What Does Masorah Mean?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

imageby R. Micha Berger


The word “masorah” is overloaded with too many meanings.

Literally, it’s “that which was passed on”. So logically, a common usage would make it synonymous with Oral Torah. And yet, it’s also used for the near opposite – we speak of the masoretic text, its vowels and its trope – the ultimate in the Bible, the Written Torah. And the collections of notes that describe this text are also called “masorah”. (So the masorah describes the masorah?!)

More along the lines of the direction in which I want to head, unlike talking about “Oral Torah” and thus focusing our attention on its Divine origins, when we speak of “masorah” we focus our attention on the chain of people. And so there is the usage of “masorah” to mean mimetic tradition, i.e. transmission by culture and example, that is often posed in contrast to the textual Oral Torah.

R. Dr. Haym Soloveitchik brought the word “mimeticism” into our community’s jargon with his widely discussed essay “Rupture and Reconstruction.” [1]Available at http://www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm An example he provides of a “mimetic tradition” is knowing how much matzah constitutes a kezayis (olive’s volume) because you remember what your father and grandfather ate at the seder. Dr. Soloveitchik also considers this kind of cultural masorah [2]Interjecting my own wording. a carrier of values and emotion. It is the loss of mimetic tradition that he blames for a loss of awe of the High Holidays and (in speech, not writing) for the loss of what his father, R. Joseph B. Solveitchik (“the Rav”), called the “Erev Shabbos Jew”: [3]On Repentance, pp. 97-98

Even in those neighborhoods made up predominantly of religious Jews, one can no longer talk of the ‘sanctity of Shabbat.’ True, there are Jews in America who observe Shabbat… But it is not for Shabbat that my heart aches; it is for the forgotten ‘erev Shabbat’…. There are Shabbat-observing Jews in America, but there are no ‘erev Shabbat’ Jews who go out to greet Shabbat with beating hearts and pulsating souls. There are many who observe the precepts with their hands, with their feet, and/or with their mouths – but there are few indeed who truly know the meaning of the service of the heart!”

We speak of someone “having a masorah” in two ways: both if they have a received practice and cultural tradition (as above) and if they have a known rebbe-talmid lineage. In both contexts, we’re talking about the importance of all that Torah that doesn’t fit into books.

We talk about a hands-on Jewish professional–such as a sofer, mohel, shocheit, etc.–also of “having a masorah” from the one who taught him the craft. Here too we are speaking of the kind of knowledge you need to learn with your senses and muscles, and not know from books discussing the topic in the abstract.

To pasken mar’os, a rav must also have a masorah on how to determine colors. It’s a skill, a craft, that is learned from practice under the guidance of a mentor. This training, the acquisition of a “masorah,” is usually called “shimush.”


For regular pesak too there is an element that is a craft, an art, a skill, the kind of thing one needs to learn from shimush, not by studying from texts.

Kara veshanah velo shimeish talmid chacham, harei zeh am ha’aretz….
If he read scripture and studied law, but did not serve a talmid chacham, such a person is an am haaretz (an ignorant peasant).
– Sotah 22a

This is why I like R. Dr. Moshe Koppel’s metaphor of laws of grammar for some usages rather than always comparing halakhah to civil law. [4]More as per his book Metahalakhah than in the essay in Azure, “Judaism as a First Language”, available at http: //azure.org.il/include/print.php?id=588 The “First Language” model is much like Dr. Haym Soloveitchik’s mimeticism, but with key differences. Halachic rules are an approximation of something that is inherently more complex in kind than rules and algorithms. This is similar to the way grammar is only approximated by ever more complex rules which still never get a foreigner studying the language in class to the same feel for grammar that the native-speaker has. (And why the Oral Torah loses something when not actually kept oral.) So the English as a Second Language student may know what a past pluperfect is, and I don’t, but the native speaker is more likely to know what is valid poetic license and what will produce non-English results.

Similarly, a poseik needs to pick up that feel, and not only the formal rules. He needs the unstructured knowledge of halakhah.

Consider this rather poetic description of how the Rav experienced his shiur, entering the dialog of Torah through the ages as he joins his students in the classroom. Notice how he winds up by discussing this experience as “masorah”: [5]Reflections of the Rav, vol II, pp. 21b-23. Original language is in: R’ Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s The Rav vol. II, pp 186-189. See also UVikashtem miSham 10:1, pp. 63-65 (tr. The Rav, vol. I, … Continue reading

The old Rebbe walks into the classroom crowded with students who are young enough to be his grandchildren. He enters as an old man with wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of old age. You have to be old to experience this sadness. It is the melancholy that results from an awareness of people and things which have disappeared and linger only in memory. I sit down; opposite me are rows of young beaming faces with clear eyes radiating the joy of being young. For a moment, the Rebbe is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainly. He asks himself: Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a Rebbe in his Indian summer and students enjoying the spring of their lives? The Rebbe starts his shiur, uncertain as to how it will proceed.

Suddenly the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rebbe, enters. He is the grandfather of the Rebbe, Reb Chaim Brisker. It would be most difficult to study Talmud with students who are trained in the sciences and mathematics, were it not for his method, which is very modern and equals, if not surpasses, most contemporary forms of logic, metaphysics or philosophy. The door opens again and another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the 17th century. His name is Reb Shabtai Cohen, known as the Shach, who must be present when civil law (dinai mamonot) is discussed. Many more visitors arrive, some from the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, and others harking back to antiquity – Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi, Rambam, Raavad, Rashba, Rabbi Akiva and others. These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats. The Rebbe introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a halacha; the Raavad disagrees sharply, as is his wont. Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Raavad, as young people are apt to do. The Rebbe softly corrects the students and suggest more restrained tones. The Rashba smiles gently. The Rebbe tries to analyze what the students meant, and other students intercede. Rabeinu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues.

All speak one language; all pursue one goal; all are committed to a common vision; and all operate with the same categories. A Mesorah collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern times. This joining of the generations, this march of centuries, this dialogue and conversation between antiquity and the present will finally bring about the redemption of the Jewish people.

After a two or three hour shiur, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber young and rejuvenated. He has defeated age. The students look exhausted. In the Mesorah experience, years play no role. Hands, however parchment-dry and wrinkled, embrace warm and supple hands in commonality, bridging the gap with separates the generations. Thus, the “old ones” of the past continue their great dialogue of the generations, ensuring an enduring commitment to the Mesorah.

So there is a community of baalei masorah who carry a mimetic tradition of how to pasken, a tradition of informal knowledge that cannot be codified into books and that creates a feel and emotional consequence. This is the Rav’s usual usage of the word “masorah”.

No better or worse than any of the other usages, but more relevant to two of the conversations currently taking place in our community.


One of the central points in the discussion of feminism and Torah is Rav Herschel Schachter’s use of the word “masorah”. In an article in Jewish Action, Rav Schachter provides his definition of the word. He opens: [6]“Preserving our Mesorah, a Symposium”, Jewish Action, Fall 2010, available at https: //www.ou.org/jewish_action/10/2010/preserving_our_mesorah_a_symposium.

What is Mesorah?

Mesorah is not primarily a corpus of knowledge to master but a process of accessing a chain of student-teacher relationships that reaches back to Sinai. Moshe received the Torah and transmitted it to his student, Yehoshua, who in turn taught it to his students and so on, continuing through today. The nature of transmission of the mesorah is instruction from a rebbe to his student. We connect to the mesorah, to the sacred structure of laws, beliefs and attitudes, through our teachers.

Firmly in line with what we’ve seen from his rebbe, the Rav, masorah is used in the sense of the chain of transmission through time that conveys the art and culture of halakhic decision-making and Torah as a whole.

A bit further in the article, Rav Schachter discusses “Who Is Authorized to Institute Change?” (emphasis mine):

Changes in practice require delicate evaluations that only a master Torah scholar, a gadol baTorah, can properly conduct. Only someone with a broad knowledge and a deep understanding of the corpus of halachah, with an intimate familiarity with both the letter and the spirit of the law, with a mastery of both the rules and the attitudes of the mesorah, can determine when a change is acceptable or even required. The more wide-reaching the proposed change, the greater the expertise required to approve it. The evaluator must not only be a master of the mesorah, but he must also be able to consider new practices based solely on values internal to the mesorah, removing external influences from the deliberation.

Rav Schachter then applies this topic to feminism itself in a teshuvah:

Indeed, the Rav would often say (see drasha to Parshas Korach), that every person must recognize that he needs a Rav or a Rebbe. Even a Talmid Chochom whose Rebbe had passed away must constantly ask himself in truth (when they present questions to him) what his Rebbe would have said in such a scase, and what stance he would have taken….

The expression that some of those who have permitted this utilize that according to the technical halacha a certain act is permitted, and that which people wish to prohibit it is because of political considerations is incorrect. For even a matter such as changing the mesorah the traditions of the Jewish people is in and of itself an integral section of halacha. When one rules on the donning of Tefillin for women it is not enough to merely examine the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch in Hilchos Tefillin and in the sources there and treat it as a simple question. [7]Translation from Yeshiva World News http: //www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/213379, although I find the title they put on the article inappropriate to the dignity of the … Continue reading

The version of masorah in the Rav’s usage is the same concept Rav Schachter invokes to reject an attitude of “but it can be fit to the technical halakhah so your objection is merely political”. Change must conform to masorah to be valid, even if the textualists are satisfied.

This is not an invocation of “daas Torah,” because we’re talking about questions of Torah, not politics or other subjects; we are invoking Torah knowledge, if cultural and informal rather than book knowledge, and not invoking any metaphysical or mystical power; and because we do not expect a single correct answer that “all the gedolim hold.”

But it still makes halachic decision-making when it comes to significant change subject to the skill of a few. The rest of us are forced to submit to the understanding of subject matter experts.


A second instance in which the topic of masorah recently entered discourse was when Rabbi Gil Student recently quoted on these “pages” the Rav’s description of the tragic loss of Germany as a Torah center in the Crusades. To the Rav, it was a blow to the masorah:

Our Torah shebe’al peh is based on Rashi and the Tosafists. If Jewish history had not included Maimonides, the Jewish world would have missed a great deal. Maimonides enriched our thinking and world view tremendously, but the Torah shebeal peh would have survived without him. However, without Rashi and the Tosafists, there would not have been any mesora, any chain of tradition; we could not teach Torah shebe’al peh today. Take as a simple example, the Jerusalem Talmud. Many Rishonim, the early Medieval scholars, speak about the Jerusalem Talmud, and certain parts were interpreted and explained, but without commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafists, it is a sealed book… [8]Kinos Mesorat haRav, kinah #42, quoted by Rabbi Student on these “pages” in his post “Who Was Greater Than Rambam?” at http: //www.torahmusings.com/2015/07/who-was-greater-than-rambam.

The Rav identifies masorah as the ineffable skill to think like a poseik. Masorah is a skill obtained from those who explain how the prior generations developed the law, how the community down the ages conversed about the law, from living in a culture of mimeticism.

We saw the Gemara’s low opinion of someone who learns Torah without shimush. A little further in that discussion, we find the following surprising exchange:

Tanna: Hatannaim (those who repeat codified law) are destroyers of the world.

Could you really believe [they] are “destroyers of the world”?

Ravina said: For they are moreh halakhah (interpret the law) from their repetition of the law.

There is a a beraisa like this: R’ Yehoshua said, “And are they ‘destroyers of the world? Aren’t they settlers of the world, as it says ‘halikhos olam lo – the goings [“halakhah”] of old are his.’? [9]Chavakuk 3:6
Rather, because they are moreh halakhah from their repetition of the law. [10]Sotah 22a

You can’t pasken from codes, from legal knowledge. It takes knowledge of how the codes reached their conclusion – both textual knowledge obtained from commentaries, and the skill to pasken. The latter is obtained with shimush.

Mimeticism transmits the values we were given at Sinai. Without a deep connection to the Sinai culture, we can never be sure whether our rulings are driven by Torah values, natural morality, or a moral code absorbed from the surrounding society.

Advances in technology and developments in society can cause changes in practice. Such changes can alter the circumstances in some subtle way such that the previous ruling does not apply, both in physical ways and in subtle changes in the people about whom the poseik is ruling. And so the Rav questioned the appropriateness of reciting a blessing on Shabbos candles when the electric lights are already on. Similarly, he ruled in the 1950s that a woman aiming for a bachelor’s or higher degree was in a different enough situation for precedent rulings about teaching gemara to females not to apply.

Without masorah, the poseik has no way of determining which solutions to new problems are in concert with the spirit of previous rulings. Halakhah is not frozen; it does not have inertia, but it does have momentum. Apprenticeship, training under a master, transmits the feel for where the halakhah has historically been taken. Following reasoning found in a minority ruling is appropriate only when one is motivated by the Torah’s own principles. The person who speaks halakhah as a first language knows when an innovative change is within “poetic license”, and when the result simply violates the Torah’s “grammar.”

As R. Yochanan quotes in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “gedolah shimushah shel Torah yoseir meilimudah – the apprenticeship of Torah is greater than its study”. [11]Berakhos 7b


1Available at http://www.lookstein.org/links/orthodoxy.htm
2Interjecting my own wording.
3On Repentance, pp. 97-98
4More as per his book Metahalakhah than in the essay in Azure, “Judaism as a First Language”, available at http: //azure.org.il/include/print.php?id=588
5Reflections of the Rav, vol II, pp. 21b-23. Original language is in: R’ Aharon Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s The Rav vol. II, pp 186-189. See also UVikashtem miSham 10:1, pp. 63-65 (tr. The Rav, vol. I, pp. 247-250). There the Rav shares childhood memories of listening to his father defend his hero, the Rambam, against all attackers. There too he describes this inter-generational discussion as “the masorah”.
6“Preserving our Mesorah, a Symposium”, Jewish Action, Fall 2010, available at https: //www.ou.org/jewish_action/10/2010/preserving_our_mesorah_a_symposium.
7Translation from Yeshiva World News http: //www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/headlines-breaking-stories/213379, although I find the title they put on the article inappropriate to the dignity of the content.
8Kinos Mesorat haRav, kinah #42, quoted by Rabbi Student on these “pages” in his post “Who Was Greater Than Rambam?” at http: //www.torahmusings.com/2015/07/who-was-greater-than-rambam.
9Chavakuk 3:6
10Sotah 22a
11Berakhos 7b

About Micha Berger

Rabbi Micha Berger founded the AishDas Society and hosts one of the internet's longest-running active Torah e-mail lists Avodah and its broader discussion area Areivim. He recently published Widen Your Tent: Thoughts on Life, Integrity & Joy.


  1. I don’t have time for a lengthy response but 2 quick points.

    1. R. Koppel (in the article cited) discusses how we currently are NOT speaking Halacha as a first language, even though it is an ideal, and also outlined how that leads to unwarranted stringency. So the article, taken at face value, illustrates why all the reactionary approaches are actually wrong, and not consonant with a true understanding of our Mesorah.
    2. Assuming we accept the “got to have Mesorah and only a few have it” argument, under what circumstances does Mesorah trump other arguments? If one person has a claim to Mesorah but actually no sources, and another has facts, logic and sources, are you claiming that Mesorah trumps all? That in this day and age, without a Sanhedrin, even if they say right is left and left is right, there is an obligation to follow? I think that there are lots of opinions (part of the Masorah) that would vehemently disagree.

    I think we are talking about women’s issues, and in my opinion there is no viable “technical” halachic argument against women’s ordination in the Modern Orthodox community (see article in Hakirah by R. Brody and Broyde as well as discussion by R. Aryeh Klapper- I am not claiming that they support it, they don’t, but they have illustrated that there is in fact no cogent argument against it except for “it hasn’t been done before”).

    • “in fact no cogent argument against it except for “it hasn’t been done before”

      No cogent argument or no cogent technical halachic argument?

      • I think he means no argument that convinces him (or his wife, a student at Yeshivat Maharat). I believe that was what Conservative rabbis said about mechitzah.

  2. The question this piece dealt with was a very narrow one, and was intentionally written to explain a position rather than stand as a polemic.

    My thesis was simply that in Rav Soloveitchik’s and Rav Schachter’s understanding, halakhah is not limited to finding sources to justify a point, And to explain one element of what else pesaq includes.

    Your focus on viable technical objections shows a disagreement over the very issue of mesorah. Which, as I hope I showed, changes how you decide the technical as well. We are consequently bound to disagree about how much of a burden of proof justifying new practices carries.

    And, while I touch on feminism, I intentionally did not write on the subject. So any technical objections would be out of scope.

    A different interesting illustration is the use of electricity on Shabbos. There are technical objections, but they lack force in and of itself. It’s more the certainty of those who know how halakhah works that the use of electricity just doesn’t fit the feel of Shabbos. This created a burden of proof to permit. The many suggestions about what the technical issue might be needn’t be compelling in and of themselves, since they don’t carry that burden.

    I should have not only cited earlier sources that discuss the idea the Rav labels mesorah, a future edition should also include prior examples.

  3. BE”H I’ll soon be posting a special audioroundup summarizing an online course from Georgetown on Bioethics. What struck me was some introductory comments on argumentation which dealt with what level of proof is needed in the modern world to “know” something. In many cases it seems the heart (in our case halachic) provides the answer and the case is made to support that conclusion. Reminds me of the famous Ramban’s introduction that there are no slam dunk proofs in Torah.

  4. Gil
    you yourself have admitted that your technical arguments against women rabbis are only convincing to those who who are already opposed to women rabbis. You free admit that you are involved in polemics rather than serious halakhic argumentation. to be sure, one can make an argument as to why one might rule against women rabbis, but they fall woefully short of the mark you need to hit: that any one who disagrees is beyond the pale of Orthodoxy.

  5. Yes. recall that through the 80’s shuls were not thrown out of the OU for lack of a mechitza. Also, the Rav never made such arguments. As for R. Moshe, if you, or anyone else in this debate were one of the most important and influential poskim of the past 100 years, I would be deferential to their authority as well despite the flimsy nature of their arguments.

    • Do you believe the OU had the view that mechitzah is optional? Or that it took a public policy position of grandfathering shuls that lacked a mechitzah?

      I believe the organization took a public policy stance and instead tried to gently pressure shuls to install a mechitzah.

      Name a living posek to whom you would defer? Not long ago, we had Rav Elyashiv, Rav Wosner and Rav Ovadiah Yosef–all important poskim. I doubt you would have deferred to any of them.

  6. I dont think there are any poskim alive to day who have the authority to expect their psaks to be followed even when they dont stand up to scrutiny.

    RHS recent attacks on the IBD with out offering any substantive critique only strengthen the opposition.

    • I’m not sure if you realize that people said the same thing about Rav Moshe Feinstein when he was alive. See, for example, Alan Yuter’s article about Rav Moshe, Rav Soloveitchik and Rhetoric.

      • When the Rav faced exactly the same issue with R’ Rackman’s BD, he didn’t present his halachic argument. When it hit crisis proportions, he presented a polemic that touched on halachic points, but left listeners with a variety of opinions about what it was.

        (Hint, the bit about “tav lemeisiv” being ontological is an interesting philosophical issue, and captures attention for that reason but it’s only a small mention in the middle of the longer polemic.

        Transcript available at http://arikahn.blogspot.com/2013/03/rabbi-soloveitchik-talmud-torah-and.html

        (For that matter, my post on What is Masorah should have included this quote: “First, we must pursue the truth, nothing else but the truth; however, the truth in talmud torah can only be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is attained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed on from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only by joining the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah. It is ridiculous to say “I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn’t know, the Ktzos didn’t know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge, I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new.” One must join the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah — chazal, rishonim, gedolei achronim — and must not try to rationalize from without the chukei hatorah and must not judge the chukei mishpatim in terms of the secular system of things. Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psychologism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of torah umesorah, and it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism, no matter how good the original intentions.”)

  7. With regard to to mechitzos, the point is that if they accept that mechtizos were a mitzva deoraita or yehareig veal yaavor, there would have no room for a “policy decision” to tolerate non-mechitzah shuls. I would add that there were rabbis in non-mechitzah shuls who were recognized as up standing Orthodox talmidei chacham and communal leaders. Mechitzahs are a minhag that has acquired the force of din and became a very important at time that Orthodoxy was facing extinction in America in the face of ascendant Conservative movement which had already allowed driving to shul on shabbos and change the nusach hatefilla in order to facilitate the rejection of a clear ikkar emunah.

    • I agree that the consensus in the Conservative movement was the mechitzah is a minhag. However, I am only aware of one Orthodox posek who took that position (R. Chaim Regensburg). To my knowledge, all other poskim argued that a mechitzah is either rabbinically or biblically required. Rav Soloveitchik held that separate seating is biblically required but a mechitzah only rabbinically. The Conservative movement argued strongly against these positions and instead claimed it is a minhag that can be changed when communally necessary.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter