Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman (early 20th century).

In our previous article, we continued exploring the deep and inspiring ideas relating to the birth of Torah Sheba’al Peh. To briefly review, 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 and a mode of “hearing” as opposed to “seeing.” Let us continue to delve into these topics in order to develop a deeper understanding of the evolution of Torah.


The Art of Learning Gemara

There is a puzzling characteristic about Torah Sheba’al Peh and the organization of the Talmud. If you open up any Gemara, you will notice that every masechta begins on daf beis. Even the very first masechta, Berachos, begins on the second page. Why does a new topic not begin on the first page?

The meaning behind this is connected to the deep nature of wisdom itself. Wisdom is complete, interconnected, and static, like a circle. In this state, there is no beginning or end, only oneness. When one wants to attain wisdom, there is no “real” beginning and no objective starting point, just like there is no starting point on a circle. In essence, you are always entering the world of wisdom from the middle.

Whenever you enter the circle to learn and understand one topic, you have actually begun your journey of learning all of wisdom. You begin page by page, principle by principle, application by application, collecting and organizing all the data. Because everything is interconnected, every new piece of information you learn must both qualify and be qualified by everything else you have learned. Eventually, in retrospect, you begin to see how everything fits perfectly into place. It is only once you have learned everything that you can truly know anything. This is why every masechta begins on daf beis: to teach us that we are always in the middle of learning. The first daf is not the beginning, and the last is not the end, but rather we are always in the middle of the learning process.

This is true of all wisdom. Any individual idea or argument in the Gemara, or in all of Judaism, can only be understood in light of every other idea and concept. Every point presupposes that you know everything else. Therefore, until you know everything, you will not fully understand anything. This is what the Gemara (Rosh Hashana, Yerushalmi 3:5) means when it says: “The words of Torah are meager in their specific setting, but are rich in another.” When isolated, ideas may appear simple, but when seen in context and connected to all other cases, you begin to see more and more of their true profundity and sophistication. As you learn, you must connect what you are currently learning to every other idea you know, and in doing so, you will begin to possess true wisdom and connect to the spiritual oneness of all truth.


Genuine Chazara

The first time you learn something, it is impossible to fully comprehend it, because you need to know everything else in order to fully grasp its true meaning. This is the purpose of chazara.

Chazara is usually defined as “review.” As such, when people review what they learned, many simply read it over, mindlessly repeating what they already know and already understood. But true chazara, true repetition, is the process of learning old material on a completely new level, achieving elevated levels of clarity and gaining new insights. True chazara requires bringing everything you’ve learned since last studying this material into your experience of reviewing it. Each time you repeat this process, you are transforming your circle into a spiral. This is why the Gemara (Chagiga 9b) says that learning something one hundred times cannot be compared to learning it one hundred and one times. Every time you review something, it should be a revolutionary experience of discovery and innovation. We don’t repeat, we expand; we don’t circle, we spiral.


Oneness and Twoness

The concept of twoness is at the root of Torah Sheba’al Peh, which contains a multiplicity of opinions on every issue. The Maharal describes the letter beis as the letter of twoness – multiplicity and physicality – the characteristics of our physical world. Aleph, on the other hand, is the letter of oneness, reflecting Hashem and the spiritual dimension. Aleph is the very first letter in the Hebrew aleph-beis and has the numerical value of one. It reflects spiritual elevation, as expressed in many words that have the word “aleph” (aleph, lamed, peh) as their root. “Le’aleph” means to teach, elevate, or lift to a higher spiritual dimension; “aluph” refers to the highest-ranking military position; and “eleph” (one thousand) is the highest number in the Hebrew decimal system.

This is why the Torah begins with the letter beis. Torah is a physical array of finite words, all of which are a loyal reflection and emanation of Hashem’s wisdom and absolute oneness. Furthermore, the Torah begins by describing Hashem’s creation of the physical world, a process most appropriately encapsulated by the letter beis – the letter of twoness that stems from oneness. The letter beis reflects the process of Hashem’s oneness becoming expressed into our physical world. Just as we must connect the twoness of the physical world back to the oneness of its spiritual root, we must do the same for Torah itself by connecting the twoness of Torah Sheba’al Peh back to the oneness of its spiritual wisdom, contained in its original root, Torah She’bichsav.


Chacham Adif MiNavi

We can now understand the third shift that occurred with the transition from Torah She’bichsav to Torah Sheba’al Peh. The Gemara states that while nevuah was taken from Neviim, it was not removed from the Chachamim of the Talmud. The Gemara (Bava Basra 12a) then states: “Chacham adif miNavi – A sage is greater than a prophet.” What does this mean?

In terms of content and clarity, a Navi sees far more than a Chacham. However, the Navi receives this as a gift. He is only a receptacle, receiving the word of Hashem. His insight is wholly min haShamayim, lacking any creativity and human input. Once the light of nevuah went out, the Chachamim now shine a new, unique light. By tapping into the inner consciousness of Torah, they bring down Torah truth themselves in a unique, personally creative manner – a fundamentally different form of Torah wisdom. This Torah stems from human effort and creativity, and in a very deep way, it is a greater form of Torah, for it is a Torah built through effort, choice, and human input. Once the light has faded, this is the Torah we build in the darkness.

However, once we accept this unique role and ability of the Chachamim, we still must ask: How are they entrusted with this unique power? How can humans create Torah? Where do we find such a precedent?


Devarim: The Root of Torah Sheba’al Peh

The answer lies in the sefer of Devarim, Moshe’s sefer. As the Maharal and Vilna Gaon explain, Sefer Devarim is an expression of the first four sefarim of the Torah. The first four sefarim were written by Hashem, the giver, while Moshe served purely as a channel of transmission. As Chazal put it: “Shechina medaberes mi’toch grono shel Moshe – [Hashem] spoke through the throat of Moshe,” placing the words in his mouth (See Ramban, Devarim 5:12). Moshe became a pure vessel for Torah, a perfect receptacle.

Devarim, however, was Moshe’s creation. He took everything that came before and expressed it through his unique lens. The Maharal and Ohr Hachaim describe this process as Moshe’s transformation into a normal Navi, one who expresses Hashem’s nevuah through their own unique, personal lens. Instead of Hashem speaking through Moshe’s throat, Hashem spoke to Moshe and then, at a later point, Moshe expressed this to Klal Yisrael in his own words. As a result, Sefer Devarim possesses the “style” of Moshe. The Malbim elaborates on this point, explaining that once Moshe uttered his own words, Hashem then ratified them as part of Torah. In other words, Hashem commanded Moshe to write Sefer Devarim as a documentation of what Moshe himself had already said of his own accord.

This is the root of our ability to engage in Torah Sheba’al Peh, to become part of the creative process of Torah. At root, Torah Sheba’al Peh is the process of taking the seed of Torah She’bichsav and fully expressing it, without losing or betraying any of its inner meaning. It’s an elegant balance of being completely loyal to the written text of the Torah while still finding room for personal creativity. Of course, there are rules and limitations and very clear guidelines to this process. Only Jews who are an Aron or Mishkan for Torah, i.e., who have first completely given themselves over to Torah, like the gedolim in every generation, can become the true pillars of Torah Sheba’al Peh and halachic reality. However, in a deep way, each and every one of us can tap into that mesorah and become a part of this magical process as well.

The root of our ability to become partners in the creative process of Torah comes from Sefer Devarim and from Moshe Rabbeinu’s unique input. Moshe connected himself to the first four sefarim of the Torah, embraced and embodied it, and then expressed something unique from within himself. This was the first example of Torah Sheba’al Peh in Jewish history.


Sefer Devarim as a Unique Sefer

We can now explain Tosafos’ description of Sefer Devarim in regards to the twelve lines of a get. In a way, Sefer Devarim is unique and distinct from the other four sefarim of Chumash. It is the only one written by Moshe himself, and in a sense is a completely separate sefer. Viewed from this angle, it is possible to suggest that the four lines between Sefer Bamidbar and Sefer Devarim do not count as a form of separation, because Sefer Devarim holds its own status as a completely separate sefer. Therefore, only the lines that separate between the first four books of the Torah are counted when determining the format of a get.

However, there is an even deeper explanation: Sefer Devarim is not counted as a separate volume of the Chamisha Chumshei Torah – not because it is a completely separate sefer, but for the exact opposite reason: It is subsumed within the first four books. This mirrors the deep relationship between Torah Sheba’al Peh and Torah She’bichsav. Torah Sheba’al Peh is not a distinct entity from Torah She’bichsav; it is a genuine expression of it. All the details and elements of Torah Sheba’al Peh are revealed aspects of truth that are buried within Torah She’bichsav. Therefore, Torah Sheba’al Peh is one with Torah She’bichsav. Devarim is not a new sefer; it is an actualization and expression of everything that is in seed, root form within the first four books of Torah. Therefore, there is no separation or gap between Bamidbar and Devarim because everything within Sefer Devarim stems from the previous four books of Torah.


Our Role in Torah

This is our unique role in the world. We must reveal the truth of Torah in a post-prophetic age. As Chazal explain, only when the light goes out and darkness reigns can a candle serve as a source of illumination. When the world is incandescent with spiritual clarity, humanity serves as a loyal channel and receptor of truth. When that light fades, we can become part of the creative process itself, not just shining the light, but creating it as well. May we be inspired to strive for Torah truth, listen closely in a world of darkness, and gather the shards of multiplicity into a singular oneness of higher truth.


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Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, “The Journey to Your Ultimate Self,” which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: