It is fair to ask, when presented with information, «how do I know the information is correct?»
This question must be answered, because it addresses the most basic question of Judaism. We Jews follow a way of life that has been handed down from generation to generation, from parent to child, from Rabbi to student, for over three thousand years. How can we demonstrate that the information is correct?
Do not think that we simply accept that it is true and leave it at that. Jews are some of the most skeptical people in the world. We don’t just believe everything we hear. We ask for the evidence.
So: How do we know that the Tradition, that is, the Laws and other Teachings of the Torah, have been transmitted correctly?
Let us examine the method of Transmission of the Torah that Jews have used, as well as other relevant factors. We will see that the way the Torah has been transmitted through the ages makes errors and falsifications impossible.
The first thing to note is that the Torah is not the property of a few people. It is not esoteric or secret knowledge kept in the hands of a secret organization. Every Jew is expected to study Torah. We each have our individual abilities and gifts, and we are all therefore expected to study Torah at the highest level we can attain. (And before I get letters about this, it applies to women too. Women are required to
study — at the very least — all the Laws that they must fulfill, and today much, much more study and knowledge is expected of them than in years past.)
Some people think the Talmud was written by a few Rabbis plotting together in an attic somewhere, deciding what Jews should do and not do. This is a radical error. It is completely false, and not even close to fact by any means. It was not composed, but recorded, by thousands upon thousands of Rabbis and students working in
public, openly discussing all the issues. This ensured the highest safety against errors.
We are a nation of Torah. We have always been, and we always will be. There were times of great oppression, when Torah study was made difficult by the gentile governments around us, but through it all we stuck to it. And not individually — but en masse. Torah has always been taught publicly. Not, as some seem to think, one little old Rabbi in a basement or dungeon teaching one decrepit geek of a student, neither of whom has any idea of how the common man lives.
The truth is that Rabbis taught the Torah in public, with other Rabbis at their sides, and with thousands of students learning and asking challenging questions. These were Rabbis who usually had jobs in what some people call «the real world,» and they came from all sectors of Jewish society. Some were poor, some were rich, but all of them lived the Torah they taught, and lived in the world around them like everyone else.
The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students. He was not unusual. The Talmud doesn’t say he had an inordinately large number of students. No, quite the contrary. In the Torah Academies of Israel and Babylon there were learned Rabbis sitting together in a semi-circle, with all their thousands of students sitting behind them. And the Talmud teaches that every Rabbi should create many, many students (Avos 1:1).
The Talmud says that for a while Rabbi Gamliel of Yavneh would allow entry to the highest Academy in Yavneh only to some students. But then one day that was changed, and they allowed all students to enter. That day, says the Talmud, they had to add seven thousand more benches to the academy! We’re not talking about private study here. We’re talking about study that involved all the people. An entire nation.
The Talmud says (Sanhedrin 91b) that whoever refuses to teach Torah to another Jew is stealing his inheritance from him. The Torah says, «The Torah that Moses taught us is an inheritance of the Congregation of Jacob» (Deut. 33:4). Therefore, the Torah belongs to all Jews, by ancestral right. Thus, if you refuse to teach a Jew Torah, you are stealing his inheritance, his birthright.
Moreover, say the Talmudic Rabbis, why does the verse use the term «Congregation of Jacob? Why not say, «the Children of Jacob,» or «the descendants of Jacob?» It is to teach us, explain the Rabbis, that the Torah should not be kept private, but should be taught in public, with the congregation participating (Midrash Tehillim 1:1).
The Tradition did not begin with the Mishnah and Talmud, of course. Remember, Moses taught the Torah to all of the Children of Israel. As I have written elsewhere, Moses was taught directly by Hashem, every single word of Torah, both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. Hashem made special arrangements so Moses could ask any question he needed to ask. Hashem taught Moses the Torah passage by passage.
Moses then taught Aharon the High Priest everything he had learned. Then, while Aharon was still sitting there, he called in Aharon’s two sons Elazar and Isamar, and he taught them. Then they called in the Seventy Elders and he taught them. Then they called in all the Children of Israel, and Moses taught them. The Children of Israel would write each teaching down.
Then Aharon taught everyone the same passage. Then the two sons of Aharon taught everyone the passage. Then the Elders would teach it. This way, each person learned it at least four times, at several levels. (We can imagine that each probably had their own teaching style as well, which maximized general understanding.) Then people would gather with the leaders and learn with them, reviewing, asking questions, discussing each issue. Every group of ten Jews had a Teacher. Ten groups had a Teacher of that hundred, and ten hundreds had a Teacher of that thousand, and so on. (The Teachers were chosen from the most honorable and learned people to be found.) So again, all this was done in public.
After Moses passed away the Children of Israel continued to study Torah. In the Land of Israel they built yeshivos, and Teachers taught Torah to thousands upon thousands of students constantly. Some yeshivos were smaller, of course. We find, for example, that the Prophet Elisha had at least one hundred students (2 Kings 4:38-44). Students generally searched until they found the best Teacher for them, since people aren’t all able to learn at the same level.
We also had, when we all lived in Israel, the Torah’s complex system of appellate courts, to guarantee self-correction and various other checks and balances. Each city had a Jewish Court of 23 highly-qualified Judges, who were also required to teach Torah publicly. Jerusalem alone had at least three courts, the Supreme Court (later called the Sanhedrin) consisting of 71 Judges with their students. All this was to ensure that the Torah was preserved accurately, and to ensure that all of Israel knew the Torah.
Other countries have gross national products. The national product of the Jews is the Torah. The Nation of Israel never had gladiators, nor circuses, nor sports arenas, nor theaters, nor pageants, nor any of the recreational diversions that were found so often among other nations. The study of Torah has been our national recreation, our pastime, our holy service to Hashem.
And it was not a casual pastime. Most Rabbis devoted their entire lives to studying Torah. They studied it day and night, and slept and ate little. Many Rabbis had to work for a living, but their lives were wholly devoted to Torah study. They recited Torah as they worked. (This is true even today. I actually knew a man who did this constantly. He worked in a warehouse, walking around filling orders. He would recite Mishnayos by heart all day. When I wanted to speak to him I often had to wait until he finished the Mishnah he was reviewing.) And after work they hurried to study Torah in whatever time they had for as long as they could stay awake. As King David says in Psalms, «I love your Torah so much that that’s what I talk about all day» (119:97).
Hillel the Elder (112 B.C.E. — 8 C.E.) began as a very poor man. He earned very little money a day. Each day he would give half his money to the doorkeeper of the yeshivah so he could attend the classes of Shmaya and Avtalyon, the leading Elders of the generation. Once, on a Friday, when he did not have the few pennies it cost, Hillel climbed up the wall of the Academy and listened through the skylight. It began to snow, and he stayed on. Eventually, he got stuck there, and his body was noticed Shabbos morning, stuck on the skylight on the roof under the snow. The Leaders of the generation themselves, Shmaya and Avtalyon, ran and brought a ladder and climbed up and took him down. To save his life, they started a fire (even though it was the Sabbath, since we are obligated to break the Sabbath to save a life).
This sort of man will make sure to learn Torah without errors, and he certainly
does not falsify his teachings. He loved the Torah too much for
The study of Torah was so important, that Jews would stop at nothing to learn it. And because it was so important to them, they took great care to preserve the teachings of the Torah perfectly.
It was Avtalyon, one of those two Rabbis in that story, who used to warn his students and colleagues, «Rabbis! Be very careful with your words, so that your students do not make any mistakes» (Avos 1:11). How very important it was to the Rabbis that the Torah be taught carefully and correctly, so that mistakes do not occur.
The study of Torah was so dear to the Jews that many safeguards were put in place to ensure that it was done properly. The Talmud talks about Rabbis teaching the same material hundreds of times to the same student to make sure it was understood properly. The Rabbis instructed all Torah students to review every lesson at least one hundred and one times (Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 9b).
The Talmud (Megilah 7b) says that one year, on Purim, Rabbi Cahana was sitting with his student, Rabbi Ashi (circa 425 C.E.), and no one showed up to the Academy to study Torah. Rav Ashi asked, «Why are none of the Rabbis coming to the Study Hall?» Rabbi Cahana answered, «Perhaps they are still busy with their Purim Meal.» (On Purim we are obligated to eat a festive meal.)
Said Rabbi Ashi, «Couldn’t they have eaten it last night?»
Answered Rabbi Cahana, «Don’t you know that Rava (a leading Rabbi from around 325 C.E.) taught that if you eat the Purim Meal at night, you have not fulfilled your obligation.»
«Rava said that?» asked Rabbi Ashi.
«Yes, indeed,» answered Rabbi Cahana.
When Rav Ashi heard that, he asked Rabbi Cahana to teach it to him forty times, and only then did he feel that he had this Law «in his pocket,» so to speak.
This was not a complex Teaching. Yet this is how hard he worked to make sure he understood and remembered a simple Law. For the more complex ones he worked even harder. This was the standard method of Torah study — constant repetition to make certain that it was correctly understood and remembered.
The Rabbis lived and breathed Torah. It was part of them day and night. They talked about it constantly, even while they were doing other things, and they reviewed and went over their studies endlessly. They always desired to fulfill the verse that says, «And you shall ponder the Torah day and night» (Joshua 1:8).
This was the standard to which the Rabbis have always held themselves. You or I might content ourselves with studying something once or twice, but the Rabbis, whose responsibility it was to preserve the Torah and transmit it correctly, took their obligations seriously and worked hard to keep the Tradition intact.
Why, then, are there differences of opinion at all in the Talmud? Don’t the Rabbis disagree about major issues in Judaism?
Actually, no. There is not a single disagreement in the Talmud about core matters of Judaism. Each and every single dispute in the history of Jewish Law has been about a minor detail of the Law. Sometimes, during the times of oppression, when the government outlawed the study of Torah, and Jews had to study quickly and privately, some details became slightly obscured. For example, the Rabbis never argued about the basic Laws of Chanukah. They disagreed only about one detail — a detail that is not even a necessary part of lighting the Chanukah Lights. (Full discussion of this concept belongs in its own article, not here.)
Rabbis used to spend dozens of years studying before they considered themselves even partly learned. And until their dying day they did not stop learning, studying, and teaching. And they constantly gathered students so they could teach yet more and more, and they constantly asked questions so they could continue to learn more and more.
The basic skeleton of the Talmud is the Mishnah. It is said that Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) created the Mishnah. This is not correct. The Mishnah is a codification of already-existing Laws, and was accomplished by thousands of Rabbis together, over a long period of time. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince and all the Rabbis of his generation arranged the final version of it, and finished it around the year 188 C.E.
No one who ever lived throughout history ever had more teachers than Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi studied Torah from many Rabbis in person, and spent years asking questions and probing Torah issues. He even sent emissaries to other countries to have questions discussed and answered. He wanted whatever information any and every Rabbi could give him, even if that Rabbi was no longer alive. When Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi met a Torah student or scholar, he asked him who his Rabbi was. Then he asked the student to teach him what his Rabbi had taught him. «What did your Rabbi teach about this issue, and about that issue? And the next issue?» And so on. He collected Torah information like some people collect Pok้ Mon cards.
Then he gathered to him as many Torah teachers and students as possible. He left no one behind, if he could help it. And they began to study all the information each and every one of them had. Every Rabbi, every student, and every reputable person who had anything to say, was allowed the time to speak. Every word mentioned was studied, discussed, turned over, wrung through, examined, and worked over. Every statement had to be verified from various sources. For example, if one student quoted his Rabbi concerning a certain Law, all the available students of that Rabbi were asked to verify or dispute that statement. And students of other Rabbis were asked if their Rabbis had made the same statement or had differed with it. Even spellings were verified, since a variant spelling can change the meaning of a word (see, for example, Eruvin 53b).
And then they began to form the Mishnah. They not only examined each teaching, they also looked for the best possible way to phrase each Law. They once again probed each student. «How did Rabbi Meir phrase this Law when he taught it? Precisely what words did Rabbi Akiva use when he discussed this matter?» Note that they did not invent the Laws. They were constantly absorbed in the process of understanding and transmitting the Laws correctly. They couldn’t possibly create new «traditions» in public, with so many other Rabbis and students around absorbing all that took place, questioning, probing, asking, teaching, and commenting. Nor was it very easy to make a mistake, with so many others around to correct them. (Just try saying anything about Judaism in front of other Jews — you’ll be discussing and arguing about it for weeks, at least!)
Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi and his Court also decided which words should be composed into the Mishnah, and which should remain as explanatory discussion (known as «Talmud»).
And years later, when the greater discussions of the Talmud were written down, the same process was continued. Ravina and Rav Ashi and all their compatriots gathered Rabbis and students, and sent questions and emissaries to every place a reliable Torah Scholar might be found, and they tracked down every Torah teaching they could.
And they did not simply accept what was told them. Each statement in the Talmud is checked, double-checked, verified, discussed, analyzed, taken apart, put back together again in various different ways to see which works best, and then just when you think they have finished, they have more to discuss about it! Testing the accuracy of a Tradition is precisely what the Talmud does most. That is of the highest importance to any and every Torah Scholar.
And all this was done in public, as a massive national project. It was not done in secret, and it was not done by a few people. It was not the work of a «congressional subcommittee,» or a U.N. «fact» finding team. This was the work of the entire Nation of Israel. If one person had made an error, or deliberately changed something, or had some sort of bias or prejudice, the rest of the people would have made an outcry.
A major part of the preservation of the Torah Tradition was performed by the women. While they did not do the recording of the Tradition (though they did sometimes contribute vital information), it was the women who safeguarded it for their families. The women protected the level of observance at home, and were the ones who most encouraged the younger children to study Torah. A mother’s relationship helps determine a child’s level of Torah study and observance. King Solomon said, «Listen, my son, to the moral instruction of your father, and do not forsake the Torah of your mother» (Proverbs 1:8). Torah observance would not exist today were it not for the Jewish mothers.
By the various methods we have used, the true Torah Tradition has been very well-preserved. If you look at Jews around the world, you will find, among the minor differences, an amazing similarity of practice. Every Orthodox synagogue lifts up the Torah Scroll to show the congregation the words of the Torah. Some do it before the Torah Reading, and some do it after the Torah Reading. But they all do it.
Every religious Jew in the world uses the same four species during Sukkos. Yet the «Pri Etz Hadar» species is not specifically defined in the Torah. It is only through our Tradition that we know that it is the Esrog (citron). Yet every Jew in every part of the world knows this and uses that fruit — even communities that existed before the Talmud was written.
People who refuse to believe that the Torah has been transmitted accurately down the ages have seldom examined the matter fully and carefully. And often they are not very reasonable about it at all. Would it be logical to dismiss all of science because just about every single scientific fact discovered or theorized prior to 1930 has since been proven incorrect? It makes more sense for a person to study each matter carefully and choose those which ultimately have been proven to be correct.
Today, Torah is available to just about everyone, in quite a few languages. You can find classes almost anywhere, even online, on the Talmud and most other aspects of Judaism. You can determine for yourself the logic of the Talmud, and you can see for yourself whether the Talmud is concerned about how correct its information is.
Certainly, to dismiss the entire Talmud without examining it properly, just because someone believes that it is full of errors, is not at all logical.
As I quoted earlier, the Torah that Hashem gave us is an inheritance to all the Congregation of Jacob. No matter what your status, if your mother was Jewish, or if you converted to Judaism, the Torah belongs to you just as much as it does to me. It is your inheritance. It is your property.
Come and get it.