Dear Rabbi Fried,
With the holiday of Shavuot coming up soon, I have a question. How can we know for sure, after so many years, that the Torah we have today is the same one given by God at Mt. Sinai?
Yours is really two-fold question. One inquiry is concerning the authenticity of the Torah scroll; is it the same wording of the scroll written by Moses? The second issue concerns the oral tradition, which is the foundation of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Code of Jewish Law. These are the works by which we live our lives as Jews. Our belief is that the information contained in these works was originally passed down by word of mouth for well over 1,000 years until codified in the Mishnah, and the Talmud. How do we know that the oral tradition has preserved its integrity for over 3,300 years since Sinai?
The first query; that of the written Torah, is the easier one to discuss. One simply needs to compare Torah scrolls from diverse parts of the world and different periods of time to see that the Torah scroll, the written Torah, has been painstakingly preserved without change for thousands of years. We stand in awe over this monumental accomplishment of our people, despite times of persecutions, exiles, and the worst possible living conditions over thousands of years. The only discrepancies found are in the addition or omission of a few letters that are pronounced anyway, as they only serve as vowels. No content change has occurred, from newly written Torahs to those written many hundreds of years ago in Yemen, Russia or Iraq. (Compare this to the far newer “New Testament” which has some 70 editions, varying in as basic facts as whether or not there was a “Sermon on the Rock”!)
More discussion ensues about the Oral Torah. Many who challenge its authenticity draw upon the popular game “telephone,” where one whispers a message to the one next to him and so on until the final person in line compares the message he received to the original message which is often quite different from the original one. How do we know the same didn’t transpire with the Oral Torah? Maimonides, however, codifies in his “13 Principles of Judaism” that a core principal of our belief is that the entirety of Torah we have in our hands today, both written and oral, is the same Torah given to us at Sinai, and will never be changed.
We reconcile this problem as follows: In the telephone game one of the main reasons the message gets distorted so quickly is the fact that the message is totally unimportant and irrelevant. Nobody, therefore, is very careful about its transmission.
Not so with the Oral Torah! The core belief of those charged with its transmission was that the precise, exact message is critical to life itself. The sages in the early academies relentlessly and rigorously tested each other to ensure they all had the precise information transmitted to them from the previous generation. The entire Talmud is filled with those discussions, showing how they constantly “sharpened their blades.” Every statement undergoes the most painstaking analysis to ensure no contradictions or distortions occur. This system endured until the Roman persecutions and decrees against learning threatened the veracity of the transmission. At that time, Rabbi Judah the Prince, with the agreement of the generation, set to recording the Mishnah, completed around 200 CE. It was tested and debated by his entire generation of sages until all agreed that it was, indeed, the accurate Oral Tradition dating back to Sinai. This gave the Mishnah its universal acceptance. The full discussions related to the Mishnah, its meaning and sources, were recorded in the Talmud some 300 years afterward by Ravina and Rav Ashi, the leading sages of their time. It was done with similar involvement and agreement of their entire generation of sages. This forms the foundation of the Torah as we have it today.
On the holiday of Shavuot, we celebrate the Torah by dedicating ourselves to its study, with many communities holding study sessions throughout the night! A wonderful Shavuot holiday to all!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
Dear Rabbi Fried,