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Revelation, Tradition, and the Esrog Tree: Meditations on the Mesorah

Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

The Yom Tov of Succos provides an opportunity to perform many varied and colorful mitzvos. Many of the specifics of these mitzvos are derived from various sources that are not explicit in the Torah. In order to understand the roots of many of our observances on Succos, as well as many other areas in the Torah, let us take a closer look at the entire system of mesorah and the sources of halachah as we know them today.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Relationship between the Written and Oral Torahs

One of the most fundamental points that must be made in any such discussion is that the Oral Torah and the Written Torah are inseparable. It is impossible to achieve a proper understanding of the Written Torah without also studying the Oral Torah. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains this matter beautifully:

The relationship between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah is like that between brief written notes taken on a scientific lecture, and the lecture itself. Students who attended the oral lecture require only their brief notes to recall at any time the entire lecture. They often find that a word, a question mark, an exclamation mark, a period, or the underscoring of a word is sufficient to bring to mind a whole series of ideas, observations, qualifications, and so forth.

But for those who did not attend the instructor’s lecture, these notes are not of much use. If they try to reconstruct the lecture solely from these notes, they will of necessity make many errors. Words, marks, and so forth, that serve the students who listened to the lecture as most instructive guiding stars for the retention of the truths expounded by the lecturer appear completely meaningless to the uninitiated. The noninitiate who will attempt to use these same notes in order to construct (as opposed to reconstruct) for himself the lecture he did not attend will dismiss what seems unclear as baseless mental gymnastics and idle speculations leading nowhere.[i]

Now that we understand how and why the two are so strongly interrelated, let us understand the exact definition of each. We know exactly what the Written Torah is: the text of every sefer Torah. But what does the “Oral Torah” — Torah Shebe’al Peh — include? What sort of information was transmitted to us along with the Written Torah?

 

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