Friday, October 08, 2010

Simhat Torah (Aggadah)

For more teachings on Simhat Torah, see the archives to this blog at October 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009, below.

“The Torah Moses commanded us…”

One of the verses in the concluding parshah of the Torah read on Simhat Torah, Vezot ha-berakha, may serve as a motto for the idea of Torah itself; it is elaborated in several important rabbinic aggadot. First, b. Makkot 23b-24a:

Rabbi Simlai expounded: 613 commandments were told to Moses—365 negative ones, corresponding to the days of the solar year; 248 positive ones, corresponding to the organs of the human body. Rav Hemnuna said: From what verse do we learn this? “The Torah which Moses commanded us is an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut 33:4). “Torah” in gematria is 611. “I [am the Lord your God]” and “you shall have [no other gods]” they heard from the Divine voice.

This passage is best known as the source for the notion of there being a total of 613 mitzvot. As the Talmud does not actually list them, nor even suggest how one would arrive at such a list, this statement became the basis for an ongoing discussion conducted over several centuries, generating a considerable literature: namely, the attempt to reconstruct or infer precisely which mitzvot are included in the sum of 613. The most notable exemplars of this literature are Rambam’s Sefer ha-Mitzvot, preceded by an introduction in which he defines the rules by which one determines what is counted as a Torah mitzvah; Ramban’s glosses on the same, including alternative suggestions in place of those mitzvot which he deletes from Rambam’s list; and, about two centuries later, Aaron of Barcelona’s Sefer ha-Hinukh.

But there is another significant point implicit in this passage: the central role of Moses as the vehicle or conduit for almost the entire Torah. The “Torah” whose gematria is 611 was “commanded us by Moses”; the number 613 is arrived at by adding 2, corresponding to the two solitary mitzvot which were heard directly by the entire people: the most basic principles of the faith—namely, acceptance of God, and rejection of all others (see more on this in HY I: Shavuot). Thus, the experience of direct, immediate revelation was very limited. The people learned the contents of in the Torah mostly through Moses. Interestingly, that same Torah is described here as an “inheritance,” a moreshet: something received by tradition, passed on from father to son, from grandfather to grandchild, from teacher to disciple, through familial and communal tradition—if you will, in much the same way as the people at Sinai, after a brief and overwhelming direct epiphany, accepted the Torah and the authority of Moses as almost one and the same.

David came and based it on eleven [in Psalm 15] … Isaiah came and based it on six… Micah came and based it on three… Again, Isaiah returned and based it on two… Amso came and based it on one, as is said “seek me and live” …. But then Habakkuk came and based it upon one, as is said, “The righteous shall live by his faith.”

The continuation of this passage, which I present her only in chapter headings, is interesting: after stating the large number of commandments contained in the Torah, an attempt is made to find the essence of Torah in a small number of basic principles, of basic, mostly ethical guidelines that the individual can internalize and make a part of himself. If you will, this is the first attempt to define “the essence of Judaism”—a popular pursuit among many modern Jewish thinkers, often in the context of polemics with Christianity; see, e.g., the Reform thinker Leo Baeck’s The Essence of Judaism. The verses and the principle mentioned here are all fine summa bonum, but Habbakuk’s verse—“the righteous lives by his faith [of: faithfulness / trust]”—is accepted as the most succinct and fundamental of all.

A second Rabbinic dictum using this verse deals with the proper age for training children in the performance of various mitzvot. The context is davka that of Sukkot. Sukkah 42a:

Our Rabbis taught: One who knows how to wave, is obligated in the mitzvah of lulav. … Once he knows how to speak, his father teaches him Torah and the reading of Shema. What is meant by “Torah“? Rav Hemnuna said: “The Torah which Moses commanded us in the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” (Deut 33:3). What is meant by “the Reading of Shema”? The first verse.

This beraita, which we quote here only in part, notes that there are various different stages of development appropriate for introducing the young child to the various mitzvot. In some cases, this relates to physical capability—i.e., the ability to hold the lulav and wave it. Torah, in general, and the twice-daily recitation of Shema, in particular, are dependent, minimally, upon speech, upon language (which is the essential instrument of the mental life, of the intellect). Hence, they begin as soon as the child is capable of speaking. Rav Hemnuna (interestingly, the same figure who invoked this verse in the previously-mentioned passage) sees the first verse of Torah which one should teach a child, not as the first verse of Bereshit—i.e., to begin at the beginning—but as Torah tzivah lanu Moshe. This verse seems to embody the basic idea that the Torah is a unique, precious possession of the Jewish people, “an inheritance.” It is both part of Torah, but it is also a pointer towards the importance and value of Torah as a whole. It is also suggestive of what the Rav often called “the Masorah community”—that we have received the Torah as in inheritance, that we are part of a historical continuum, and that we stand in relation to Torah by virtue of it, and not merely as isolated individuals, who discovered its depth and truth by ourselves.

* * * * *

And so, we reach the end of another year of Torah study—as part of Klal Yisrael, and in the particular cycle of study we practice at Hitzei Yehonatan. When Jews complete study of a particular unit of study—a given tractate of Talmud or, as here, a certain subject, we end by saying Hadran alakh Masekhet Peloni: “We shall return to you, such-and-such–named tractate.” Each year we have focused on a particular type of text—Aggadah, Zohar, Rambam, Hasidic teachings, Psalms, Rashi, etc.—but we are well aware that, in 50-odd weekly essays a few pages in length, we have barely scratched the surface. It is our devout hope that we may return to study again and again, on ever deeper levels; and, more than that, that what I have written will serve as a stimulus to my readers to study more on their own. So: hadran alakh aggadot Hazal, vehadrak alan. “We shall return to you, aggadot of the Sages, and you shall return to us.” And may we merit many more years of life and Torah study, in health, peace and prosperity.


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