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Which Came First?

The age-old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” is answered in our Talmud, page 26a of tractate Rosh Hashanah. Based on an analysis of the word “shofar” (שופר) the Talmud shows the term is a combination of two words, “shor, שור” and “par, פר.” Rashi explains the word שופר refers to the ox at creation. Being newly created, the Hebrew term for a young ox, שור should apply. However, since it was created mature and looked like a three year old ox, the term פר should be used. Hence the combination, שופר, a newly created ox that was physically three years old. So we see the original animals were created in their full and mature form, the chicken before the egg!

Now here’s another question? Which came first, the Written Torah or the Oral Torah, the תורה שבכתב or the תורה שבעל פה? A corollary to this question is another question. Does the Written Torah, anywhere throughout its verses, refer to the existence of an Oral Torah? Interestingly enough, this week’s Torah portion, פרשת ראה, contains the answer.

However, before we examine the Torah text, consider what the great modern Torah scholar, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, wrote in his commentary on Chumash. “ The Written Law is to the Oral Law in the same relation of short notes to a full and extensive lecture.” For the student who has heard the whole lecture, his short notes are quite sufficient to recall to his mind the whole subject of the lecture. For the student, however, who has not heard the lecture from the teacher, these notes are not only incomplete, but sometimes even misleading. 

 It is precisely for this reason that our Sages, after being forced to translate the Torah into Greek, the Septuagint, by Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, declared a fast day. The non-Jewish world would not know of the Oral Law. Relying on just the Written Torah, Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike would come to a completely erroneous understanding of God, His commandments and Judaism’s unique philosophy of life. That same concern of our Sages remains with us today. The correct answer, then, to the question which came first is the Oral Law. Exodus 24:3-4, clearly state that first “Moshe told the people the word of Hashem,” and then Moshe wrote all the words of Hashem.”

When was the Torah written in the form we have today? Here we have a dispute among our scholars, the two sides represented by Rashi and the Rambam. Rashi maintains that the Torah was written by the direction of God at various times over the 40 years in the desert. Accordingly, it was composed section by section. The Rambam maintains the entire Torah was written all at once, the last month of Moshe’s life. Both sides agree that the Torah was completed before Moshe’s death and that he wrote 13 copies, one for each tribe and one to be placed in the Holy Ark. Housed there it would serve as “the standard” should any questions arise concerning the authentic text. The explanation of this argument we will be left for another time. Suffice it to say both sides bring proof directly from verses in the Written Torah to support their opinions.  

Now we can turn to the question, does the Written Law reference the Oral Law? There are in fact 2 references to the Oral Law in the Written Law. The first is indirect. Vayikra 26:46 states, “ These are the decrees, the ordinances, and the Torahsוהתורת that Hashem gave between Himself and the Children of Israel at Mt Sinai through Moshe.” Since when are there 2 Torahs? Rashi on this word says, “It is a reference to both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.” 

The second reference is direct. Look at this week’s Torah portion, ראה, chapter 12, verse 21. “If the place…slaughter from your flocks… as I have commanded you.” The Torah is speaking here of our desire to eat meat. It tells us we need not go the Holy Temple to slaughter the animal. Rather, we can slaughter the animal anywhere we live. Just do it according to the instruction, “כאשר צויתך” “as I have commanded you.” 

However if you look through the entire Written Torah, there is no mention how to correctly slaughter animals be it for personal need or sacrificial purpose. On these words, “as I have commanded you,” Rashi quotes the Talmud Chulin, 28a. There the Oral Law mentions the only logical deduction possible. The laws of proper kosher slaughtering were already given orally at Mt. Sinai. The Written Torah in this week’s portion is merely referring to what the people had already learned. Hence not only did the Oral Law precede the Written but the Written Torah makes direct reference to that Oral Law system as already having been given to the people. 

This principle is crucial to attaining a proper understanding of the legal system of Judaism, every command in the Torah, and our unique philosophy of life. Yet it is often overlooked or misunderstood and certainly mis-transmitted. For example, Jews at some later time didn’t invent what a legal Succah is. From the “get go,” at Mt. Sinai, they had to know how to perform the mitzvah properly. Reward or punishment for carrying out God’s directives are based upon knowing exactly what to do. Later, it was enough for God to say and for Moshe to record in the Written Law, “In a succah you shall live for seven days.” The people had attended the full lecture on this command. A simple verse, a note, was all that had to be written down. Torah with a capital “T” refers then to both components, the Written and Oral Laws. They work in tandem beginning with the revelation at Har Sinai.

Thus this week’s Torah reading not only mentions many mitzvoth; it contains a fundamental concept underlying the entire system of Judaism. As we become more attentive to the language and style of the Written Law, we begin to see oddities in the text. They are designed purposefully to draw our attention, to bring us to question, and then to seek out rational and logical explanations in the Oral Law. 

The Written and Oral Law system of Judaism is truly fascinating. It is put together with the same beauty, elegance and infinite wisdom as is the system governing the physical world which we encounter on a daily basis. We only need to apply ourselves to the understanding of Torah just as we apply ourselves to understanding the laws governing the physical universe. When we do, we are simultaneously fascinated and satisfied discovering answers to the mysteries that have perplexed us over the years. 

Come to think of it, this thought reminds me of another question. Which came first, the physical world or the Torah? 

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Robert Kaplan