Thursday, June 28, 2007

Introduction to Torah Sh'ba'al Peh

I am currently preparing for the Talmud class that I will be giving this coming school year. I always like to start with a general introduction to Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. I believe the best introduction is the Rambam's introduction to the Mishna. Though the introduction to the Mishne Torah is also an excellent introduction to Torah Sh'ba'al Peh it is tailored to act as an introduction to Rambam's particular presentation of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. If one's task is to learn/teach the other texts of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh then it would seem that the introduction to the Mishna should be one's primary choice.

My method will be to go through the text and paraphrase or translate each mini-unit/paragraph and provide whatever explanations are necessary to understand what the Rambam is doing. The Hebrew text I will be using is from the "" web site (I will supplement the translation given there with R' Sheilat and R' Qafich's translations). For now, I will be skipping over the Rambam's introductory "song". Skipping over it is not meant to indicate that it is not important just that I need to think about it some more.

The Rambam begins by stating the most basic idea one must have about Torah Sh'ba'al Peh, the Oral Law, before study can begin. However, before discussing it, let me just clarify what the Rambam is not doing:

1) He is not telling us the most basic idea that the Torah (and reason) demands we have. The Rambam presents the most basic ideas we must have in his Hakdama to Chelek and Hilchot Y'sodei HaTorah, The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah (really, all of Sefer HaMada, The Book of the Knowledge). To begin studying the Torah one must already possess the y'sodot, the foundations (after all, you are only allowed to teach Torah to a Yisrael who is a Talmid Hagun - we will assume for now that my students meet those criteria).

2) Additionally, the Rambam is not telling us the most basic ideas we need to study Torah Sh'bichtav, the Written Law.

He is, however, telling us the most basic idea of Torah Sh'ba'al Peh: what it is.

דע, כי כל מצווה שנתן הקב"ה למשה רבנו ע"ה, נתנה לו בפירושה: היה אומר לו המצווה, ואחר כך אומר לו פירושה ועניינה, וכל מה שהוא כולל ספר התורה.

All the mitzvot that God gave to Moshe Rabbeinu, A"H, were given with peirush, explanation. God would tell Moshe the mitzvah and afterwards would tell him its peirush, explanation.

As Rav Sheilat writes in his commentary on the Hakdama to the Mishna (my paraphrase/translation): "The Torah Sh'ba'al Peh transforms the mitzvah from a vague/intangible (Artila'i) idea to a practicable teaching/instruction." This is why the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh is properly called Mitzvah, command in the Hakdama to the Mishne Torah:

א כל המצוות שניתנו לו למשה בסיניי--בפירושן ניתנו, שנאמר "ואתנה לך את לוחות האבן, והתורה והמצוה" (שמות כד,יב): "תורה", זו תורה שבכתב; ו"מצוה", זה פירושה. וציוונו לעשות התורה, על פי המצוה. ומצוה זו, היא הנקראת תורה שבעל פה.

All the mitzvot that were given to Moshe on Sinai -- they were given with their peirush, explanation. As it says, "And I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and the Mitzvah. "Torah" - this is Torah Sh'bichtav. "Mitzvah" - this is peirushah, its explanation. We are commanded to do the Torah in accordance with the Mitzvah. This "Mitzvah" is called Torah Sh'ba'al Peh.

In other words, only the peirush which facilitates "doing" is called Torah Sh'ba'al Peh - "This "Mitzvah" is called Torah Sh'ba'al Peh" - and no other. Without the "do" it is just an "explanation".

This is not an ad. for Mountain Dew/Do but it's a good mnemonic nonetheless.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Part I

In preparation for an essay in which I would like to explain the meaning of some of the midrashim about Og, I would like to go through what the Torah has to say about this "giant". My method will be to go through the verses and paraphrase each mini-unit/paragraph of text. Along the way, I will try to make note of some the more interesting elements that could easily be missed in a cursory reading.

Disclaimer: please consider this as a rough first reading. Any critiques or suggestions will be appreciated.

It seems, as with many of the events in the Torah, that it all goes back to the B'rit Bein HaBetarim. At the conclusion of that B'rit, God assured Avraham that his descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. However, this inheritance had to be delayed until the "sin of the Emori is complete" (not to exclude the other reasons it was delayed).

וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי, יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה: כִּי לֹא-שָׁלֵם עֲו‍ֹן הָאֱמֹרִי, עַד-הֵנָּה. (בר' טו.טז)

Finally, in the twenty-first chapter of B'midbar (vv. 21-35) the day seems to have arrived:

כא וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל מַלְאָכִים, אֶל-סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ-הָאֱמֹרִי לֵאמֹר. כב אֶעְבְּרָה בְאַרְצֶךָ, לֹא נִטֶּה בְּשָׂדֶה וּבְכֶרֶם--לֹא נִשְׁתֶּה, מֵי בְאֵר: בְּדֶרֶךְ הַמֶּלֶךְ נֵלֵךְ, עַד אֲשֶׁר-נַעֲבֹר גְּבֻלֶךָ.

Israel sent messengers (note the similarity to B'reishit 32:4: "וַיִּשְׁלַח יַעֲקֹב מַלְאָכִים לְפָנָיו, אֶל-עֵשָׂו "אָחִיו, אַרְצָה שֵׂעִיר, שְׂדֵה אֱדוֹם) to Sichon king of the Emori requesting passage through his land - giving him their word that they would stay on the King's Highway and not tread on anyone's field, or vineyard, or drink from any wells. However, he did not consent:

כג וְלֹא-נָתַן סִיחֹן אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל, עֲבֹר בִּגְבֻלוֹ, וַיֶּאֱסֹף סִיחֹן אֶת-כָּל-עַמּוֹ וַיֵּצֵא לִקְרַאת יִשְׂרָאֵל הַמִּדְבָּרָה, וַיָּבֹא יָהְצָה; וַיִּלָּחֶם, בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל.

Even more shockingly he seemed to perceive Israel as a threat and gathered "his entire nation" to the desert and waged war against them! However, he was not triumphant:

כד וַיַּכֵּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְפִי-חָרֶב; וַיִּירַשׁ אֶת-אַרְצוֹ מֵאַרְנֹן, עַד-יַבֹּק עַד-בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן--כִּי עַז, גְּבוּל בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן. כה וַיִּקַּח, יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֵת כָּל-הֶעָרִים, הָאֵלֶּה; וַיֵּשֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּכָל-עָרֵי הָאֱמֹרִי, בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן וּבְכָל-בְּנֹתֶיהָ.

Israel soundly defeated them and took possession of his entire land to the border of Amon. They also took hold of the cities and settled in them - this included Cheshbon and all its provinces. In high poetic style the Torah proceeds to explain how Cheshbon came to belong to Sichon:

כו כִּי חֶשְׁבּוֹן--עִיר סִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי, הִוא; וְהוּא נִלְחַם, בְּמֶלֶךְ מוֹאָב הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-כָּל-אַרְצוֹ מִיָּדוֹ, עַד-אַרְנֹן. כז עַל-כֵּן יֹאמְרוּ הַמֹּשְׁלִים, בֹּאוּ חֶשְׁבּוֹן; תִּבָּנֶה וְתִכּוֹנֵן, עִיר סִיחוֹן. כח כִּי-אֵשׁ יָצְאָה מֵחֶשְׁבּוֹן, לֶהָבָה מִקִּרְיַת סִיחֹן: אָכְלָה עָר מוֹאָב, בַּעֲלֵי בָּמוֹת אַרְנֹן. כט אוֹי-לְךָ מוֹאָב, אָבַדְתָּ עַם-כְּמוֹשׁ; נָתַן בָּנָיו פְּלֵיטִם וּבְנֹתָיו בַּשְּׁבִית, לְמֶלֶךְ אֱמֹרִי סִיחוֹן. ל וַנִּירָם אָבַד חֶשְׁבּוֹן, עַד-דִּיבֹן; וַנַּשִּׁים עַד-נֹפַח, אֲשֶׁר עַד-מֵידְבָא.

After this poetic interlude the Torah repeats that Israel settled in the land of the Emori (I consider this the beginning of the second half of the story.):

לא וַיֵּשֶׁב, יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּאֶרֶץ, הָאֱמֹרִי.

Now, the Torah shifts its focus from Israel (note that only Israel has been mentioned up to this point) to Moshe. Moshe sent spies - most likely they were spies, however, the Torah leaves out the indirect-object leaving us to fill it in based on context (I can only wonder why the Torah would not want to mention spies (m'raglim) - hmm) - on a reconnaissance mission to gather information on Ya'zeir and "they" (most likely Israel - again, the Torah is somewhat ambiguous) captured all of its provinces and uprooted the Emori that were there:

לב וַיִּשְׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לְרַגֵּל אֶת-יַעְזֵר, וַיִּלְכְּדוּ בְּנֹתֶיהָ; ויירש (וַיּוֹרֶשׁ), אֶת-הָאֱמֹרִי אֲשֶׁר-שָׁם.

Next, "they" turned and went up by way of Bashan:

לג וַיִּפְנוּ, וַיַּעֲלוּ, דֶּרֶךְ, הַבָּשָׁן; וַיֵּצֵא עוֹג מֶלֶךְ-הַבָּשָׁן לִקְרָאתָם הוּא וְכָל-עַמּוֹ, לַמִּלְחָמָה--אֶדְרֶעִי.

Og, the king of Bashan came out to "greet them" - he, and his entire nation for war. (Note how the Torah emphasises Og's presence at the battle by singling him out with the word "הוא (he)", "he, and his entire nation" went out to battle.)

לד וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַל-תִּירָא אֹתוֹ--כִּי בְיָדְךָ נָתַתִּי אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-כָּל-עַמּוֹ, וְאֶת-אַרְצוֹ; וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ--כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ לְסִיחֹן מֶלֶךְ הָאֱמֹרִי, אֲשֶׁר יוֹשֵׁב בְּחֶשְׁבּוֹן. לה וַיַּכּוּ אֹתוֹ וְאֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-כָּל-עַמּוֹ, עַד-בִּלְתִּי הִשְׁאִיר-לוֹ שָׂרִיד; וַיִּירְשׁוּ, אֶת-אַרְצוֹ.

Before the battle, God instructed Moshe to not be afraid of him (meaning Og) because He had delivered him (Og) and his entire nation and his land into his (Moshe's) hand. God assured Moshe that he would do to him (Og) what he did to Sichon, king of the Emori, who dwells in Cheshbon (The Torah's use of the "present tense" is most probably explained by the fact that, technically, there are no tenses in BH. As in bonei Yerushalayim, the "present tense" can also be used as a noun - this is called a participle, meaning, it participates, or partakes, in the nature of both a noun (as an adjective) and a verb. Check out this article for a nice, simple explanation of tenses in BH). Indeed, Moshe struck Og and his sons (who we hear about, now, for the first time) and his nation to the point that no one remained. And they took possession of Og's land.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Third Chapter of Ruach HaChein is Up

All of chapter three is now up. I have also made minor improvements throughout and the web address has changed. This is the new link:

Ruach HaChein

I look forward to your critiques and suggestions.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Rationality and Non-Rationality of Midrashim

The following is a post I wrote for Matt's blog, Kankan Chadash, as it appears there (the one thing I changed is the title). If you want to comment, please do it over there (unless you really want to say something here).

The following is a response by Yehuda to points raised by Chana in the comments on the post entitled "Can Animals Speak?" Chana asserted "The aggadah is not rational. Neither are midrashim" (please see the comments there for the full context of this quote). The following is Yehuda's response.

I would like to take up the following two issues concerning midrashim and aggadot: 1) Should they be taken literally? 2) Are they some how not rational?

1) To make any absolute statements about midrashim is risky. Midrashic literature is vast and varied. Obviously, some are to be taken literally and some are clearly allegorical. Admittedly, it is not always easy to discern. Because of this difficulty one must take great care to not misrepresent the authors of these midrashim. Any misrepresentation of our sages is a grave injustice - all the more so, if that misrepresentation would cause people to view the rabbis as silly or foolish. For this reason, any midrash with a fantastical element must be handled with great care. I chose the word fantastical deliberately - fantasy is the product of the imagination alone - unicorns and dragons only exist in the imagination. One must ask (as one should when reading anything) what purpose such midrashim have. Truthfully, the line between the fantastic and the amazing-but-true can, at times, be hard to draw. Of course, it should be remembered that our rabbis were not in the business of writing fantasy stories. In summary, there are three kinds of midrashim: 1) ones we know are literal; 2) ones we know are allegorical; 3) ones that we are not sure about.

No matter what kind of midrash we are reading one thing is always true. Midrash is part of the Oral Law, the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. Its purpose is to explain the Written Law, the Torah Sh'bichtav. The Torah Sh'ba'al Peh does not limit itself to explaining the commandments of our Torah (and Rabbinical enactments). It embraces everything the Torah has to teach us. The Torah Sh'bichtav includes both commandments and narrative. Similarly, the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh includes both discussions of law, halakha, and midrashim and aggadot which are often in the form of narrative. Just as the purpose of the stories in the Torah are clearly meant to enlighten and educate us, so to the midrashim and aggadot of the Torah Sh'ba'al Peh. The purpose of this education could not be stated any clearer than what Moshe Rabbeinu told B'nei Yisrael at the conclusion of the last speech he gave before he passed on (D'varim 30:15-20):

"See, I have placed before you this day the life and the good and the death and the evil. That which I have commanded you this day to love Hashem, your God, to follow in His ways and to keep His commandments and statutes and judgments; and you shall live and multiply and Hashem, your God will bless you in the land that you are coming there to inherit it. And if your heart turns and you do not listen; and you will be led astray and you bow down to other gods and you serve them. I tell you today that you will surely perish; you will not have long days on the land that you are crossing over the Yarden to come there to inherit it. I make the heaven and the earth witnesses against you today: the life and the death I have placed before you, the blessing and the curse; and you shall choose the life in order that you shall live, you and your children. To love Hashem, your God, to pay heed to His voice and to attach yourself to Him; for it is your life and the length of your days to settle on the land that Hashem promised to your forefathers: to Avraham, to Yitzchak, to Ya'akov to give it to them."

The purpose of midrashim and aggadot - whether they be literal or allegorical - must have the same end as the rest of the Torah: to imbue us with a love of God that is transformative - to give us life.

2) Are midrashim rational? I am sure that you are aware that some midrashim are the actual d'rashot that our rabbis gave to their congregations. Imagine the rabbi of a large synagogue getting up in front of his congregation before the chanting of the Adon Olam. He stands before the podium and begins to describe a recent visit he made to his physician for a check-up or he gives the play-by-play of a famous baseball game or he tells us a story out of his childhood. Why is he doing this? You would know - without anyone having to tell you - that this is a normal part of a Shabbat d'rasha. You know that he is telling the story in order to teach a lesson. But why not just tell us the lesson? You know that would not be as interesting (and/or entertaining).

I would say that the story (or any other emotionally charged technique) can serve three possible functions: interest, memory and action. Interest: The rabbi, in our example, wants to keep his audience's attention (or get it in the first place). A good story will quickly get the attention of an inattentive crowd. Memory: Everyone knows that when a lesson is associated with a story that hits you emotionally it is much easier to remember. Action: Additionally (and perhaps more importantly), a good, emotionally charged story can be very moving - it can make you want to do something and not just know something (think of the word: emotion). The rabbi does not want his speech to be too cerebral - he wants his congregation to feel something about what he is saying and, perhaps, even be inspired to action (like give tzedaka).

The rabbi's speech has rational and emotional elements. The rational element, the lesson, appeals to the mind of the listener. The emotional, or non-rational, element appeals to the listener's emotions. I believe the same could be said for many midrashim. Similar to the rabbi's speech, when a midrash employs an allegory (aside from being an excellent tool to communicate deep ideas) or an anecdote it can serve a rational as well as non-rational function. The midrash might want us to feel something about the idea that it is conveying (for any of the three, above mentioned, purposes).

This dual function of midrashim should not be surprising. Neither the importance of the rational nor the importance of the non-rational should be minimized in our avodat Hashem (service of Hashem). How can we serve God without knowledge? How can we serve God if that knowledge does not inspire us and move us to action? Can one read Tehillim without feeling something? Can one study Mishlei without using his or her mind? . . . or vice versa?

In conclusion, midrashim are perfectly rational - they teach lessons that appeal to the mind. However, this does not mean that they can not serve a non-rational purpose - an appeal to the emotions.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Rabbi Sacks' New Blog

There is a new link in my list of blogs.

Rambam System

For those of you who know Rabbi Sacks, enjoy! For those of you who do not, enjoy!

The focus will be on the triumvirate haK'dosha of: Rambam, Ralbag and Ramchal.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Ruah HaHen

I have just put up a website that has part of my translation of Ruah HaHen. It is basically a philosophical primer meant to prepare one to study the Moreh HaNevuchim. It was written sometime in the 13th century and the author is unknown. It was quite popular back in the day.

This is the link to my translation with my notes:

Ruach HaHen

Bear in mind that this translation is far from its final form - I just wanted to share it to get some feedback. A digitized copy of the 1555 edition is available here.

Enjoy! I am looking forward to any helpful comments and critiques. My goal is to eventually publish this translation but continue to make it available for free. If anyone has any ideas how to go about finding a publisher please let me know.

Yitro Leads the Way
(A Symbol of Symbiosis)

The following is based on a conversation I had with Matt on Shabbat.

As many have pointed out before, the first ten chapters of B'midbar describe B'nei Yisrael's preparation for their journey to Canaan. After the "vaY'hi binsoa haAron" mini-book (see Shabbat 115a - 116b) the downward spiral of cheit begins culminating in forty years of wandering in the desert (see Rabbi Leibtag's shiur which deals nicely with this issue). Before the Torah completes its discussion of these preparation it records an a discussion that Moshe Rabbeinu had with Chovav/Yitro.

כט וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לְחֹבָב בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל הַמִּדְיָנִי חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה, נֹסְעִים אֲנַחְנוּ אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אָמַר יְהוָה, אֹתוֹ אֶתֵּן לָכֶם; לְכָה אִתָּנוּ וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ, כִּי-יְהוָה דִּבֶּר-טוֹב עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל. ל וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, לֹא אֵלֵךְ: כִּי אִם-אֶל-אַרְצִי וְאֶל-מוֹלַדְתִּי, אֵלֵךְ. לא וַיֹּאמֶר, אַל-נָא תַּעֲזֹב אֹתָנוּ: כִּי עַל-כֵּן יָדַעְתָּ, חֲנֹתֵנוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְהָיִיתָ לָּנוּ, לְעֵינָיִם. לב וְהָיָה, כִּי-תֵלֵךְ עִמָּנוּ: וְהָיָה הַטּוֹב הַהוּא, אֲשֶׁר יֵיטִיב יְהוָה עִמָּנוּ--וְהֵטַבְנוּ לָךְ.

Moshe asks Chovav to join B'nei Yisrael in Canaan. Chovav resists his invitation and Moshe Rabbeinu persists. What place does this conversation have in the presentation of B'nei Yisrael's travel preparations?

This is not the only oddly placed dialogue between Chovav/Yitro and Moshe Rabbeinu. Before the Torah records the events at Har Sinai (Sh'mot 19) in Parashat Yitro the Torah presents Yitro's arrival and his discussion with Moshe Rabbeinu concerning the establishment of the best court system. As others have pointed out (see R' Yonatan Grossman's essay on Parashat B'haalot'cha for another approach) the placement of these Yitro/Chovav stories forms a chiastic structure:


B'nei Yisrael's entire encampment at Har Sinai is bookended by these two episodes. What is the purpose of this placement?

First I will try to explain the Yitro--Har Sinai connection. At Sinai B'nei Yisrael received the Divine Laws of the Torah. This law system was like no other because its source was not the mind of man. The God-givenness of the Torah could lead to a fundamental misconception: the wisdom of man has no place in the Torah. The story of Yitro is the corrective. The Torah can not function without man's wisdom - could B'nei Yisrael be governed by the Torah with only Moshe Rabbeinu to judge them? Of course, man's wisdom must be checked by God's wisdom - Yitro gave the proviso that his advise should only be followed if God commands it (Sh'mot 18:23), "וְצִוְּךָ אֱלֹהִים". However, here the Torah gives credit to Yitro and not God's command (v. 24), "וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה, לְקוֹל חֹתְנוֹ; וַיַּעַשׂ, כֹּל אֲשֶׁר אָמָר". The story of Yitro protects us from getting swept away with the Divinity of the Torah and, so to speak, lose our minds.

What is the Har Sinai--Chovav connection? There is another fallacy B'nei Yisrael had to guard themselves from as they prepared to enter Canaan: that the Torah is exclusively for them. In other words, is the Torah and the tremendous goods (both physical and spiritual) that it has to offer only for B'nei Yisrael? Loyalty to one's tribe is certainly virtuous but tribalism can not be allowed to degenerate into xenophobic exclusivism. The treasures of the Torah are not for B'nei Yisrael alone. What better demonstration of this truth than Moshe Rabbeinu's invitation to Chovav to join B'nei Yisrael and share in the good that God is to bestow upon them. Here too Moshe Rabbeinu expresses the peoples indebtedness to Chovav - he will be their eyes!

The bookending of the Yitro/Chovav stories seems to underscore the proper role B'nei Yisrael are to take amongst the nations. Not as cloistered priests living isolated from the rest of humanity but as ministering priests inspiring humanity to enjoy the true goods the Torah has to offer, להסתופף תחת כנפי השכינה. However, our connectedness to the other nations is not a one way street. Our ears can not be closed to the general wisdom of the world lest: נָבֹל תִּבֹּל--גַּם-אַתָּה, גַּם-הָעָם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר עִמָּךְ: כִּי-כָבֵד מִמְּךָ הַדָּבָר, לֹא-תוּכַל עֲשֹׂהוּ לְבַדֶּךָ.