Sunday, June 1, 2014

Amelia Bedelia and the Oral Tradition: Guest Blogger Rabbi Zee

Rabbi Zee (aka Zauderer) is a fast-talking New Yorker.  Except he lives in Toronto and has some really interesting things to say - if you can follow the pace.  He joined us in Cleveland for a Shabbaton weekend last year and I've been getting his weekly emails ever since.  He and his wife Ahuva and their eight children live in the Bathurst/Lawrence area, where their home is always open to anyone who wants to experience a Shabbos or a Torah class. Rabbi Zee (as he is known to his students) brings to his classes a special combination of Torah knowledge, teaching experience, and interpersonal skills.  In honor of the forthcoming holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah, Shavuot, here's a classic piece of his on the Oral Tradition (the mishna/Talmud).  Rabbi Zee will be available to field comments and questions here.  Email him to be added to his weekly list - it's great stuff.

"Now let's see what this list says," Amelia Bedelia read. "CHANGE THE TOWELS IN THE GREEN BATHROOM."  Amelia Bedelia found the green bathroom.

"Those towels are very nice. Why change them?" she thought.

Then Amelia Bedelia remembered what Mrs. Rogers had said. She must do just what the list had told her.

"Well, all right," said Amelia Bedelia. 

She snipped a little here and a little there.  And she changed those towels.

"Now what?  PUT THE LIGHTS OUT WHEN YOU FINISH IN THE LIVING ROOM.”   Amelia Bedelia thought about this a minute.

She switched off the lights. Then she carefully unscrewed each bulb. And Amelia Bedelia put the lights out.

"So those things need to be aired out, too. Just like pillows and babies.  Oh, I do have a lot to learn."      


It is a foundation of our faith to believe that G-d gave Moses and the Jewish people an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text. This oral tradition is now essentially preserved in the Talmud and Midrash.                

However, there are many Jews today who are skeptical when it comes to accepting a so-called "oral tradition," claiming that the Talmud and all the interpretations of the literal text of the Torah were the product of later Rabbinic scholars who might have had hidden agendas and fanciful imaginations.                

Some of us might be willing to accept the notion of G-d revealing Himself to the Jewish people and giving us His Torah – the Written Torah, that is - but anything other than the Five Books of Moses is circumspect.                

If we study Jewish history, we will find that this is an old claim that was made well over 2000 years ago by a breakaway sect of Jews known as the Saduccees. While they accepted the authority of the Written Torah, they rejected the oral traditions and interpretations of the Sages, and they preached a literal reading of the text of the Torah.... which led to some interesting and strange practices. I guess one could say that the Saduccees were the "Amelia Bedelias" of the ancient world.                 

I will give you some examples of what can happen when we take every word of the Written Torah literally, without relying on a much-needed Oral Tradition.                

G-d commands the Jewish people in Numbers (15:38): "They shall make for themselves tzitzis (fringes) on the corners of their garments ..... It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it ....."  The Torah never writes explicitly that we should wear the fringed garment. If anything, the Torah says that we should see the tzitzis, implying that we should hang the fringed garment (today called the prayer shawl) on our wall in a noticeable place.
And that's exactly what the Saduccees did! They hung their tzitzis on the wall, but would never wear them.                

How about the Sabbath? It is one of the Ten Commandments. Yet in the entire Written Torah, virtually no details are given as to how it should be kept! So how are we to know what to do? Should we keep the Sabbath by lighting candles... or maybe a trip to the park with the kids was what G-d had in mind? Or maybe it should be left up to each individual to celebrate the Sabbath in his/her own way?                

The details can be found in the Oral Torah, of course. As G-d said, "You shall keep the Sabbath holy, as I have commanded your fathers" (Jeremiah 17:22) - obviously referring to an oral tradition. But I bet that Amelia Bedelia and her predecessors the Saduccees sure would have been confused!      


Let me give you one more example, which has relevance to the upcoming holiday of Shavuos (The Festival of Weeks).

In the Written Torah, G-d commands the Jewish people to celebrate the holiday of Shavuos. But He doesn't tell them directly which day they should celebrate.  Rather, the Torah states in Leviticus (23:15"You shall count for yourselves - from the morrow of the rest day seven weeks..."  The Torah writes further that at the end of those seven weeks of counting you shall celebrate the Festival of Weeks.

Now, if we are to believe that only the Written Torah was Divinely given, but not the Oral Tradition, then we are forced to conclude that G-d was playing some kind of cruel joke on His Chosen People!

I mean, come on, can't you help us out here a little, G-d? On the morrow of the "rest day" we should count seven weeks and then celebrate Shavuos? Which one of the 52 "rest days" of the year are you referring to, G-d? Are we going to play Twenty Questions here, or what?                    

As a matter of fact, the Saduccees, for lack of a better option, decided to count the seven weeks from the day after the first Saturday after Passover, which means that Shavuos would always come out on a Sunday!                  

Of course, the Oral Torah helps us out here as always, and tells us exactly what G-d had in mind with that very vague and ambiguous reference.                

Now, when Amelia Bedelia makes such mistakes and follows everything Mrs. Rogers tells her to do - literally - it makes for an interesting and comical children's book, at which we can't help but chuckle. But it's not so funny when the stakes are higher - when the very foundation of our faith and of our lives - our beloved Torah - is taken so literally as to become vague and confusing, and, G-d forbid, almost comical.

THE OBVIOUS QUESTION                

Okay, so let's assume that G-d gave us two Torahs - a Written Torah and an Oral Tradition along with it to clarify things - but we still have to ask ourselves why would G-d do such a thing? Why couldn't He just write everything clearly in the Written Torah?  This way He could have avoided all the problems and divisions among our people, whereby some of us accept both Torahs, and some reject the Oral Torah, because it seems to have originated with a bunch of Rabbis, instead of being Divinely given and inspired!               

I once posed this question to a man from West Orange, New Jersey, with whom I had been studying on a weekly basis. His ten-year-old son had joined us that evening, and the young boy came up with an answer that is, in my opinion, quite profound, and also has a connection to the very first words in this week's Torah portion.               

In Leviticus (26:3), the Torah states: "If you will follow My decrees and observe My commandments and perform them; then I will provide your rains in their time.”

The verse seems to be repetitious. What is the difference between "following my decrees" and "observing my commandments"? Rashi, the great Bible commentator, explains, based on the Oral Tradition, that "following My decrees" - which is read in Hebrew bechukosai tay-laychu - means that we should toil in Torah study, whereas the next words in the verse refer to the performance of the actual commandments.

It is difficult to understand where the Oral Tradition got the idea of “toiling in Torah” from the Torah’s words bechukosai tay-laychu, which simply mean “to follow My decrees.”
Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, once explained this strange oral tradition as follows:               

There are two methods of writing - one with ink and paper and the other by engraving on stone. The difference between the two is that when one writes with ink, the words do not become one with the paper, making it possible for the message on the paper to be erased over time. When a message is engraved into stone, however, the words and the stone are one unit, so that the message remains in the stone permanently.
The Hebrew word bechukosai, or decrees, comes from the root word chakikah, which means engraving. G-d is teaching us that if we want the words and the message of the Torah to leave an indelible and permanent impression upon us, we must study them intensely and toil in them, so that we become one with the Torah that we study and it becomes engraved on our hearts.
And that's exactly what the little boy answered to my question. He said that if the entire Torah had been written out for us, without our having to put any effort in trying to explain it and get to the deeper meaning behind the literal text, it wouldn't become a part of us and would leave no permanent impact.

This is one of many reasons why the Oral Tradition is so very important and central in Judaism.


  1. Interesting article. I have personally heard a lot of skepticism within the Modern Orthodox community about the veracity of the Talmud. It isn't that people think that there isn't more to the Torah, it is that they believe the Talmud is a growing, living thing that keeps adapting. That the rabbis of the Talmud were influenced by their times in the same way that any human being will be influenced by their times. I sometimes wonder whether this is exactly what Hashem wants. Perhaps Hashem wants there to be some Jewish groups to hold fast onto tradition so that the tradition survives through the years while other Jews push the tradition to the limit and focus on social issues that might be ignored or not focused on by more traditional Jews. From what I can tell, the more Ultra Orthodox are not addressing issues such as homosexuality, for example. And of course there is the woman rabbi issue. Curious to hear your views.

    1. Until Rabbi Zee weighs in, I'll chime in here. The idea that the Talmud keeps progressing and that the rabbis in the Talmud were influenced by their times in a way that makes the Talmud anything other than an authoritative work is much more indicative of a Conservative mindset than an Orthodox one.

      I do believe, strongly, that Hashem wants different groups to bring different mitzvah focuses to the table - as long as those various focuses are within halachic guidelines. Acceptance of female rabbis stretches these guidelines to their limit, and beyond it.

    2. How do you reconcile when the rabbis in the Talmud say things like women shouldn't learn Torah? From my understanding, it is only recent that there were Jewish schools for girls. This is just one example, by the way.

    3. Shouldn't isn't the same as can't, so when "times changed" we could make a change in this area as well. And the change was approached with deference, respect, and collaboration with traditional authorities.

  2. Should be workingJune 2, 2014 at 11:57 AM

    The Torah and Talmud have multiple layers and meanings, this to me is a sign of literary genius and artistry, if not the divine hand itself.

    From what I understand Orthodox Jews take some of the Torah very literally and other parts not. And likewise with Talmud, some rules are taken literally and some figuratively or interpretatively--with the help of a present-day interpreter.

    So it seems there is always another layer of interpretation telling Orthodox Jews which part is literal and which is not. Or disambiguating where there is ambiguity--like I guess the Talmud needs clarification and consistency-making as well. I don't see where people, I guess rabbis, get the authority to decide where something IS to be taken literally, or in one particular way. It seems like this undermines the amazingly constructed ambiguities of the texts themselves. So to me Orthodox Judaism seems paradoxical--most reverent of the multiplicity of Torah/Talmud and yet most committed to reducing that multiplicity in order to come up with practical decisions.

    One small question: why is it such a weird idea that Shavuot would fall on a Sunday each year? The Sadducees came up with a reading that is plausible, even if it's not clear which of the year's Saturdays is meant, why is the Sunday idea so remarkable?

    1. We do, as you say, reduce the multiplicity, since the most important part of Torah is living it. Orthodoxy is not a theological exercise. It's a daily lifestyle. The reason rabbis get the authority is because the Torah itself invested them with it by instructing us to follow their guidance and interpretations.

      The final question I will leave for Rabbi Zee.

  3. I don't think there are many liberal Jews who can clearly differentiate between Torah, Mishna and Gemara and there are few liberal Jews (in my experience) who believe in revelation in the Orthodox sense while disbelieving in the oral law. We basically won the argument against the Sadducees and with the exception of the Kararites, who still exist, modern Jews are less clear on where exactly different things come from but more clear on what they have no intention of doing. :-)

    Few American Jews would stop saying the bracha on lighting shabbat candles simply because it's a late innovation from 12th century France. Nor would they stop using the stove on shabbat simply because it's written directly in the Torah (although there are mizrachi Jews in Israel who hold this way).

    I think it's an issue of being commanded. Liberal Jews just don't have a good take on that idea in theory and in practice, they have simply abandoned it.

    It's a question of revelation itself -- did we receive the same Torah that we have now from G-d at Sinai, word for word? Or did we hear something -- something that was perceived and written down through the filter of the ancient human beings who heard it and their own experience of the world?

    This is not an argument one can "win" in my experience -- on one side or the other. If you believe in G-d but you don't accept the revelation at Sinai in the Orthodox sense, you have one set of problems. If you do accept it, you have a different set of problems. If you don't believe in G-d but you think Jewish identity is important, you have yet a third set of problems. Jews who bother to think about these things are basically choosing the set of problems that feels right to them.

    One the one hand, you can say that's pick and choose (even for the Orthodox, who are picking problems that seem easy to them). On the other hand, you can say each person is trying to do their work in the world, the work that G-d has given them. I prefer the latter attitude, in keeping with the idea of judging our fellow Jews favorably.

    This means that when I get upset with the Orthodox over what one could call "social issues" for lack of a better word, I try to remember that they have a piece of the truth that is uncomfortable for me and they are holding on to parts of our tradition that I have let go and I am not G-d to know what matters and what doesn't. And when more liberal Jews get upset with me, I hope they can see me the same way.

    1. Well, I think that's pretty awesome.

  4. Another yet unanswered question is why certain seemingly unnecessary chapters were included in the written Torah while other critical pieces were left out. The chumash spends so much verses listing Eisav's descendants and almost nothing about tefillin! Is that so we invest in tefillin and ignore Eisav's descendants, as Rabbi Z's explanation would imply? Seems hard to believe.

    1. That's a good question - a great one, actually - but Rabbi Zee's explanation is a Chassidic thought, not a hard-and-fast rule of extrapolating Torah insight. It may apply in every case, or it may just be a way of thinking about things. It certainly doesn't HAVE to be inversely true in every case, or even in any.

  5. Interestingly, Karaites exist today, contrary to many who believe they died out.

    1. Absolute fascinating. Thanks.

    2. Yes, have a congregation in CA and a not insignificant number of people in Israel.
      I believe that Ovadia Yosef rules that they are Jews and that marriage in no problem. Recently, they have started accepting converts again after many centuries. So that may impact the way the relations between the two communities.


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