August 21, 2014
A lot of people are away, hopefully having a good holiday and recharging. Many of us, especially in Israel, are not so fortunate!
So here’s a short Rashi to keep us going, though he makes a basic point which is fundamental to any understanding of Judaism.
Rashi cites evidence for the antiquity of the Oral Law Code in his comment to Devarim 12:21
“When the place which Hashem, your God, has chosen to place His name there, is distant from you and you will slaughter from your cattle and your herd which Hashem has given you, AS I HAVE COMMANDED YOU , and you shall eat in your gates as all your soul desires.”
And you will slaughter etc. AS I HAVE COMMANDED YOU – RASHI: This teaches us that there is a command regarding slaughtering [animals to be eaten], how one should slaughter, and these must be the laws of slaughtering which were told to Moses at Sinai.
The laws of shechita, ritual slaughter, are an important part of daily Jewish living. The fact that meat must be prepared in a specifically kosher manner is something with which every traditional Jewish household is familiar. These laws are quite complex and precise. Yet, despite their centrality in Jewish life, these laws are nowhere to be found in the Written Torah! Why something so basic to the Torah way of life should be missing from the Torah, is answered in our verse.
Rashi bases his comment on the fact that the verse tells us that we are to slaughter an animal “as you were commanded.” Yet, nowhere in the Written Torah do we find a command relating to slaughtering animals in a specified halachic manner. Thus, Rashi concludes that these laws were, in fact, commanded to us, but since they were not incorporated into the Written Torah, they must have been given by God to Moses orally at Mt. Sinai.
The Oral Law can be divided in to two parts.There are the 613 mitzvot that are taught to us in the Written Torah and explained in finer detail by the Sages in the Talmud. These explanations, based on argumentation and analysis, comprise the major part of what is called the Oral Law.
There are other laws that the Talmudic Sages themselves promulgated; they are called Rabbinic Laws, and are of a lesser authority than the Written Law. Some examples of these: The laws of muktza on the Sabbath; Channukah, Purim, Simchat Torah, the writing of a marriage contract (ketuba).
There is yet another category of laws called “halachah l’Moshe mi’Sinai” – “a law given to Moses at Sinai.” These are laws that do not appear in the Written Torah, nor are they laws decreed by the Sages.
They are discussed in the Talmud but there is no argument about them nor is there an appeal to different verses.
Hence they can never be changed or reversed by a vote.
Rashi is telling us that the laws which regulate the slaughtering of animals belong to this latter category.
Another excellent example is tefillin. The verse merely says: and you shall bind them for a sign on your arm and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
The Torah doesn’t even say what “them” are! Nor does it say that they are square, black boxes, made of leather containing 4 paragraphs.
So when Moses said this verse, surely people must have asked and how are we supposed to do that?
Yet the details are not in the Torah ( otherwise the Torah would have been the Talmud and Moses would have been away for more than 40 days!)
If you like, the Torah is written in short hand. The verses are aides de memoir of the Oral Law that must have accompanied it, to make it understandable and workable.
The implications of Rashi’s statement are quite significant from an historical and a theological perspective. What this means is that along with the Written Law, an accompanying codex of laws was received by Moses from God and imparted by him to the people at Sinai. It must be emphasized that these laws existed at the time of Moses (as is implied by our verse). They were not later accretions to the basic Sinai laws.
Thus when the Torah says, “and you shall slaughter as I have commanded,” this indicates clearly that we were commanded at some point by God as to how to slaughter animals, even though we find no detail of these laws in the Written Torah.
The whole question of the existence of a corpus of Oral Law, which accompanied the Written Law, has now become a matter of dispute between traditional Jewish philosophy and more modern interpretations of Judaism. Our verse offers validation for the belief that the Oral Law Tradition did indeed exist side-by-side, contemporaneously, with the laws found in the Written Torah.
Rabbi Meir Wise