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Moses appointed twelve emissaries to scout out the Holy Land and return with a report. The representative for the tribe of Ephraim was Moses’ primary disciple, Joshua. Until this time, the lad’s name was Oshua. But Moses added a letter to his name and called him Joshua.
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Home » Archives, Concepts

Oral Tradition : Part Two

Submitted by on December 22, 2004 – 10:38 amNo Comment | 3,663 views

The Oral tradition was taught to Moshe Rabeinu on Mt. Sinai this is indicated by a number of versus.

Reading #1

  1. Come
    up to me on the mountain and I will give you the stone tablets and the
    Torah  Commandments, “Torah” refers to the written Torah,
    “Mitzvah” refers to the oral tradition, “that I have written” refers to
    the writings of the prophets and scriptures, “to teach them” refers to
    the Gemara.

    (Brachos  5a)
  2. And upon them (the tablets)
    were all the words that Hashem spoke to you” Deuteronomy 9,10) The word
    “all” teaches that Hashem revealed to Moshe all the interpretations of
    Torah and exactitudes of the scribes and the future innovations of the
    scribes, I.E. the reading of the Megillah.”
    (Megillah 19b)
  3. These
    are the edicts the ordinances and the Torahs that Hashem gave between
    himself and the children of Israel at Mt. Sinai through Moshe”
    .(Leviticus 26,46) “Edicts” refers to the derived laws “ordinances”
    refers to the written laws, “Torahs” (in the plural) teaches that
    Hashem gave the Jewish people two Torahs, a written Torah and an oral
    one. “Between himself and the Jewish people through Moshe” teaches that
    the Torah, its exactitudes and its interpretations were given through
    Moshe at Sinai
    . “
    (Sifri Leviticus 26,46)
  4. “Rabbi Yehoshua Ben
    Levi said: The Torah, the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Aggdah and whatever
    a conscientious scholar will in the future originate was told to Moshe
    at Sinai. There may be something regarding which a person says
    Here is something new
    ” (Koheles 1:10) His friend can respond it has
    already existed long ago
    (Koheles 1:10)
    (Talmud Yerushalmi Megilah 28a)
  5. Why
    does the Torah mention that the law of Shemitah (Sabbatical) was
    mentioned at Sinai? To teach us that just as the general and detailed
    laws of Shemitah (Sabbatical) were all taught at Sinai so were all the
    general and detailed laws taught at Sinai.”
    (Sifiri Leviticus 25,1)

exact order of this revelation is debated by Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi
Akiva and later debated once more by Rashi, Ramban and others. Some say
it was all taught on Mt. Sinai but repeated later some say it was
taught to Moshe throughout the course of the forty years.

The order in
which Moshe taught the information to his students is also described in
the Talmud.

Reading #2

Our sages have taught, what is the order of
repetition? Moshe learned from Hashem. Aharon entered and Moshe taught
him the chapter. Aharon went to sit at Moshe’s left side and his
children Elazar and Itamar entered. Moshe taught the chapter, Elazar
went to sit at Moshe’s right and Itamar went to sit at Aharon’s left.
The elders entered and Moshe taught them the chapter. The elders moved
aside and, the entire nation entered and Moshe taught them the
“At this point Aharon had heard it four times, his children
heard it three times, the elders heard it twice and the nation but
once. Moshe exited and Aharon taught the chapter, Aharon exited and his
children taught the chapter, his children exited and the elders taught
the chapter. In total, everyone heard the chapter four times.


In his introduction to the Mishnah, Maimonidies describes: After
the dispersion of this gathering the people would go back to their
homes and teach one another the new Mitzvah which they had learned.
They would inscribe it unto scrolls and the appointed judges would
circulate to oversee the continuous review of the Mitzvah and to give
them detailed commentary. This continued untill the entire nation was
fluent and well versed in the new

is great controversy over the question of precisely how much they knew.
Since Moshe taught the entire Oral torah how is it that later sages
argued over the points that Moshe must have previously taught. Though
one can argue that arguments developed as memory deteriorated and
resulted in loss of information we still look for further clues as this
explanation would not provide for disputes related to everyday
practice. There could have been no loss of memory in this area since
the practice must have continued in one manner or another. We would be
hard pressed to argue that the entire nation would forget the regular
daily practices.

We quoted the Yerushalmi in Megillah before “whatever a
conscientious scholar will in the future originate was told to Moses at
Sinai..”  This statement is perplexing as it contains
contradicting statements. We first state categorically that
“conscientious scholar will in the future originate”, that is to say
that they will innovative new modes of thought that will discover
entirely original information. In the same sentence we are told that
such “original” information ” was told to Moses at Sinai” meaning that
it is not original at all.

The following story best illustrates the
supposed paradox.

Reading #3

“Reb Yehoshua said in the name of
Rav; At the time that Moshe ascended to the above he found the Holy One
blessed be he sitting and attaching crowns to the Torah’s letters. He
said before him, ‘Master of the World! Who is forcing you?’ Hashem
replied, ‘In the future there will be a certain man and Akiva Ben yosef
is his name – who will expound many mountains of laws concerning every
title.’ Moshe said before him, ‘Show him to me!’ Hashem replied, ‘Turn
Back!’ Moshe turned back and sat in the last eight rows of seats in
Rabbi Akiva’s lecture hall and didn’t know what the discussants were
saying. He felt faint. But when they came to a certain point of law the
students asked ‘Rabbi, what is your source for this”’ He replied to
them, ‘It is a Halacha L’Moshe Misinai.’ Upon hearing this, Moshe
regained his composure
(Menachos 29b)

On the one hand Moshe did not
recognize the information yet Rabbi Akiva identified Moshe as the
source of the information. How do we reconcile this seeming conflict?
Once again in Avot D’reb Nasan we are told that Rreb Eliezer Ben
Hurkenus discovered information that “no ear had yet heard.”

above vision of Rabbi Akiva was shown to Moshe when he first climbed
the mountain before he was actually given the Torah
(Rashi, Reb Shlomo
Yitzchaki, Menachos 29b)

Indeed, according to Rashi’s suggestion, after
the Torah was revealed to Moshe he was aware of all the future exegesis
taught by the rabbis.The Orach Chayim (Rabbi Chayim Atar) suggests that

The entire Torah was revealed to Moshe only he was not
informed of the full linkage between the two Torahs. Though he was
privy to all the knowledge he left an open playing field for future
scholars to bring forth their original innovations. They would not
discover new law nor would they be given new torah, they would merely
find the link between the laws already known and the torah already

(Orach Chayim on Leviticus 13,37)

In other words, Orach Chayim
suggests that the field of innovation is confined to the art of linking
laws already known, but without support in the Biblical text, to words
found in the text. We find that Rabbi Tarfon praised Rabbi Akiva for
finding support in the text for laws known to Rabbi Tarfon by tradition
only. In a similar vein we find that Rabbi Akiva is praised for finding
support for a law that Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai strove to support find
but could not.

This explanation may satisfy the particular story brought
in Menachos but it would not provide for countless other sources that
suggest that much of the information wasn’t taught to Moshe. For

Says rabbi Abahu; ‘and did Moshe actually learn the
entire torah through a special gift from Hashem? It says in the Torah
(Job 11,9) (The Torah) “is vaster then the Earth and wider then the
sea.’ And in forty days Moshe learned it all?’  No. It was only
the overall principle that G-d taught Moshe.’

(Shemos Rabbah

Clearly, rabbi Abahu held that Moshe was not taught all the
details only the overall principles. These principles are identified in
the commentary to the Midrash as the “Methods of scriptural exegesis.”
It is possible to argue that Hashem revealed all of the written Torah
(excluding future prophecies) and much of the oral torah to Moshe. He
also taught him Rabbi Yishmael’s thirteen principles of derivation, and
the thirty-two principles of Rabbi Eliezer.

He even informed him that
there would come a time when new information will come to light based
on these principles. He even informed him that a time would come when
sages will legislate new rabbinical laws based on principles revealed
to Moshe. But the final details on all laws may have been left to
future scholars of torah to divine from the text.Chassidus ads the
following flavor to this argument.

Moshe received the Torah
with all it’s hermeneutic rules and was able to deploy those rules to
tease out the many layers of meaning behind every word in the written
torah. Yet he did not. He left this to the conscientious student to
originate this information on his own. Since the information was
predicated upon the rules given to Moshe we claim that it was all given
to Moshe at Sinai. Since the student divined the information for
himself we attribute to him the status of origination
(Likutei Sichos
v 19 p253)
The revelation of Torah at Sinai (to Moshe) can be
compared to the knowledge of details as they appear in the general
(Sefer Hamamarim 5686)

Every entrepreneur has a vision for
his company before the company starts out. In this vision he lays out
the guidelines and the philosophy of this company. Consonant with those
guidelines he maps out the various departments that will be necessary.
Should he be asked at that moment about the detailed number of staff in
each office and the characteristics he seeks in each individual
employee he would not yet be able to respond. However, the principles
he will follow when laying out such information is already delineated
before him in his original vision.

This is to say that he has general
knowledge of every detail in the sense that he can use the delineated
principles to bring the details into focus but he has not yet done

This is similar to Edison’s discovery of the light bulb. When he
first conceived of it he had no idea how far we would go with it. If
you showed Edison some of what we have accomplished with his invention
he would not recognize it. Yet clearly all that we have extracted from
his initial discovery was included in his original idea. He just didn’t
know it at the time.

In this sense Moshe was given all the information
at Mt. Sinai yet he was unable to extract the detailed laws from that
information unless he put his mind to it. When he listened to Rabbi
Akiva preach he was truly unfamiliar with the information.

Rabbi Akiva
was a student of a tradition that led straight back to Moshe. He
derived all of his information from Moshe and in that sense his
information was not new. But he was the first one to reveal the
information, to extract it from its bundle and lay it out on the table,
this makes it his original. All of his material was collected from
Moshe’s never before tapped information storehouse.

Akiva was a well-stocked treasury of knowledge
.” (Talmud Gttin 67a) “He
studied at different intervals from a great variety of teachers yet all
of his information was completely compartmentalized, well indexed and
cross referenced
”. (Rashi)

Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, Chief Rabbi of
Krakow, brings a novel argument on the precise nature of Moshe’s
knowledge forth in the 16’th century.

:True, the oral law
which Moshe handed over to Yehoshua… came with a complete explanation.
Nevertheless, there was no time or era in which there was an absence of
new Halachic discovery. Though Moshe was told all the details to be
extracted by later sages he did not relay this to the others at all. It
does not say that the details were handed to him or taught to him, it
says they were shown to him. This is analogous to one who is shown an
object but is not permitted to take it.

(Paraphrased from Tosafos Yom
Tov, introduction to Mishnah)

Tosafos Yom Tov argues that Moshe was told
the information but instructed not to teach it to others so that the
later sages can come and claim what is theirs. This general concept is
supported by our earlier quote from the Yerushalmi, “things were told
to me whose underlying reasons I cannot reveal.”

This may
also explain why in discussion of the detailed information that Moshe
was taught on the mountain the Talmud uses the words shown to Moshe and
regarding the general details taught to Moshe the words Given to Moshe
are used.

(Tosafos Rishon Letziyon)

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan also uses this
argument as the standard position. (Handbook of Jewish thought

Moshe taught the Torah to the people and did not hold anything
back with the exception of the few kernels of information he was
instructed to withhold.

Things were told to me whose
underlying reason I have permission to reveal and things were told to
me whose underlying reasons I may not reveal.

(Talmud Yerushalmi
Sanhedrin 4,2)

There are, however, indications that Moshe sometimes
purposely withheld information from his students in order to give them
the opportunity to independently deduce it for themselves.

Tanchuma said in the name of Rav Huna.. The verse does not say that
Betzalel did everything that Moshe commanded him to do, it states that
“Betzalel did everything that Hashem commanded Moshe to do.” (Numbers
38.22) Even those things that he was not told by his master (Moshe) his
mind deduced exactly what Hashem told Moshe.Rabbi Yochanan said in the
name of Rabbi Bannaia: “The verse reads ‘Exactly as Hashem commanded
Moshe, Moshe commanded Yehoshua, and Yehoshua did exactly as
commanded.’ (Joshua 11,15) It does not go on to say that he did not
neglect a thing from all that Moshe had commanded him, it reads rather
“he did not neglect a thing from all that Hashem commanded Moshe!” He
deduced exactly what Hashem told Moshe on Mt. Sinai even though Moshe
had not, in turn, told him.

(Talmud Yerushalmi Peyah 2b)

We certainly
know that Moshe was taught the mystical secrets of Torah and was
instructed to withhold the information from the masses.

And G-d
also commanded me” (Deuteronomy 4,14) ‘the word “also” teaches that
“some things told me I will reveal but other things were meant just for
Hashem and myself…. When the students are young withhold from then the
words of Torah when they grow great… reveal to them the secrets of
” (Talmud Yerushalmi AZ 11a)

That which was permitted for Moshe to
share he definitely did share as the following sources demonstrate.

said to Moshe “Let it not enter your mind that I will teach them the
chapter and law two or three times till they can recite it verbatim and
not trouble myself to make them understand the reasoning of the matter.
It therefore says “That you shall place before them” Present it like a
table fully set, with prepared portions ready to be eaten.

Exodus 21,1)
Says Reb Yosay, ‘The Torah was given to Moshe and
his descendants alone… nevertheless, Moshe treated the children of
Israel generously and gave it to them.’ Reb Chisda questioned, ‘but is
says “And G-d commanded me at that time to teach you” and it says “See
I taught you at that time… as Hashem commanded me” (Deuteronomy 4,
4,14) and it says “This song shall be my testimony for the Jewish
people” (Duetoronomy 31,19) implying that the Torah was intended for
the study of all Jewish people?’ Reb Yosay answered ‘Then I’ll modify
my statement, what was originally meant for Moshe was the skill to
extract the hidden messages from the text.’

(Nedarim 38a)

(This last
statement of Reb Yosay is understood by Rashi as the ability to
understand one concept from another. The later commentaries argue as to
the precise application of those words. The Netziv (Reb Naftali Yehudah
Berlin, 19’th century) to mean the skill of Hermeneutics. But many
other commentators understand the skill under discussion to be the
ability to extract profound Kabalistic concepts.)

continuing the discussion on what exactly Moshe was told, and perhaps
what he may have forgotten, to the extent that we can possibly
determine this, we offer the following sources.

And he gave it
to Moshe when he concluded his talks with him” (Exodus 31,18) “In the
beginning Moshe learned Torah and forgot it till it was given to him as
a gift.

(Nedarim 38a)
Moshe cried out, ‘Master of the
Universe! Here I was for forty days and nights and I have noting to
show for it!’ Thereupon Hashem granted him the knowledge of Torah as a

(Midrash Shemos Rabba (41,6)

There were laws that were
purposely withheld from Moshe till the time came to reveal them. Such
as a number of specific incidents brought in the Torah.

  • The burnt offering (Leviticus 10,20)
  • The blasphemer (Leviticus 24,14)
  • The Pesach Sheini (Number 9,8)
  • The daughters of Tzlafchad (Numbers 27,5 37,5)
  • The wood gatherer (Numbers 15,34)
  • There is also, an incident in which Moshe forgot a Halacha and was reminded by Pinchas, quoted in Rashi (Numbers 25 7)

Talmud tells us of several incidents in which Moshe was not told what
to do but was left to fall back on the hermeneutic laws. This indicates
that Moshe did indeed make use of the laws of hermeneutic rules and
that he may have even taught them to his generation as Rambam insists.

  • Moshe
    separated himself from his wife by making the following argument. ‘If
    when Hashem spoke to the Jewish people he instructed them “Do not draw
    near a woman”, (Exodus 19,15) I, who am addressed by G-d at every
    moment and am never given advance notice must certainly separate from
    my wife…. And g-d agreed with himHe broke the tablets by making the
    following argument. If with regards to the Pascal lamb it is written
    that “All foreign children shall not partake of it (Exodus 12,43) then
    how much more so if the entire torah is in my arms and the nation is
    blasphemous…. And G-d agreed with him (Shabbos 87a)

A pattern
emerges. Moshe received the entire Torah. He was either aware of all
the details or of most details, either way he certainly had general
information on all of Torah. He taught all that he was permitted to
teach to the people of his generation. He taught them not only the
words of the written Torah but also the detailed information on Mitzvos
contained in the oral Torah.  Some of what he taught them orally
was alluded to in the written Torah but some of the information was
handed down completely independently of the written Torah. The latter
section of Jewish law is referred to as the Halacha Lemoshe Misinai.The
people of that generation, living in the wilderness, and having no
other pursuits, engaged in intense study of the Torah’s laws.
Moshe taught them to study not only the information but also to delve
into the written Torah to identify the relevant sources for the laws
that Moshe had previously taught them.For that purpose they engaged in
the thirteen principles of exegesis and derivation which will be
discussed in greater detail at a later point. Clearly the science of
derivation was known and practiced in the wilderness in Moshe’s day.
(Maimonidies says as much in the second foundation of his Sefer
Hamitzvos. He differs however with Ramban as he considers the exegesis-
based laws rabbinical legislation while Ramban considers them biblical
obligations, albeit not commandments.)Whenever a question arose they
would debate the issue and bring it to the judges for a vote. The
majority vote would always determine the rule. Anything not known to
the lower courts was brought to the higher courts, ultimately reaching
Moshe himself. Moshe ultimately brought he did not know to G-d. This
generation covered all the questions that occurred to them. It is
however, logical to assume that they did not conceive of every single
Halachic possibility and that the following generations thought of
questions that have never been raised earlier. As quoted above from the
Tosafos Yom Tov,”the oral law, which Moshe handed over to Yehoshua…,
came with a complete explanation. Nevertheless, there was no time or
era in which there was an absence of new Halachic discovery.”Much was
known to the first generation of Torah Scholars but much was also
forgotten. It is impossible to establish for certain which laws were
known, which were forgotten and, also, which were simply not addressed
and were discovered in following generations through the principles of