Someone once presented Rav Moshe Feinstein with a very common concern. He asked, “What if someone failed to hear some words of the Torah reading? Did he discharge his obligation if he missed a few? Many great scholars and tzaddikim were very careful and would make up any word missed by joining another minyan during their reading. But perhaps such stories are not because of any halachic obligation. Maybe they are merely a stringency?”
Rav Moshe ruled decisively, “It is obvious that one should not skip even one word of the reading if it is at all possible. Post facto, if one skipped and it was a day where we lain three verses, on the surface it would appear as though one does discharge his obligation. It is not permitted to read less than three verses. Since the person in question did not hear the minimum, he did not discharge his obligation. This is no different than the case of one who was called up to the Torah and they did not lain three verses—he also did not discharge his obligation if he did not hear the minimum number of verses.
Rav Moshe concluded, “If the reading contains more than three verses and he heard three he discharges his obligation with this aliyah, and if he heard another two aliyos he has fulfilled his obligation. Of course, on Shabbos and Yom Tov one has the problem that if he missed a part of the reading he will not merit to finish the public reading of the Torah for that year. However, in such a case one often has no recourse since he cannot have them repeat the reading only for him!”
Mishna Berura Yomi Digest
Stories to Share
Siman 137, Seif 5-6
Recently Dan Benzvi on his blog Fellow Heirs challenged me to discuss the relationship between the Torah, Oral Law, and the Talmud in his blog post The oral Torah. Authority of God or man. I’m not sure we “solved” anything, but at least we got the opportunity to (again) air our different perspectives on the matter.
Dan really does bring up some good questions, though. Can we believe that everything in the Mishnah and all of the rulings in the Talmud are indeed directly tied to the oral Laws God gave Moses at Sinai (assuming you believe that event actually took place) and that a Jew must obey all of the relevant Rabbinic rulings?
Take a look at the example I posted above from Mishna Berura Yomi Digest. There’s nothing in our written Bible that lends itself to describing the traditional Jewish Torah readings in anywhere near this level of detail. Can we believe that God gave these specific details to Moses? If so, why is there a question here? If not, then where did these questions and answers come from and why are they considered binding in Judaism?
If you’re a (non-Jewish) Christian, this entire discussion is moot. People who aren’t Jewish aren’t considered bound by any of the Rabbinic judgments under any circumstances, so we don’t have to give all this a second thought. But what about if you’re Jewish, and especially if you’re a believer (i.e. a “Christian” or a “Messianic Jew”)? If it’s not in the written Bible we have with us today but rather, in the extended Jewish documented wisdom, does it really matter?
Indeed, the Mishnah contains not a hint about what its authors conceive their work to be. Is it a law code? Is it a schoolbook? Since it makes statements describing what people should and should not do, or rather, do and do not do, we might suppose it is a law code. Since, as we shall see in a moment, it covers topics of both practical and theoretical interest, we might suppose it is a schoolbook. But the Mishnah never expresses a hint about the authors’ intent. The reason is that the authors do what they must to efface all traces not only of individuality but also of their own participation in the formation of the document. So it is not only a letter from utopia to whom it may concern. It also is a letter written by no one person – nor by a committee, either. Nor should we fail to notice, even at the outset, that while the Mishnah clearly addresses Israel, the Jewish people, it is remarkably indifferent to the Hebrew Scriptures.
The Mishnah makes no effort at imitating the Hebrew of the Hebrew Bible, as do the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Mishnah does not attribute its sayings to biblical heroes, prophets or holymen, as do the writings of the pseudepigraphs of the Hebrew Scriptures. The Mishnah does not claim to emerge from a fresh encounter with God through revelation, as is not uncommon in Israelite writings of the preceding four hundred years; the Holy Spirit is not alleged to speak here. So all the devices by which other Israelite writers gain credence for their messages are ignored. Perhaps the authority of the Mishnah was self-evident to its authors. But, self-evident or not, the authors in no way take the trouble to explain their document’s audience why people should conform to the descriptive statements contained in their holy book.
from the introduction to
The Mishnah: A New Translation
by Jacob Neusner
That description of the Mishnah is fairly similar to others I’ve read from various sources such as The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Fonrobert and Martin Jaffee. But given all of that, what can we say about Mishnah, Talmud, and Gemara?
I’m not particularly qualified to respond, not being a scholar in Jewish studies or anything related, but from what I gather, it’s extremely important to Judaism that these texts, opinions, commentaries, and judgments do exist. Here’s why.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the subsequent eviction of most of the Jews from the Holy Land, what existed to define Judaism? Prior to this point, it was always the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Even in the times between the Temples of Solomon and Herod, it was the ideal of the Temple and the Torah that, more than anything else, defined Jewish identity in exile. The longing for the Jewish people was always the return to Israel, both as nation and paradigm, and to worship again “as in days of old and as in previous years” (Malachi 3:4).
With the Second Temple reduced to scorched and shattered rubble, and the vast majority of the Jewish people exiled to the diaspora, what was to prevent the eventual assimilation of the Jews into the nations surrounding them and outnumbering them?
Judaism was always about being distinctive, as the scripture says, “and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:8 [ESV]). All of the laws we see given to the Israelites in the Torah were designed to impact every area of their lives, serving as national constitution, penal and civil law, business ethics, social mores, and even personal and behavioral guides. In virtually every way, the nation of Israel was to stand out and stand apart from the nations of the world, primarily to lead its inhabitants to a holy life with God, but also to be a “light to the nations” (Isaiah 49:6, Isaiah 51:4), leading the world to God by example.
But a huge amount of the Torah laws apply only if you have a Temple, a functional priesthood, a system of courts including the Sanhedrin, and live within the geographic boundaries of the Land God gave in perpetuity to the Jewish people.
The Romans took all of that away, and then subsequent conquerors kept the Land and national self-rule from the Jews for the next 2,000 years.
Why didn’t the Jewish people assimilate and disappear into the pages of history? Many, many other people groups and religious traditions from that time have utterly vanished from our view. Why did the Jews, though extremely small in number, remain a people vitally alive with purpose and function; with faith and identity?
What do you think of when you think of a religious Jew?
The stereotypes some people have are guys in black hats and coats, wearing some sort of string off of their waistline, having large, bushy beards, and bowing over and over again when they pray. Some people think of “Jewish prayer shawls and prayer books” while others think of events such as Passover or Chanukah. Whatever religious stereotypes seem to identify the Jews, the activities are almost always different than any other people group in the world. Jews worship in different places than anyone else, pray differently, pray in a different language than anyone else, wear different clothes (at least sometimes), have different holidays, eat differently, sing differently and…well, you get the idea.
I can hardly say that the Mishnah and Talmud are direct representations of the “Oral Law” that goes back over 3,500 years to Moses and God on Sinai, especially given the description (or lack thereof) of the origins of the Mishnah. What I can say, is that what the Jews have as “people of the book”, are a set of laws and rulings that set them apart from any other nation and group on earth, and that has defined them and kept them and preserved them when everyone else was doing their best to completely annihilate the Jewish people.
No, I’m not denying God’s involvement in the preservation of Judaism and in fact, I’m counting on it. As God went down into Egypt with Jacob (Genesis 46:3-4), so too did He go into the death camps with the Jews during the Holocaust. So too did he go with the Jews into the newly created state of Israel and He is there with them now.
But in a very great way, one of the primary mechanisms that has maintained Judaism as Judaism for the past twenty centuries has been the Talmud. It has now taken on the status of “Holy” among the Jews, especially the Orthodox, and it has many critics, including within more liberal religious and secular Judaism. But without it, would there be a man or woman alive today that we could point to and know he or she is a Jew?
You can love the Talmud or you can hate it, but if you are a Jew, no matter who you are, you cannot dismiss its existence or its role in preserving your existence.
As an afterword, I want to apologize to all of the Jewish people reading this. I’m not trying to pass myself off as some sort of expert (I’m anything but an expert on Judaism) or to co-opt anything belonging to Judaism. I am just presenting the perspective of one Christian writer on why I think the Talmud is not just important, but historically vital for the existence of the Jewish people. Please keep that in mind when or if you decide to comment.