Thursday, January 11, 2007

Sinai -- What Happened?

Warning: As our good friend XGH might like to say: Possible kefirah alert!

This post originated from a thread on

I'd like to make two things clear at the outset here. The first is that this post is based on the assumption that the general historicity of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) and Mattan Torah (the Revelation at Sinai). Please don't respond with "well the whole thing's a myth anyway..."

The second point that I'd like to make at the start is that I'm not hostile to any alternative answer. If you can convince me that I'm wrong, I'm always open to changing my mind on the matter. That being said, let's go.

The thread started with someone asking a very simple question:

I'm not well 'learned' in our religion, but I was thinking of this today, and perhaps someone can give me a simple explanation. The Talmud is a discorse of rabbanim of the time discussing and arguing issues pertaining to judaism. I think, that it is accepted that this was revealed at har sinai, but how is it so, if the rabbanim were clearly from a later time discussing matters pertaining to Jews of that time. So how was it revealed at har sinai?

I answered that, very simply, the Talmud as we know it today was not given at Mt. Sinai.

The answer I gave to the original questioner was this:

At Sinai, we received the written Torah (define it as you will). In addition, we also received an oral corpus of law, detailing the mitzvos contained in the written text.

Over the course of time, many of those details became lost and/or forgotten. Indeed, some of them became lost in the month following Moshe's death. As time progressed, the oral tradition came to include not only what remained of the original oral law, but applications of the law to new situations that didn't exist in Moshe's day, as well as homelitic teachings, common folklore and medicine, the science of the day and teachings about post-Mosaic biblical characters.

In time, all of these components of the oral tradition were eventually discussed in the Batei Midrash of Israel and Bavel and codified into the Talmud we have today.

The idea that the Talmud as we have it today was handed down to Moshe is laughable.

That sparked a discussion on the matter. In short, it should be fairly obvious that the Talmud as it is written today could not have been given on Mt. Sinai.* Heck, it should be fairly obvious that the Pentatuch as written today could not have been given on Mt. Sinai. Would Korach have rebelled if he knew his fate in advance? Would the spies have brought back evil reports about the Land of Israel if they knew in advance the terrible consequences it would bring? Would Moshe himself have hit the rock knowing in advance that it would cost him his chance of entering Eretz Yisroel?

You can't even say that Torah (as we have it today) was given up to the chapter of Mattan Torah. Imagine if the Genesis and Exodus (up to chapter 20) was given to the Jews at Sinai. The following conversation might have taken place:

Person: Um, Moshe, I've been looking at this book you brought down from the mountain.
Moshe: Yes, what about it?
Person: Well, I was hoping you could explain something to me. I was looking at this part toward the end, and I see it says that we ate the Manna for 40 years until we reached the Promised Land.
Moshe: Yes, so?
Person: Well, I thought we were going to be going into the land in a few days. What's this line about us being out here in the wilderness for forty years?
Moshe: Um... come back and ask me again after Tisha B'Av.

Another idea is that the mitzvos (commandments) were given at Sinai while the historical sections were written as they happened or in Arvos Moav at the end of the forty years. Yet, even that can't be said to be entirely true either; as there are at least three instances that I can think of off the top of my head where the law was either unknown at the time of Sinai or changed afterwards: the punishment for the Sabbath desecrator, Pesach Sheini and the law that allows daughters to inhereit in the absence of a son. Clearly the mitzvos themselves didn't acheive their "final forms" until shortly before Moshe's death.

If we can discount the fact that the Chumash itself, in it's present form was not given at Sinai, it's fairly easy to say that the Talmud in it's present form wasn't given at Sinai either. That's not to say that the teachings and lessons of the Talmud weren't at Sinai -- I believe that they were -- albeit in a very different form.

As many others have pointed out, the text of the Chumash leaves out many details of the mitzvos. This is often cited as one of the proofs for the existence of an oral tradition from Sinai. I'm willing to accept that at face value. If you are going to posit that the Torah is God-given, then it naturally follows that if God wants us to follow it that He would provide more details than were simply in the text. (As to why He didn't then just put the details in the Torah to begin with is a separate question.) But to suggest that the oral tradition given to Moshe (and please read my footnote below again) included all the aggadata (non-halachic) sections and that all of that was handed down word-for-word through the generations to the present day is simply ludicrous.

Again, you'd have the problem of foreknowledge. Would Saul have spared the Amalekite king if he had learned that it would one day cost him his kingship? Would he have gotten mad at his son for supporting David? Why? He already knew that his son would support David! This is just one example out of dozens that could be asked about.

You'd also have the problem of the people mentioned in the Talmud and the halachic positions they held. Can you imagine young Shammai learning in Beis Midrash that he's going to hold this-and-this opinion?

Lastly, you have the very nature of an oral transmission to deal with. Consider the following: The Chumash is a written text. If you ever have a question about the correct reading of a verse, you can always go back to an existing Torah and check it out. Despite that, over the course of the 3300 years since Sinai, there are several variant texts of the Torah out there today (although, granted, they are minor differences, they are, nonetheless, not exactly the same). It stands to reason that if the physical, written Torah, which exists outside of people's memories and can be referred to, and that can survive persecution attempts and long periods of neglect (i.e. you can not study the Torah for years and yet come back and pick it up and get an authentic reading of the text from it), then surely an oral tradition, which relies on faulty human memories and personal biases, which cannot survive periods of neglect (or else it starts to be forgotten) and which can vary from person to person (no two people tell the same story the same way), surely cannot be reliably transmitted word-for-word intact over a period of 2000 years.

Indeed, the Gemara itself tells us that it did not survive completely intact. In the month following Moshe's death, over 300 halachos were forgotten. True, they were restored using the rules laid down at Sinai for deriving new laws, but there is no real guarantee that the laws were identical to the ones that Moshe handed down. So, how can we follow such laws now? We simply have to say "lo bashamayim hi" (the Torah is no longer in heaven) and it is up to us to interpret how it is applied to new generations and new situations (again, utilizing the rules laid down).

Of course, it must be noted that the Gemara itself says in Berachos that it (along with the Navi, Midrash, Mishna, etc.) were revealed at Sinai. That being the case, how can I say that the Gemara wasn't given at Sinai? I'll answer that with the answer that my Rav game to me regarding another question that I had.

There is a tradition that the 92nd Psalm (Mizmor Shir L'Yom HaShabbos) was written by Adam on the first Shabbos after Creation. I asked my Rav how such a thing could be - after all it references concepts that could not possibly have existed at that time (musicians, which the Torah attests didn't come about until later; the concept of a foolish man - if the only people who ever existed were you and your wife, there would not be a concept of a "foolish man," etc.) . He answered me that Adam did not, in fact, compose the Psalm as we have it today - rather he expressed and originated certain ideas and themes that later became a part of the composed Psalm. I rather liked the answer since I had another example of "plagiarism" by Dovid that fit the same model (Dovid's composition of Psalm 113 was clearly influenced by Channah's prayer of a generation earlier at I Samuel 2 (especially verse 8, which Dovid nearly lifted word-for-word).

So, too, the same can apply with the Talmud. The halachos themselves, the details of the laws as given at Sinai were part of the original composition. In addition, it was understood that the means by which to apply the laws to situaitons which did not yet exist at the time of Mattan Torah were given as well. In addition certain concepts that were later contained in the Navi and later writing may well have been part of the original transmission, but left unformulated until the Navi put it into his own words. But that the book of Isaiah was handed word-for-word to Moshe (and then passed down - again - word-for-word until written down by Isaiah) is simply ridiculous.

And yet, I occasionally run across people who actually believe this - that the Talmud and other texts that we have were handed down word-for-word until they were written down. I just don't understand how anyone could actually believe that. If you have a convincing argument that it was, I'd love to hear it.

The Wolf

* By given on Mt. Sinai, I mean given and transmitted down the generations. It certainly could have been revealed to Moshe who kept it to himself - but then what's the point of saying it was revealed on Sinai. That's kind of like saying that God gave Moshe the plans for the telephone, but he didn't pass it down so Alexander Graham Bell didn't really invent it.


Anonymous said...

HaRav Yosef Dovbear Halevi Soloveichik zt"l has discussed the difference between halachot for which chazal had an oral tradition from Har Sinai and those learned by the 13 middot at length in one of his yahrzeit shiurim which has been published in the collection of such shiurim (Shiurim L'zecher Nishmat Avi Mori Z"l) under the title 'Shnei sugei mesoret.'

Anonymous said...

I agree with your main point 100%. There is NO WAY the text of the Talmud was handed down word for word. I have a hard time believing anyone would think this.

The most I ever heard claimed was that the halachic details and new laws that appear to be derived at the time of the Talmud were revealed to Moshe. I had a long argument about this with my Rav who held/holds this opinion, based on the Gm Berachos (and Megilah I think) you mentioned. My opinion, based on what I heard from R. Yaakov Weinberg ztl, my readings of the Rambam's intro to Mishnayos, Maharitz Chayos in Movo Hatalmud and various sources I have read over the years, is the mitzvos and the main accompanying halachos were given, so we could keep them. Many details were not given and left to the Rabbonim to derive based on the rules given to Moshe (e.g. 13 Midos and others).

Although I agree with your main point, there are many details of what you say above which I think are mistaken. I will write about these later when I have time.

Good post!

Anonymous said...

do you need so many words to dismiss an idea that's plainly daft?
and why on earth do you need to ask a rabbi how "adam" wrote a psalm?
you can't rationalise nonsense other than to say it's nonsense. that's it.

Big-S Skeptic said...

The idea that the rabbinical literature is all "min ha-shamayim" makes a mockery of the intelligence and efforts of the Sages, and indeed makes a mockery of the entire history of the Jewish people. The literature we have is the result of intense debates, periodic inspiration, geographical dispersion, individual passion, political power struggle, external repression, and even occasional treachery. To say that it was molded by or evolved in response to the social and political pressures and ideologies that prevailed at particular times does not in any way diminish the result. Indeed, it is only by acknowledging the historical evolution of the Law that we can give any kind of due credit to the individuals who invested their hearts, minds, and lives in the pursuit this work. The idea that it's all "min ha-shamayim" negates the lives and efforts of generations of our ancestors, and nullifies 2000 years of the most interesting intellectual history on the face of the planet. Fact is better than fiction. Why do people prefer the fiction?

Anonymous said...

Why do people prefer the fiction?

It’s a defense mechanism. Placing the stamp of divine authorship on the totality of the law gives it an authority that it might not otherwise have, in their eyes. They don't have to deal with the question of whether a law might be mistaken or outmoded. Assuming that, between God and the rabbis, everything has been worked out in advance, every contingency accounted for, gives them a sense of existential security in an increasingly complex and confusing world. I think that it also makes God seem more “personal”, and, therefore, more immanent and involved – more of a concrete reality for them (which, again, speaks to the issue of security).

Which leads me to a question:


Isn't this the beginning of the slippery slope? If you accept that parts of the law, even parts of the Torah, were not handed down as-is at Sinai, doesn't that open up the whole business to interpretation? What defense does one then have against the arguments of the non-Orthodox denominations, that the Torah might have been divinely inspired, but that it was written by men and is, therefore, subject to change?

I am not frum, so it isn't an issue for me - however, I can see that, from an Orthodox perspective, this could be a problem.

Anonymous said...


Wolf never said parts of the written Torah are not min-hashamiyim. What he did say was the written Torah was not given in one shot on Har Sinai. Indeed one opinion in the Talmud also says it was given part by part (word for word to Moshe in the desert.

Wolf: would you agree the written Torah we have today is the same as the one given to Moshe in every substantive way? I say "substantive" because there are a few places there are arguments about the spelling of certain words, but these do not change the meaning of the text.

Anonymous said...

Well, he does cite the problem of "foreknowledge":

Heck, it should be fairly obvious that the Pentatuch as written today could not have been given on Mt. Sinai. Would Korach have rebelled if he knew his fate in advance? Would the spies have brought back evil reports about the Land of Israel if they knew in advance the terrible consequences it would bring? Would Moshe himself have hit the rock knowing in advance that it would cost him his chance of entering Eretz Yisroel?

Then he goes on to say:

You can't even say that Torah (as we have it today) was given up to the chapter of Mattan Torah.

Am I misunderstanding what is being said?

Anonymous said...

Regarding laws not known until after matan torah, there are 4:
Pesach Sheini
Benot Tzelophchad
See targum yonathan on each of the verses

Also see Torah Temimah on Shemot 24:12
Also see Sotah 37b:
דתניא רבי ישמעאל אומר כללות נאמרו בסיני ופרטות באהל מועד ר' עקיבא אומר כללות ופרטות נאמרו בסיני ונשנו באהל מועד ונשתלשו בערבות מואב

tmeishar: said...

I'm not sure why you needed a kefirah alert in introducing this post. This is a generally accepted idea in normative Orthodoxy.