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ORAL EXAM

by Rabbi Elie Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Reading the last few pages of the Talmudic Tractate of Sotah gives one a fuller appreciation for the Temple and the grandeur that accompanied it. The Talmud discusses various changes that occurred at and around the time of the Temple's destruction.

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Reading the last few pages of the Talmudic Tractate of Sotah gives one a fuller appreciation for the Temple and the grandeur that accompanied it. The Talmud discusses various changes that occurred at and around the time of the Temple's destruction. Numerous eras were coming to a close. It is recorded that from the day that the Temple was destroyed there were no longer people who had complete faith in G-d to the point that they were worry-free. The Talmud further states that with the passing of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince (the compiler of the Mishnah), the period of the humble people ended. Apparently, his humility was of an entirely different order than the humility of those who followed him. In comparison, their modesty was but a shadow of true humility.

One era ended with the passing of a sage named Ben Zoma. The Talmud states that once he died, there no longer were any "darshanim". A darshan was a person who was an expert in Biblical Hebrew and at deriving the content of the Oral Tradition from nuances in the text of the Written Torah. Although the Talmud states that there are no more "darshanim", many great scholars since have attempted to work backwards, observing patterns of interpretation used by the sages, to reconstruct fragments of this lost art. One such scholar was Rabbi Meir Leibush Malbim of the 19th century, who dedicated most of his encyclopedic work on the Torah to demonstrating these patterns and explaining how they are used.

In this week's Torah portion, Rashi, the great 11th century commentator, helps us discover one such pattern. We find that before Moses and Aaron proceed with their mission to speak with Pharaoh, the Torah outlines the brothers' ancestry. Rashi points out that sometimes Moses' name is mentioned before Aaron's, and sometimes the reverse is true. This indicates, explains Rashi, that in fact they were of equal stature. Reading this gives one the impression that this structure might be a standard one in Torah interpretation.

In fact, at the end of the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar, the same structure appears. There the Torah lists the five daughters of Tzlaphchad, a man who had died in the desert and whose daughters inherited his share in the land of Israel. In different locations in the Torah, these daughters are listed by name in different orders. In his last comment to the book of Bamidbar, Rashi informs us that this too indicates that they were all of equal stature. Actually, the Talmud itself (Tractate Keritut 28a) lists other examples of this rule where it is used to demonstrate that two entities are considered to be equal (as in the laws of sacrifices).

The relationship between the Written and Oral Torah was articulated by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a great 19th century German Torah scholar, with the following parable. A student who attends an intense science lecture will often create a shorthand with which to take notes. If we were to present these notes to somebody who did not attend the lecture, they would be meaningless, and perhaps misleading. However, one who did attend the lecture would be able to use the notes to help him recall larger segments of the lesson. In a similar vein, the Written Torah comprises the "notes" of the Torah discourse that Hashem gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Many times, a teaching will be encoded in a nuance in the text, such as the order of the names in a verse, as mentioned above.

In fact, a passage that we read every year in the Passover Haggadah demonstrates this idea. In it, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, the young but wise head of the Sanhedrin (great Jewish court) proclaims, "Behold I am like a man of seventy years, but I had not succeeded [in convincing the rest of the rabbis] that the exodus should be mentioned nightly until Ben Zoma derived it [from the text of the Written Torah]." Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah then proceeds to cite Ben Zoma's exact derivation from a verse in the book of Deuteronomy. What is evident from this passage is that the Sanhedrin refused to accept a proposal as proper Oral Law until it could be shown to be embedded in the Written Law. This truly gives us an insight into how the rabbinical court worked!

It should be noted that our example of varying the order of people in a list is just one of many such word order structures. Moreover, hundreds of other structures exist relating to grammar of verses and to the exact definitions of apparent synonyms. We have just touched the tip of the iceberg.

Understanding that such structures exist opens up a whole new way of looking at the Oral Torah and its relationship with the Written Torah. Each new structure that we discover can reveal the nuances of a whole series of verses.

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Rabbi Elie Cohen, an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is an educator at the Columbus Torah Academy in Ohio.

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