Mesorah as Halachic Source and Sensibility

by | in Jewish Thought

Jewish tradition asserts that the greatest moment and most important event in history was not the creation of the world but the Revelation of the Torah (Matan Torah). Rabbinic sources perceive the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai as both the climax and telos of Creation. Strikingly, the midrash articulates this view even as it interprets the account of Creation itself, noting that the very term bereishit (in the beginning) signifies the anticipation of Revelation: “For the sake of the Torah, which is called the beginning.” Halachah mandates that the Jewish people maximize their connection to the experience of Revelation and intensify their commitment to the content of Revelation by means of rigorous Torah study and punctilious Torah observance. Torah life constitutes a Divine gift to the Jewish people, a cherished opportunity, the gateway to a spiritually rich and meaningful existence. (See Mishnah, Makkot 23b; Kohelet 12:13.)

The singular character of halachic life can best be apprehended and appreciated in light of the Torah’s unique perspective on the content and methodology of Revelation. Chazal develop the thesis that is axiomatic to Jewish law and thought that Matan Torah was two-tiered: consisting of oral and written components. Commenting on the unusual spelling of the word vehaTorot, which conveys both a singular and plural meaning in the verse (Vayikra 26:46) “These are the decrees, the ordinances, and the teachings that Hashem gave, between Himself and the children of Israel, at Mount Sinai, through Moshe,” the Sifra comments: This teaches that two Torahs were given to the Jews–one written and one oral. This principle forms the basis for the pivotal idea of mesorah, the received tradition of Jewish law and values that complements the Divine text that was given at Sinai.

The two components of Torah—mesorah and text—seem to represent a study in contrast, but are in fact mutually enhancing. The Written Torah was revealed as a fixed text whose form was to be preserved unaltered. It is a Divine text that yields multiple truths and a variety of interpretations, sometimes referred to as the seventy faces of Torah (see also Sanhedrin 34a). According to the Ramban, the letters of the Divine text embody metaphysical significance as well, recombining into different manifestations of the Divine name. The oral tradition, in contrast, though equally of Divine origin and authority, was entrusted to Moshe Rabbeinu and by extension to his successors, the chachmei hamesorah of each subsequent generation, as a received oral tradition consisting of principles, details, and values. The mesorah was intended to be conveyed by means of a distinctively human process consisting of painstaking transmission of data and halachic methodology, as well as the rigorous analysis and application of that tradition.

The two components of Torah operate both independently and in tandem. Often the oral mesorah provides the key to unlock the mysteries or ambiguities of the Divine text. Content or concepts embedded in the unusual form or spelling of the Written Torah are rendered accessible or decipherable only by means of the mesorah and methodology of the oral tradition. The Gemara in Eruvin (21b) describes this phenomenon: “His locks are curled”–this teaches that it is possible to expound mounds of laws from every single stroke in the Torah’s letters. Clearly, the Torah sees great benefit both in the dual perspectives of the Oral and Written Torot, as well as in their integration.

It is evident that the respective designations of Oral and Written Torah transcend descriptive labels. Chazal meant to succinctly convey the importance of two different perspectives. The Written Torah underscores the concept of an unchanging text in which spelling, structure, and form are invested with halachic and homiletic significance. A sefer Torah that is improperly transcribed is disqualified even if the changes apparently do not alter the meaning of the text. Indeed, absolute attention to proper form may come even at the expense of substance, as the phenomenon of “kri vktiv,” (written one way and vocalized another way) demonstrates. The Oral Torah reflects a very different emphasis. It derives its special significance from its conceptual content rather than its specific formulation. Indeed, exaggerated allegiance to a particular formulation may occasionally prove inhibiting and counterproductive. The thesis articulated by the Shulchan Aruch HaRav (Hilchot Talmud Torah, Kuntres Aharon) that one can fulfill the mitzvah of talmud Torah by simply reading the text of Torah Shebichtav even absent comprehension, while such a gesture employed with respect to Torah Shebe’al Peh would constitute a fruitless endeavor highlights the distinctive character of these two Torot. The twin halachic injunctions that ideally prohibit the transcription of the oral mesorah and proscribe the oral citation of the Written Torah (Gittin 60a) demonstrate the indispensability of each dimension.

While each component of Revelation is crucial, it is noteworthy that it is the Oral Law, entrusted to the chachmei hamesorah, shaped and enhanced by human effort and input, that is preeminent. The Gemara (Gittin 60b) articulates this unambiguously both with respect to it being a prerequisite to the covenantal bond with Hashem, as well as with regard to its inherent spiritual value: “God only established a covenant with Israel for the sake of the Oral Torah.” The Midrash Tanchuma (Shemot 24:7) explains that the reluctant posture of the Jewish people to accept the Torah without some measure of coercion (“Covered them with a mountain like a barrel”) stems from the higher demands and more intense commitment of the oral mesorah, which are depicted as the ultimate manifestation of love of Hashem: “Because no one learns it who does not love God with all his heart, soul and might.”

What accounts for the axiological priority of the Oral Law? We may better appreciate the special character of the oral tradition by briefly examining its comprehensive scope and singular nature. The continuation of the Midrash Tanchuma provides some direction. The midrash perceives the Written Torah as a repository of broad values and general religious principles. However, as a fixed and finite text lacking great detail, it does not impose excessive religious obligations or intrude pervasively on the apparently neutral aspects of one’s life. The fledgling Klal Yisrael could easily embrace this level of commitment. It is the Oral Law, both in interpretive conjunction with the Written Torah and independently by means of the halachic content that exclusively stems from the mesorah, that is responsible for an extremely ambitious halachic system that regulates every aspect of life, suffusing the neutral and secular with sanctity, kedushah. Chazal articulate these themes clearly (Tanchuma, op cit; Gittin 60a): “The majority of Torah is oral and the minority written; the Written Torah contains generalities and the Oral Torah specifics . . . You will not find the Oral Torah among one who seeks the joys of this world, desire, honor and greatness in this world rather only among one who kills himself on it.” While the Written Torah gives direction and provides inspiration, the mesorah of the Oral Torah imbues the vision with detail and substance.

While this perspective explains some aspects of the dialectical relationship between the two components of Revelation, the need for both elements, and the preeminence of the Oral Law, it does not yet explain adequately why the Torah was structured in this manner, nor does it illuminate why the mesorah of Torah Shebe’al Peh occupies so central a role in the interpretation and determination of the most basic and fundamental categories of Jewish law and life. Furthermore, considerations of efficiency and comprehensiveness do not sufficiently explain the prohibition to document the massive material of the oral tradition, nor do they justify how the idea of mesorah as a chain of transmission entrusted to the chachmei hamesorah across the generations came to be perceived as an important value and sensibility beyond the specific content of transmission, as we shall soon elaborate.

The greatest moment and most important event in history was not the creation of the world but the Revelation of the Torah.

Even a cursory survey demonstrates that the Written Torah intentionally obscured many of the most central aspects of Jewish life forcing reliance upon the methodology and content of mesorah. I refer not to the more esoteric realms of kodashim and taharot, but to the most ubiquitous and basic categories of halachic life encountered routinely. The institution of Shabbat, the temporal telos of Creation, the foundation of the Jewish week (see Ramban, Shemot 20:8; derashah Rosh HaShanah) and the paradigm-framework for all of the moadim and the very concept of sanctity of time (“First among the holy days of assembly”) would be unrecognizable absent the mesorah input. The foundational component of the thirty-nine categories of work depend exclusively on the oral tradition. (See Shabbat 49b, and Tosafot and Ramban ad loc.) The central principle of “melechet machshevet,” skillful labor that governs the application of melachah and is therefore crucial to Shabbat observance, is not explicated in the Written Torah. The Gemara (Chaggigah 10a) succinctly encapsulates this thought when it remarks that the laws of Shabbat are barely hanging by a thread: “The laws of Shabbat . . . are like mountains hanging from a hair–few verses but many laws.” This is all the more remarkable when one considers that the Written Torah treats the topic of Shabbat at least a dozen times!

The same phenomenon exists in varying degrees with respect to every other festival. Without the input of mesorah, we would have scant or inaccurate or misleading information about tekiat shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the proper protocol and order of the avodah on Yom Kippur, the precise date of Shavuot, the requisite amount of days for eating matzah, and the physical requirements and dimensions of a sukkah.

Lest one speculate that absolute reliance upon mesorah is limited to areas of ritual or religious law, one only need to peruse Parashat Mishpatim, the locus of dinei nezikin, the laws of damages. Nothing is more universal and inherently rational than rules governing human conduct and responsibility in this most elemental of social interaction. And yet, the Written Torah’s extensive delineation of the various categories of these laws is simply incomprehensible without the authoritative traditions of the mesorah. The intricate halachic categories of aish (fire), bor (the pit), and keren (goring), to name just a few, are indecipherable and inconceivable without the companion Oral Torah.
It is evident that the preeminent role of the Oral Law was designed to insure that the Torah’s laws, values and insights would not be trivialized, historicized, marginalized, or otherwise corrupted by being too accessible to non-initiates lacking the requisite depth of yirat Shamayim and halachic commitment. The midrash (Bereishit Rabbah, Shemot 47:1; see, also Tosafot, Gittin 60b sv atmuhi; Semag, introduction to lavin) exemplifies this approach, underscoring that the Oral Torah secured the Torah’s status as a special legacy of the Jewish people, not to be usurped or corrupted by other nations.

Furthermore, the indispensability of mesorah guarantees that Torah will be studied and applied within a traditional framework that accentuates its roots in the experience of Revelation (see Ramban, Devarim 4:9; Sefer HaMitzvot, shichechat lavin 2), as well as its stature as an immutable system of laws and values (see Rambam, ikkarim 7,9) relevant to all periods of history and in all geographic settings. Moreover, mesorah anchors the Torah’s laws and principles in wider internal context by providing additional detail and insight, particularly regarding the interrelationship of various variables and factors. Precisely the most universal and basic institutions of halachic life demand the framework and perspective of mesorah, lest the singular Torah perspective on these issues become confused or simply blurred.

The vigorous opposition to the Tzedukim and later to the Karaim, who denied the authority of the Oral Law mesorah, should be assessed in this light. The halachah takes extraordinary steps to convey its absolute, vehement rejection of this ideology (Mishnah Parah 3:1; Yoma 2a). The denial of mesorah constitutes not merely a falsehood that facilitates erroneous conclusions applied to critical issues, but more significantly, an ideological and methodological challenge to the very character and unique quality of halachic law and life. Thus, it was appropriately perceived and confronted as an insidious heresy (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8; Hilchot Mamrim 3:1-3; responsa [Blau edition], 449).

Perhaps the most important function of an indispensable mesorah is the projection of both an historic and an ongoing vital role for chachmei hamesorah who are entrusted with preserving, furthering and applying that ancient yet living tradition. The Talmud formulates the obligation to master the entire corpus of Torah knowledge (Kiddushin 30a). The Ritva and Maharsha (Gittin 60a) emphasize that the prohibition to record the oral tradition mandated greater dedication to attaining this lofty ambition. Undoubtedly, it served as an important catalyst stimulating greater intensity both in quantitative and qualitative Torah study. However, the symbolic and substantive impact of entrusting authentic Torah interpretation to the sages of each generation certainly transcended the incentive for chachmei hamesorah to immerse themselves in both the minutiae and principles of the halachah.

It highlighted the singular halachic perspective, also reflected by the doctrine of “it is not in heaven . . . A prophet is not allowed to add anything henceforward” (Temurah 16a) and parallel concepts that the chachmei hamesorah are not only the passive recipients and repository of the halachah, but as its authentic interpreter, are also partners with Hashem in the application of timeless, immutable Torah law to all circumstances in all generations. Many of the commentators explain that the phrase in Birkat HaTorah: “gave us the Torah . . . and implanted internal life within us” refers to Torah Shebe’al Peh, precisely because of the responsible and substantive role of the chachmei hamesorah in interpreting and applying the Torah (Tur, OH 139). The Aruch HaShulchan (Leil Shimurim commentary on the Haggadah) explains that the phrase in the Haggadah: “If He had only brought us before Mount Sinai and had not given us the Torah, it would have sufficed us” refers to the fact that in addition to entrusting the Torah to Klal Yisrael as passive recipients, Hashem included the chachmei hamesorah in the process of halachic decision making, and, by extension, in the advancement of Torah itself.

It is surely no coincidence that the halachah places a great premium on the rebbe/talmid relationship, as well as on the proper approach to talmidei chachamim generally, the gatekeepers of the mesorah. Strikingly, the Rambam refers to halachic scholars as “the transmitters of the tradition, person to person, from Moshe our master” (Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:9), even when he discusses the daily obligation to learn, accentuating this motif. These interactions clearly transcend other academic or intellectual mentor-disciple models. The laws of kavod and moreh rabbo, patterned after and in some respects surpassing the parent-child relationship, demonstrate that the connections are existentially and not merely academically crucial. The fact that the rebbe/talmid chacham constitutes the source and link with mesorah and that mesorah includes not only information but values and a methodology and a global perspective toward halachic life underpins this central emphasis. The institution of semichah, rabbinic ordination, the source of independent rabbinic authority, which in its classical form requires an unbroken chain of chachmei hamesorah linking back to Yehoshua and Moshe Rabbeinu (Rambam, Hilchot Sanhedrin 4:1) highlights this theme.

The dialectic of dependence and independence that defines the interactions of halachic disciples and their mentors also magnificently reflects the singular halachic posture on mesorah. The halachah codifies the importance of deference and even initial acquiescence to the rulings of mentors and predecessors. At the same time, there is room for, and occasionally obligation to express conscientious objection and principled opposition to the halachic status quo ante properly formulated and pursued (YD 242:2, 3 and commentaries). Chazal valued chiddush, innovative ideas and halachic-hashkafic initiative, but also insisted that these be anchored in the framework of mesorah. This subtle and ambitious stance is crystallized in challenging rabbinic formulations such as “Anything that an assiduous student would innovate in the future was told to Moshe from Sinai” (Yerushalmi Peah 2:4; see also the celebrated story told in the Gemara in Menachot 29b).

Chazal valued chiddush, innovative ideas and halachic-hashkafic initiative, but also insisted that these be anchored in the framework of mesorah.

The same perspective can be invoked to reconcile other apparent discrepancies. The statement by Rebbe Eliezer (Sukkah 28a) that he never initiated a halachic ruling or expounded an innovative idea that did not originate from his rebbe, for example, is evidently belied by the legal record of Rebbe Eliezer’s innovative contributions. However, Rebbe Eliezer’s declaration is undoubtedly to be understood as an emphatic confirmation–endorsement of the concept of mesorah. Rebbe Eliezer credited even his personal halachic rulings or Torah insights to his mentors because from his perspective he was merely applying the methodology and sensibility of mesorah that was faithfully and painstakingly transmitted to him. A detached observer might be impressed by Rebbe Eliezer’s novelty, but his self-image was one of a faithful link in the chain of the mesorah. These two viewpoints are consistent with the theme of a dynamic mesorah that is firmly anchored in the traditions of Sinai. In the same vein, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik would alternately describe his grandfather, Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, as a revolutionary halachic thinker who transformed the landscape of halachic analysis in the modern era, but with equal passion he would assert that Rabbi Chaim represented the continuity and served as a link in the rich tradition of other great halachic innovators like Rabbeinu Tam, the Rabad, the Ramban, the Netivot, et cetera. A true student of the concept of mesorah perceives no contradiction in these assessments.

The phenomenon of mesorah highlights an important distinction between external and internal halachic innovation. This is exemplified by the contrasting events recorded in Parashat Shemini. Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon, were put to death notwithstanding their prodigious spiritual status, their piety, and their sincerity because they offered ketoret zarah, an unauthorized and untraditional ketoret offering (Vayikra 10:1. The fact that they did not feel obligated to consult Moshe Rabbeinu regarding the propriety of this innovation constituted more than a breach of halachic etiquette or even an implicit rejection of his preeminent halachic authority. As the initial recipient, and quintessential gatekeeper of the mesorah, Moshe Rabbeinu was endowed not only with additional halachic knowledge but with more profound halachic wisdom and intuition, as well. Bypassing Moshe Rabbeinu in the context of initiating a new halachic practice reflected a total disregard for the vital transcendent functions of mesorah, and was not to be countenanced, especially from men of immense spiritual stature. Hence, the tragic decree: “I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire people” (Vayikra 10:3).

While Nadav and Avihu tragically lost their lives due to improper external innovation, the remaining sons of Aharon, who surmised that it would be inappropriate to partake of the Rosh Chodesh chatat offering in their state of aninut, were vindicated in their independent conclusion despite Moshe Rabbeinu’s initial consternation that they, too, had overstepped. “Moshe heard and it was pleasing in his eyes.”

Chazal (Zevachim 101a; Rashi, Ramban, Vayikra 10:16-20) explain that Moshe Rabbeinu was quick to accept their compelling halachic analysis once he realized that their initiative constituted an internal albeit unanticipated independent application of the received halachah, rather than an external challenge to halachic norms and traditions. Precisely because he embodied the instinct and intuition of mesorah, Moshe recognized the authenticity of this independent conclusion that was grounded in proper halachic methodology. The Ramban (Vayikra 9:2) considers yet another explanation for the burning of the Rosh Chodesh offering that also highlights the issue of internal chiddush and the role of authority. Rashi notes that in sharp contrast to Nadav and Avihu, Elazar and Itamar were reticent even to engage in halachic discourse with Moshe Rabbeinu; their argument had to be articulated by Aharon.

The determination that the vast tradition of halachah remain predominantly in oral form accomplished a dialectical purpose. On the one hand, it preserved the moment and experience of the Revelation at Sinai as the eternal foundation of authority, content and sensibility of halachic law. It guaranteed that the halachah remain forever anchored in its authentic and authoritative origins. It fostered a sense of identification with the halachic past that would serve as a guidepost to a responsible application of the halachah in the future. At the same time, by promoting significant responsibility and authority for the chachmei hamesorah, this structure equally provided the basis for the capacity to address new halachic challenges that would inevitably surface as Jewish life evolved in different eras and geographic locations. The cultivation of Torah wisdom or halachic instinct consequent upon a total exposure to the details and received values and sensibilities of the halachah is a particularly vital aspect of this system. The metaphor of the authoritative chacham as a walking sefer Torah (based on Makkot 22b; Kiddushin 33b) aptly captures this theme. It is noteworthy that the midrash (cited also by Rashi, Devarim 30:14) links the relevance and accessibility of the halachah to all situations with the Torah’s dual form, written and oral. Commenting on the verses that declare that the Torah is neither distant nor in heaven (“It is not in heaven . . . nor is it beyond the sea”), but is, in fact, fully accessible and applicable (“in your mouth and your heart that you may do it”), the midrash emphasizes the role of mesorah alongside that of the Written Torah.

The Oral Law, entrusted to the chachmei hamesorah, shaped and enhanced by human effort and input, is preeminent.

This perspective on the role and impact of mesorah, particularly as it relates to the cultivation of a halachic personality who is more than the sum of his actual knowledge, has significant implications regarding the status of halachic conviction or even intuition that cannot be analytically demonstrated. There are surely significant differences between rigorous halachic rulings grounded in the examination and analysis of specific sources, and conclusions that invoke broader halachic considerations and values, or that rely primarily upon strong halachic convictions in issues for which halachic precedent is insufficiently compelling. Yet, the history of halachic thought demonstrates that each of these models constitutes an important element in halachah’s encounter with new realities and challenges. Moreover, Rav Soloveitchik developed the idea that mesorah incorporates the Torah sensibilities of great men, as well their more analytical halachic conclusions (Iggerot haGrid 87-88). Indeed, he argues that the Rambam’s heresy category of “machish magidehah” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8) refers to the improper rejection of precisely this group of values and sensibilities.

This perspective on the role and impact of mesorah, particularly as it relates to the cultivation of a halachic personality who is more than the sum of his actual knowledge, has significant implications regarding the status of halachic conviction or even intuition that cannot be analytically demonstrated.

Masechet Avot, which primarily records the general aphorisms and wider wisdom of the chachamim, begins by recounting the history of mesorah. Both the need for a mesorah to justify these particular values and sensibilities, as well as its application to these broader and more universal themes is noteworthy. Moreover, some of the mefarshim note that the verb “masar” is utilized twice in this rendition of the links in the chain of mesorah, perhaps implying particularly noteworthy, even innovative methodological contributions within the unfolding mesorah itself, notwithstanding the very concept of mesorah as a mechanism that primarily preserves and insures continuity. We may now appreciate that mesorah constitutes a broad and ambitious approach to Torah study and observance that includes but is not limited to specific content. Long after Chazal neutralized the injunction against recording the detailed content of the Oral Law as a concession to human frailty on the basis of “It is time for the Lord to work; they have made void Your law” (Gittin 60a; Temurah 14b; see Rambam, Hilchot Mamrim 2:4), the concept and impact of mesorah continues to prevail. As always, it is manifest in the more subtle questions of deeper conceptual comprehension and perspective, of the interplay between and priority of different halachic principles and in the translation of halachic law into values. The need for and relevance of mesorah particularly resonates precisely when halachic values address more universal concerns and motifs, as previously noted. The failure of relativistic secular ethics affirms the halachah’s approach that ethics and general wisdom must be grounded in the experience and sensibilities of the Revelation at Sinai. The introduction to Masechet Avot reflects that asserting the authentic and authoritative voice of mesorah is equally if not more urgent in matters of wider perspective. The varied substantial contributions of different chachmei mesorah and their halachic schools of thought represent an important dimension in this process and underscore this aspect of the significance of mesorah.

Rabbeinu Yonah (Avot 1:1) addresses the need for mesorah in the context of Masechet Avot and its broader teachings. He exemplifies the contribution of mesorah by noting that without the oral tradition, one would not have known that damaging property constitutes an act of theft, as this insight is not explicated in the Written Torah. It is noteworthy that Rabbeinu Yonah’s perspective on damages is neither explicit nor is it uniformly accepted. The notion that nezek comes under the rubric of gezel is not documented anywhere in the Talmud. Other halachic authorities assign the prohibition against inflicting damage to different sources and principles. Rabbeinu Yonah’s perspective evidently stems either from his personal mesorah or from his nuanced global understanding of these halachic categories and concepts. Rabbeinu Yonah’s intriguing illustration accentuates how the concept and process of mesorah significantly advance and enhance Torah understanding. Ironically, Rabbeinu Yonah’s highly personal perspective on damages truly highlights the special character and contribution of the mesorah component of Torah.

Life is always in flux. The challenges of our era are particularly acute. The capacity to halachically navigate the ambiguities of modern life and to assess halachic status or determine halachic policy regarding various new phenomena—cultural and technological—requires immersion in all facets of the halachic system. If rabbinic authorities are to effectively confront and constructively address contemporary issues, it will only be on the basis of an abiding commitment not only to the received information but also to the methodology and sensibility of mesorah. Building a thriving halachic community in any and every geographic and historic setting requires not only rigorous analysis of explicit halachic sources and precedents, but also the ability to cultivate halachic values that are anchored in but also extend beyond the details of the norm. The leadership of master halachic diagnosticians whose stature and experience determine when halachic analysis should not be reduced merely to the examination of texts is crucial. The intuitions and deeply held convictions of such chachmei hamesorah that necessarily augment more concrete halachic texts are an indispensable part of the mesorah itself. The two-tiered Torah remains fully accessible “in your mouth and your heart that you may do it.”


Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig occupies the Nathan and Perel Schupf Chair in Talmud at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary and is a rosh yeshivah in the Yeshiva Program/Mazer School of Talmudic Studies of Yeshiva University.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2011.

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