This week’s parasha (outside of Israel) is Emor, which begins with God commanding Moses to speak to the kohanim and to teach them. This is one of the key verses having a clear reference to the Oral Torah. Moses relayed not just the five books of the Written Torah, but also many more oral teachings and explanations that were passed down over the millennia. Another source for the Oral Law is Exodus 34:27, where God tells Moses to write down the words of Torah, and then adds that al pi—literally meaning “orally” or “on the mouth”—of these words of Torah, God is making a covenant with us. The Sages point out that this is another major allusion to the Torah sh’b’al peh, the Oral Torah (see Gittin 60b).
The necessity of an Oral Torah is actually self-evident since Torah laws are very brief and usually come with no explanations or details. For instance, we are told numerous times to bind certain signs upon our arms and to tie fringes on our clothes, but there is no description of what these things should look like. Another classic example is Deuteronomy 12:21 where we are told to slaughter animals for consumption “as I have instructed you”, yet no instructions or slaughtering procedures are written anywhere in the Torah. The obvious implication is that Moses relayed many teachings and instructions that were not recorded.
Eventually, those teachings did come to be recorded in the Mishnah. The term Mishnah comes from the verb lishnot (לשנות), “to repeat”, since these laws and teachings were originally learned through constant repetition, to reinforce the knowledge and memorize it crystal clear. Less known is that, since the same exact verb is leshanot (לשנות), meaning “to change”, the Oral Law was not meant to be written down in order to keep it fluid and flexible.* Judaism is always evolving, and halakhah must change under varying circumstances and as new problems emerge. The central idea behind having an Oral Law was so that it would not come to be “set in stone” like the written law. The Torah thus remains fresh in every generation, and open to new ideas, applications, and chiddushim. This is really the beauty of the Oral Torah. (In fact, when the Arizal relates the different aspects of Torah to the mystical Sefirot, he points out that the Mishnah specifically is in Tiferet, “Beauty”, see Sha’ar Ruach HaKodesh.)
On a more mystical level, Mishnah (משנה) has the same letters and numerical value as Neshamah (נשמה), “soul”, for while the Written Torah is the “body” of Judaism, the Oral Torah is its inner dimension and true essence. (This is also why it is customary to recite Mishnayot in honour of the dead, to elevate their souls.) It is important to clarify that while the Mishnah is certainly not the entire Oral Torah, it is the first text of the Oral Torah and the foundation for the rest.
As per tradition, the Mishnah was first put down into writing by Rabbi Yehuda haNasi around 200 CE. (Even after this, written texts were very expensive to produce and remained rare, so most Jews continued to learn the laws orally.) The laws themselves long predate Rabbi Yehuda haNasi. The four individuals who are most frequently cited in the Mishnah are Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yose, and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai—all of whom were students of Rabbi Akiva. After these four is Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (“the Great”), who was a teacher of Rabbi Akiva. Following these individuals are statements in the name of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, whose golden age was before the destruction of the Second Temple. In addition, there are numerous statements made in the name of Chakhamim, various ancient “sages”, and many others without any attribution at all. These anonymous “stam Mishnahs” are all attributed to Rabbi Meir.
It is important to understand that these sages did not come up with Mishnaic laws, but only transmitted them. The laws are given in their names since they were the last to teach them, not the first. The opening Mishnah of Avot famously reminds us that “Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.” The last member of the Great Assembly was Shimon haTzadik (on his identity, see here), and the tradition continued, as relayed in Avot, from him down to Hillel and Shammai, and then to the students of Rabbi Akiva, who are the main protagonists of the Mishnah. Note the precise language of the Mishnah in stating that Moses received the Torah miSinai, “from Sinai”, not b’Sinai, “at Sinai”. The Torah was not relayed in its entirety at Sinai, to remain monolithic and unchanging ever since; rather, the tradition begins from Sinai, growing and evolving throughout the generations.
The Great Oral Law Conundrum
It is believed that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi commissioned the recording of the Oral Law to prevent it from getting lost at a dangerous time for the Jewish people. In 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the Temple and exiled many Jews out of the Holy Land. Around 135 CE, they put down the Bar Kochva Revolt which had nearly succeeded in re-establishing an independent Jewish kingdom. The great Rabbi Akiva was executed, along with 24,000 of his students and many other sages, leaving the Jewish world entirely “desolate” (Yevamot 62b). A handful of Rabbi Akiva’s remaining students, including Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Meir, then restored the Torah and saved Judaism. However, Roman persecutions did not end. Rabbi Shimon himself had to go into hiding for 13 years.
Thankfully, things took a turn for the better with Rabbi Yehuda haNasi. He became a close friend of Antoninus, who was either the emperor (possibly Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, one of the “Five Good Emperors” of Rome) or a powerful local governor. Rabbi Yehuda knew the good times wouldn’t last forever, and used the opportunity to commission a recording of the Oral Law, so that the Jewish world would never be “desolate” again and risk extinction. The big conundrum was this: The Oral Law was meant to be oral—writing it down would destroy it! This gave rise to two major issues: First, how to maintain the “oral-ness” of the Oral Law in the process of writing it down? Second, how to avoid concretizing the law and making it firm and unchanging?
The solution to the first problem was to write it in such a way that the laws are being spoken by their teachers, typically in the present tense. We read “Rabbi Meir says” or “Rabbi Yose says”, as if they are speaking to you right at this moment, and relaying the tradition directly to you. If someone asks where you got a particular law from, you can answer: from Rabbi Meir! One who has learned enough can even recognize each teacher by their choice of words and their views and perspectives. It’s as if we can come to know the ancient sages personally.
The solution to the second problem was to record multiple opinions for each law, and to leave out the final answer. A straight reading of the Mishnah actually leaves the law unclear in most cases. Finding the answer requires careful reasoning, debate, and contemplation. This is the very purpose of the Talmud, which is primarily a record of debates and comments on the Mishnah. Learning the Oral Law thus remains an oral process.
Finally, on top of these innovations, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi and his circle made sure to make the Mishnah cryptic and full of hidden symbolism and messages, encoded with multiple layers of meaning. This ensured that an uneducated or uninitiated person would not be able to make sense of it. The Midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 7:28) states that “…one thousand people enter into the [study of] Scripture, one hundred of them come out into the Mishnah, ten of them come out into the Talmud, one of them comes out [with the ability] to teach.” In other words, only 1% of people that learn Torah will be able to grasp the Mishnah properly and “graduate” to Talmud, and only one in a thousand will ultimately become good Torah educators! The Midrash explains this as the deeper meaning of King Solomon’s statement that he only found “one man in a thousand” (Ecclesiastes 7:28).
Today, the Mishnah that we have is organized into six orders encompassing 63 tractates.** It is believed that Rabbi Akiva is the architect of this organization, and Rabbi Yehuda haNasi inherited that structure from him. Intriguingly, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was born on the very day Rabbi Akiva was executed (see Beresheet Rabbah 58:2). He fulfilled the work that Rabbi Akiva started (and may very well have been his reincarnation!) The Talmud (Chagigah 14a) suggests that initially there were actually 600 or even 700 orders of Mishnah. Only six survived, perhaps due to the catastrophic loss of Torah that came with the deaths of Rabbi Akiva and his 24,000 students, all of which we mourn in the days before Lag b’Omer. This may indeed have been the motivation for Rabbi Yehuda to record the Mishnah, hoping to avoid losing what little was left (though to us the vast Mishnaic corpus does not seem “little” at all!) And it makes it all the more appropriate that during the days when we commemorate Rabbi Akiva and his students, it is also customary to study a chapter of Pirkei Avot each week—the most famous and most personal of all Mishnaic tractates.
The Zohar (III, 27b, Ra’aya Mehemna) states that the discussions of the Mishnah and Talmud are designed to “purify” and “refine” the law. Those debates which are left unsettled will be solved with the return of Eliyahu. (Such stalemates are called a teiku, תיקו, which the Zohar states is a tikkun, תיקון, without the nun, since they are yet to be rectified and completed, until Eliyahu comes!) And that brings us back to this week’s parasha, which begins with Moses providing oral instruction to the kohanim. Throughout the early history of Israel, the kohanim played a central role in teaching the nation and transmitting the oral tradition from generation to generation. (This is also alluded to by the fact that Moses’ official spokesperson was Aaron, the first kohen.) The Zohar reminds us that Eliyahu is none other than Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron and the third kohen gadol in history. In the same way that Aaron was the “mouthpiece” of Moses, Eliyahu will be like the “mouthpiece” of the Messianic Age. He will come to settle the debates and “complete” the Oral Torah once and for all.
*The word for a “year”, shanah (שנה), has the same dichotomous root, being both something that constantly “repeats”, yet simultaneously allows us to track “change” over time. Moreover, the unique Jewish conception of time is something that we have control over, and not something that controls us. The moon might be doing one thing, but new months would begin only when the Sanhedrin said so! For more on understanding the mystery of time, see here.
**As per the Arizal above, the six orders correspond to the six Sefirot of Zeir Anpin, associated with Tiferet. That there are 63 tractates is not without meaning either, since 63 is associated with Binah (through the Name of ס״ג, for those who are familiar with the terminology), referring to the deeper level of understanding that Mishnah requires. (Recall that Binah is the Ima, “mother”, that “gives birth” to Zeir Anpin.)