Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Essence of Purim
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Asher Ben Hana

Acceptance of the Oral Tradition

The Sages say that the Almighty suspended Mount Sinai above the Israelites like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here will be your grave.” Why did God have to coerce the Children of Israel into receiving the Torah?


Rabbi David Dov Levanon

1. Introduction
2. The Eclipse of God
3. Torah Innovation
4. The Jews Observed It and Accepted It

The Gemara relates (Shabbat 88a):
"'They stood at the bottom of the mountain' (Exodus 19:17). R' Avdimi bar Chamma bar Chassa said: This teaches us that the Almighty suspended the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, 'If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here will be your grave.'
"R' Acha bar Yaakov said: This [explanation of yours] makes for a good case against the Torah."
"Rabba said: Nonetheless, they reaffirmed their acceptance of it in the days of Ahashverosh, as it is written (Ester 9:27), 'The Jews observed it and accepted it upon themselves' - i.e., they observed that which they had already accepted."

On the words "a good case" Rashi comments, "Were they called to appear before the court to explain why they did not fulfill that which they had taken upon themselves, they could answer that they received it under duress."

Commentators (Tosefot ad loc., and others) raise the question, why did God have to coerce the Children of Israel into receiving the Torah? After all, they had already expressed their willingness to accept the Torah when they went so far as to exclaim, "We will uphold it and we will hear it!" - a statement more befitting the ministering angels than man. Indeed, owing to this willingness, they merited two crowns - one representing "we will uphold it" and another representing "we will hear it."

It is likewise difficult to understand why the Israelites should have been subject to divine punishment (viz., the Destruction of the Holy Temple) prior to the time of Achashverosh if they had never received Torah of their own volition.

Authorities have offered scores of answers to these questions. The earliest among them is from Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 3):
"God made a covenant with the nation of Israel regarding the Oral Torah alone, as it is written, 'For "al pi" (according to) these words have I made a covenant with you' (Exodus 34), and the Sages remark that God did not write in the Torah '"lemaan" (for the sake of) these words,' or '"baavur" (for) these words,' or '"biglal (because of) these words,' but rather '"al pi" (according to; lit., "on the mouth of") these words' which is none other than the Oral Torah which is difficult to learn and involves great hardship, and it is likened to darkness.

"It is thus written, 'The nation which walked in darkness saw a great light' (Isaiah 9:1) - these are the scholars of Oral Torah who saw a great light. For the Almighty illuminates their eyes in matters of prohibition and dispensation, pure and impure...and the nation of Israel did not agree to receive the Torah until the Almighty suspended the mountain above them like an inverted cask, as it says, 'They stood at the bottom of the mountain' (Exodus 19:17), and R' Dimi bar Hamah said: The Almighty said to the nation of Israel, 'If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, here will be your grave.'

"And if you should contest, saying, it was concerning the Written Torah that the Almighty suspended the mountain above them like an inverted cask, [think again,] for at the moment that He asked them if they are willing to receive the Torah, all of them answered, saying, 'We will uphold it and we will hear it!' for it involves no toil or hardship, and it is not so extensive.

"Rather, it was regarding the Oral Torah [that He he threatened them], for it involves many fine details of both major and minor commandments and it is as powerful as death...for only he who loves the Almighty with all of his heart and all of his soul and all of his might is willing to study it, as it is written, 'Love God your Lord with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might' (Deuteronomy 6:5).

"And whence do you learn that such love is none other than the study of the Oral Torah? Just look at what follows it: 'These words which I am commanding you today must remain on your heart,' and what is that? That is Torah study which is on the heart, i.e., 'Teach them to your children' refers to study of the Oral Torah which needs to be memorized. This teaches you that the first paragraph of the 'Shema' is not to be understood as referring to the reward received in this world, as is the case in the second paragraph...which refers to the giving of reward to those who are busy with the Written Torah, not with the Oral Torah.

"And in this second paragraph it is written, 'with all or your heart and all of your soul,' but it is not written 'with all of your might. This teaches that whoever loves riches and pleasure cannot study the Oral Torah for it involves great hardship and lack of sleep, and there are those that wear themselves out and collapse as a result of it, and therefore its reward comes in the world to come, as it is written, 'The nation which walked in darkness saw a great light.' 'A great light' refers to that light which was created on the first day of creation and was stored away by the Almighty for those who labor over the Oral Torah day and night, for through their merit the world continues to exist..."

Let us consider a number of questions in light of the above. Where does Scripture indicate that the Israelites were coerced into accepting the Oral Tradition, which is acquired via toil? How was this rectified in the days of Achashverosh? Maharal (in "Or Chadash") posits that the reaffirmation of Torah in the days of Achashverosh was because the Jews introduced a new holiday, instituting the reading of the Scroll of Ester and other practices for all generations. Here, then, is proof that they took upon themselves the Oral Tradition, for they introduced new laws through the Sages, and this was due to the power and uniqueness of the Torah. Yet, were these steps fraught with the "labor of Torah"?

In order to answer these questions, let us begin by defining the term "Oral Tradition." According to the above Midrash, the Oral Tradition is not a body of explicit laws given on Mount Sinai, but rather comprises matters which are hidden in the Torah and which must be uncovered via toil. It is to this that Scripture refers when it tells us that "the nation which had wandered in darkness saw a great light" (Isaiah 9:1). The matters which are hidden in the Torah amount to more than a difficult deliberation in the Talmud or exposition upon the Torah's verses; they also relate to seeing God's providence at work in the world, as it is written, "Ponder the years of each generation" (Deuteronomy 32:7), and, in so doing, know "the proper action to take."

During the Sinai revelation, the Jewish people received the Torah in an explicit manner, from the mouth of the Almighty Himself. The people were, for their own part, completely passive. They saw and heard the sounds and the flames and were therefore aware only of the written Torah. Furthermore, God's manner of leading them at that time reveled the Divine presence. Everybody prophesied and saw the awesome and exalted sight. They were like children gathered around the table of their heavenly father being nourished through the manna and the waters of Miriam's well, like Adam in the Garden of Eden before the sin. And it was upon such a backdrop that they said, "We shall do and we shall hear."

At that time, however, they could not conceive of God's "absence." They could not imagine a situation wherein they would be called upon to introduce laws which presumably lacked any scriptural precedent (an act calling for toil and exertion). They could not conceive of circumstances which would call for understanding God's unrevealed providence over them, while serving him and carrying out his commandments. In such a setting, then, their acceptance of Torah was as if carried out under duress. It was as if they had accepted something of which they did not have a proper understanding. This happened later, in the days of Achashverosh, while the nation of Israel was in Exile and God appeared to be "absent." And because at this trying hour they reaffirmed their acceptance of Torah of their own volition, introducing a new holiday in honor of the miracle, they demonstrated that their acceptance of the Oral Torah was not the result of duress.

The Eclipse of God
God's providence in the days of Achashverosh was of a hidden nature, as the Talmud teaches us (Chulin 139b), "[The Book of] Ester - where is its biblical source? Answer: 'I shall surely hide ("haster astir"; this expression is based upon the same Hebrew root as the name Ester).'" One of the salient features of the Book of Ester is the fact that God's name does not appears in it. And yet, because the miracle of Purim played itself out within the confines of nature, we would have expected the Book of Ester to place special emphasis upon God's presence by including His name in the text itself. This, however is not the case.

Instead, the narrative aims at teaching us that the miracle of Purim was a doubly hidden miracle. It allows the reader of the Book of Ester to experience this hiddenness and causes him to expand upon the text and to seek out the hidden ways of God at work weaving the miracle. For this reason the Scroll of Ester, akin to the Torah, was given to be expounded upon, and it is thus written in the Jerusalem Talmud (Megila ch. 1, p. 80a):
R' Halbo R' Huna in the name of Rav: "And these days are remembered and practiced - remembered through the reading [of the Scroll of Ester] and practiced through the feast. That is, the Scroll of Ester was given to be expounded upon." R' Halbo R' Yisa in the name of R' Le'ezar: "Here it is written 'Words of peace and truth' and below it is written, 'Acquire truth and do not sell it,' and this comes to teach us that the Book of Ester is akin to the Torah: just as this (the Torah scroll) calls for ruled lines, so does that (the Scroll of Ester) call for ruled lines. Just as this was given to be expounded upon, so too was that given to be expounded upon."

Where do we find God's name alluded to in the Scroll of Ester? "The King and Haman shall come today" (The Hebrew acronym of this phrase is God's name). This comes to teach us to just what extent the Divine Presence descended in order to rest upon the feast of those two impure individuals, Achashverosh and Haman.

Likewise, the Sages of the Talmud remark (Megila 15b): "'On that night the king found it difficult to sleep.' R' Tanchum said: 'The King of the Universe found in difficult to sleep,'" for we have a rule that wherever it is written "king" in the Book of Ester, this refers to the King of the Universe. In other words, the Almighty ran the world via Achashverosh.

A similar idea is expressed in one of the Petichtot to the Book of Ester (Megila 10b): "Raba bar Ofran opened the discussion on this chapter from here: 'I will set my throne in Elam, and will destroy thence king and princes' (Jeremiah 49:38); king - that's Vashti; princes - those are Haman and his ten sons'; Elam - that's Shushan the capitol. This means that the Almighty placed his throne in Elam because Israel was there, and governed the world via the kingdom of Achashverosh."

There is another verse in the Book of Ester which alludes to the Almighty: "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and help will come to the Jews from another place..." The words "from another place" allude to the Almighty. What is interesting is that the expression "another place" which usually refers to the "dark side" (negative forces), here refers to the Almighty. This demonstrates to just what extent the Almighty revealed Himself to us at that time via crooked, seemingly happenstance ways.

The Jews of that generation were expected to ponder the events taking place. They were expected to understand that all of the hardships which had come upon them were the hand of God and to act accordingly. And, indeed, Mordecai and Ester did so. Mordecai "would not kneel and would not bow down," and Ester said, "Go, gather all of the Jews who are in Shoshan the capitol and have them fast for me..." and through their repentance they brought about salvation. This is how one looks at things through the eyes of the Torah, which calls for self-sacrifice, toil and great effort of Oral Torah.

Torah Innovation
The Talmud teaches (Megila 14b): "Twenty-eight Prophets and seven Prophetesses prophesied on behalf of Israel, yet they neither subtracted from nor added to that which is written in the Torah - with the exception of the reading of the Scroll of Ester."

This is a very novel assertion, for the reading of the Scroll of Ester is not related to any other commandment in the Torah, and the Sages of that generation toiled in order to find a source for it in the Torah, until God illuminated their eyes and they found support for it in the Scriptures.

It seems fitting to link this unique idea with a similar source in the Talmud not attributable to the Prophets. The Sages of the Talmud state (Megila 14a), "'The king took off his ring' - R' Abba bar Kahana said: The removal of the ring is greater than forty-eight Prophets and seven Prophetesses who prophesied for Israel, for none of them succeeded in causing the Jews to repent, but the removal of the ring caused the Jews to repent. And just as their repentance resulted from pangs of conscience in their heart, so did the innovative legislation which they produced rise from the depths of their hearts, for they felt the need to express thanks for the miracle. Such innovation is, by its very nature, Oral Torah.

The Jews Observed It and Accepted It
The Sages said (Shabbat 88a): "The Jews observed it and accepted it upon themselves" (Ester 9:27) - i.e., they observed that which they had already accepted. The Maharasha writes that what we have here is an allusion to the claim that "we will uphold it and we will hear it!" and, indeed, we find that the Sages of the Talmud say (Shavuot 39a), "This [declaration] only relates to the commandments which they received upon themselves at Mount Sinai. Whence do we learn regarding the commandments which will come into being in the future? We learn from that which is written, 'The Jews observed it and accepted it upon themselves' (Ester 9:27), i.e., they observed that which they had already accepted."

In other words, the Oral Torah also involved a kind of "We will uphold it and we will hear it!" acceptance. On the face of things, Oral Torah constitutes attaining an understanding of matters - a kind of "we will hear it." It would appear that in order to achieve such a level of Torah understanding one must nullify his own conceptions in favor of the word of the Creator and desire to fulfill His will. By doing this one merits illumination from above; so it was in the days of Mordecai and Ester, as the Sages say (Megila 7a), "The Book of Ester was written with divine inspiration...Shmuel is written, 'They observed it and accepted it,' [and I interpret this to mean] they observed above that which they accepted below." What the Sages meant by this is that God was satisfied above by what they had accepted upon themselves below.

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