The Road to Nationhood Runs Through the Oral Law

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Bo

Chazal Vs. the Text

Menachot 37 defines the proper place for head tefillin to be the top of the head (the soft spot on a baby’s skull), despite Shemot 13;15 having said “between your eyes.”  More, Megillah 24 had particularly harsh words for someone who wore their tefillin on their forehead, called it the ways of the Karaites, who mock/denigrate the words of our Sages, and instead follow the plain sense of the verse.

[Today, I think few Jews intend to place the tefillin between their eyes, but many, many Jews—from my experience—are insufficiently careful about the placement of the tefillin shel rosh, which should not hang beyond the edge of the forehead. All of the tefillin shel rosh should be resting on skin, none of it hanging in the air.]

HaKetav VeHaKabbalah seeks to reconcile the Talmudic reading with the words of the text. Fully faithful to Chazal, he wants to explain how their reading does not contradict nor uproot the text.

Eyes At Their Root

His creative idea rests on the assumption (verified by surgeons/pathologists of his day, he says) that the root of sight, the body parts that connect the brain to the eyes to allow sight to occur, are in the brain right under where we lay the head tefillin [I don’t think current science agrees; I’m more interested in the thought process]. Of course, the Torah used the word einecha, which we would have thought meant eyes, except that the word can also mean the origin or root of something, such as ein ha-mayim [e.g., Bereshit 16;7], the water source.

For some proof Chazal read the Biblical intent correctly at a simple sense level, he points to Devarim 14; 1, where the Torah prohibits creating a bald spot bein einechem, presumably between your eyes, over someone’s passing. Except, as R. Mecklenburg points out, there is no way to create a korchah, a bald spot, between the eyes, nor did the Torah refer to the eyebrows or eyelashes, where a theoretical bald spot could be created.

An example of one of R. Mecklenburg’s goals in his commentary, to refute the claims of those “weak of sight, and light of intellect,” to show how Chazal’s tradition fits just fine with the plain sense of the text.

A Minimalist Divine Command

For both of the first two mitzvot given the Jewish people, R. Samson Raphael Hirsch stresses the gap between what we are told Hashem said to Moshe, and what Moshe conveys to the people. In 12;22-27, R. Hirsch points out the many parts of Moshe’s speech not found in Hashem’s original command. He declares it the model of the Oral Law, I think because he is sure Moshe must have been told those details, not, chas ve-shalom, manufactured them on his own. The Torah thus shows  that tradition encompasses both what is explicit in Torah and not.

The same happens in the beginning of chapter thirteen, where Hashem only speaks of sanctifying the first born, and Moshe talks about a prohibition on eating chametz/leaven on Pesach, telling the Exodus story on the first night of the holiday, wearing tefillin, all of which (R. Hirsch says) elaborate the obligation to make the first-born special (because they attained their status in the last of the plagues). Here, R. Hirsch says explicitly the laws were given to Moshe orally, as a model of how Hashem, the Lawgiver, chooses to reveal His Will, as it were.

[R. Hirsch skips over the fact that in these examples, what Moshe says become Torah law, makes its way into the Written Torah. I think he means the Torah did it to show us what happens with other areas, where Hashem reveals basics, and puts much of it in an oral law. He does not consider here the thornier issue of when Chazal infer new ideas as part of Oral Law.]

The Jewish Months and Calendar

Malbim to 12;2 offers two ideas about the Jewish calendar I have heard before, but not quoted in his name. Months are a lunar concept, he notes, because the sun’s transit does not evince any months, only days and years. When Hashem tells Moshe to fix the calendar according to the moon, Malbim thinks Hashem also showed Moshe how to calculate such calendar (not simple, at least before advanced math and computers—just check Rambam’s Laws of the Sanctification of the Month). He says, and I am not sure to what he is referring, that the nations all agree that the Jewish tradition of the calendar shows they received it prophetically.

The other idea he stresses, by now well known as well, starts with a grammatical point he had made in Ayelet HaShachar, a standalone introduction to his commentary, where he advances hundreds of rules for how to read the Torah correctly. Principle 593 there said lachem, to you, always has an exclusionary intent, to you and not to others.

In our case, one part of the differentiation—Malbim says—was longstanding, the Egyptians using a solar calendar, part of their sun worship. Jews had followed the moon since the time of Adam, the first human, because tradition’s calculations of the stages of the Flood depended on a lunar calendar. Until now, though, they had started the year at Tishrei, when the world was created; Hashem was commanding them to shift to Nisan, to commemorate the Exodus.

Not just the fact of the Exodus, but the shift of fortunes that came with it. Up to this point, the Jews had been governed by natural forces put in place at creation, like the rest of the world. Now, Hashem was taking direct charge, as it were, placing them always under more direct Divine Providence.

For Malbim, the calendar can reflect natural phenomena, like the waxing and waning of the moon, can be based on a power to be worshipped, like the sun for the Egyptians, but for Jews signals the time they were set apart from the rest of the world, by their following the moon rather than the sun, as they always had, and placing their New Year in Nisan, when they were granted their separate Divine Providence.

How Stubbornly We Hold Our Ideas

R. David Tzvi Hoffmann to 10;7 minimizes the concession of Par’oh’s servants, when they pressure the king to release the Jews after the announcement of the plague of locusts. They urge him to send the people to worship “their” God, 10;7, surprised Par’oh does not recognize the existential threat Egypt was facing. R. Hoffmann highlights what they did not say.

They know the Jews have a God, and thought they were receiving all these punishments because they had tried to prevent the Jews from worshipping that God, in the pagan system an offense that gives the offended god the right to respond (I think he means). They had managed to fold God into their belief system even as they were recommending giving in. They fit the situation into their pre-existing worldview, rather than recognize the need to change it.

In 8-11, Par’oh concedes even less fully, trying to keep the women, children, and livestock, as guarantors of the men’s return [a similar sign of not having absorbed the main message, God’s irresistible Power, although R. Hoffmann doesn’t stress it]. Moshe insists on everyone going, saying it is a chag la-Shem, a holiday to our God. R. Hoffmann originally takes this to be a simple point, holidays involve the entire nation, but then concedes women were exempt from aliyah le-regel, an obligation with a time component.

They were included in the once every seven years’ Hakhel, because that had added importance. As does this planned chag.

The road to establishing an am le-vadad yishkon, a nation that dwells alone, winds through an Oral Law that supplies details Hashem did not specify, that sometimes offers claims the most immediate sense of the text would not show; alters our experience of time itself, in our calendars; and demands of us what others struggle to accept, Par’oh and his sorcerers showing how difficult it can be to accept the truths in front of our faces.

But at least we are on our way, redemption soon to come. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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