From the Rabbi’s Desk

 From the Rabbi’s Desk November 2020

Rabbi Carla Freedman


As I write this, we are once again beginning the cycle of Torah reading, and back to the Book of Genesis. We Jews have been reading Torah publicly since (approximately) the year 450 BCE, when, according to the TaNaKH (Hebrew Bible, including Torah, Prophets and Writings), the Torah was read to the people for the first time.

That raises an interesting question. If the Torah had been revealed to Moses by God at Mt. Sinai, approximately in 1200 BCE, what happened to it between then and 450 BCE? The Torah does not tell us how it was transmitted to Moses (in writing? orally?) and the rest of the Hebrew bible makes no mention of reading the Torah. So we are entitled to ask the question, what happened to the material revealed by God to Moses at Sinai?

The opening words of Pirkei Avot, a minor tractate of the Talmud, trace the oral transmission of “Torah” from Moses to the rabbis, a period of about 1000 years. It tells us that “Moses received the Torah at Sinai, and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua gave it to the elders, who gave it to the prophets, who gave it to the men of the Great Assembly”. But again, there is no indication of how this material was “transmitted”, or even what the material was.

The word Torah can be used in a couple of different ways. Often, it refers to the “Five Books of Moses”. Sometimes the word is used to refer to the scroll on which this content is written for ceremonial purposes to this day. And it is also used in its basic meaning, as “teachings” or “instruction”. The tradition of passing the “Torah” down the generations, as per the opening words of Pirkei Avot, cannot refer to a scroll, since these were not in use at the time of Moses and Joshua. It might refer to the whole first five books of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Or, it might simply mean “teaching”. So this quotation from the Talmud doesn’t help much with our question, what happened to the Torah between Sinai and the time of the rabbis?

On the other hand, there are many Bible scholars today who would argue that the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as we know them today, did not exist as an integrated entity until the time of Ezra the Scribe, who was amongst those Jews that returned to Judea after the Babylonian exile, between 538 and 450 BCE. These scholars, from all but the most conservative branches of Judaism and Christianity, would assert that Ezra was probably the editor, or “redactor” of various source materials into the document we treat with great reverence today. According to this thinking, there was no “Torah” per se until that moment, when Ezra read “the book of the teaching (Torah) of Moses” to the people (Nehemia 8).

In fact, if you read the words of the prophets, and the words of the books in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, you will wonder what Jewish religious life was like, between the event at Sinai and the time of the rabbis. There is a reference to the festive meal eaten on Rosh Hodesh, the first day of a new month (1 Samuel 20:18), but no mention of Sabbath observances, or of Passover observances, or what we now call the High Holy Days.

Without the Torah as we know it, it is not surprising that David and Solomon and others did not engage in any of the practices we now associate with Judaism: no lighting of Shabbat candles, no holding a seder, no confession of sins on Yom Kippur.

Some of these practices were in the early stages of development in the last two and a half centuries before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE. They became normative as a consequence of that cataclysm.

And in those 250 years before the destruction of the Temple, there emerged in Judea a class of scholars who were the predecessors of the rabbis. They were literate, and they took as their task the development of specific behaviors (rituals) to concretize the instructions in the Torah. For example, if the Torah says, “Keep the Sabbath Day”, what behaviors would indicate that a person is fulfilling this commandment?

This class of scholars would never have claimed that they were doing original work. Rather, they saw themselves as drawing from the (frequently terse) words of Torah directions for how to live a worthy life. In antiquity, connecting seemingly new ideas to venerated authorities from previous times was the best way to assure acceptance of these “new” ideas.

So, of course, the scholars/rabbis presented an uninterrupted chain of transmission from Moses to their own time, thereby validating their interpretations. Rabbinic Judaism rests upon this transmission and the authority that went with it.

But it does not answer our question: What happened to Torah from the time of Moses to the time of the rabbis?

If the Torah as we know it only came into existence in 450 BCE (approximately), when can we properly say that Judaism began? What did the people in the time of King David (100 BCE) or the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria (722 BCE) or the time of the Babylonian destruction of the Temple and the return from Babylon (586-538 BCE)…what did they do as religious practice?

We will look at these and related matters when we start a new class, on Thursday afternoons from 3:00 to 4:30 pm. We will refer to Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman, and other sources, to try to answer some of these questions (this book is available in paperback for about $10.00, and as an eBook as well). Watch my weekly email, called “this week”, for an exact start date of the new class.

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