By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
I would like to thank those of you who have contacted me about the series concerning Maimonides’ 13 principles of Jewish belief; I appreciate the positive comments. In discussing the 9th principle, we see that Maimonides writes in his commentary: “ … the Torah is God’s permanent word and no one else can change it. Nothing can be added or subtracted from either the Written Torah or the Oral Torah. It is this written ‘You shall not add to it or subtract from it’ (Deut. 13:1).”
Maimonides further explains this in his “Code:” “The Torah clearly states that its commandments will remain binding forever, with neither change, with no addition or subtraction. The Torah thus states ‘All this word that I command you, you shall keep and do. You shall not add to it nor subtract from it (Deut. 13:1).’ The Torah likewise says ‘Things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever, to keep all the words of this Torah’ (Ibid. 29:28). We thus see that we are commanded to keep the words of the Torah forever. Similarly, with regard to many laws, the Torah clearly states, ‘It shall be an everlasting statute for all your generations’ (Lev. 3:17 and many similar verses).”
Maimonides goes on to show how not even a prophet may make any change to the Torah.
This principle is summed up in the Ani Maamin section of the siddur: “I believe with perfect faith that the Torah will not be changed, and that there will never be another Torah given by God.” And the Yigdal song states it in the following words: “God will not replace or change His law, for all time, for anything else.”
One of the most commonly asked questions concerning this principle is the many rabbinical decrees found throughout the Talmud and some in even later literature. There is, for example, the decree of Rabeinu Gershom (10th-11th century, France) forbidding the marriage of a man to more than one wife, although the Torah permits the marriage of a man to multiple wives. Wouldn’t this be adding to, or changing, the Torah?
The earliest Talmud commentaries point out that there is a basic distinction between changing the Torah itself versus adding “fences” around the Torah. The Torah itself commands the sages who safeguard the Torah to “guard my guard.” Talmud outlines this by explaining that God asks the Jews to “erect guards around my guard;” in other words, to build a system to protect the Torah from being desecrated. The Torah itself remains intact as ever, even more so, as it is protected by the fences which ensure its fulfillment.
Rabbeinu Gershom never intended to change the Torah in any way. Rather he saw that the Jews of his era had diminished in their level and were in a downward spiral; the marriage to multiple wives was causing undue discord. He therefore enacted a decree (which he limited to 1,000 years) to protect the integrity of the Jewish home, knowing full well that he merely erected a fence. He in no way intended to “change” the law of the Torah permitting multiple wives to a man. The later sages who led the Jewish people at the end of the 1,000-year period saw fit to continue this decree, as things had not improved in the way R’ Gershom had hoped; on the contrary, it became crucial to uphold his decree, and it remains codified in the “Code of Jewish Law.”
Let this example be a guiding light in the understanding of all Talmudic decrees. In fact, the very same Maimonides who laid down the principle of the unchanging Torah codifies all the Talmudic rabbinical fences in his own “Code!” This is not a contradiction at all, as we have explained.
The other question raised is the vast library of response literature to the Torah. This is also not an addition to the Torah per se, rather the application of Torah principles by the sages to modern-day situations that have never been before discussed. This, as well, points to the eternal nature of Torah. Property understanding of new issues have their basis in answers from the Torah!
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.