Beit Midrash

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Asher Ishaayahu Ben Rivka

7. The Reliability of Tradition

How can we be certain that the traditions which have been handed down generation after generation, for so many hundreds of years, are reliable? How can we be certain that they are in fact founded, and not just the fruit of imagination?


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

Cheshvan, 5762
Some people claim that if they were to bear witness with their our own eyes to the sorts of miracles which took place during the Exodus from Egypt - if they themselves were to behold the sight of the entire Nile river turning into blood, in accordance with the word of Moses and in keeping with the Divine commandment; if they themselves were to observe the plagues that were visited upon the Egyptians: frogs, vermin, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born - they would no doubt become filled with faith in the God responsible for such miracles and wonders. "If," they claim, "before our very eyes, a sea were to split in two, miraculously saving us, the Jewish people, and drowning our enemies - who would not believe with unswerving faith in a God who performs such miracles!"

"Yet," say the people of this opinion, "we ourselves have seen no such miracles. The stories about the Exodus from Egypt and all of the miracles which took place therein, we heard from our fathers, and our fathers from their fathers, in a long line of tradition. How can we be sure that these claims are accurate? There are plenty of national folk tales that not true, 'mother-goose stories.' How can we be certain that the traditions which have been handed down generation after generation for so many hundreds of years are reliable? How can we be certain that they are founded, and not just the fruit of imagination? How can the wise Rabbi say to the King of Khazar that tradition is, for us, as reliable as if we had witnessed the Exodus from Egypt with our own eyes?

The answer to this question is, that one who is acquainted with the guardians of the tradition, i.e., Torah scholars, true Jewish scholars, and is acquainted with them from up close, personally, not from the media or hearsay; one who is familiar with their qualities, their precision and trustworthiness when it comes to the transmission of Torah; one who knows how careful such sages are not to add to or subtract from the Torah even slightly, and knows how careful these scholars are to say things exactly as they heard them from their own rabbis - one who is aware of all this, understands that the tradition of these people can be trusted without any doubt. The care taken by rabbis not to change, fix, or add to the Torah is evidenced by printed Talmudic literature. One can find, on the side of the page, notes by Torah scholars regarding apparent mistakes in the text of the Talmud, which appear to be clear misprints. Still, no change is made in the actual text of the Talmud, nothing is altered. Only a note is added on the margin of the page. The fact that there is no reliance on reasonable assumption demonstrates the great caution taken to preserve the accuracy of old texts.

One who is acquainted with great Jewish Torah scholars harbors no doubt whatsoever that it is possible to rely on such guardians of tradition. We are not dealing here with a tradition that is handed down by individuals, one person handing information down to another, and so forth. We are dealing, rather, with many thousands in each generation handing down a living tradition. The Torah tradition is handed down in written form - the Written Torah; it is also handed down orally. When things are handed down from teacher to student, from father to son, the words preserve their vitality - the spirit of the Torah is maintained. "You... implanted eternal life within us" - this is the Oral Tradition, which is living. We are not dealing with a mere bunch of lifeless letters. What we have is a true living Torah, Torah life that is handed down from generation to generation by an entire people - a great and wise people.

The power of Jewish tradition can be felt when the practices of different Jewish communities are compared, and one sees what similarity and shared foundations exists between all of them. Although they were greatly separated and cut off from one another - as was the case with, for example, Yemenite and the Ashkenazic Jewry - they still share identical foundations.

It is clear, then, that our tradition is a trustworthy account of all of those events which befell our ancestors. It is, for us, indeed comparable to eyewitness testimony - as if we ourselves witnessed the Exodus from Egypt with all of its miracles, the revelation at Mount Sinai, etc. This is the foundation upon which Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi bases Jewish faith in his book, "The Kuzari."

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