Mishpatim: the Written Torah as Notes on a Lesson  

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I presented a lesson on Parshat Mishpatim today to a class of tenth graders, based on Rashi, Ramban, and Rav Hirsch. I thought I might share with my readers part of what I said about Rav Hirsch's commentary.

Most of Parshat Mishpatim focuses on halakha – it contains over 50 of the 613 mitzvot, and most of them are simply listed one after the other. They do not take up a lot of space – only one sentence, or even just a few words, and sometimes it is a bit hard to understand what exactly a mitzvah entails, because what is written here is so brief and lacks detail.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his introduction to Mishpatim, explains that what we read here in the Written Torah – Torah she’b’ktav – does not contain all of halakha. When you read through the verses of the Torah, you are not getting all of Jewish law – that we can only get with the help of the Oral Torah – Torah she’ba’al peh. And not only is the written Torah incomplete without the oral Torah, but Rav Hirsch even states that the primary source of halakha is in the teachings of the Oral Torah. According to him, the written Torah – the actual pesukim that we read – are not the main part of Torah. We follow halakha based on our tradition – based on the Oral Torah that was passed on through the generations, which was ultimately put into writing in the Talmud. That is where we get the Law from. And the Written Torah is used to help the memory or when there are doubts about the halakha.

We see in the Torah itself that Bnei Yisrael already got the Torah and lived by it for forty years before Moshe gave them the actual book of the Torah right before his death. So they already knew the Torah – they knew everything that was told to them at the time of Mt. Sinai, which is why all the details did not have to be actually written in the Torah.

That is why, the written Torah was not meant to be used as a primary source for halakha. It was meant to be used by those who already knew halakha well, to help renew their memories. And also, it was meant to be used as a reference by those who taught halakha to a new generation, in order to confirm the teachings of the Oral Torah, so that students would find it easier to remember in their heads the halakha because they not only heard it from their Rabbanim, but they also had it written down right in front of them.

Rav Hirsh actually gives a brilliant parable to the relationship between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. And this is something that all students can relate to. When you are a student and you sit in school for about eight hours on average every day, you have many different classes a day and different subjects. So the teacher is standing there in front of the classroom, speaking to you, giving over information and knowledge, and what do you do if you want to remember what she says so you can later get it right on the test or – better yet – use it for life? You take notes! Now, most people do not write down every single word the teacher says. (Some people don’t even write a single word the teacher says, relying instead on their friends’ notes, but that’s a separate issue.) So you listen to what the teacher is saying, and you write the general ideas. Might there be things that you are missing, especially if the teacher is going fast? Yes; definitely!

If the teacher is telling you a story in connection with the lesson, you probably won’t write the entire story down, but you might write a few key words or jot down "story about ___", and when you later look over your notes and see those few words or one sentence, you will remember the entire story. But what about a girl who is not in class that day and later copies your notes? Will she be able to know the entire story based on the few words you wrote down as a reminder to yourself? No; she won’t. It will be up to you to explain it to her.

And that, according to Rav Hirsch, is the relationship between the Oral Torah and the Written Torah. The Oral Torah is the lesson, and the Written Torah – the Chumash – are the notes taken on the lesson. So the people who were at the lesson only need some notes in order to remember the whole lesson. But for those who did not hear the lesson, those notes are not of much use. Those notes will not be able to give them as thorough an understanding of the lesson as if they had been there. And if they try to understand the whole lesson and put it together in their minds based on those brief notes, they will of course make quite a few mistakes. They won’t understand parts of it, they will think other parts are useless, and so on.
And that is why we need the Oral Torah, which is a more accurate representation of the lesson than the brief notes that are written down in the pesukim.

One of the things that people sometimes ask is, “Where does it say that in the Torah?” If they don’t want to follow a certain halakha or they want to find a way around it, they say, “Show me where it says that in this Chumash. It does not say anywhere that I can’t do these things that the Rabbis are telling me not to do! If you find me where it says I have to do that, then I’ll do it! Why should I do it if it’s not in the Torah?”

If you understand what Rav Hirsch wrote, you will understand why that is a wrong attitude. A person cannot just decide to only follow what is written straight out in the Torah, because a) the Written Torah is not the primary source of halakha, and b) the Written Torah is just like notes on a lesson; it does not contain everything. You need the oral tradition in order to know what the halakha is. Therefore, a person cannot say that because a certain halakha comes from the Oral Torah, it is any less important than something that is written straight out in the Chumash – because it is every bit as important.

It says in Shemot 24:7 (Parshat Mishpatim) the following:

ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ויאמרו כל אשר דבר ה' נעשה ונשמע

Moshe took the Sefer HaBrit and read it to the nation, and they said, “All that Hashem speaks, we will do and we will listen.”

When we were children, we always learned that the Jews first said that they will do and then said they will listen because they wanted to show that they were accepting the Torah unconditionally – they agreed to follow everything G-d would tell them, even before they knew what it was.

Rav Hirsch, however, explains this differently. He says that “na’ase” refers to the Written Torah, and “nishma” refers to the Oral Torah. So the Jews were agreeing to not only do what is written in the Torah, but also to follow all that G-d has told them. They accepted upon themselves to follow the oral tradition as well, so that they could serve Hashem completely – because without the Oral Torah, our avodat Hashem would be incomplete. We need it. Both parts of the Torah are important, and we need to learn from each of them.

This entry was posted on Friday, February 12, 2010 at Friday, February 12, 2010 and is filed under , , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


Beautiful elucidation. Note-taking; that makes so much sense. And it also speaks to the constant need to be learning and reviewing Torah. I'm over ten years out of college and I sometimes go back to my notebooks and don't understand what I wrote, except in my major, which I've kept up with.

Thank you for the insight on this often-difficult-for-women parsha.

February 13, 2010 at 10:05 PM

Thank you; I'm glad you appreciated it! I have more on Parshat Mishpatim that I hope to get around to posting.

February 16, 2010 at 12:34 AM

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