Rosh Hodesh Sivan Torah Essay - Matan - The Sadie Rennert
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Rosh Hodesh Sivan Torah Essay

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

“A great voice, and added no more” – Which Torah did we Receive in Sinai?

Sivan is the month in which we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. Chazal debated the exact date, but are in agreement that it was early on the third month after Bnei Yisrael left Egypt. The bigger question is: which Torah did we receive at Sinai?

Many of us were raised on the idea that the Torah is eternal, and even preceded the world (“[God] looked in the Torah and created the world”). An extreme expression of this idea is found in the Gemara (Brachot 5b) which states that all information is contained in the Torah – including the written Torah, the history of the Nation of Israel (Prophets and Writings), and the Oral Torah (Mishnah and Gemara).

There is a charm to such sources, which present the Torah as complete, adapted to the world, and unchanging. However, the Torah itself presents things differently: throughout the five Books of Moshe we encounter new mitzvot delivered in the Tent of Meeting and in the journey through the wilderness, which were given after Bnei Yisrael left Mount Sinai.

The Torah also includes stories which clearly indicate that new laws emerged along the way. Some stories have missing information which required completing, such as the execution of the desecrator of Shabbat or the man who cursed God. Other laws emerge from stories that took place in the desert, such as the prohibition for priests to drink wine following the death of Nadav and Avihu. And other laws are altered as a result of a specific appeal, such as the innovation of Pesach Sheni or the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad.

These examples challenge the position that views the Torah as constant and permanent, which heralded the creation of the world. What did the Sinai Torah contain – the initial presentation of the law, or the later representations?

The question which Torah was given at Sinai relates to an important controversy between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva, described in the Gemara Hagiga 6a-b:

Rabbi Yishmael says: General statements were said at Sinai, and the details in the Tent of Meeting. And Rabbi Akiva says: Both general statements and the details were said at Sinai, repeated in the Tent of Meeting, and reiterated a third time in the plains of Moab.

The debate between the two rabbis relates to ‘new’ episodes that come up throughout the Torah. R. Akiva argues that everything was given at Sinai, both general statements and details – that is, the details of the mitzvot. Rabbi Akiva derives this from the explicit midrash that connects the mitzvah of Shmitta to Mount Sinai (Sifra Behar 1:1):

Why is Shmitta related to Mount Sinai? Were not all the mitzvot iterated in Sinai? Rather, we learn from here that just as with regard to Shmitta both the general statements and the details were stated in Sinai, so too, regarding all of the Mitzvot, general statements and details were stated in Sinai.

The Sifra is based on the verses toward the end of Vayikra that describe the mitzvah of Shmitta, which reference the fact that this commandment was give in Mount Sinai. According to the Sifra, the purpose of this reference is to teach us that, in fact, all the information was previously given (to Moshe) in Sinai, even if it was written or transmitted to the nation only subsequently. According to Rabbi Akiva, while all the information was given in Mount Sinai, the Torah states other locations (such as the Tent of Meeting and the plains of Moab) because specific details were repeated in those places.

The driving principle behind Rabbi Akiva’s argument is that everything is predetermined: all the information contained in the Torah has been presented in Mount Sinai (or perhaps earlier), and if any innovation is possible, it is limited to the repetition of certain details in various stages. Moreover, according to Rabbi Akiva both the general and particular details were stated in Sinai, and there is no distinction between the two.

But how does Rabbi Akiva explain the fact that Moshe seems to be missing information at various points in time, or the changes to the law in later episodes?

According to Rabbi Akiva’s understanding, some details might be repeated or transmitted at a certain time in order to link them with specific people (whether in positive contexts such as the impure delegation that wanted to bring a Pesach sacrifice, and Zelophehad’s daughters – or negative contexts such as the Shabbat desecrator and the man who cursed God), in order to attribute these details to the merit or detriment of their rightful titleholders. According to this philosophy, “Everything is foreseen yet freedom of choice is granted” (Avot 3:15). The Torah was predetermined from Mount Sinai, but revealed itself to the nation in merit of the right people at the right time.

Rabbi Yishmael takes another position, although it is unclear to what extent his position differs from Rabbi Akiva’s.

First, Rabbi Yishmael distinguishes between the general information (which was given at Mount Sinai) and the details (which were given in the Tent of Meeting). According to this position, the entire Torah was not given at once at Mount Sinai. Second, he distinguishes between the general rules and the details. The fact that the rules were stated in Sinai, and the details in the Tent of Meeting, indicates a more fundamental difference between rules and details.

According to this distinction, the details may be susceptible to change and innovation – at least with regard to the time of their transmission, if not beyond that. The moment we distinguish between the rules (which hold a higher status) and the details (which appear to have a lower status), the distinction enables a change in details, or an adaption of the details to reality. This would facilitate the understanding that the rules are timeless and fundamental (high ideals), while the details may be more susceptible to the human world (and are therefore relegated to the Tent of Meeting).

If this understanding of R. Yishmael’s position is correct, it may be reasonable to assume that the general rule regarding the Pesach sacrifice, which preserves the memory of the Exodus and represents a new covenant with God each year, was indeed a foundational rule; however, the manifestation of this rule may be realized in our world even if those who are impure are exempt from the sacrifice, and also if we enable – or even obligate – those who are impure to bring the sacrifice at another prescribed time. Both details are possible, and may depend on circumstances, or on human demand.

This understanding of Rabbi Yishmael facilitates the possibility that details may adapt to reality without damaging the rules, and that various details may be created or amended to express the rules without harming their definitiveness. Indeed, in the case of Torah law – only God has the authority to change or adapt the rules. Rabbi Yishmael only creates the theoretical framework of a gradual – or perhaps, evolving – transmission of the Torah.

This disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva may be related to another debate regarding the interpretation of the verse (Deut. 5:19):

אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה דִּבֶּר ה’ אֶל כָּל קְהַלְכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ הֶעָנָן וְהָעֲרָפֶל קוֹל גָּדוֹל וְלֹא יָסָף וַיִּכְתְּבֵם עַל שְׁנֵי לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים וַיִּתְּנֵם אֵלָי

These are the words the Lord spoke to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, a great voice – and added no more; and He wrote them on two stone tablets, and gave them to me.

Rashi offers two interpretations to this verse. According to the first, the voice never stopped; according to the second, the voice did not continue to speak. In his discussion of innovation in Torah, Prof. Ephraim Urbach argued that this question relates to the debate whether the voice at Mount Sinai was a singular phenomena, which ceased once the event was concluded, or only the beginning of a divine revelation (when the Torah was given), and became a continuous sound which reverberates eternally – as God continues to transmit the Torah.

Perhaps this is also true regarding the question of innovations in Torah, which is the foundation of the debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva. According to Rabbi Akiva, there was one voice, which delivered the Torah as a whole to Israel on Mount Sinai – and from that point forward all iterations of Torah are merely a return to that voice. Conversely, according to Rabbi Yishmael, the Torah continues to be transmitted through the Tent of Meeting, and the act of transmitting the Torah never ceased. Nahmanides, who views the Tent of Meeting as a ‘mobile Mount Sinai,’ reinforces Rabbi Yishmael’s perception regarding an ongoing revelation that never ceased.

Both Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael believe in the perpetuity of Torah; Rabbi Akiva views it through its totality, which foresees all generations, while Rabbi Yishmael believes it is expressed in its reapplication in a changing reality.

Whether the Torah was delivered as a whole, as Rabbi Akiva argues, or in adaption to human reality, as Rabbi Yishmael believes – we might say the Torah defines itself as providing a response to reality. When Zelophehad’s daughters came across a problem that was unresolved within the framework given at Sinai, they were provided with a solution. It seems that God prioritizes the presentation of His Torah as one which takes human needs into account, so that people may receive it while knowing that “it is our life and the source of our longevity.”

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

was in the first cohort of the Matan Kitvuni Fellowship program and her book is in the publication process. She has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and at Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.