Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 25-29 (Shabbat Vayhi) – So Let it Be Written
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Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 25-29 (Shabbat Vayhi)
So Let it Be Written
As the Talmud delves deeper this week into the examination of speech and its effects on us and others, we look at the details of which ways oaths are binding. What we say, how we say it and in which context it is said makes all the difference. Yet, we learn all of these details from the way in which the commandment is written in the Torah. This week’s essay examines the interplay of the oral and written forms of language and how they impact human thought and culture. We look as well, to their manifestation among the Jewish people in Torah historically and today. — RJD
Writing was the trigger for a wholesale, irreversible change in the human psyche.
— James Gleick, ‘The Information’
The technology of writing transformed human thought. The words that were fixed in writing could now be read by those who would live thousands of years after us and we could read the words of those long gone. Print gave timelessness to the otherwise fleeting spoken word. With writing civilisation as we know it was born. It allowed knowledge to become cumulative by, among other things, delivering into successive generations masses of data that could never be encompassed in a single mind. The difference between the thought of human beings in a literate culture was profoundly different from those of an illiterate one.
Aleksandr Romanovich Luria studied illiterate peoples in remote areas of Uzbekistan and Kyrgysztan in Central Asia in the 1930’s. The most striking differences he found between them and literate individuals was not in what they knew but in how they thought. Oral people conspicuously lacked categories which were otherwise second nature to literate people. When presented with drawings of various types of circles they did not recognise them all as circles but named them as representing objects like ‘plate’ and ‘moon’. Squares were called ‘door’, ‘mirror’ and ‘apricot drying board’. They held no sense of a category or type of shape called ‘circle’ or ‘square’. Instead each circle represented to them a specific object after which they named the shape. Without literacy — written words — they had no function for logical syllogism — they did not tend to deduce conclusions from comparing different elements that shared common details.
We develop our ability for classification, reference and definition from our technology of writing. As James Gleick writes in his book The Information:
As soon as one could set words down, examine them, look at them anew the next day, and consider their meaning, one became a philosopher, and the philosopher began with a clean slate and a vast project of definition to undertake.
The written word benefits us in that it is ever-present. It serves as an artificial, external memory. Having it fixed in writing allows us a greater freedom in understanding it. We can look at it — its syntax, structure and form — we can consider its implications, connotations and denotations. By holding our thoughts intact so that they do not disappear within an instance of speaking and by presenting it to us wholly and visually, it allows us to look at our thoughts removed from ourselves.
But in its permanence, writing also stands still. It is stable but also immobile. Writing separates thought from the thinker and cuts the ties between the communicator and the listener. We move from the direct, experiential, fluid, organic, integrative nature of the spoken word to the remote, static, regimented and mechanical nature of its written form.
Our Torah is comprised of both written and oral components. The more that we grow to understand the cognitive differences and respective advantages that writing and speaking provide for us the more we can appreciate the beauty of having a Torah comprised of both components. The written is there to stand in noble perpetuity — pored over, thoroughly examined and understood. We are to study its logic, contemplate its layered meanings and see it through the eyes of each and every generation.
This Book of the Torah shall not depart from your mouth! (Joshua, 1:8)
The interpretation of the [Written] Torah was given into the respective hands of every generation so that the Torah would remain alive and develop with the nation.
(Rabbi Moshe Shemuel Glaszner, Dor Revi’i, Introduction)
The written Torah is meant to be primarily external. It is meant to be read and re-read. Speaking the written word by heart is discouraged.
The words which are written, you are not at liberty to say by heart (lit. al peh – by your mouth alone) (Gittin, 60b)
The oral component, however, is the element that we internalise, remember, speak and transmit.
The words transmitted orally, you are not at liberty to commit to writing. (Ibid.)
One who commits the law to writing is as though he is burning the Torah. (Temura 14b)
The Oral Torah is not intellectual per se, but holistic, interpersonal and experiential. The endeavour of transmitting, exploring and developing its oral aspects are the stuff of relationships before they are the stuff of academics. It is the interaction of parent and child, not of professor and pupil.
Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.
Impress them upon your children.
Impress these My words upon your heart…and teach them to your children.
Your children: These include your students. We find everywhere that students are termed children, as it is said, (Deut. 14:1) “You are children of God your Lord”… And just as students are termed “children,” so the teacher is termed “father,” as it is said, (II Kings 2:12) Elisha referred to his teacher Eliyahu by the words, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel.…”
The eleventh mitzvah is that we are commanded to study and to teach the wisdom of Torah. This is called ‘Talmud Torah’.
The source of this commandment is God’s statement, “Teach them to your children.”
(Rambam, Book of the Commandments, Positive, 11:1)
Ribbi Yohanan said in the name of Ribbi Shimon ben Yohai apprenticeship of Torah is greater than its study as it says: (II Kings, 3:11) ‘Here is Elisha son of Shafat who poured water upon the hands of Eliyahu’. It does not say that he learned from Eliyahu, but that he poured water, teaching us that the apprenticeship is greater than the learning.
In this week’s pages we delve deep into the examinations of our Hakhamim on the meaning, implications and detailed legal requirements present in the written text of one commandment. They carefully unpack the written word, revealing its mechanics.
Now a person when he sins… when he swears by utterance with his lips, to do ill or to do good, including whatever a human might say in swearing — and though the fact is hidden from him, he comes to know that he incurred guilt… then he is to bring his guilt offering to God…. (Lev. 5:4-6)
The questions that are asked and the assertions that are made look at the order, structure, detail and syntax of the commandment in order to determine its obligations upon us. Just a few examples:
• Does this prohibition include oaths referring to the past (‘I ate’ or ‘I did not eat’)? Being that the verse only speaks in future tense: ‘to do ill or to do good’.
• Does this include oaths that are neither good nor bad? Like: ‘I will throw a stone into the sea. ’
• What is the nature of the legal components of the law learned from the fact that the verse opens with a general inclusive term, then a specific detail, and then closes with a general inclusive term again?
He swears by an utterance (general) to do ill or good (specific) including whatever a human might say in swearing (general)
And so it continues….
This is a prime example, ironically dealing with the effects and binding components of speech, in which we utilise the fixed nature of text to dissect and examine the intricacies of legal concepts; something we could not do if we had only an oral culture.
The irony of course, is that in the Talmud we are essentially reading the oral discussions on the Torah’s written word; what was meant to remain oral is now itself, written! Putting the oral law into text was indeed originally seen as a kind of sacrilege.
It has come time to act for God; they have nullified Your Torah!
They [interpreted this verse] saying: It is better to uproot elements of Torah (the prohibition of writing down oral components) rather than Torah being entirely forgotten.
Yet, successive commitments of the Oral Tradition to writing were done in a way that conserved thousands of discussions and points of view on a myriad of issues. First, into the Mishna — a format that could be memorised by anyone and which would serve as a repository that would maintain within it various alternative meanings — thus maintaining the dynamic milieu of the Oral Tradition. Then into the Talmud which served as a repository for the many discussions and expositions that were conducted over four centuries on the Mishna. The goal, similar to that of the Mishna, was not to fix the Oral Tradition per se into text but rather to maintain a memory-base for the dynamics of the Oral Tradition in the face of a tumultuous and disruptive exile and dispersion of the Jewish People to all ends of the earth.
The Talmud is not an outline drawn up by an individual in order to teach others or to transmit conclusions…It was not the ‘bottom line’ that mattered but the flow of the learning process…It was critical to demonstrate how decisions were derived, and what obstacles and problems were overcome along the way…The difficulty in editing the Talmud lay, then, in preserving mobility and flexibility within a fixed entity.
(Adin Steinsaltz, Talmudic Images)
Still, each time elements of the Oral Tradition were set in print there was an inevitable compromise on its function even as great care was taken by its redactors to preserve the flexibility and versatility of the oral culture.
This was first done two-thousand years ago. Since then, however, we have slowly but surely gone from a people with a vigorous and spirited oral tradition to a people who speak about a tradition that was once oral but that is now predominantly written. We once were a people who had to be strong in memory, transmission and relationships of thought and teaching. Now we concentrate more on being well read.
Although we have lost a great deal of the versatility and dynamism that was once inherent in the oral workings of our Torah simply due to the printing of its dialogue and information, we have, in many instances lost something else that was not necessary for us to lose. We increasingly withhold from interpreting texts as works to be expounded upon and creatively elucidated. We tend to cower away from such readings. Instead, we deem it an attribute of piety to read texts with little to no interpretation — at least none that would actually affect practical and responsive change. And yet, we learn that diversity of interpretation is an essential part of learning:
Rab Hisda said to the rabbis ‘I want to tell you something but I am afraid that you will leave me and go…Anyone who learns from only one Rav will never see a sign of blessing (in his study)’. They left him and came before Raba. He said to them: ‘[The value of studying from different teachers] is only with regard to interpretations and opinions. But the text and wording should be learned from one teacher so as not to end up with conflicting versions’ (which confuses the student — Rashi).
(Aboda Zara, 19)
While it is possible that more people are studying Talmud today than ever before, it seems as though we are applying its culture of rigorous discourse, exegesis, and creative reasoning less and less. While the discussions of the Talmud are for us ‘under glass’ — we look but do not touch — we still retain an ability to apply the modes and principles in which it functions to many later texts that we study.
As we lose our capacity to keep our Oral Tradition alongside the written text we lose the capacity to respond to reality. The rapid transitions of the world are progressing at speeds never before seen and many of us are slowing down our responsiveness to the degree that the world’s innovation accelerates. If we continue apace, we will risk fossilisation. The value that text brings to thought can also be its demise if it is not tempered with the speech of the human soul. If it is not coupled with the interpersonal dialogue, experiential knowledge, and direct connection through which speech lives, text alone becomes dry and empty. What was once filled with vitality devolves into a corpse — a body without a soul.
Indeed, Plato was not incorrect in his early contempt of the breakdowns that writing threatened to bring with it:
For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it…Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.
The written word is, at its best, far abstracted from the real, free-flowing sound of spoken language. Speech is powered by the electric-like surge of thought, while text is bound and fixed to a page.
Israel is a living nation. It will find its vitality as it always has throughout millennia of history. But who will be the people who fill it? Who will be the ones that hold its energy and vigour alive? At the very least we must ask ourselves each to one’s own heart these questions: Am I living as a thriving member of Israel? And what can I do to ensure that the written and oral tradition of my Torah, that are my inheritance, are alive and well with me?
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
Touring the Talmud – Shabu’ot 25-29
• If a person makes an oath that involves other people (specifically if it is beneficial to them), it is binding, assuming that it is something that he is not already obligated from the Torah to do (like charity).
• If a person makes an oath that is neither good nor bad (like to throw a rock into the sea), or involves no physical objects (like sleeping), he must nevertheless uphold it (a vow — as opposed to an oath requires a tangible entity in order to be binding for it defines the entity rather than the person who is making it).
• Regarding oaths made about past occurrences or present realities (as opposed to future actions):
R”Yishmael – One is not liable for making a false oath in such situations.
R”Akiva – The person is accountable.
A case where a person takes an oath regarding an action that someone else has done is discussed:
Rab – He is liable, as it fits the template set out by the verse “for ‘bad’ or for ‘good’”. In this case ‘bad’ is understood as withhold from doing, and ‘good’ is understood as actively doing (here too, an oath can be taken that the other did something, and an oath can be taken that he didn’t do something).
Shemuel – He cannot be accountable, since he cannot take an oath regarding this person’s future actions, as they are not in his control.
• Two attempts to identify this argument as a preexisting Tanaaic dispute are made and disproved.
• Two objections are made towards Shemuel’s opinion and resolved.
• Clarification of some details within Rab’s opinion is made.
The Torah uses general terms together with specific terms. By oaths for example, the general term used is: “anything he may express” while the specific term following it is: “for bad or for good”.
The Gemara explains that the argument between R Yishmael and R Akiba in the Mishna stems from different exegetical concepts for analysing such terms:
• R”Y uses the concept of Klal UPrat, ‘principle and detail’, therefore:
– Klal UPrat – A specific that comes after a general term acts as an exclusive definition of the general principle.
– Klal UPrat UKlal – If there is a general term followed by a specific term which is then followed by another general term (as is the case with the oath in question), the closing general term adds to the rule things that resemble components in the specific term which came before it.
• R”A refers to the terms as Ribuy UMi’oot, inclusivity and exclusivity, therefore:
– Ribuy UMi’oot – A specific term that comes after a general term excludes all things that are not similar to the detail (like klal uprat uklal).
– Ribuy Mi’oot VeRibuy – If there is a general term and a specific term followed by another general term, the second general term includes even things not similar to the detail, while the exclusionary term has the power to exclude only a single case that least fits into the general term.
A Berayta is brought that states:
• If a person takes an oath falsely completely unintentionally ( = a past event or present situation that he is ‘certain’ about), he is exempt.
• If a person intentionally takes an oath falsely he is exempt (of sacrificial atonement).
• To be culpable a person must transgress his oath after forgetting the oath itself or its details, rather than the subject(s) of the oath.
The Gemara discusses how it’s possible to forget the subject of an oath and not be considered forgetting the oath itself.
The distinction is made between taking an oath (about a past event or current reality) unintentionally vs. completely unintentionally.
It is stated that if a person determines in his mind, it is not considered an oath, it must be spoken.
This statement is discussed and verified.
A regular oath is one made about the future, about events in the past or realities of the present, that are each unclear as to whether or not they are true. If proven to be a ‘false oath’ and was intentional he receives lashes, if it was unintentional he brings a sacrifice of atonement.
An oath made in vain (intentional- lashes, unintentional – exempt), is an oath made about the past or present reality that is either blatantly false or an indisputable truth. When it is made about the future it would be about something that is impossible to achieve or…
• Hakhamim: An oath made either to comply or not to comply to one of the commandments of the Torah is an oath made in vain and cannot make a person culpable to bring an atonement sacrifice.
• R”Yehuda Ben Betera: While an oath made to intending to transgress the Torah is considered an oath made in vain, an oath made to keep one of the commandments is not considered an oath made in vain and a person who accidentally transgresses it brings an atonement sacrifice.
The Gemara shows how the verse about bringing a sacrifice to atone for a false oath deals specifically with things that are within a person’s jurisdiction, and not commandments.
The Gemara clarifies why Hakhamim see making an oath to uphold a positive commandment as one made in vain while R”YBB does not.
If a person says: ‘I take an oath that I shall not eat of this bread’ and then says: ‘I take an oath that I shall not eat this bread’ and repeats: ‘I take an oat that I shall not eat this bread’, he is liable just once.
The Gemara deals with the order of the the first two oaths, and then with the redundancy of the second two oaths.
The Gemara discusses at what point is it too late to have an oath annulled (at what stage during transgression, or even after, might it still be annulled before punishment is administered).
Raba states that if a condition was made in order for the oath to manifest, the time when the condition is met is considered to be like the time when the actual oath is spoken (as only then does it become a reality), and if a person is unaware when meeting the condition that he is in effect binding himself to the oath, it is not binding. His statement is upheld.
A story is told of two scholarly brothers who debate the rulings for oaths with different orders and redundancies of language.
The Mishna discusses an oath made in vain.
Since it is a positive commandment to fulfil an oath, a person who makes an oath and then a counter oath, immediately violates taking an oath in vain (and still may be guilty for a false swear if he does not uphold his original oath).
There is discussion about the accurate text of the Mishna.
The Gemara examines whether we hold a person to what he was thinking or what he actually said.
The Mishna discusses a false oath, an oath made in vain, and mentions how a person can fall under oath by the words of another person.
The Gemara explains that a person is bound by an oath made for him by another person is only if he answers ‘Amen’. Proof is brought for this explanation.
 See Mishne Torah, Introduction.
 Even the written component of our Torah is to be written void of its vocalisation. The actual way of reading of the text is not found within it. It must be coupled with the mind and mouth of a speaking human being.