Maamar HaIkarim by R. Moshe Ch. Luzzatto Chapter 10: Oral Law and Talmud


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Translated by Ralph Anzarouth and an anonymous friend

10. Oral Law and Talmud

The Lord, blessed be He, did not wish to put The Torah in a written form so clear that it would not require further explanation. On the contrary, He included in it many things which are very difficult to understand, and the true meaning of which mortal man would not have been able to fully grasp, without its having been handed down in an explicit form, received from the blessed One, Who is their Author. Examples of this are the precepts of Tefillin (phylacteries), Mezuzah and other similar precepts, the commandment of which is given without any written explanation concerning how to perform them. The truth is that the Lord, blessed be He, deliberately concealed the true intention of His words, for reasons known to Him. However, everything which He concealed in the written Torah, He handed down orally to Moshe Rabbenu, peace be upon him, and from him there was a continuous transmission ("Massoret") to the Sages of each subsequent generation. And by the way of this transmission, the true intention of the written texts is clarified, and the correct way of carrying out the precepts in accordance with the will of the blessed Lord is made known to us.

We therefore find that the text of the written Torah, as regards its relation to the accepted interpretation, can be classified into three categories:

  • The first category includes all matters which are brought in a general form in the written Law, but not their details. These details are clarified through the "Massoret" (Oral Law).

  • The second category comprises those parts of the written Law, whose meaning is unclear, in that they are open to various interpretations. The final ruling is clarified through the Massoret.

  • The third category comprises texts of the written Torah who seem to have one meaning but the Massoret makes it clear that the real meaning is very different from what it seemed [at first reading]. Our Sages, of blessed memory, said about this (Talmud Bavli, treatise Sotah 16a): "The Halachah (practical Law) supplants the written text”. There are not many examples of this category, and if one were to make the effort to examine them in depth, he would find that the simpler explanation does not totally deny the Halachah, nor contradict it; but it will be understood in its appropriate perspective and limits.

Indeed, according to the tradition, the Author of the Torah, blessed be His name, wrote it in specific ways and with special guidelines, and when we wish to understand the true intention of the Author of the text, blessed be He, we must pursue it according to these ways and guidelines, without which even though it would have been possible to give acceptable interpretation which would already fit in well with the text, and it would have been possible to give it a wider meaning; nevertheless, this may not be the true meaning, since the Author of the texts had a different intention. These ways and guidelines together with all their details constitute the 13 principles by which Torah is learned.

It must be further borne in mind that the basis of all the laws, whether pertaining to positive precepts or to the negative ones, was handed down in a complete form by Moses our teacher, peace be upon him. However, our Sages, of blessed memory, have a tradition that the teachings of the Massoret are hinted at in the written Torah itself through forms of allusions known to them. And it was known and accepted among them that G-d prefers that we should also apply ourselves to this part [of the Torah], namely to know where the Oral Law is hinted at in the Written Law; and therefore, each one [of the Sages] will devote his energies in investigating those allusions, as he sees fit. This is what we frequently find in the Talmud, where Sages enter into discussions in the search for proofs of some specific ruling, and they will disagree as to those proofs; and it will sometimes be found that even though those very proofs do not appear plausible according to the simple understanding, nevertheless, as mentioned above, the tradition decrees that the final ruling follows them. However they will need to first look for the appropriate allusion in the Written Law, in accordance to the above principles. They will not adopt these explanations as being the main intention of the text. Instead, they will choose them because this is the intention of the Author of Torah, blessed be He: in addition to what He wished to clarify by the way of the simple explanation, He also hinted an additional meaning by the way of allusion, and they sometimes designated this technique by the name "Asmachta" (corroboration). All the above explanation relates to matters of precepts and laws; but with respect to the esoteric parts of the Torah called "Haggadot" there are different criteria, and I explained them in a separate text.

There are other topics which are the decrees of the Sages of blessed memory which, even though a remote allusion to them is found in the sacred text, and this is also called "Asmachta", however this Asmachta is much more superficial than the one mentioned above, and they will use it as an indicator; and they will not refrain from relying on this because even this is alluded in the Torah, albeit in a very remote form and seems to predict future events, for everything is known to Him, blessed be He, and He alluded to all [such events], albeit in a vague form, since they are found in texts which are not necessarily related to the precept itself. There are other particular laws which they did not receive by tradition, but they deduced them either by logic or by deduction techniques1. Those laws are open to debate and we are obliged to observe and carry out these laws according to the final ruling given in the debate. The fact that there was a difference of opinion does not weaken the final ruling, since we were commanded by Him, blessed be His Name, that in the case of any difference of opinion the matter should be decided in the Rabbinical Court (Beit-Din), and the decision taken will be fully binding.

We received a further rule: the intention of the Lord blessed be He, in the precept saying (Deuteronomy 17, 11): "You shall not deviate from what they shall tell you neither to the right or the left", is that through this Mitzvah the Rabbinical Courts and their Sages have the power vested in them to issue decrees and edicts and we are all required to pay heed to them and not transgress their ruling at all. And it should be clear to us that all these decrees which are issued relating to the observance of the precepts of the Torah itself and of carrying out the Will of Hashem, blessed be He, have His approval to the extent that we are required to observe them fully, in the same way as all the precepts of the Torah itself. Furthermore, the Mitzvah was handed down to us in such a way that we should build fences around Torah2; it would have been appropriate that these [Rabbinical decrees] be specifically instructed by Him, blessed be He, in the Torah itself, however His Will decreed that we should reach this rulings, and that we should establish Mitzvot upon ourselves in accordance with His Torah and with those rules and limitations which He ascribed to them. Therefore there is no distinction between our obligation to observe the Mitzvot specified in the Torah and our obligation to observe the rulings and decrees of our Sages of blessed memory, since it is His Will that we should keep what is specified in the Torah to the same extent as we keep these ruling and decrees. Thus, someone who transgresses the precepts of the Torah and someone who transgresses these decrees and rulings, both of them rebel against His word to an equal extent, the only distinction being that our Sages of blessed memory determined that where there is a doubt: in the case of Torah precepts we opt for the more stringent decision, and in the case of a rabbinical precept we opt for the more lenient decision. Just as the sin of forbidden relationships entails punishments like Karet and death penalty; and that the wearing of Shaatnez (a mixture of wool and linen) is a simple negative precept; and that it is forbidden to benefit from a mixture of meat and milk; and it is permitted to benefit from "Chelev"3, since they are only the limits imposed by His blessed Will, however regarding the obligation to perform these Mitzvot as prescribed there is no difference between them at all4. As a result, [the Sages] entered into such extensive discussions in making numerous rulings and decrees, which are in truth rabbinical precepts, and went into many details and differences of opinion, so that the obligation to perform them should be equal to the obligation to perform all the rest of the Mitzvot in the Torah, and for this reason, the Lord, blessed be He, wanted us to bring about these rulings in this way, in other words that they should come about by our endeavors. In fact, it makes no difference between His commanding us to place phylacteries between our eyes and His commanding us to legislate decrees for the performance of His Torah: the former is to be carried in his specific way, and the latter will be carried out in its own specific way, the common factor between them being the performance of the will and decrees of the Lord, blessed be He.

A further part of this Mitzvah as handed down to the Sages to legislate is the power vested in the rabbinical court to set aside a particular aspect of Torah, when the purpose of doing so is the preservation of the Torah itself, provided that this only entails passive conduct and no action at all. On this basis and according to the tradition handed down to them, the Sages decreed their rulings not to carry out the precepts of Shofar and Lulav on Shabbat,5 as explained in the Mishnah and the Talmud (Treatise of Rosh Hashana 29b and Sukkah 42b).
Notes of the translators:
[1] As explained above, the thirteen principles by which Torah is learned.
[2] The intention of this expression is to strengthen the observance of specific precepts of the Torah by building these fences around them.
[3] Chelev is certain animal fats which are forbidden to eat.
[4] This means that within the limits prescribed for them, there is no difference at all between the duty to perform the Torah precepts or the rabbinical precepts.
[5] Performing these two precepts during Shabbat, could possibly lead to its profanation, G-d, forbid, and therefore the Sages decreed that we should refrain from carrying out these Mitzvot during the holy day of Shabbos.

Original text in Hebrew
Nostra traduzione in italiano - Our translation into Italian