Monday, November 19, 2007

Why Does All Rabbinical Authority Come from One Little Pasuk?

Several years ago, my wife and I had a very intelligent Baal Teshuva at our home many times, who had become observant through one of the Baalei Teshuva yeshivos in Israel. Over time, as he learned that things in Yiddishkeit are a little bit more complex than he had originally believed, he started to get bothered more and more. This was probably exacerbated by his chosen profession and passion, which involved some activities which are not permitted according to halacha, which may have created some cognitive dissonance for him. He is no longer observant, as far as I know right now, and this has bothered me.

One kasha that bothered him and he asked me, and about which I could not adequately answer him at the time, was the following; With the large number of halachos d'rabannan (Rabbinical Laws) that we keep, and the idea of Daas Torah and Emunas Chachamim (faith in the Sages), and the mitzva we have of "לֹא תָסוּר," not to dissobey the sages in every generation, it seems like the idea of rabbinical authority is almost a foundation of everything orthodox Jews believe in. But the truth of that authority seems so weak when there is only one little pasuk that backs it up; Devarim 17:11, "לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ--יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל." "Do not stray from the thing which they tell you, to the right or to the left." How can such a brief and unclear pasuk be the source for such all-pervasive power and authority over the whole Jewish people?!

Recently, I was speaking with a local Rav who turned most people's initial understanding of the relationship between the Oral and Written Torahs on its head. We were talking about how to learn a certain halacha out of a pasuk in the Torah ("בנך הבא מישראלית קרוי בנך ואין בנך הבא מן <העובדת כוכבים> {הגויה} קרוי בנך ,אלא בנה", Kiddushin 68b). He told me that according to the opinion of Rebbe Akiva, all of the principals, details, and minutiae of halacha were given on Har Sinai to Moshe Rebbeinu. However, the actual parshios, the text of the Torah, was not fully given, according to whatever method, until the end of the 40 years in the desert.

If that is so, then what is the gemara always doing when it figures out how to derive all of the halachos of the mishna from psukim in the Torah? All of those halachos were known anyway from the time of Ma'amad Har Sinai! Why do they bother "learning out" those halachos from the Chumash, when they were known independently of the text of the Torah anyway?

He explains that part of our mitzva of Talmud Torah, learning Torah, is that Hashem gave us all of the halachos, and he also gave us his "notes," or "shorthand," for what is written in the Torah. One of our jobs in learning Torah is that Hashem wants us to find all of the hints to all of the halachos that we received orally on Har Sinai in His "notes," the Written Torah. This means that we are not so much "learning out" halachos from the Chumash, but are rather "learning in" halachos into the Torah! That is how we are zoche to find all of the places where Hashem "hinted" at the halachos in the Written Torah. (The fact that there is machlokes about many halachos and which pasuk to "learn them from" is also Hashem's will, and is due to human forgetting, and is a separate issue from what I am talking about here.)

One major ramification of this new understanding of the relationship between Torah She'bechsav (Written Torah) and Torah She'ba'al Peh (Oral Torah), is that it totally changes what we would expect to find in the Oral Torah. Those aspects of Halacha which are most obvious and known to the masses of the people, need to be hinted at in the Written "notes" Torah the least!

For example, the halachos of having a lunar calendar tremendously affects our lives, in determining what date our Yomim Tovim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Rosh Chodesh, and Sefiras HaOmer fall out. However, all of that is hinted at in one half of one pasuk in Shmos 12:2, "הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים!" Whereas the halachos of Tuma and Tzara'as (Vayikra 12-15), which hardly ever affect anyone and only the kohanim need to fully understand how to pasken, take up perakim in sefer Vayikra! This can now be understood. The purpose of the psukim in Torah for, for purposes of halacha, is not to be the primary source for how we know these halachos. Rather, they are the notes that hint to those halachos. So just like one needs less notes for things that they understand better already, the Torah needs to say less when it comes to important things that are already well known and part of society. So there is little need for reminders about the halachos of the calendar, something people live with every day, while there is a greater need for hints (more detailed "notes") to remember the halachos of Tuma and Tahara and Tzara'as, which are not well known and understood on the whole.

Similarly, with our problem regarding "לֹא תָסוּר," rabbinical authority granted in the Torah, we can now understand that the written Torah is not, its self, granting this rabbinic role and rabbinic power, in which case one could understand why that would seem like a terse and oblique granting of that "power." Rather, the rabbinical role of protecting and guiding the Jewish people in all generations is an integral part of our lives, and Hashem vested them with that responsibility and the necessary authority to exercise it along with all of the other halachos on Har Sinai. Since it is such an integral part of our Yiddishkeit and our society, like many other well-understood parts of halcha, little "reminding" was needed in Hashem's "notes", the written Torah. That is why the reference is so brief.

At least next time this issue comes up with someone, I'll have a better understanding for myself, so that I will be able to understand the inyan better and be better able to explain it to others next time!

-Dixie Yid

(Picture of the Steipler Gaon courtesy of Rabbi Sedley's Blog)

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yitz said...

that's a really cool understanding..

i learned something similar this year---essentially, when we learn Torah she'be'al'peh we're not trying to find a basis for a halachah in the written Torah, or learn the halachah out from the written Torah, we're really only ever dealing with an existing mesorah---it doesn't matter what the passuk says, what's important is whether we have a mesorah that this passuk is the source for this mitzwah.

From the perspective of a halachist or a pashtan the written Torah is essentially irrelevant as far as halachah is concerned. The only relevancy is whether something has a basis in the written Torah (d'oraita) or not.

To me i understood this as the oral torah is the body of the mitzwoth, and the written Torah is the neshamah.. (i blogged about it once somewhere)

Anonymous said...

it's a machlokes if the drashos ever actually derived halachos, using the 13 (or more, some have 32) rules of drash

it's mashma in a few places that they did-see Rambam's hakdama to Yad

It's a nice approach here but won't answer everything like why the Torah has the issur of blood so many times in so many pasukim, or why there's so much on korbanos which was a part of their daily lives (not only kohanim)

Truth is, the guy's Q of lo sasur isn't a Q either you accept Torah as divine or not, and if yes, it's there! no matter how much is spent on it

Anonymous said...

"the idea of Daas Torah and Emunas Chachamim (faith in the Sages), and the mitzva we have of "לֹא תָסוּר," not to dissobey the sages in every generation"

Not so simple.

The posuk of לֹא תָסוּר (see the context) is talking about when we don't know something, to go up the beis din hagodol or Sanhedrin, in Yerusholayim, and present the case before them. Once they rule, we are instructed to follow their ruling without deviation. It is not referring to something you heard from an individual Rabbi or something ruled in a time without a Sanhedrin.

(That is not to say that rulings of later individual Rabbis carry no weight - just that they don't carry as much clout as the ruling of beis din hagodol of the olden days).

Anonymous said...

A review of opinons on lo tasur, at

DixieYid (يهودي جنوبي) said...

Big time Shkoyach on the link and what you wrote over there. Thank you!

-Dixie Yid