In our previous article, we began exploring the deep and inspiring ideas relating to the birth of Torah Sheba’al Peh. To briefly review, the first stage of history lasted from creation until the time of Purim and Chanukah. This stage was highlighted by the miracles of yetzias Mitzrayim and Matan Torah and the presence of nevuah. During this period, Hashem’s revelation in this world was apparent and clear. The physical world was naturally seen as an expression of a spiritual reality, and it was easy to source the physical back to the spiritual.
The second stage, which began around the time of Purim, marked the end of open miracles and prophecy. We no longer experience open miracles, only hidden ones. Hashem is no longer openly manifest and clearly visible in this world; we no longer naturally source ourselves back to Hashem. In this stage, the world denies Hashem’s involvement in the world, claiming that life is meaningless, disconnected from anything higher. This age is one of atheism and nihilism, of accepting only that which can be quantified using science, logic, technology, and the five senses. Our challenge, therefore, is to choose to see Hashem; we must choose to see past the surface, to uncover the miraculous within the natural, the infinite within the finite, and the ethereal within the mundane. Accompanying this transition from the first stage to the second was another unique shift, one that has become the very lifeblood of the Jewish People. When the curtain fell over the first stage of history, the stage of Torah Sheba’al Peh was born.
The Transition to Torah Sheba’al Peh
The initial stage of Torah was that of Torah She’bichsav. Torah was transmitted through nevuah, reflecting the open revelation of Hashem and truth in the world. There was little to no machlokes (argument) and virtually no human creativity, opinion, or input. If you had a question, you went to a Navi. The Navi made himself a receptacle to receive and transmit Hashem’s message. Once nevuah ended, however, the canon of Tanach was closed and a new age began: the age of Torah Sheba’al Peh.
The light faded, the darkness thickened, but something wondrous happened: The makom of Torah transitioned from Shamayim to the hearts and minds of Klal Yisrael. “Lo baShamayim hi – the clarity and authority of Torah’s revelation is no longer in the Heavens, given clearly and freely from Hashem (Devarim 30:12; Bava Metzia 59a). It rests in the hearts and minds of the Jewish sages, who become the walking, living embodiments of Torah, radiating light in a darkened world. The gift of Torah clarity was lost; we now have to rebuild it ourselves, poring over the pages of Gemara and exerting every ounce of our strength to absorb its meaning.
The transition from Torah She’bichsav to Torah Sheba’al Peh introduced a number of fundamental shifts in our relationship with Torah. These include the introduction of machlokes, a mode of “hearing” as opposed to “seeing,” and the priority of a sage over a prophet. Let us delve into each of these three topics in order to develop a deeper understanding of the evolution of Torah.
Machlokes and Multiple Truths
The first and most significant change between the two stages of history is the nature of truth. In the era of Torah She’bichsav, the emes was one-dimensional. There was no machlokes, no disagreement. But just as when white light is refracted through a prism, various shards and shades of light manifest, the same occurred with the truth of Torah. The oneness of Torah truth is now expressed in multiplicity. The light has been shattered, scattered into disparate shards and shades of truth. Our job is to pick up the pieces and recreate that oneness. This is the deeper explanation of “Eilu va’eilu divrei Elokim chaim” – the principle used to signify that there is truth within each conflicting opinion of the sages in the Talmud (See Eruvin 13b and the Ritva’s commentary there). When the holistic and higher truth breaks down into multiplicity, numerous smaller truths crystallize. Only by reconnecting these smaller truths back together can we recreate that original, higher truth. This is why machlokes now exists; each talmid chacham fights for the truth of his own unique perspective, and from the unison of these smaller truths, the ultimate truth emanates.
This transition is clearly expressed in the evolution of Pirkei Avos. Pirkei Avos is a record of transmission between the sages of Klal Yisrael from the very beginning of Jewish history. The first Mishna mentions the tradition that passed from Moshe, to Yehoshua, to the Neviim of the following generations, concluding with the Anshei K’nesses Hagedolah. Within this mesorah, no machlokes is mentioned. Only in the post-nevuah era does machlokes begin. In the fourth Mishna of Avos (1:4), the two dissenting opinions of Yosi Ben Yoezer and Yosi Ben Yochanan are mentioned. The Maharal (Derech Chaim 1:4) identifies this as the very first documented occurrence of machlokes. This characterizes the age of Torah Sheba’al Peh, where we must create oneness from multiplicity.
Static (Seeing) vs. Evolving (Hearing)
Another characteristic of the shift from Torah She’bichsav to Torah Sheba’al Peh is the switch from the mode of “seeing” to the mode of “hearing.” Torah She’bichsav, the Written Torah, is inherently linked to sight. On a straightforward level, it is a written text and is thus read with one’s eyes. On a deeper level, sight represents that which is static; when one sees, they witness everything in their field of vision at once. There is no process or development. Torah was given to us as a complete book, closed and immutable. Torah Sheba’al Peh, on the other hand, is associated with hearing. At the most basic level, it is an oral tradition, passed down from teacher to student, transmitted and received by means of speaking and listening. On a deeper level, the very nature of Torah Sheba’al Peh mandates this mode of transmission.
Committing something to writing renders it static and finalized, and writing down the Oral Torah would limit its wisdom to finite fragments of individual statements, causing the shards of truth to remain shattered and broken. When Torah Sheba’al Peh is transmitted orally, however, the shards remain in flux and in a malleable, abstracted form, allowing us to continually undergo the process of “hearing,” of putting the pieces together in the hopes of creating true Torah oneness.
It is for this reason that Torah Sheba’al Peh was not meant to be written down. However, Chazal realized the great need to write it down in order to ensure that we do not forget the mesorah. Therefore, to retain the mesorah of Torah Sheba’al Peh, while still maintaining its “ba’al peh” identity, Chazal created an extraordinary solution, striking a beautiful balance. They wrote the Gemara in such a way that the words, while recorded in writing, cannot be understood without deep analysis and discussion. This ensures that we must still work and strive to recreate the oneness of Torah when learning Torah Sheba’al Peh. Every single line of Talmud requires us to fill in the blanks and connect all the pieces together. Every single concept has endless commentary, requires comprehensive background knowledge, and leads us on a journey into the infinite depths of Torah. This is also why learning Gemara requires a rebbi–talmid relationship. One cannot simply open a Gemara and learn it; proper understanding requires breaking down the text, asking questions, advocating for alternate opinions, and ultimately, the direction of a teacher. In essence, Torah Sheba’al Peh was never written down. All that was written were the “seeds” necessary to guide us back into the sea of Torah Sheba’al Peh.
The very process of learning Gemara represents man’s search for truth. It requires a constant process of breakdown and rebuilding. The process begins with a theory, which one then breaks down and refines until an improved theory emerges, at which point the process repeats. (While Hegel coined this as “thesis, antithesis, and synthesis,” Jewish wisdom has always taught this concept through the principles of chesed (starting point), din (qualification, limitation), and tiferes (harmony, balance).) Learning Torah Sheba’al Peh is an ongoing process, and the body of Oral Torah is continuously growing and developing. Every Jew has the potential to add chiddushim and insights to the mesorah of Torah Sheba’al Peh.
The connection between Torah Sheba’al Peh and “hearing” is evident throughout; Torah Sheba’al Peh itself begins by discussing the laws of Shema (Berachos 1:1). Furthermore, this Mishna discusses saying Shema at night. One cannot see in the dark but only listen. The entire mode of Torah Sheba’al Peh is hearing – listening in the dark and putting the pieces together, creating clarity amidst chaos and confusion, and sourcing the shards of truth back to their original oneness. It is only once you have “listened,” i.e., accomplished “Shema,” that you can truly “see” the oneness of Torah. (It is fascinating to note that the first masechta of Torah Sheba’al Peh is Berachos. A beracha represents the transition from oneness to twoness, but it also represents the connection between twoness and its original oneness. The first masechta of Torah Sheba’al Peh is Berachos, as the essence of Torah Sheba’al Peh is taking the shards of twoness and recreating the original oneness of Torah truth, the very essence of a beracha.
In our next article, we will delve deeper into this fascinating topic and try to understand it on an even deeper level.