Shavuot celebrates a foundational event in Jewish history, the day that God gave the law to the Jewish people. In this lesson, we will investigate God's role in the halachic (legal) process after the giving of the Torah. To begin, let's recap the story.
On top of Mt. Sinai, God spoke to the Jewish people with the words of some of the ten commandments. Following this awesome event, Moshe stayed on the top of the mountain for forty days and forty nights, during which time God wrote the words on the tablets and taught the law to Moshe. When the people thought that Moshe was delayed, they created the Golden Calf. Moshe saw them dancing around the statue as he descended with the tablets in his arms and, in his anger, hurled them to the ground, breaking the first set of tablets. Moshe then ascended the mountain again and, after another forty days and forty nights, returned with a second set of tablets, which he wrote himself.
A famous insight notes that Moshe played a passive role with the first set of tablets, whereas he was an active participant in the second set. In the first case, the Jewish people were like an aron kodesh, an ark, which simply holds the Torah. In the second case, they are the parchment itself, playing an active role in the transmission and interpretation of the law. After the sin of the Golden Calf, God realized that if the Jewish people remained passive in the halachic process, it was doomed to fail, but by becoming active participants, they would certainly succeed.
If this is this case, then, what is God's role after the giving of the second tablets?
It is not in the heavens
The Torah itself, at the very end, presents an amazing idea about the relationship between God and the Jewish people vis-a-vis interpretation of Jewish law.
The story of the oven of akhnai is the most dramatic example of this conflict. In the story, there is an argument between all of the rabbis and Rabbi Eliezer regarding the status of an oven. To bolster his opinion, Rabbi Eliezer calls to God to weigh in on the subject.
Enjoy the full story from the Talmud:
- Whose opinion, the rabbis' or Rabbi Eliezer's, did God agree with?
- How do we know God's opinion?
- Why don't the rabbis accept God's opinion?
- What is valued even more than the "Truth", as expressed by the Divine Voice?
- What is God's reaction when the rabbis don't follow His opinion?
This story teaches that the halachic process is in the hands of the rabbinic authorities and even God can't interfere with it. God made the choice to give it to the people and to have them be active participants.
Can we take advice directly from God?
The next story is about Joshua, Moshe's successor. According to tradition, Joshua was taught Jewish law directly from Moshe. After Moshe's death, Joshua forgot 3,000 laws!
- How do the Jewish people want Joshua to relearn the laws?
- On what basis does Joshua reject their suggestion?
- What do you think is gained by doing the hard work of learning something as opposed to acquiring the knowledge without the work?
It is interesting to note that even though there is a possibility of getting something wrong when Joshua learns it himself, it is still preferable to receiving the knowledge without participation.
In the last source, Joshua did not want guidance from Heaven. In the next source, it looks as if King David took a different approach. The Bible says that after a conflict with the Philistines, King David asked God if he should go to war. If direction should come from the Jewish legal authorities, why would King David ask God?
- According to the rabbis of the Talmud and Rashi, whose job is it to decide if King David goes to war?
- If King David wasn't asking whether or not he should go to war, what was he in fact asking?
- What is the difference between the two questions?
What if God talks to me in a dream? Do I listen?
Another type of Divine message can come in the form of a dream. The following story asks the question of the place of information learned in a dream when it comes to legal matters.
In this story, a man's father left him an inheritance, but did not tell him where it was. The father dies and the son knows that the money is somewhere but he doesn't know where it is. In a dream, the son is told where the money is but he is also told that he must give the money to charity. When he wakes, the son finds the money. Must the son give the money to charity or may he keep it for himself?
Both the story in the Talmud and the law as stated in the Shulchan Arukh say that the son can keep the money. On what basis can he keep the money? Why is he allowed to ignore the Divine message that came to him in the dream?
What if a maggid, a Divine Spirit teaches me the law?
Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Aruch, is considered the premier halachic authority. Born in Spain in 1488, Rabbi Karo traveled to the city of Tzfat where he was also a major Kabbalist, mystic.
Rabbi Karo, it is said, was on such a high level that he was personally instructed by a maggid, a Divine Spirit. The teachings of the maggid are recorded in the book, Maggid Meisharim.
How did Rabbi Karo view the relationship between his halachic scholarship which is based on the teachings of the rabbinic authorities and the instruction that he received from the maggid?
He writes, in each of his works, about the number of times that we say "Amen" during the Kaddish prayer which allows us an inside look into his thinking.
First, we will read, according to the teachings of the maggid, the number of times one is required to say "Amen".
- According to the maggid, the Divine Spirit, how many times should one say "Amen"?
The Shulchan Arukh states the practical Jewish law (halacha) as it is concluded by the rabbinic authorities. The halacha regarding the number of times to say "Amen" is written below.
- According to the Shulchan Arukh, what is the halacha regarding saying "Amen" in the Kaddish prayer?
- For Rabbi Yosef Karo, what took precedence, the halachic development of the rabbis or the Divine Spirit? Whose job is it to determine Jewish law?
It is quite remarkable that when faced with conflicting opinions - one coming straight from God's representative and one coming as a result of the rabbinic process - Rabbi Karo chooses the rabbinic process! His interaction with Shamayim (Heaven) does not affect the halachic process.
This principle of preferring the halachic process and the effort of learning, is expressed beautifully by the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) in an introduction written by Reb Chaim Volozhin.
The Vilna Gaon also had the opportunity to learn from a maggid and took the same approach as Rabbi Yosef Karo and Joshua, as we read in earlier sources.
הקדמה לספרא דצניעותא
כי שמעתי מפיו הק' שפעמים רבות השכימו לפתחו כמה מגידים מן השמים בשאלתם ובקשתם שרוצים למסור לו רזין דאורייתא בלא שום עמל. ולא הטה אזנו אליהם כלל. וא' מן המגידים הפציר בו מאד. עכ"ז לא הביט אל מראהו הגדול. וענה ואמר לו איני רוצה שתהיה השגתי בתורתו ית"ש ע"י שום אמצעי כלל וכלל. רק עיני נשואות לו ית"ש מה שרוצה לגלות לי...וההשגות ע"י המלאכים המגידים ושרי התורה אשר לא עמלתי ולא חכמתי אין לי בהם חפץ .
Introduction to Sifra de-Zeni’uta
For I heard many times from the mouth of the holy one (Vilna Gaon) that many times Magidim from the heavens came down and were willing to share with him the secrets of Torah without any need for him to struggle. He did not give his ear [pay attention] to them. One of the magidim was very obstinate, with all this he did not look at the angels' great vision. He (Vilna Gaon) answered the angel and said, "I do not want that my knowledge of God's Torah be communicated by any type of medium. Only what my eyes should be able to perceive [the wisdom of Torah] according to what God wishes to reveal to me [through my studies]... The information that is provided by the angels, Magidim and the officers of the Torah for which I do not struggle for, and is not from my wisdom, I have no desire in them.''
- Why do you think that the Vilna Gaon turned down the offer of learning Torah directly from a Heavenly Spirit?
- What is the risk of learning on his own and not learning from the Heavenly Spirit?
Partnering with God guarantees the future of the Jewish people
All of the texts that we have studied tell us that even at the risk of getting a legal decision "wrong", we don't ask God for help in deciding halacha. In fact, even when He tells the rabbis the correct answer, the system rejects His interference and relies on the wisdom of the rabbis. How can this be?
God wants us to be partners with Him in the halachic process. In order to be God's partners, He had to move over and give us a role. So God created the halachic system: We get the rules from God, as He revealed them in the Torah, and then we work with it. The role that people play is so significant that sometimes we tell God to step aside. It's as if we are saying, "You gave us the Torah, now take a seat and allow us to continue the process because we need to be active participants."
This is the difference between the two sets of tablets given on Mt. Sinai. The first set of tablets were written by God alone. Moshe is simply the messenger but is not involved in the process. These tablets were smashed. The second set of tablets were written by Moshe. He becomes the message, the embodiment of the Oral Torah. This set survives.
- A thought to ponder: Think of the difference between Adam & Eve before the sin of eating the fruit from the forbidden tree and after. Is there any resemblance to the destiny of the Jewish people pre and post the sin of the Golden Calf?
And what does God think about this? If we return to the story of the oven of akhnai, we can interpret the ending in two ways, both of which show God's pleasure with the system.
The last words can be interpreted in two ways. The first as usually interpreted, "My children have triumphed over Me". But the root of the word nitzchuni also means "eternal". When we are part of the halachic process and become God's partners, we guarantee the future of the Jewish people, which guarantee's God's role in the world.