Sunday 17 April 2016



It is well known that 3 300 years ago, Moshe received two Torahs at Sinai - one Written the other Oral.[1]

Actually it’s a little more complicated, because there are different views as to exactly how much of the Written Torah Moshe received at Sinai.

According to some, it was the Torah in its absolute entirety (including the last few verses which describe Moshe’s death).According to others, it excluded the last few verses, which were written not by Moshe but by his successor Joshua.

There is, additionally, much debate as to which sections of the Torah were written when, with some sections possibly transmitted even before Sinai.[2]

According to Rashi, just prior to Sinai, Moshe presented the people with the entire book of Genesis as well as the section of Exodus up to that point in history[3]. Moshe may have drawn from earlier biblical manuscripts which did already exist, some of which apparently were authored by Abraham.

And then there is the view that the Sinai revelation was primarily about the Ten Commandments and the Oral Torah, with the Written Torah essentially only presented in its complete form by Moshe just prior to his death about forty years later. According to this view, the Oral Torah actually preceded the Written Torah.

Whatever view one takes, Moshe effectively left us with a Written Torah and an Oral Torah (which served to expound upon the Written Torah in much greater detail, ultimately creating the interpretation of Judaism as we know it today.)[4]


The Oral Torah remained a strictly oral tradition for about 1 500 years, until just before 200 C.E. when it was eventually committed to writing by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi.

The reasons for the dispensation allowing for the Oral Tradition to be written down, are well known. Following the terrible period of persecution in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jews fled to exile in faraway places. Over a million Jews were killed in two ill-fated uprisings, the Great Revolt and the Bar Kochba rebellion. Yeshivas were destroyed and rabbinical leaders killed. 
All these factors were taken into account by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and he felt compelled to break with tradition and, in order to save Judaism for perpetuity, he wrote down what had never been published before, and the Mishna was born.[5]


The writing down of the hitherto Oral Tradition, changed the face of Judaism forever.  It paved the way for the codification of Jewish law and brought with it some fascinating changes to the law itself:
One change related to the classical importance of the role of the teacher, who (according to Shulchan Aruch HaRav) was now, to a large extent, replaced by the book.

“Today, when the entire Torah is committed to writing, there is no longer an obligation to hire a teacher for one’s son. It is now give him the tools (i.e. to teach him how to read) by which he will know how to continue his learning on his own...and it is considered as if the teacher taught him.”[6]

This is an amazing (if not controversial) piece of writing because, notwithstanding the pivotal role of teachers and learning academies today, it seems as if the essential mode of Torah teaching post 200 C.E. is private study through books as opposed to public study with teachers. According to this, it seems as if teachers and public education were, in principle, more relevant in the era when the Torah was actually transmitted orally![7]

Rav Zadok HaKohen records another practical halachik change, post 200 C.E. It concerns the requirement to write down EVERY possible Torah thought or idea that an individual may come up with, lest it too be forgotten. This emphasises the fact that what was previously considered a grave prohibition, subsequently became a very positive imperative and mitzvah which had to be encouraged! This is an example of a prohibition (not to write oral law) transforming into an actual precept (to write oral law).[8]


The Maharal of Prague (1512/26-1609), however, offers a very different and rather mystical explanation as to why the Oral Torah was written down. His explanation is unlike any of the common and ubiquitous reasons we mentioned above.

He posits that the Oral Torah had to remain an oral tradition only until Christianity had firmly been established[9]. He quotes the Midrash Tanchuma[10] which states (paraphrase):

“G-d originally intended to give the Mishna and Gemora in writing. But He was concerned that the nations of the world would take it from the Jews and claim it as their own (as they were to so with the Written Law). That would leave the Jews with no unique literature. Therefore He gave Bnei Yisrael the Oral Torah and commanded them to keep it an oral tradition in order to sustain a unique and exclusive Jewish tradition that could never be imitated by anyone else.”[11]

The Maharal continues in his own words:

“The Written Torah was not (historically) specific to the Jews. Only the Oral Torah remained peculiar to them. For this reason it was important for it to remain an oral tradition so that the nations could not expropriate it as their own.  
Although the Written Torah may have been adopted by other nations, it technically still remained in the possession of the Jews because it is incomprehensible without the Oral Tradition. This is because the spirit of the Written Torah is found only in the Oral Tradition.[12] 
The covenant between G-d and Bnei Yisrael could never just be written on parchment. It had to be more personal. And the only way to make it personal was to introduce the human factor in its transmission process. Hence the essential covenant was not between G-d and the Written Torah, but instead between G-d and the Oral Torah.”[13]

So, according the Maharal, the Written Torah was a kind of ‘code’ that could only be cracked with the Oral Tradition. The Written Torah acted almost like a ‘red herring’ – so that even though it was adopted by others, the integrity of a unique Jewish religious literature still remained untouched because of the existence of the Oral Tradition. 

This Oral Tradition effectively remained ‘secret’ until such time the Christianity had taken root. Thereafter there was no longer a fear of any more textual misappropriation. This ties in historically with the timing of committing the Oral Torah to writing, which occurred in the year 200, so soon after the beginning of the Christian era.

Surprisingly, the only other contemporary English reference I found supporting this view, as put forth by the Maharal, is in the writing of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

“Since many non-Jews also accept the Bible as sacred, the Oral Torah is the main thing that distinguishes Judaism and makes it unique. The Oral Torah could therefore not be written down until the gentiles had adopted their own religion based on the Bible.”[14]


It’s interesting to see that before the Oral Torah was written and published, the heads of the various academies did keep their own private collections of notes. They did this so as to maintain the accuracy of their teachings. These notes, however, were strictly private and were not for public consumption. They became known as the megilot setarim or ‘secret scrolls’, and they remained ‘secret’ for 1 500 years.[15] 

Amazingly it was these ‘secret scrolls’ that preserved the spirit of our tradition more than anything else including the Written Torah.

Ironically, these ‘secret scrolls’ were to become the well known and well studied texts we commonly use today. And yet they still go by their original name - Torah Shebe’al Peh or Oral Torah.

Only now they are no longer secret and their glorious printed volumes proudly grace the bookshelves of Jews throughout the world.

Their mission accomplished.

[1] According to Rav Kook, both these Torahs are alluded to in Shemot 24:3/4-7;
“Moshe came and TOLD the people all of G-d’s words and all the statutes.” – Referring to the ORAL TORAH. And then in the next verse; “Moshe WROTE all of G-d’s words...and READ it to the people.” – Referring to the WRITTEN TORAH. (Rav Kook, Midbar Shur pp. 160-165).
[2] This would have taken place at Marah, where the Seven laws of Noah, Shabbat, Honouring parents and the Red Heifer were transmitted. See Rashi to Shemot 24 quoting Mechilta and Sanhedrin 26b. See also Ramban, Rambam and Ibn Ezra.
[3] Rashi on Shemot 24:4.
[4] For more on the fascinating story of the transmission of the Written Torah see KOTZK BLOG 73) The Aleppo Codex.
[5] According to Rambam, he gathered ancient writings from the past and created an anthology of previously oral Torah traditions. This was because individuals were allowed to write down notes for their private usage although they were not permitted to publish them for public consumption. See Rambam’s Introduction to Mishnah Torah.
[6] Shulchan Aruch HaRav  1, 6
[7] I think it should be pointed out that this is probably only a technical or de jure observation, and not a practical suggestion for a change in the contemporary educational system.

There are other changes in halacha also as a result of the Oral Torah having been written down. One example concerns the prohibition of forgetting one’s studies. According to some, once the Oral Torah was written down, the prohibition became less severe (as even if one did forget one’s studies, it still remained preserved within the pages of books. (See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, chap.1,10, bottom of p.20.)

Another example of a change in halacha relates the commandment for each person to write his own personal Torah scroll. Part of the prohibition against writing down the Oral Torah also applied to writing down the Written Torah in a format other than a kosher Torah scroll. Once the Oral Torah was written down, however, it became permissible to write the Torah on any manuscript (although obviously one could not read from that manuscript in synagogue during the public reading of the Torah). This new development, according to some, made the commandment for every man to write his own Torah scroll, now obsolete.  (ibid. p. 67 footnote 1.)

[8] Rav Tzadok bases this thesis on Yoreh Deah 270:2 and Shach 5.

Another example of a prohibition changing into a precept - where a dramatic turnabout took place in halacha - was with regard to paying and supporting people who study Torah. Originally, in Talmudic times, this was forbidden and the sages worked and supported themselves. Towards the end of the period of the Rishonim, however, some poskim (halachik authorities) wrote that scholars who do NOT take money from the community are actually falling foul of the law!

(See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, Chap. 1: 17, p 37 at the top of the page. This is brought by the Shach in the name of Maharshal and Bach.)

[9] Maharal does not make mention of the name of the actual religion, but the inference is obvious. He refers to ‘umot hanizkarim’ (the abovementioned nations’) instead of ‘ Christianity’ , perhaps for fear of reprisals.
[10] The Midrash Tanchuma was compiled around 500 C.E.
[11] There is another similar Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah 14:10 which states:

“He gave the Jews the Oral Torah to be distinct from all other nations. It was not presented in written form, so that the Gentiles could not forge it or claim it as their own and then declare themselves to be the real and true Israel – as they did with the Written Torah.”

The Bamidbar Rabbah is about 600 years younger than the Midrash Tanchuma that Maharal quoted. It is dated some time after the 1100’s as Rashi (1040-1105) was unaware of it.
The Maharal (d.1609) would have had access to it but, although it states the point more directly than the Midrash Tanchuma, for some reason he didn’t quote Bamidbar Rabbah. Again this may have been out of concern for not offending the non-Jewish authorities.
[12] Gittin 60 b.
[13] Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael 68.
[14] Rabbi Arye Kaplan, A Handbook of Jewish Thought, p.179.
[15] See Rashi to Shabbat 6b. See also Bava Metzia92a.

Sunday 3 April 2016



When Rambam arrived in Egypt after fleeing persecution in Spain and Morocco, he came face to face with two very hierarchical systems he had not been exposed to before. The first was the ancient institution of the Reish Galuta (Head of the Diaspora or Exilarch), and the second was the relatively newer system of Gaonim (or Leaders of the Talmudic Academies).

He had some interesting things to say about both styles of leadership, but before we discuss his revolutionary insinuations, let’s begin by looking at both systems separately:


When the last Jewish king Yechonia[1] was exiled to Babylon around the time of the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE, he and his entourage which comprised the elite of the nation, continued to exercise their authority over the Jewish people even in the Diaspora. With time, the title changed from ‘King’ to Reish Galuta (Head of Diaspora) when the dignity of his office was recognized by the host state and a new form of leadership (referred to as a ‘king without a kingdom’) was born.

This hierarchical system, continued by Yechonia’s descendants, persevered for over one thousand five hundred years. (With a break during the existence of the Second Temple).[2]
Although the position was more honorary than effectual, the Reish Galuta did have the authority to appoint a judge, or av bet din[3]. Sometimes the judge adjudicated according to Jewish law, at other time according to Persian law.[4]  

The Reish Galuta was also tasked with the job of collecting taxes from the Jews.
Great respect, befitting a king, was shown to the Reish Galuta, so that in synagogue for example, while ordinary people were called up to read from the Torah, the Torah scroll was itself brought before him.[5]

Even his aides, known as rabbanan debei Reish Galuta, were revered to the extent that they all wore some form of sign on their garments to show their prestige.[6]

Sometimes the Reish Galuta and his aides abused their authority, like the time a woman came to report to Rav Nachman ben Yaakov that the leadership sat in a sukkah stolen from her.[7]

After Talmudic times, the office of Reish Galuta was restored by the Muslim caliphs (around the seventh century), who had great reverence for the Davidic dynasty. There are accounts of the Reish Galuta riding around in carriages of state, and one particular Reish Galuta, Bustanai, was even offered the hand of the daughter of the former Shah as a wife.

This position was not unique to the Jews as the Catholics also had their version of Exilarch, known as the Catholicos. The Muslim writer Al-Jahiz records that both Reish Galuta and Catholicos did not have the authority to flog or imprison, but they were given the power to excommunicate members of their own faiths when necessary.[8]

After the eleventh century, the Reish Galuta was no longer an active institution in Babylon. However, in 1081, about fifty years before Rambam was born, it emerged for a short period in Egypt.[9]
An interesting feature still prevalent in modern times, is reference to the Reish Galuta in the (Askenazi) Shabbat morning service - in the Yekum Purkan prayer - although the institution has not  been in existence for eight hundred years.


The office of Gaon was a relatively newer institution, and it went hand in hand with the Reish Galuta. The Reish Galuta was more of a secular leader, while the Gaon becames the spiritual leader. Originally the term Gaon applied to the heads of the two Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumpedita (now Fallujah).[10]

The Gaonic period began in 589 CE (more than a thousand years after the beginning of the Reish Galuta period), and lasted for about five hundred years.[11] Exiles living all over the Diaspora sent questions on Jewish law to the Gaonin, who were regarded as the highest religious authorities. Two months of the year were set aside for foreign students to attend the academies, Adar and Ellul, and this period of intense study was known as the Yarchei Kallah. During this time, the Gaon would discuss the various questions of law that were sent to him, and they were recorded and then signed by him. This gave rise to much of the Responsa literature - many examples of which have been found relatively recently in the Cairo Geniza around 1896.

After the passing of Hai Gaon in 1038, he was replaced by Chizkiyahu (who also happened to be the last Babylonian Reish Galuta in Pumpedita). Sadly various false charges were brought against him by a fanatical caliphate, and he died in prison two years later in 1040. This concluded the five hundred year period of Geonim.

The title Gaon, however, did remain for some time, and more than a hundred years later was still used to describe Gaon Shmuel ben Ali of Baghdad, and as we shall see, Rambam’s great antagonist.


Ironically, although the Reish Galuta had become a secular appointment endorsed by a non-Jewish government, it still carried the weight of a royal Davidic lineage. For this reason, Rambam was prepared to accept their leadership role (although, historically, they soon ceased to exist).

He was, however, not enamoured of the Gaonim of his day. (Remember, they still went by the tile Gaon, but were no longer officially of the illustrious Gaonic period which had ceased ninety five years before he was born.)

The Gaon in Rambam’s time was Rabbi Shmuel ben Ali, leader of the well known Talmudic academy in Baghdad, and he bore the brunt of Rambams displeasure. He had accused Rambam of heresy regarding his views on the Revival of the Dead (see previous post).

Rambam was so opposed to the authoritarian gaonic leadership of his day and he was not afraid to say that they...
“fixed for themselves monetary demands from individuals and communities and caused people to think, in utter foolishness, that is obligatory and proper that they should help the sages and scholars and people studying Torah...all this is wrong. There is not a single word either in the Torah or in the sayings of the (Talmudic) sages, to lend credence to it...for as we look into the their sayings we do not find that they ask people for money, nor did they collect money for their honored and cherished academies.”[12]

Elsewhere he continues his challenge against...
“the man whom people are led to believe that there is none like him in his generation. When age, high office and aristocratic descent – and lack of people of discernment in his town – have all combined to create a situation where everyone hangs on each word pronounced from his academy. Can such a man like this love truth enough to acknowledge his weakness? It was not done by better men who preceded him.”[13]

In this extract, amazingly, Rambam not only challenges Gaon Shmuel ben Ali but also seems to decry the institution of authoritarian rabbinic leadership of previous generations!

This is what he says about the Gaon’s respected son-in-law, Rabbi Zechariah...
“He is a very foolish man. He works hard at his Talmudic discussion and its commentaries and thinks he is the greatest of his generation...why should I pay attention to an old man who is really miserable and an ignoramus in every respect?”To my eyes he is like a newborn baby whom one has to care for (much of the rest of this manuscript has been erased).”[14]

These writings can, perhaps, be better understood against the backdrop of Gaon Shmuel ben Ali trying to destroy what was left of his sister movement, the Reish Galuta institution (which Rambam was prepared to accept because of its Davidic line).

Rambam’s dispute with gaonic authoritarianism  was met with by a counter attack by their defenders, who tried to find fault with his code and attempted to portray him as an anti-Talmudist (in that his code was meant to supplant the Talmud).


These writings do show a definite ‘anti-establishment’ side to Rambam the great codifier and philosopher, who wanted no part in a religious system that crossed boundaries of power and politics.

They also point to the ideological angst of those times, and the tension between the various schools of thought that collectively paved the way for the Judaism we have today.

What we do see is that Rambam is clearly opposed to any form of rabbinical monopoly or authoritarianism which, at least in his perception, has no place in Judaism.

[1] Yechonia was the last of the Davidic kings of Yehuda, and only ruled for three months and ten days.
[2] Officially the position of Reish Galuta ended around the 6th century, but was soon restored in the 7th century by the Muslim rulers. This continued right up to the 11th century in Babylon, and then was transferred to Egypt where at around the time of Rambam it saw its demise.
[3] Some say this av bet din also carried the title nasi or president.
[4] The Talmud records an instance when the Reish Galuta, Ukba ben Nechemiah ruled on three issues according to Persian law and this was endorsed by Shmuel. (Bava Batra 55a, see also Bava Kama 58b)
[5] Talmud Yerushalmi Sota 22a.
[6] Shabbat 58a.
[7] Sukkah 31a.
[8] See A Prince Without a Kingdom: The Exilarch in the Sasanian Era, by Geoffrey Herman.
In a fascinating incident recorded by another Muslim writer, the son of one particular Reish Galuta never rode past the Karbala (the shrine outside Baghdad where Imam Hussein is buried). This was because of an old tradition that claimed that on that spot the descendant of a prophet would be killed. He believed that he could a possible victim being that he was a descendant of David. However, once Hussein had been slain in that place, he felt vindicated and was prepared to ride past the area with impunity. Cited by Goldziher 1884.
[9] The period of the Babylonian Reish Galuta lasted till 1040 (with the passing of Hezekiah –who was also the last Babylonian Gaon).

[10]Originally the academy of Sura (225-1033 CE, with a student membership which grew to 1200 members) surpassed that of Pumbedita (259- 900 CE). Pumpedita was known as the ‘city of thieves’ and thus did not attract too many students. Later it did become the dominant academy. Around the year 900 it relocated to Baghdad.
[11] In brief: The Tannaim birthed the Mishnaic period. The Amoraim developed the Talmud. The Savoraim edited the Talmud. And the Gaonim interpreted the Talmud to create a religious legal system. Followed by the Rishonim who codified it.

[12] Rambam’s commentary to Avot 4:5.
Some see this as an attempt to bring down the economic foundation of authoritarian rabbinic leadership. It may have been, but it also seems to be part of Rambam’s pure and altruistic approach to Torah study in general which he believed should be devoid of any traces of institutionalism. This can be seen in many of his other writings. In his Mishneh Torah, for example, he calls it a chillul HaShem or desecration, if one accepts money for Torah study. See KOTZK BLOG 67) PAYING PEOPLE TO STUDY TORAH?

[13] See Iggerot HaRambam, 1946; Letter to Yosef ben Yehudah, 54f.
[14] Ibid 56ff,