Biblical Mishnayot

All Israel has a share in the World to Come, as it is said “And your people are all righteous; they shall inherit the Land forever; a branch of my plantings, my handiwork, in which to take pride.”

Pirkei Avot is the ninth tractate of the Mishnah in the Order of Damages. The beautiful preface is read prior to our study of this tractate and instructs us that as Hashem’s handiwork, the mitzvot we perform is blessed with the aura of the Olam Haba [which is the World to Come]. The Sfat Emet[1] points out that the sanctity or kedushah found in every deed of the Torah-true Jew [and I say Gerim[2] as well], can illicit the latent Divine Spark that not only propels the material world but also helps heal and perfect it [allowing us to participate in Creation itself]. While it’s easy to assume this refers directly to the Mitzvot or commands found in the Torah[3], a closer look at the text of Parashah Devarim[4] shows that there is much more.

Returning to Pirkei Avot, the first Mishnah states, “Moshe received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, develop many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah.”

We should not make the hasty judgment that the Torah Moshe received from Sinai and transmitted to Joshua is the written Torah we now have in our Bibles. The written Torah was transmitted in the ways similar to that found in Numbers 15:1: Vayedever Adonai el-Moshe lemor devar el-benei Yisrael [And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying Speak to the Children of Israel]. As Rabbi Fischer reminds us repeatedly [and I paraphrase], “Pay attention to the words and no word should be overlooked.” If we use this same technique on the first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, we see that the “Torah” transmitted to Joshua is not the same Torah we hold now in our hands. The Mishnah refers, instead, to a line of transmission for what is known as the Oral Torah, or the Mishnah.

In support of this, please refer to Deuteronomy 1:5: “On the other side of the Jordan [relative to the main Land of Israel that is], Moshe be’er et-hatorah hazot lemor [Moshe began explaining this Torah saying].” Notice these differences:

  • The text in Numbers 15:1 found in Parashah Shelach, Hashem speaks and instructs Moshe to repeat His words to us.
  • In Deuteronomy 1:5, Moshe speaks and does not relate words directly revealed by Hashem. Instead, he explains what is already revealed over the last 40 years. This is why the commands given and the events reiterated in Deuteronomy do not always match those found in the rest of Torah. They are clarifications – not direct revelation.

One thing we must take into account is that we need even the simplest of commands explained to us. A perfect example of a simple command requiring supportive texts is the statement, “You shall not kill.” Even this requires an explanation for us to understand it refers to premeditated or contemplated murder.  Another seemingly simple command: “You shall not commit adultery.” This, too, creates questions. Does this apply equally to men and women? What about in cultures where men are permitted to have more than one wife? How far can one go[5] before an act is considered adultery? How does marital separation, divorce, or even the death of a spouse affect the command? What is one member of the marriage is incapable of performing the connubial act? We should not be so arrogant and assume we know the answers; a 3,500-year span separates us from Matan haTorah[6] as do cultural and mindset differences.

After Jethro[7] [Moshe’s father-in-law] stepped in and provided some advice to help relieve some of Moshe’s stress in Exodus 18:17, Moshe created a court system using what Deuteronomy 1:15-18 calls the heads of tribes. These are the Elders whom Pirkei Avot refers when it speaks of the line of Oral Torah transmission. These elders were given orders on how to judge and where to take a judgment too difficult for him or her to decide. Since Torah was the equivalent of our Constitution and Bill of Rights, any righteous judgment meted by our Elders would be used to help decide future decisions: the basis of what our court system calls Jurisprudence. At the top of our post-Exodus court system was the Supreme Court: Moshe Rebbeinu [Moses our Teacher]. Moshe, on the other hand, when given a difficult case he couldn’t render judgment: the rebellious stick gatherer and the daughters of Tzelofechad[8], had to consult Hashem. All this legal activity from Moshe, Joshua, and the Elders began our great Oral Tradition.

Our discussion regarding the Biblical nature of the Oral Tradition does not end with these two examples. Nehemiah 8:2-9 reads, “… Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation… He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate. [A group of elders] and the Levites explained the Teaching to the people, while the people stood in their places. They read from the Teaching of G-d [i.e., Torah], translating and giving the sense, so they [the people] understood the reading.” After only 1,000 years, we required the Men of the Great Assembly to explain the Torah to us.

The examples continue, for if we look to the writing of the Besorah[9], we are given another example, and the last I will provide, to the validity of the Oral Tradition. I am providing two variant readings of Matthew 23:1-3:

NASB: And Jesus spoke to the people and to his disciples saying, “The Scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds for they say and do not do.”

Shem Tov Hebrew Matthew: Then Yeshua spoke to the people and to his talmidim saying, “Upon the seat of Moshe the Pharisees and the sages sit. Now all which they say to you keep and do; but according to their ordinances and deeds do not do because they say and do not.”

The NASB is unfortunate in that it paints a picture of arrogance[10] for the Scribes and Pharisees that, as a whole, is undeserved. Nevertheless, these versions say nearly the same thing; they tell us that the line of transmission for the Oral Law that began with Moshe and Joshua includes the Sages and Pharisees during the Second Temple period.

The Oral Tradition, the Mishnah, the Oral Law are all one and the same. The Talmuds[11] contains a few of the nuggets found in the Oral Tradition, spending the rest of its volumes explaining those few Mishnayot in detail. While opponents to the Jewish way of life find reason to criticize and even demonize the Talmud and the Mishnah, please know that these arguments are always taken out of context, are erroneously quoted, or the mindset of the Rebbes in these works are grossly misunderstood. We all must realize one thing: the Oral Tradition is based solely upon the Written Torah we now possess; it clarifies the text. For the sake of grace, it loosens Torah interpretation and it binds interpretation, also, for the sake of grace. To look at our Traditions as bondage, a straight jacket, or as legalism is to misunderstand it. For those who want clarification on all matters of Halacha [which is our walk with Hashem], I refer you to your local Rabbi or Tzaddik.

I would like to return to the beginning of the Deuteronomy and look at Moshe’s opening statements through the lens of the Midrash[12] because Shabbat Chazon [the Sabbath of Vision] is forthcoming in a few weeks. Shabbat Chazon, which is also referred to as the Black Sabbath[13], [interestingly enough] derives its name from the haftarah portion [Isaiah 1:1-27], which speaks of rebuke and doom, thus making it the saddest Shabbat of the calendar [as opposed to the White Sabbath, Shabbat Shavuah, immediately preceding Yom Kippur]. The Torah cycle is structured so that Parashah, Devarim, always lands on the Shabbat prior to Tisha b’Av. For those curious why the rabbis double Torah portions throughout the yearly cycle, this is why. There really is a rhyme and a reason.

When G-d informed Moshe that he would die after battling Midian, Moshe requested, “Please, Hashem, permit me to review the entire Torah with your people before my passing. I wish to clarify any difficulties they may have and to acquaint them thoroughly with the details of the Torah laws. On The first day of Shevat, Hashem granted Moshe’s wish. He reflected, “I certainly ought to preface my halachic discourse with words of reproof. Unless I succeed in instilling fear of G-d into the people, they will not perform the Mitzvot properly.” However, Moshe hesitated to rebuke the people. Midrash Deverir Shem recounts the following midrash:

While taking a leisurely walk together, a student and his teacher noticed a shiny speck on the road: a pearl! The student quickly bent down to pick it up, but instantly felt a sharp, burning pain running through his fingers. The “pearl” was actually a glowing ember that scorched his hand.

At another time, the pair was strolling together and again the student’s eye fell upon a glittering object. Afraid of receiving another burn, he refrained from touching it. However, his teachers advised him, “Take this one; it is a precious gem.”

In like manner, Moshe Rebbeinu “burned his fingers” when he sternly rebuked the people by saying, “Listen now, you rebels and fools,” at the bitter waters of Meriva. It was this admonishment that severed Moshe’s opportunity to enter the Land. How dare he attempt another rebuke! Moshe, however, had a rare opportunity. The people realized he was soon parted from them and according to Sifre [a very early halachic compilation], this provided Moshe the occasion to show his deep concern for the people, their well being, and their feelings.

So concerned was he, that in 1:11, when he gave the blessing, “May the G-d of your forefathers increase your numbers a thousand fold,” it was necessary for Moshe to add the phrase “and bless you as He has told you.” Rashi says that when the children of Israel heard that they would be increased a thousand fold, we were disheartened. G-d had already promised we would be so numerous we couldn’t be counted at all. This phrase, “and bless you as He has told you” tells us that Moshe’s blessing was that we multiply a thousand fold; as for G-d’s blessing, “He should bless you as He has told you.”

From the beginning of Deuteronomy, as he begins his reproof, Moshe doesn’t admonish the children of Israel outright, telling them what they did wrong. They didn’t need to be hit over the head. An allusion was enough. He hinted to them by reviewing the names of the places in the first verse of the Parashah. Moshe wanted to get his message subtly across to the people so as not to cause them any embarrassment in the process. The people knew all too well, what happened at these locations [as Ramban explains in his commentary]:

  • we complained about being sent to starve in the wilderness
  • our men were seduced by the Midian women at the Arabah
  • we complained “Were there no graves in Egypt” at the Sea of Reeds
  • we listened to the spies’ bad report at Paran
  • we complained about the manna [a remez or allusion on the names Tophel (calumny, slander) and Lavan (white)]
  • Miriam’s slander, Korach’s rebellion, and our Great Rebellion the next day at Hatzerot
  • the sin of the Golden Calf at Di-Zabad

From the way Moshe spoke, we can learn an important lesson when it comes to dealing with family, friends, and coworkers. No one is perfect. We all sin on occasion. However, when someone sins, it’s not always right to confront him bluntly with the terrible act. Rather than causing remorse, such confrontation often causes the person tremendous embarrassment and may lead to dreadful consequences. Tractate Gittin 57A of Talmud Bavli [the Babylonian Talmud] recounts the story of two people: Kamtza and Bar Kamtza – and states that because Bar Kamtza was embarrassed in public, Hashem ultimately allowed His temple to be destroyed. This story, while briefly mentioned in the Talmud, is complete in the Midrash.

Rabbi Yochanan said, “What is the meaning of the verse in Sefer Mishlei (Proverbs 28) which reads, ‘Fortunate is the one who is always fearful, but the one who is hard of heart will suffer misfortune?’ It was because of ‘Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza’ that Jerusalem was destroyed,” for there was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,” but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead.

The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, “Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!”

Bar-Kamtza said, “Since I’m here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.”

The host responded, ‘No!”

“I will pay for half the cost of the feast.”

“No!”

“I will pay the entire cost of the feast!”

“No!’ The host seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!

Bar-Kamtza thought, “Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I’ll go now, and have a little feast-of-slander with the king.” Therefore, Bar-Kamtza went to Caesar and declared, “The Jews have rebelled against you!”

Caesar responded, “Who said so?”

Bar-Kamtza said, “Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.”

The Caesar sent [with Bar-Kamtza] a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar-Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal. Some say it was a blemish on the upper lip [perhaps symbolizing the silence of the rabbis]; others say it was a blemish in the eye [possibly signifying their witness of his disgrace without protest]; in any case, a place where for us it is a disqualifying blemish while for the Romans, it is not.

The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos objected. “People will say, ‘Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!’”

The Rabbis had in mind to kill Bar-Kamtza so that he would not report what had happened to Caesar, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos objected. “People will say, ‘One who makes blemishes in sacrifices is killed!’”

Rabbi Yochanan said, “The excessive carefulness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land.”

This is but one example of several Talmud accounts that paint a picture of a group of Torah scholars, who became corrupted such that the embarrassment of a human being was less important in their eyes than the offering of a sacrifice according to all the details of the Torah, and this was true in their eyes even when that would throw the whole nation into danger.

Most important for our discussion, however, is that at the end of the section on the destruction of the Holy Temple, there is a statement by Rabbi Elazar, as follows, “Come and see the tremendous negative impact of embarrassing someone, for Hashem helped Bar-Kamtza and destroyed His House and burned His Palace.” This is why the prayer, “May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before you, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer,” which closes the Shemoneh Esrei [or the Amidah] during shacharit[14], is recited slowly and fervently.

In like manner even Hashem is concerned about the effect of words. When we were camped in the desert on the mountainous border of Edom, Hashem said, “rav lachem” – Turn away northward [Deuteronomy 2:3]. While this appears to be an innocuous command, our Rabbis in the Midrash attach significance to the expression. They explain that by ordering them to move away, Hashem was in fact rewarding Edom for a comment their ancestor, Esau, made hundreds of years earlier. When Yaakov sent a gift of animals to Esau to appease his anger, he initially declines to accept them and said, “yesh-li rav,” I already have enough [Genesis 33:9]. Coming from Esau, the expression of “Rav” was both unexpected and refreshing, even though it was not entirely wholehearted and Hashem waited for a chance to recompense him.

The opportunity came when the Jewish people camped opposite his land on their way to Eretz Israel. Edom knew how the other nations fared when opposing Israel, and they were fearful of what would now happen to them. At that point, Hashem intervened and allayed their fears by telling the Jews rav lachem – you have stayed opposite Edom long enough – it’s time to move on. Hashem specifically chose to use the word rav as an allusion to yesh-li rav uttered by Esau and indicated that He was thereby rewarding Esau for his pleasant speech by ordering the Jews to move away and not frighten Edom any longer with their menacing presence.

The reverse is equally true – even one disrespectful comment in the course of a commendable deed will not escape retribution. The same Esau once offered his father tasty venison and said, “Let my father rise and eat.” He spoke injudiciously, as if commanding his father to partake of the food, unlike his brother who said, “Please rise.” In the Midrash, our sages record that this irreverence was duly noted. When the destruction of Esau’s descendant Amalek was foretold, the word used to do so was “May Hashem rise and let his enemies be scattered” [Psalms 68:2]. We must realize the full extent of Kol hadevarim besefer nachtovim, namely, words are written down [up above] to be assessed and judged. Therefore, let us all be mindful of our words.

We preface the mourning experienced on Tisha b’Av [which begins the evening of Monday 8 August 2011] by remembering that we do not mourn the destruction of the Temples, but the reason the Temples were taken from us. Why did the Rabbis of old choose the Sabbath before Tisha b’Av for Parashah Devarim? Because the book of Deuteronomy [also known as Mishneh Torah], is the Restatement of the Torah.

Tanchuma 3 for Ki Tavo says it best: “In the 40th year in the wilderness, Moshe impressed upon the Jews, “Today, Hashem your G-d commands you to do these laws.” How could Moshe state that G-d mandated Torah-observance only as of that day; hadn’t Hashem commanded the Jews to keep the mitzvot 40 years earlier, at the giving of the Torah? In fact, Moshe was teaching the people, “Each day you shall hold the Torah as dear to you as you did on the day you received it at Sinai.”


[1] Rebbe Yehuda Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger [a Chassidic master who lived from 1847 to 1905]

[2] Converts [or even righteous Gentiles]

[3] Torah, as in the first five book of the Bible

[4] Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22

[5] I’ve heard some teachers espouse banter with a sexual overtone – even if only suggestive – violates the command

[6] The giving of the Torah at Sinai

[7] Yitro

[8] Numbers 26:33 [an introduction], 27:1-11 [the law], 36:1-13 [a clarification]; Joshua 17:3-4 [the culmination]

[9] The Brit Chadasha, the Newer Testament

[10]The Scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses

[11] Bavli [Babylonian Talmud] and Yeushalmi [Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud]

[12]A Midrash is the same as a parable. The events of a Midrash may or may not be true, and the players are often characters we recognize from scripture and rabbinic sources, but that’s not the point. Unlike normal Scripture, the individual elements of the Midrash are not necessarily important because they are designed to add flavor and texture to the story in order to keep the attention of its intended audience. The Midrash, whether found in Scripture or Rabbinic writings, is a story designed to provide a moral lesson.

[13] Black Sabbath the rock band did not derive their name from this

[14]morning prayers

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