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Posted on February 11, 2015 (5775) By Rabbi Pinchas Winston | Series: | Level:

THE SHULCHAN ARUCH is a famous halachic work in the Torah world, and probably even beyond. The name literally means “set table,” and it truly is, along the lines of what is said on the first verse of this week’s parshah:

    The Holy One, Blessed is He, said to Moshe: Do not think of saying, “I will teach them the chapter or the law two or three times until they know it well, as it was taught, but I will not trouble myself to enable them to understand the reasons for the matter and its explanation.” Therefore, it is said: “you shall set before them,” like a table, set and prepared to eat from, [placed] before someone. (Rashi, Shemos 24:1)

Although quite universally accepted today, the Shulchan Aruch had its dissenters when it first emerged late in Jewish history in 1563, written by Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1575). To begin with Rabbi Karo had been Sephardic and therefore his tradition varied in many instances with the known Ashkenazic tradition. Furthermore there was concern that many would decide halachic outcomes without consulting the Talmud, further weakening the Oral Tradition in many communities around the Jewish world.

These had not been new concerns or fresh arguments. The Rambam, one of the first to codify so much Talmudic law into a single compendium underwent, in the the 12th century, similar attacks from his peers. This was especially so since he did not provide many of the sources for his decisions and he even seemed to encourage the use of his Mishneh Torah in place of the Talmud.

Resistance was so great to the Rambam’s work that it even resulted in book burnings. It would take a while, and several commentaries on the Mishneh Torah,including the “Kesef Mishneh” (1574-5) by Rav Yosef Karo himself, before it would gain the authority and respect it now wields. It took a lot less time for the Shulchan Aruch to gain such acceptance.

One of the reasons for this was, that in spite of the big names criticizing it, rather than condemn it, it was complemented instead. One of the most important “mapot,”literally “tablecloths,” for the Shulchan Aruch, the “Set Table,” was written by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Poland, 1520-1572) whose glosses note where the Sephardic and Ashkenazic customs differ.

Printed together they are the “Mechaber,” the “Author,” and the “Rema,” the acronym of “Rabbi Moshe Isserles,” and no Bais Midrash or shul is complete without them. The Talmud remains the basis of yeshivah learning, and mastering it remains one of the foremost goals. It is the same, however, with respect to the Shulchan Aruch and theRema, and it is impossible to become an accepted halachic authority without thorough knowledge of both, not to mention other more recent commentaries on both of them.

One theme of Jewish history that is strong in this discussion is the ongoing tension between making Torah knowledge accessible to others, and leaving room for students to go through the Talmudic process on their own. Even the modern-day ArtScroll publication of the Talmud with commentary and explanation continues to draw fire from “dissenters” who fear that students will rely too heavily on it for Talmudic tradition.

On one hand, ArtScroll has provided an amazing service for the Jewish people. They have opened Torah “doors” that for many might have remained closed their entire lives. They have encouraged many to learn Talmud who previously might have felt that Talmud was beyond their intellectual reach. How much so has this been the case with the English translation for those whom have little background in the language and techniques of the Talmud.

On the other hand, many have always argued, the Talmud is about a lot more than only the words on its 2,700 folio pages. Talmud is more of a process, an intellectual journey that cannot be related, only experienced. One must not only learn Talmud, but learn how to learn it, especially if he is to join the exclusive “club” of “Ba’alei Mesorah,”those responsible for keeping the Sinaitic experience alive and well.

This is something that the average Jew probably does not consider too often, or even the person who is fortunate enough to learn Torah on a regular basis. The immediate goal obviously is to become as learned as one personally can, to become what is called a “talmid chacham,” a Torah scholar. You can’t get right what you do not know what to do, and therefore one’s portion in the World-to-Come increases as his knowledge of halachah does.

It is easy to get distracted. There is parental pressure to do well, societal pressure to fit in. There is competition. There are limited positions and opportunities. Future marriage partners may depend upon it. Self-esteem is certainly affected by it. Honor pursues those who flee from it, but it is not always so easy to run in its opposite direction.

We can learn a lesson from ants, or bees, for whom it is just the opposite. They of course have no free will and have been programmed to be the way they are for the preservation of the species. But that’s why they do not go to the World-to-Come for their self-sacrifice, as we can. They have to be the way they are. We have to choose to be like them, caring more about “whole” than the “part.”

Imagine being involved in a game of tug-of-war. On the ground and part of the line, all you see is yourself pulling as hard as you can. You may be barely aware of anyone else pulling with you, focussed instead on keeping your grip and holding up your part of the bargain.

Now imagine, while pulling as hard as you can, having an out-of-body experience. While part of you remains in your body, another part drifts upward, and as you ascend, your vision of the line becomes larger. First you see a few more friends pulling with you, then even more, until finally you are high enough to see everyone in the line pulling together. All of a sudden, you are but a link in a chain pulling as one to win.

When God gave the Torah to the Jewish people He wasn’t merely trying to make us smarter. And, it wasn’t only about making us more spiritual so that we could maximize our portion in the World-to-Come. All of that was also true, but what He was mainly doing was handing a spiritual rope to us and saying, “Take the rope and pull with everything you have!”

The game only works if there are others just as strong pulling in the opposite direction. As Shlomo HaMelech said, and life proves, there are:

All that God made He made this equal to this. (Koheles 7:14)

    In the laws of physics it says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the realm of the spiritual, everything has an equal as well. For every good there is an evil, one that pulls at a person constantly. Until Avraham came along, there were few contenders on the other side of the rope to pull back.

The world was much smaller in Avraham’s time. Yitzchak barely got involved in the process, and Ya’akov had the task of building a Torah nation while the rest of the world did its own thing. When God took the Jewish people out of Egypt, after fashioning them into a nation in the “iron furnace” that was Mitzrayim, the Jewish nation was tasked with taking up the other end of the rope on a full-time basis in order to counter it, and eventually overcome it.

It’s not so hard to keep score. When the “Other Side” is winning, spiritual impurity is at home in the world. Basically, the world becomes what the Talmud describes just in advance of Moshiach’s arrival:

    Rebi Yehudah says: The generation within which Moshiach will come, the Bais HaVaad will be for promiscuous behavior . . . The wisdom of the scribes will be corrupted, God-fearing men will be despised, and the faces of the leaders of the generation will be like the face of a dog. The truth will be lacking . . . Rebi Nehorai taught: The generation in which Ben Dovid will come, the young will whiten the faces of the elderly, and the elderly will rise before the young. A daughter will rebel against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. The generation will have the face of a dog, and a son will not be ashamed before his father. Rebi Nechemiah says: In the generation within which Ben Dovid will come, brazenness will increase, respect will be missing, etc. (Sanhedrin 97a)

That’s just the half of it. You can feel the pull in the wrong direction. Impurity is winning the battle. It won’t win the war, but the battles it can win in the meantime come with a great cost in terms of assimilation, intermarriage, and the sinning of otherwise God-fearing people.

It is one thing to sit down a learn a page of Talmud, some parshah, a little halachah, etc. It is one thing to work on becoming a talmid chacham, a future Rosh Yeshivah or even Gadol HaDor. It is something altogether very different to pick up the “rope” of Torah tradition and pull it with all your might to counterbalance and overcome the side of impurity.

Too many people think of Torah only in terms of themselves and self-gain, even if it is just to become a “better Jew.” Obviously it is a good thing to do, but it can’t be the only thing to do. When a Jew becomes a Bar or Bas Mitzvah and takes upon him- or herself the “Yoke of Heaven,” they are, in fact, picking up that Sinaitic “rope.” They are joining the long line of Jews going back to Har Sinai who have pulled with all they had, in one generation or another, and counteracted the side of impurity.

Who will win? Eventually the “Good Guys.” Not, though, without a major struggle and casualties along the way, spiritual and physical. Just how many casualties will depend upon how hard we pull back in the direction of Torah and mitzvos.

It also helps to know what’s going on, whether a person is sitting down to learn, standing up to pray, and even lighting Shabbos candles. Any mitzvah performed has to be appreciated for it is and what it means. We have to know that in a world of over seven billion people, we represent very important links in the chain of Torah tradition. It’s a couple of million Torah observant Jews versus the rest of the world. No wonder the struggle is so great.

This is why, as great and important as it is for a person to “set the table” for others learning Torah from them, it is even more important that, as teachers, we act as catalysts for our students to pick up the rope of tradition, so-to-speak, and pull on their own. Students are not only meant to be impacted by the Torah, but to become a part of it.

This, in effect, is what Hillel was teaching the would-be convert. He had come to be a part of the Jewish people, but on his own terms. Apparently, he wanted to accept only the Written Law and not the Oral one. Hillel showed him that such an attitude itself interferes with membership to the Torah nation:

    On the first day, he taught him, “Alef, Bais, Gimmel, Dalet.” The following day he reversed [the order] to him. “But yesterday you did not teach them to me like that!” he protested. “Must you then not rely upon me? Then rely upon me with respect to the Oral [Torah] too.” (Shabbos 30a)

Torah is eternal. It will survive without the Jewish people. As the Midrash says, it was with God for 2,000 years before the world was even created, and it will live on long after this world has come to an end. All of those who oppose it will be long gone and not even a memory, while Torah continues forever.

To merit Torah, though, and to benefit from it in the World-to-Come, one must fight for it, struggle on its behalf in this world. To make our efforts seem meaningful God arranges history such that it looks as if without our Torah struggles the battle would be lost. It looks as if evil can win, God forbid.’

Even though evil and impurity cannot win, at least in the long run, we are rewarded as if they would have without us. Torah will eventually prevail, but God wants it to be because of us, not because of Him. Set the table, sit down to eat, enjoy yourself, but never at the cost of self-sacrifice for Torah.


Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.

Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details!