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Oral Tradition : Part One

Submitted by on December 23, 2004 – 10:34 amNo Comment | 1,724 views

In the first part of this lecture series we established that G-d must
have given Moshe an oral tradition in tandem with the written text.
This begs a number of questions: What is the oral tradition? If it
comes from G-d why do our rabbis disagree on so many issues?

In the third part of this lecture series we will delve into the various
parts of the oral tradition but by way of introduction we will discuss
two of them today. The received and the derived.

Let us imagine that you received a telegram from your friend with the
following words: “Leah gave birth.”  What do you know? Only that a
woman by the name of Leah gave birth. What can you derive? Perhaps that
your friend’s wife’s name is Leah and that he is talking about his
wife. That the birth was natural since the simple wording implies that.
That the child is healthy since the report neglects to mention any
different.

What if you were later to find an earlier letter from this same friend
in which he assures you that he would only telegraph if his wife gave
birth but for anyone else he would send a letter in the mail? You would
then have confirmation that your derivation from his text was correct.
What if the letter should further state that he would only use the
words ”gave birth” for a natural birth and that he would only bother
informing you of the birth if the baby was healthy? You would then have
total confirmation of your exegesis.

What if you were to later receive a call from your friend in which he
informed you that his (1) wife Leah (2) gave birth (3) naturally (4) to
a baby (5) boy? You would then have four levels of information.

  1. The written text that Leah gave birth, later confirmed orally in the telephone call
  2. The Oral transmission that the baby was a boy (that was not even hinted in the text)
  3. The derived information that the birth was natural, later confirmed over the phone
  4. The
    derived information that the baby is healthy that was never confirmed
    by your friend but was built into the written text. (Based on your
    friend’s previous instructions on how to read his letter)

At
this point it would seem that levels three and four are the weakest
link. Level number three was later confirmed but the jury is out on
level number four, it still awaits confirmation. It is, however,
important to remember that the derivation was not mere guesswork it was
based upon clearly established guidelines, written by the author
himself.

Imagine now that the process was reversed. Your friend first called you
and then sent the telegram. It would now seem that the telegram came
only to confirm the telephone call not the other way around. Yet there
will still be information in the telegram (at least it will be
available to those who search for it using the proper rules of exegesis
established by the author) that was never included in the telephone
call.

The key difference will be on level number three. Instead of seeing it
as information guessed at by the reader, albeit by rules established by
the author, and later confirmed by the author it is now seen as
information received by the reader before the text had ever been
written. The text had simply included that information in a concealed
manner rather then a revealed one. The reader can now not be acquitted
of fabricating information based on nothing more then his own
imagination. He heard them directly from the writer before the text was
ever written!

Level number four, however, is subject to debate. All we have to go on
are the initial rules provided by the author but he has never confirmed
that we have utilized his rules successfully. An argument can still be
made that the exegesis was incorrect for one of any number of reasons.
This question will not be addressed by the author and will have to be
resolved by the reader. How will they resolve the issue? I suppose they
are welcome to put it to a vote and agree to follow the majority
opinion.

This is how the Torah was given. G-d gave Moshe the rules and the
explanations. He then explained to him the ground rules for exegesis on
the text he was about to dictate. He then dictated a text that was a
brief outline of what had previously been discussed. Yet using the
rules of exegesis it is possible to derive from this brief text even
more then that which was originally received by Moshe.

We now have four levels of information:

  1. Laws that were received orally by Moshe and later included in the brief outline
  2. Laws received by Moshe but never included in the brief outline (These are known as Halacha Lemoshe Misinai)
  3. Laws received by Moshe and later also derived from the text (using the rules of exegesis that G-d had provided for this text)
  4. Laws not received by Moshe but derivable from the text (using the rules of exegesis that G-d had provided for this text

There
are absolutely no disputes with regard to levels one, two and three,
the tradition in that regard is clear (as we will see in the next part
of this lecture series) Remember the point made with regards to level
number three in the analogy of the telegram. Though level number three
seems to be derived only through rabbinical exegesis we now know that
the information was received orally by Moshe before the text was ever
written. So as the text was dictated to Moshe he had the understanding
with G-d that the words allude (via exegesis) to previously mentioned
information.

It is only with regards to the last level that disputes set in. In this
case we have only the hermeneutic rules to fall back upon. Nothing on
this level was ever confirmed from above (outside of the initial rules
that originated with G-d). Each scholar must utilize the hermeneutic
rules and conclude for himself. Though agreements are more common in
Halacha then disputes we nevertheless have a healthy number of
disputes.

After utilizing the hermeneutic rules and properly analyzing the
subject matter there are sometimes more then one plausible explanation
to a verse. The scholar in this case must rely upon his own intuition
to reach a final conclusion. He must choose the one that sits best with
him and here it is possible that two scholars honestly disagree. What
do we do in this case? The scholars are encouraged to debate the issue.
If the issue cannot be resolved through debate it is brought to the
Sanhedrin for a vote. And the majority vote will rule.

This still leaves us with two questions.

  1. How can the majority decide what G-d’s will is? If they vote against his original will does his will change?
  2. If
    every matter can be put to a vote why do we find so many disagreements
    recorded for posterity in the Mishnah, Talmud and later codifiers? Why
    could they not have simply settled their differences and moved on?

The
first question will be dealt with in the fourth part of this lecture
series but we will deal with the second question this afternoon. To
understand the nature of the oral tradition it is important to
understand the history of the oral tradition. That is the subject
matter of our lecture tonight and to accomplish that we turn to the
beginning of this history, to Mt. Sinai.

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