By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
We continue with our discussion of the 13 principles of Jewish belief.
Maimonides writes in his commentary: “The eighth principle is that the Torah given to us by Moses originated from God. It is therefore called ‘God’s word’ … when it was transmitted, Moses wrote it down like a secretary taking dictation. In this way, he wrote the events of his time and the other stories in the Torah, as well as the commandments. Moses was therefore called a ‘secretary.’ Every verse in the Torah is equally holy … they all originate from God, and are all part of God’s Torah, which is perfect, pure, holy and true.”
Maimonides goes on to explain that it is a key point of this principle to believe nothing in the Torah was written by Moses from his own accord, and even the stories in the Torah are true and carry intrinsic and beneficial messages. This is inherent in the belief that “Torah is from heaven,” which means every word of Torah was dictated exactly to Moses to be written as it is.
Now let’s go back to last week’s topic, the seventh principle, the unique prophecy of Moses. We mentioned in the last column that Moses was endowed with an absolute clarity in his prophecy, (unlike other prophets), so he could receive the Torah and record God’s words, verbatim, without his own interpretation.
Maimonides continues, “If one truly understands the Torah, then he finds every word filled with wondrous wisdom. It contains a depth that can never be plumbed completely, ‘it is broader than the earth and wider than the sea.’ One need only to follow the example of King David … who prayed ‘Uncover my eyes, that I may behold the wonders of Your Torah.’”
Maimonides concludes indicating: “The same is true of the accepted explanation of the Torah (the Oral Tradition), which was also given by God. Following this Oral Tradition we make such things as the Succah, Lulav, Shofar, Tzitit and Tefillin in exactly the manner that God dictated to Moses. Moses transmitted this to us as a trustworthy messenger.”
The Torah teaches us this principle when it says “Moses said, through this you shall know that God sent me to do all these things, and I did not do it on my own accord,” (Numbers 16:28).
Maimonides elucidates the last point in the introduction to his “Code” in which he says, “Every commandment given to Moses on Mount Sinai was given together with an explanation. God thus told Moses, “come up to Me to the mountain … and I will give you the tablets of stone, the Torah and its instruction, (Exodus 24:12).” “Torah” refers to the written Torah, while “instruction” refers to the explanation. We are thus commanded to keep the Torah according to its explanation … which we call the Oral Torah (Torah She’baal Peh).
With the Oral Tradition we also know which verses are to be taken literally and which are allegorical or are to teach a message outside the simple meaning.
Maimonides explains all the above ideas at great length, outside the limits of this column. His entire lecture on this principle is summed up, in short, in the “Ani Ma’amin” recital at the beginning of the Siddur prayer book: “I believe with perfect faith that the Torah we now have in our hands is that which was given to Moses.”
Now, how did Jewish law discusses matters that did not exist at the time it was given at Sinai? For example, we’re forbidden to drive cars on Shabbat, to turn on and off electric lights and so on. Cars and electricity didn’t exist at the time the Torah was handed down.
Maimonides answers this by including belief in the Oral Torah as part of this principle. Through the Oral Torah our sages have the power and ability to utilize and extrapolate Torah concepts, finding their application in today’s world. In other words, Torah itself hasn’t changed from when it was handed down to Moses, but its applications are constantly useful to our ever-changing, ever-evolving world.
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.