Oral Law - Jewish Outlook

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Oral Law

When Moshe Rabbenu went up to Mt. Sinai, during the day G-d dictated the Chumash to him, during the night G-d explained the Mishna and Gemara to him [the Oral Law]. We don’t know what Chumash [Five Books of Moses] really is. If someone says, “I know Gemara,” he’s probably lying, but maybe he isn’t. But if someone comes to you and says, “I know Chumash,” he’s definitely lying [fooling himself]. Because Chumash is way out [beyond everybody]. So many times Moshe Rabbenu asked G-d, “Why don’t you let me write it down?” – and he was begging G-d, “Why don’t you let me change some of the wording, it would come out so much clearer.” But G-d said, “No.”


There’s a verse that says that G-d made a covenant with us: the Gemara says that the covenant is the Oral Law.

What is a covenant? When you have a covenant with someone, you say something to each other. But what’s the covenant between Israel and G-d? It’s the Oral Law.

The Gemara puts it like this – and if it was real then, how much more real is it now! G-d says to Moses, There will be a time when the whole world will also know the Bible. So they will say, “We’re just like the Jews,” but the one who knows the Oral Torah, the one who knows what it really means – the world knows that they are the real Jews, the people who were at Mt. Sinai. And the ones who know the Bible via translation, they aren’t real.

Maybe some of you know that the first time the Bible was translated, it was translated from the original Hebrew into Greek. And so, even today, we fast on the tenth day of Tevet, – one of the reasons is because it was on that day that the Bible was first translated. It’s the saddest thing in the world. Because before then, any non-Jew who wanted to know the Bible came to Israel, and we taught him the Bible. In this way, we were teaching it, and so we knew that he knew exactly what was being said. But the moment the Bible was translated, any little person could buy himself a copy of the Bible, and think he knows what G-d is saying. So on that day we are still fasting, because it’s a degradation of Mt. Sinai.

And so now the Bible has been in translation for about 2200 years, and the fact is people don’t know the Bible yet!

Without hurting anybody’s feelings, take a priest who writes commentaries on the Bible. He might be a sweet little man, but he cannot write commentaries on the Bible. It just does not work. And take a little Yiddele who writes commentaries on the Bible, and it does work… Because we have a covenant with G-d. So, the actual words themselves can be translated, and for that you don’t necessarily need a Jew, maybe. You don’t need a Jew to know that the word ‘Bereshit’ means “In the Beginning.” But the real meaning of G-d’s words was just given to us Jewish People, and that’s not written down. It’s just handed down from one generation to the other.

So whoever wants to come and learn what HaShem is really saying, can come and we’ll teach him. But he has to come to us; we have to be the channel because it has to be given over from mouth to mouth.

Without going into a long story, I was once invited to give a concert in a monastery. So I began talking to them about the Psalms. They asked me, “Teach us one Psalm.” So I took one and taught it to them, and I really know very little. But, regardless, they were mamash saying, “I never knew the Psalm was so good.” And they all really know the Psalms by heart; they’re good people, but they didn’t know what the Psalms are saying. Because the Psalms were given to the Jewish people. I can teach it to them. But I cannot give it to them; I cannot give it over to them.

Giving over

There’s such a thing as learning, and there’s such a thing as giving over. You don’t only teach children Yiddishkeit, you give it over to them. Sometimes, someone might have a great Rabbi, who can teach him the entire Torah, yet he doesn’t give him over anything. And maybe Moshe the water carrier doesn’t know much to teach his son, but mamash he gave Yiddishkeit over to him!

So G-d says to Moses, if I would write down the whole Torah, then the Jews could become strangers, G-d forbid, to their own Bible, to their own Mt. Sinai. But because it’s not all written down, therefore, it’s just given over to them. So the one nation who knows the Oral Law is the one nation that was at Mt. Sinai and received both the Written and the Oral Law, and the ones who don’t know the Oral Law were not there.

It was written down

Later on, Rabbenu HaKodesh, the holy Rebbe, the only one who was called ‘holy’, realized that people began to forget the Oral Law. So, since there’s a passuk [passage] that says that when the time comes to do something necessary for G-d, sometimes you may even have to do wrong in order to keep the thing up. So the Torah leaders of the generation decided to write the Oral Law down, because they realized that otherwise it would be completely forgotten.

Only a Yid can understand it

But the craziest thing is that even after they wrote it down, it’s still not written down. Because, can you imagine, there’s a book called the Gemara, yet there’s not one non-Jew in the world who knows Gemara. They have professors, and they are studying it, yet they don’t understand it.

And I’ll tell you something deeper; if you don’t keep Shabbos, if you’re not a frum [religious] Jew, you also don’t really understand it. Someone told me that he met a professor who was sitting on Yom Kippur, eating breakfast and smoking a cigar, and learning Gemara. Gornisht. It doesn’t go into his head. If you’re not on the level that you have the covenant between you and G-d, it doesn’t get into your head.

Understanding the Gemara is not only to understand the words; it’s a whole way of thinking. It’s a G-d-like thinking, the deepest depths that there is. And this has to be handed down from Mt. Sinai. This is the oral tradition: I learned with Reb Shlomo Heiman, and Reb Shlomo Heiman learned from Reb Bera, and Reb Bera learned from Reb Chaim, and Reb Chaim learned from Reb Yosef Ber… all the way back to Mt. Sinai.

Because, what’s the holiness of Rabbenu Hakodesh. He was able to write the Oral Law down in a way that if you don’t have a Rebbe, someone to connect you to Mt. Sinai, you still won’t be able to understand it.

If you don’t know the entire Talmud, you cannot even learn one page, because there’s this deep kind of interrelation between the whole Talmud. And with all the commentaries as well. The Oral Law is still only in the air, in other words, it’s still just given over from one person to the other.

There are certain things that, if I write them down, they stop being a secret. But with other deep things, I can write them down, from today until tomorrow, and yet it still remains a secret.

People who love each other very much have all kinds of secrets between them. They can write a letter, and the whole world can read it, but nobody knows what they’re talking about because they’re so close to each other.

Rabbenu HaKodesh was so holy that he knew exactly how to write it down.

And, again, if you don’t know Torah shebal peh, you don’t know Torah shebechtav. G-d wrote down the Torah in such a way that, even if you translate it into all seventy languages, you still cannot understand it. And Rabbeinu HaKodesh wrote down the Oral Law and still did not destroy, even for one minute, the holiness of its being a secret.

Whatever I know of G-d

Rebbe Nachman says, what is the Written Torah and the Oral Torah? He says, whatever I know of G-d, whatever I know of Yiddishkeit, can’t be written down.

The Bal Shem Tov can write down all the things he said, but what do I really know about the way the Bal Shem Tov believed that there is one G-d? That’s Torah shebal peh. And yet I know that he was there on that level, and today I’m a little bit of a Yid because he was there.

What do I really know about the way Avraham our father knew G-d? There are absolutely no words for it.

Then Rebbe Nachman says that learning is Torah shebechtav, and praying is Torah shebal peh. Because how can I explain to you what I’m praying? The greatest secret between me and G-d is what I am praying. Even the words – we have a siddur [prayer book], and for two thousand years all the Yiddelach are praying the same words – and yet it’s not the same words. And not only is it not the same words for two people, but when I daven Shmonah Esrai in the morning, the Shmonah Esrai from Shacharit is already a different Shmonah Esrai from Mincha. Because what do I know what I feel in the morning and what I feel at night? This can’t be written down; it’s the Torah shebal peh.



Daily Torah Quote

Joke of the day

How do you know which part of the service the congregation has reached? It’s very simple – if one third of the congregation is outside then they are davening (praying); if half the congregation is outside then they’re reading the Torah (Bible). Ah, but if everyone is outside then the Rabbi must be giving a speech!