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How the Torah was Taught and Transmitted

Part 1:
From Moses to Joshua

As I have demonstrated in the earlier articles of this series, the Torah consists of two main parts: the Written Torah, and the Oral Torah. Both together make up the way of life that is Judaism.

Hashem taught Moses both the Oral Torah and the Written Torah in their entirety, in the Sinai Desert. Moses taught both to the Children of Israel. In this article, I hope to discuss that process, with Hashem's help.

Maimonides says that even though some of the Commandments were given to the Patriarchs, that is not the reason we obey those Commandments. For example, Hashem commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and all his household, and to command his children to do so as well, and to continue that commandment for all generations. Nevertheless, the reason we keep that Commandment is because Hashem commanded us to do so when He gave us the Torah.

Likewise, the reason Jews may not eat meat plucked off a live animal is not because it was commanded to all descendants of Noah. The Children of Noah must keep that Commandment because it is part of the Noahide Covenant with Hashem, and Jews must keep it because it is part of the Torah, which is our Covenant with Hashem.

We keep the Commandments because they are in the Torah, and because Hashem commanded that all the Children of Israel keep those Commandments.

A few of the Commandments were given to us before the Written Torah was given us. For example, Hashem gave us the Commandment of the Passover Sacrifice in Egypt, as thanks to Hashem for passing over our houses and killing only the Egyptian firstborn (Exodus 12:3-13). And before we could have the Holiday of Passover on the fifteenth of the month of Nisan, we first had to receive the Commandment to establish the months of the year (Exodus 12:2). Before we reached Mount Sinai, where Hashem gave us the Torah, we received the Commandments of Circumcision, Sabbath, Tefillin, Redeeming the Firstborn, and others.

All these were given us orally only. We as yet had no Written Torah. But we already had these parts of the Oral Torah.

In other words, we were actually given parts of the Oral Torah before we were given the Written Torah.

At Mount Sinai Hashem caused many great miracles to take place. We saw no image or form of G-d, because G-d has no image or form. We saw a great fire that reached Heaven. We saw sounds, a feat that is so mind-boggling that we cannot even understand what that means. We saw evidence that Hashem created the universe, and is Master of the universe, and can do whatever He wants in the world.

Those who stood at Mount Sinai heard the voice of Hashem tell Moses to teach us the Torah. They also heard the first two of the Ten Statements (mistakenly called "Ten Commandments" by those who mistranslated the Bible for the Christians) spoken by Hashem Himself. It was too difficult to withstand, so the Children of Israel begged Moses to ask Hashem to tell them to Moses, who would repeat the rest to the people.

So the Children of Israel heard the first two directly from Hashem, and the other eight through Moses.

Then Moses went up the mountain, was taken into Heaven, and studied there with Hashem, learning the Torah directly from Hashem. That statement in itself demonstrates that Moses studied the Oral Torah there, since the Written Torah could simply have been handed to Moses, and could have been studied later. Evidently, there was something more than just the Written Torah to be studied.

Hashem taught Moses all of the Torah, but apparently not all at once. For one thing, we find that there were some Laws that Moses had to later ask Hashem to clarify. For example, one Sabbath day a man transgressed the Sabbath publicly, and the Torah tells us, "they put him in jail, because it was not explained what should be done to him" (Numbers 15:34).

But ultimately, Hashem taught the entire Torah to Moses. Hashem even taught to Moses every question, doubt and difference of opinion that would take place later throughout the entire history of the Jews. To the Children of Israel, however, the Torah was taught piecemeal.

Take a look at this image scanned from part of a page of a Torah Scroll.

Torah Scroll writing

You will notice that there are blank spaces. Some of the blank spaces take up a certain amount of area, and some reach all the way until the end of the line.

These are the Torah's system of "open" and "closed" divisions. These divisions are sort of like chapter and paragraph breaks. The "closed" passages (stumos -- the singular form of the word is stumah) have some sort of conceptual connection to each other, sort of like paragraphs within a chapter. An "open" section break (a p'suchah -- p'suchos in plural) indicates a more significant break in concept, sort of like with a new chapter. (The chapter system currently in use almost universally is actually of Gentile origin, and contains a great many errors, dividing many sections that should be together.)

Open sections must start at the beginning of a line, so the blank spaces before a new "open" section will reach until the end of the previous line. Then the new section begins, at the beginning of the next line. (In many printed Chumashim, this is marked by the Hebrew letter peh.)

The closed sections begin just a few spaces after the previous section ends, and usually begin on the same line. (In many printed Chumashim, this is marked by the Hebrew letter samech.)

The fragment shown here is from Exodus, Chapter 21, from the middle of verse 19 until the middle of verse 34. Verse 19 is from the end of a discussion about personal damage one person commits against another in the course of a fight. Then there is a stumah, after which the Torah discusses the death penalty for a man who kills his Gentile slave. Then there is another stumah, after which the Torah discusses what is to be done when a man causes a woman to miscarry. There is another stumah, and the Torah discusses what happens when a man hurts (but does not kill) his Gentile slave.

Then there is a p'suchah, which as we said indicates a major break, and the Torah begins to discuss the Laws of an animal that causes damage.

So within the first p'suchah mentioned here, the Torah discusses various Laws of damages that man causes against man. The various types are each separated by a stumah, a minor break, so they are like paragraphs in a chapter.

Between the discussion of damages caused by humans and the discussion of damages caused by animals, there is a p'suchah, a major break, and so the two concepts are divided into separate "chapters."

The breaks also indicate that Hashem would teach each passage to Moses separately. This happened throughout the forty years in the Sinai Desert. (There are also other, deeper reasons for the breaks, but here I confine myself to the basic meanings.)

Hashem would recite a passage of the Written Torah to Moses, telling him what to write, letter by letter. Hashem would then teach Moses the Oral Torah associated with that passage: the details of that Law, along with the deeper meanings, the applications of that Law, and all concepts related to it.

Hashem would then give Moses time to think it through and review it. Moses would return with any questions that he might have, and Hashem would answer him.

Moses would then go to the tent in which he taught Torah, call in his brother, Aharon the High Priest, and teach him all that he had just learned from Hashem. They would then call in Aharon's two sons, Elazar and Isamar, and Moses would teach it to them in the presence of Aharon. They would then call in the Seventy Elders, and Moses would teach it to them, while Aharon and his two sons listened. Then they would call in all of the people, and Moses would teach it to them. As Moses taught it to them, they would each write down the part that was to be written, and they would carefully study and memorize the parts that were to be oral.

Aharon would then teach the Torah to everyone present. After that, Aharon's two sons would teach it to everyone present. After Aharon's two sons had finished, the Elders would teach the Torah to everyone present.

Afterwards, the leaders of the people, the Elders and the other leaders would travel around the camp and make sure that all questions were answered and that all the Law was understood.

Then Hashem would teach Moses the next passage of the Torah, and the process would be repeated.

By this method, each person was taught the Torah at least four times, and each person got to hear it from Moses at least once.

When I refer to "other leaders," I mean the leaders mentioned in Exodus 18:21-25. When Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses saw that Moses was tiring himself out by answering the people's questions all day, he advised him to appoint "leaders of thousands, leaders of hundreds, and leaders of tens of people."

Jethro's system was used primarily in judging cases and answering questions. Actual teaching and study was done in Yeshivos (study halls), similar to the ones we have today. We find, for example, that the Prophet Elisha built a study hall for him and his students (2 Kings, Chapter 6). Often these yeshivos would serve as local Jewish courts as well.

Jethro's system was kept for all time, even when the land of Israel was settled. Every town or city with at least 120 people had a court of ordained Judges. In the smaller towns and villages, these judges would be formed into courts of three judges. In bigger cities a court might have twenty-three judges. Jerusalem had a few courts, and the highest court, the Sanhedrin, had at least seventy-one judges. The leading Rabbi of all Jews in Israel would be appointed as head of the Sanhedrin.

How were Elders and Judges appointed? Judges and Elders were always appointed by the Elders, and taken from their best students. The leading Rabbi was usually appointed by a vote of the Sanhedrin.

Moses is referred to as "Moshe Rabbenu," which means, "Our Rabbi Moses." Moses was the first Rabbi, because Hashem ordained him to be a Rabbi. Moses then ordained those who were fitting (moral, patient, kind, wise, altruistic, etc.), and knowledgeable in Torah, and made them into Elders and Leaders.

In later years, those Elders and Leaders ordained those of their students that were fitting and knowledgeable. Those students later ordained some of their own students, who passed it on to their students, and so on, for many generations. The Mosaic Ordination was passed down this way from Rabbi to student for close to two thousand years, until the fourth century C.E., when the Emperor Constantinius put a stop to it, and the Mosaic Ordination was cut off without any recipients. Since then, we have not had a Sanhedrin.

For some reasons, the detractors of Judaism (including Thomas Paine in his book, The Age of Reason) like to say that the Torah nowhere claims that Moses wrote the Torah. To put that foolishness to rest, here is what the Torah says about that:

Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll until it was complete. Moses commanded the Levites, those who carried the Ark of Hashem's Covenant, telling them, "Take this Torah Scroll, and put it next to the Ark of Hashem your G-d's Covenant, and let it be there as a testimony."

-- Deuteronomy 31:24-25

The Torah is quite clear that Moses wrote down the entire Written Torah.

Furthermore, it was all according to Hashem's precise instructions. Hashem instructed Moses on writing the Torah Scroll letter by letter. As I have mentioned, Hashem composed the entire Torah two thousand years before He created the universe. So while Moses wrote the first Torah Scrolls used by the Children of Israel, Moses did not compose it. He followed Hashem's instructions precisely, in every minute detail.

When the time came for Moses to leave this world, Hashem told him to appoint Joshua as his successor. Why Joshua? Because Joshua devoted his life to studying Torah from Moses and learning from the greatest of Prophets how to behave and how to live. The Torah says that Joshua never left Moses' side (Exodus 33:11). And therefore the Torah says,

Hashem told Moses "Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man who has the Spirit of Hashem on him, and ordain him. Present him to Elazar the High Priest and all of the Congregation of Israel, and instate him as they watch. Impart some of your splendor to him, so that all the Congregation of Israel will obey him."

-- Numbers 27:18-20

And later we find that Hashem commanded Joshua:

Strengthen yourself and take courage, for you will lead this nation to the land I promised to their fathers I would give them. So it is important that you strengthen yourself and take courage a great deal to guard and obey all of the Torah that My servant Moses taught you. Do not stray from it, not to the right or left, so that you will be successful in all that you undertake. The Torah should not leave your mouth, and you must study it day and night, so that you will guard and keep all that it is written in it....

-- Joshua 1:6-8

And so, not only did the mantle of leadership of Israel pass from Moses to Joshua, so did the responsibility for the maintenance of proper Torah study pass along to him as well. For that has been the true function of the leaders of Israel throughout all the generations: to maintain an elevated level of Torah study, and lead Israel in proper obedience to the Torah.

The next section, Hashem willing, will discuss the generations that followed Joshua.

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