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Shoftim

Thursday, 5 September, 2019 - 8:20 pm

 

“Oh, that’s just a Rabbinic law!”  I hear that often.  There are those who do not choose to follow the Torah laws in their day to day life.  That is a choice that each person has to make, and the Torah exhorts us to “choose life.”  If someone does choose to follow the Torah, there is a lot of learning that is required to understand how to observe the Mitzvot that permeate every aspect of our lives.  Of course if a person chooses to begin observing Mitzvot that he or she has not been doing in the past, you can’t suddenly jump on a bandwagon and do it all.  There is a process of gradually increasing our observance, recognizing that all the Mitzvot are equally important while at the same time growing in our observance in a sustainable manner, adding one Mitzvah, then another, etc.  This is all good and worthy.  There is, however, another approach that it prevalent, that the Biblical Mitzvot are important, and the Rabbinic Mitzvot, or the Rabbinic interpretations, are not that important or don’t necessarily apply.  (How much more so the customs that many may think of as optional.)  This is not the case, as I will discuss.  They are all equally important.

 

One of the reasons that people consider the Rabbinic laws as less important is based on the fact that when there is a doubt in an obligation, halacha says that if it is a Biblical requirement we are strict, but we are lenient if it is a rabbinic requirement.  Why is this so, if they are both equally important, why the difference if there is a doubt?

 

There are a few problems with the approach that Rabbinic laws are less important.  First of all, how are we able to properly understand a Biblical Mitzvah?  Reading the written Torah, many of the verses are obscure and very hard to understand, intentionally so because it is all written in code.  Leaving the interpretation to each person’s own ideas would result in so many different interpretations that you wouldn’t recognize them as being one Torah, and that is in fact what has happened over the generations.  The Torah is a “user’s manual” that Hashem gave us for the world, a way of life for the people, and it seems strange that He would set it up so that there are hundreds of ways to interpret it.  How can you have a homogeneous society that way?  Without the explanations of the Oral Torah, we simply do not know what the laws and instructions are.  An example of that is the prohibition of cooking (or eating) meat with a substance that is written with three Hebrew letters – chet, lamed and beit.  What is that substance?  Everyone knows it is milk, but that is only because the Oral Torah tells us that the vowels are kamatz and kamatz, therefore spelling the word “chalav” which means milk.  However, without the vowels, which are not written in the Torah scroll, that word can be reads “chelev” – fat.  So the prohibition that we all know as not mixing meat and milk, without the oral tradition, could very well be read as a prohibition against mixing meat and fat.  There goes barbecue, burgers, cholent, brisket and just about any other meat dish.  This is only one example of thousands where we clearly need the Oral Torah to tell us the basic meaning of the Biblical words.

 

In addition to the interpretation of the Biblical laws and instructions, there is another area of Oral Torah known as Rabbinic law. These are laws and instructions that were created by the sages through the ages in order to protect the Biblical law. These are also called fences around the Torah. An example
would be the prohibition of eating meat and milk when they are not cooked together, or eating chicken with milk, both of which are not included in the Biblical prohibition of cooking meat from a milk producing animal with milk, or eating meat and milk that were cooked together. One might think that
these laws carry less weight than Biblical laws, especially in light of the above-mentioned difference in the way we handle a doubt in each of these cases. However, that is not the case. The Torah says in this week’s Parsha (Devarim 17:19-20): You shall do according to the word they (the Sanhedrin – Supreme
Court) tell you, from the place the Lord will choose (the Temple in Jerusalem), and you shall observe to 
 do according to all they instruct you. According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or
left. So there are actually two Biblical commandments, one positive (You shall do according to the word they tell you) and one negative (you shall not divert from the word they tell you), that require us Biblically to follow Rabbinic law. In that case, following rabbinic law is a Biblical requirement and carries
the full power of Biblical law.

 

There is, however, a potential problem.  Another Biblical law states that we may neither add nor subtract from the laws.  So how can we add Rabbinic laws?  Rambam explains this as follows:  We can never say that there is another Biblical law in addition to the 613 that Moshe taught us.  So if someone said that there is a 614th Mitzvah not to eat chicken with milk, that would be a violation of the prohibition to add to the Torah.  However, it is perfectly acceptable, and in fact necessary, for the Sages to add fences and protections to the Biblical law by enacting legislation and adding prohibitions.  And the observance of these laws is required, as above-mentioned, by the written Torah.  This must be presented, though, as Rabbinic protective law and not as an additional biblical law.  This is one of the reasons that we are more lenient with Rabbinic law than we are with Biblical law when there is a doubt.  Not because it is less important, but in order to show a differentiation between the two, so that we should not mistake rabbinic law for Biblical law. 

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