [25:1-2]
The Torah is teaching the laws of Shmittah, the sabbatical of the land. Every seven years the Israelites were instructed to leave the land lying fallow for a year.
As Rashi tells us, the Medrash asks a question about the way this law is introduced. Why does it say that God spoke to Moshe “at Mt. Sinai” in this case? Moshe was told all the laws of the Torah at Sinai!
The Medrash explains that Shmittah is an example. Yes, it was taught with all of its generalities, specifics, and implications at Sinai — and so was everything else. The entirety of the Oral Law was taught to Moshe on Sinai.
We know that there must be an Oral Law because of all of the gaps in our knowledge that remain after reading the Written Torah from beginning to end, from Bereishes to l’eynei kol Yisrael. The Torah introduces things as important as resting on the Sabbath, and fails to describe what that entails. It talks about “frontlets” between our eyes, gives apparently contradictory instructions, and yet expects the Jewish Nation to follow the rules — clearly, there was more given at Sinai than just the written Word.
A person can still wonder, though, why is it that we needed to have this as an _Oral_ Law. There are obvious benefits to having a written record, one which is more detailed than what we find in the Written Torah. So why not provide that detail in writing, rather than depending upon oral transmission, which is of course not going to be perfect? But there are several reasons why in this case, having an Oral Torah was actually the ideal.
First of all, while it is true that there can be errors with an oral transmission, the truth is that writing leaves room for even greater levels of misunderstanding. When going over a subject in oral discussion, it is easy to detect errors and go back and correct them. If you have ever carried on a discussion by e-mail or other written correspondence and then finally used the telephone or a face-to-face meeting to resolve confusion over various issues, then you have already seen for yourself how much more effective oral communication can be.
For further proof, one need only look at what happened when it finally became necessary to write down the Oral Law to prevent its being lost. First the Sages wrote down the Mishnah, a brief catalog of laws meant to remind everyone of what they needed to know. Over the ensuing centuries, various issues of confusion came to light, and extensive clarifications were needed, eventually resulting in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Later on, additional commentaries were written to clarify the Talmud’s intent, and many of these commentaries disagree about particulars. This process has continued until this very day.
Second, oral transmission allowed the teaching to go on in the then-current language of the day — both literally and figuratively. Throughout history, human circumstances have changed — yet the Torah is Eternal. Its lessons apply in every era. Even so, it would certainly be easier to understand if all of its discussions were couched in today’s language, both literally and figuratively.
Literally, the Talmud is in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the spoken language of the time. But that means that today, a budding Jewish scholar needs to be able to understand not only Biblical Hebrew, but Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic as well. English translations are hardly sufficient. If the Oral Torah were still taught orally, this wouldn’t be a problem.
In figurative terms as well, there are language barriers — the examples require that we understand how people lived a millenium ago. The Talmud talks about an ox goring a cow, but we could certainly relate more quickly to a discussion about an automobile accident, or your neighbor’s liability if his Doberman chases your cat up a tree. Instead of just discussing what day laborers are allowed to eat while on-the-job, we could talk about using office supplies and doing personal e-mails. Instead of bloodletting and healing baths, we could delve into the Torah’s response to organ donation, in vitro fertilization, and cloning.
Another advantage of an Oral transmission is the development of the relationship between teacher and students. Science classes have laboratories to offer you the opportunity to see for yourself what happens when you perform certain experiments, rather than simply reading about them. Sports camps don’t have you sitting in a classroom learning how to improve your skills; you are out on the field, trying various moves in front of your coach. Given the choice of two young surgeons – one who went to medical school and learned from seasoned doctors, and another who bought a library full of books and found a laboratory where he could practice on his own – which one would you prefer to have a go at your appendix?
The Torah is a guide to life, and there’s an awful lot that you cannot learn in the pages of a book. The Talmud says that you can learn more Torah by serving a scholar than from sitting in his classes. Observing an expert in action is the best way to translate theoretical knowledge into real-world skills.
And last but not least, G-d Commanded us to study the Torah constantly. “The words of this Torah shall not be lost from your mouths, and you shall delve into it day and night” [Joshua 1:8]. Yet people have other activities. They move around, they work at tasks, and cannot constantly be reading from texts. By according full status to the Oral Torah on par with the Written, a person can be involved in Torah study even while doing other things. Today one can drive while listening to classes, discuss Torah concepts while walking, and think about Torah while working around the house.
This is why the Torah emphasizes “Mt. Sinai” — to say that this was all a part of Sinai. The oral was given together with the written, in order to provide a code for life that continues to inspire us, thousands of years later!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2004 by Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org.