Jew in the suburbs


Torah, Torah, Torah
January 18, 2009, 7:06 pm
Filed under: author, Frum, Hashem, Jewish, Jewish, Judaism, Orthodox, Torah | Tags: , , , ,

 

 

 

I wrote the paper below in college. The question I had to answer was as follows:

Describe precisely how Jewish tradition relies heavily on the Oral Torah to interpret the Written Torah.  Your answer should treat the major documents of the Oral Torah, covering both their age, scope, and function (e.g. Midrash, Mishnah, Talmud, etc.).

 

 

 

 Perhaps it is easiest to grasp the interrelationship between the Written Torah and Oral Torah if one views it from a religious perspective.  According to this belief system, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were given by G-d to Moses on Mount Sinai at the same time.  Therefore, traditional Judaism says that the Oral Torah is holy as well. One can conclude that at the time, the Written Torah was given by G-d; it was all that was needed for life in the desert. However, the Oral Torah was intended to be passed down orally to leaders of future generations and applied as needed.

 

The Written Torah, although a sacred document can seldom be applied directly, without clarification, to the everyday lives of the Jewish people, simply because, the Written Torah is missing much detail and provides very little regarding ways to implement G-d’s intentions into actions, and laws.  In addition, as time passes, new challenges and issues arise, which need to be addressed.  Therefore Judaism created, with the Oral Torah, an interpretive tradition which is always evolving as these new issues present themselves. Working within this framework, in a limited sense, when one refers to the Written Torah, they are speaking of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.   Again, these five books contain ambiguities and missing information therefore, the Oral Torah is crucial to the preservation of Judaism. This crucial need for the oral tradition was illustrated by the Sadducees, a small sect of Jews whose position was that the oral laws had no authority and only the Written Torah should be followed.  The Sadducees endeavors failed due to the omissions, and they were forced to come up with their own oral tradition in order to practice the religion. 

 

Torah means teaching, therefore when one speaks the word Torah they are not necessarily referring to the five books; they can be referring to the oral tradition.  Some of the documents included in this Oral Torah are the, Mishnah, the Midrash of which there are two types, and the Kabbalah. 

 

Since Judaism has an oral tradition, one might wonder why the Oral Torah was eventually written down. Though one could make the argument that the Oral Torah should have remained oral; the writing of it is logical and necessary for several reasons. In the process of being transmitted from person to person and over time, much of the information is changed and lost.  In order to keep the tradition alive, leaders had little choice but to write it down so that people would not forget what to do as Jews during the course of their daily lives. It proved to be very necessary as the Jews moved around to different communities for various reasons especially exile, and were surrounded by other cultures and living under foreign rule.  Early on, as issues arose, over time, the leaders, using their wisdom addressed situations and wrote down what they had said but these writings were not organized into any specific or formal collection until later.

 

The Talmud embodies the study of Torah in the broadest sense and all it entails.  Very generally it is the Mishnah and Gemara. One part of Talmud, the Mishnah, is a compilation of much of those writings mentioned above; it came into being in around 200C.E. it is a collection of Jewish laws.  It also contains legal issues in which no decisions were reached as well as other miscellaneous material. Rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi is credited with compiling it into a collection organized by subject mater.

 

He arranged the material into six orders the first one is Zera’im or seeds which not surprisingly deals with laws of agriculture, Jewish blessings and prayer. According to Seeds, it is very important to avoid cross pollination between plants, therefore it discusses the space between seeds. In Judaism one must leave the corners of the fields untouched to benefit the poor.  Seeds discuses how large those corners must be. There are blessings for everything including crops which are very important to the survival of people. Included in this Tractate is discussion on how and when to recite prayer.  An example of a prayer discussed is the Shma.  One of the reasons Jews rely so much on the Oral Torah, is due to the fact that prayer was developed and has taken the place of sacrifice at the Temple.    The second order of the Mishnah is entitled   Mo’ed or appointed times.  This order contains laws having to do with the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. In the written Torah, it says to keep the Sabbath holy, however, it does not go into further detail, and therefore Mo’ed discusses details on how to keep the Sabbath holy.  The third order is entitled Nashim or women.  This order deals with relations with women as well as marriage and divorce laws.  The fourth order of the Mishnah is called Nezikin or damages and is concerned with matters of criminal and civil law and what to do when lost and found issues arise.  The fifth order discusses sacrifices and the Temple which was destroyed for the second time in 70 CE.  This order is entitled Kodashim or holy things.  The sixth order of the Mishnah discusses the ritual purification and is called Toharot or Purities. Rabbi Ha-Nassi further organized the six orders by dividing each into Tractates numbering 63.  The Tractates do not have a set length. 

 

The Gemara is a collection of explanations, interpretations, theological arguments and discussions all of which is about the Mishnah.  Again, as times change, and developments are made, Judaism is faced with new challenges which need to be dealt with.  The Mishnah makes statements of law but the Gemara debates both the interpretation of existing laws and new laws which had to be created to deal with issues which were not addressed in the Mishnah.  When debates are made in the Talmud the Gemara explains the final ruling of the debate and also explains if no decision was agreed upon.  The Gemara tells the person reading it, not only what the final ruling was, if there was one, but also, who won the debate or argument.  The Gemara includes not only legal debates, but lessons, the personal stories of the rabbis, Jewish law and Jewish legends or folk lore.  There are two Gemaras in existence, one was developed by the descendants of the Jewish people who stayed in Israel after the destruction of the Temple, and the other Gemara was developed by the descendants of the Jews who lived outside of Israel.  The writings of the Gemara from the land of Israel began approximately in the years 350 – 400 C.E. and it was compiled by the year 500 C.E.  The writings of the Gemara which took shape in Babylonia were occurring until approximately 500 C.E. However, this particular Gemara was not in its final compilation until approximately 600 C.E.  Just as there are two Gemaras there are two Talmuds, the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud.  The Jerusalem Talmud is shorter in length and was developed earlier than the Babylonian Talmud in approximately 300C.E.  In this document more emphasis is placed on agriculture whereas the Babylonian Talmud pays more attention to civil and criminal law.  The Babylonian Talmud was developed in approximately 500C.E. 

The purpose of Midrash or Midrashim (plural) is to try to make the biblical text more accessible or understandable.  A few of the most famous Halakhic Midrashim are as follows: Sifra on Leviticus, Sifrei on Numbers, Mechilta and Sefrei Devarim on Deuteronomy.  In general, the Halakhic Midrash dates from about 200 through 400 C.E. The Mekhilta, the Sifra, and the Sifre are believed to have come out of the Tannaitic period up to the time of 200 C.E. Halakhic Midrash are stories and interpretations designed to explain Jewish law.  On Succot, Jews are required to wave a palm, otherwise known as a lulav and a citron.  This is a requirement because the Halakhic Midrash says that it is.  It does not say that on the holiday of Succot you can substitute a citron for another fruit.  Therefore, waving of the citron becomes the Jewish tradition and required custom.    An  Aggadic Midrashim on the other hand, endeavors to fill in the blanks left in biblical stories.  For instance, in Genesis, after having relations with Tamar, how could Judah not have realized that he had not slept with a prostitute but in fact, had slept with his daughter-in-law? Furthermore, how could Jacob have married Leah when he spent seven years working to marry Rachel and what exactly was said in the story of Cain and Able before Cain killed his brother?  The Midrash attempts to give these stories possible explanations. 

 

The Talmud is not in the language of Hebrew as on might expect, instead it is in the language of Aramaic and is set up like a stream of consciousness.  In the Talmud rabbis discuss topics which lead them to discuss different topics before they have finished the original discussion or argument and eventually they manage to return to the original argument at hand.    The first known printed copy of the Talmud was discovered in Spain in the year 1482.

 

The Jewish people rely heavily on the Oral Torah to come to a better understanding of the Written Torah and its sometime implied and missing information.    As time goes on, things evolve and Judaism must evolve.  The Oral Torah is designed to ensure that Jews will have laws and teachings to follow as there surroundings change and time moves on.   For a last example the Written Torah says to keep the Sabbath holy. The Mishnah comes up with ways in which to do that and states that on the Sabbath it is prohibited to light a fire.  However, during the time that this law was made, cars were not invented.  The Mishnah does not say there will be no driving, what it says is that one cannot light a fire.  Since, the act of turning on the ignition of a car would cause a spark which constitutes fire; Jewish law has evolved to include the prohibition against driving on the Sabbath.  It is for this reason that Jewish law is not stagnant.  The fact that the law evolves as technology in the world evolves, allows Jews to survive.

 

 

 

 

 

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