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Parashat Yitro: Accepting the Torah She’be’al Peh

We read in Parashat Yitro that when Beneh Yisrael approached Mount Sinai to accept the Torah, "Va’yityasevu Be’tahtit Ha’har" – "they stood beneath the mountain" (19:17). The Gemara in Masechet Shabbat (88a) explains this to mean that the people literally stood "beneath the mountain," as G-d uprooted Mount Sinai and suspended it over them. He warned them that if they didn’t accept the Torah, He would drop the mountain on them and destroy them.

Already Tosafot (commentaries by Medieval French and German scholars) raise the question of how to reconcile this account with Beneh Yisrael’s famous proclamation of "Na’aseh Ve’nishma" – "We will do and we will hear" (Shemot 24:7), committing to observe all the Torah’s laws even before hearing them. If Beneh Yisrael enthusiastically pronounced their unbridled commitment to G-d’s laws, why did G-d need to use a threat to force them to accept the Torah?

The Or Ha’hayim Ha’kadosh (Rav Haim Ben-Attar, 1696-1743), in his Torah commentary (Shemot 19:5), answers this question by distinguishing between the two portions of Torah – the Torah She’bi’chtab (written Torah) and the Torah She’be’al Peh (oral Torah). The Torah She’bi’chtab, of course, is the written text of the Humash, which is limited and finite, presenting the basic guidelines regarding the 613 commands. The Torah She’be’al Peh, however, is infinite, as it continually grows. This includes the analysis of the Torah’s laws by the Sages, and the safeguards and additional laws which they introduced. In each generation, the scholars arrive at new insights and new understandings, thus making this part of Torah – the Torah She’be’al Peh – infinite. Therefore, the Or Ha’haim writes, Beneh Yisrael happily accepted the written Torah before it was given, but not the Torah She’be’al Peh. Indeed, they proclaimed, "Kol Asher Diber Hashem Na’aseh Ve’nishma" – "All that G-d has spoken, we will do and we will hear." They accepted "all that G-d has spoken" – the direct word of G-d, but not the words that would be spoken in the future by the Rabbis. They were prepared to accept the finite written Torah before it was given, but they were not ready to blindly accept the infinite oral tradition, the teachings of the scholars in every generation. They insisted on first hearing each teaching and then deciding whether to accept it.

For this reason, the Or Ha’haim explains, G-d needed to threaten Beneh Yisrael – to force them to commit in advance to obeying the conclusions of the leading Torah scholars in each generation, which they initially refused to do.

The Gemara proceeds to relate that whereas the Torah was originally accepted under duress, much later in history, the Jews accepted the Torah willingly. After the Purim miracle, in response to the great salvation they experienced, the Jews affirmed their willful acceptance of the Torah. The Or Ha’haim explains that having seen the leadership of Mordechai, the foremost scholar of the time, and how he ended up saving them, they recommitted themselves to heeding the words of the Sages. Inspired by the miracle brought about through Mordechai, the Jews reaffirmed their commitment to not only the written Torah, but also to the Torah She’be’al Peh, to respecting the authority of the Torah scholars and obeying their rulings and teachings.

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