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Process of Transmission

May 9, 2009 | by

Everyone knows that the Talmud is full of disagreements. Does this mean that the information is inaccurate? Actually it proves the opposite!

How do we know the Oral Torah has not been garbled throughout history?

If you've ever looked at the Talmud (and there are good translations available), you'll notice two significant things. One is that whichever page you turn to, the Sages are always fighting. Hillel says this and Shammai says that. Rabbi Meir says this, Rabbi Yehudah says that. You probably wonder, what's going on? How can we take this book seriously if the rabbis can't agree on anything!

The second thing you'll notice is that Talmudic arguments are always about the most hairsplitting details possible. These people are the leaders of the generation! Why are they spending so much time on trivialities?

On one hand, they're always fighting. On the other hand, they're arguing about such insignificant things. Doesn't this sound self-contradictory?

An old woman comes home from a trip to Israel. Her family is waiting at the airport and they say, "Grandma, you're back. How was the trip?"

"Oh, Israel was wonderful. I saw Aunt Sadie and Uncle Irving... it was just beauuuteeful."

"And how was the flight, Grandma?"

"Terrible! That airline food, ach! It was plain poison. Ach! And such small portions!"

Do you hear the contradiction? Grandma said it was poison. So why is she complaining about the small portions?

This is the same complaint about the Talmud! First, they're always fighting! Why should we listen to them? And second, they always seem to be fighting about insignificant things.

Actually all Talmudic arguments are about hairsplitting matters. Hence the popularity of the phrase "Talmudic hairsplitting." (At the Camp David Accords, Egyptian negotiators complained about Menachem Begin's use of "Talmudic hairsplitting.") But the very fact that the rabbis argue over such insignificant things, shows us something crucial: All the major points are agreed upon!

Maimonides tells us (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mamrim 1:3):

As far as traditional laws are concerned, there never was any controversy. If there was any, we may be sure that the tradition does not date back to Moses.

As for rules derived by means of hermeneutical principles, if they received the agreement of all the members of the Sanhedrin, they were binding. If there was a difference of opinion among them, the Sanhedrin followed the majority, and decided the law in accordance with their opinion. This principle also applied to decrees, ordinances and customs.

The Wedding Example

In the Talmud (Tractate Kiddushin), there's a discussion about the wedding ceremony. The groom is supposed to give a monetary gift to the bride underneath the chuppah (wedding canopy). The Talmud says the gift must be the "value of the smallest denomination" ― and a debate ensues over the definition of that term.

Translated into modern terms, Shammai says "smallest denomination" means the equivalent of a dollar. Hillel says, it can be the equivalent of a penny.

For the next few pages of Talmud, the Sages argue back and forth: it's a dollar, a penny, a dollar, a penny. This debate is still going on 2,000 years later! And let's face it, this is a totally theoretical argument ― because anyone who tries to give his bride a penny or a dollar is in deep trouble!

Both Shammai and Hillel agree there has to be a wedding ceremony. They agree there has to be a canopy. They agree there has to be a Ketubah. They agree there have to be two witnesses, and they agree on the qualifications for witnesses. But we don't read about the 99 percent they agree upon. The one thing we do read about is the debate over how much the groom is supposed to give the bride.

The rabbis were so careful and meticulous that even when it came to the slightest point of difference, they wouldn't let it pass. "No! Let's get this right. If we have a difference of opinion, we have to iron it out." The big issues are all points of agreement. Only the hairsplitting details are the points of argument.

The Rabbinic Convention

It is a principle of Judaism that the Oral Torah (the Talmud) was transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai.

But let's imagine for a minute that the Oral Torah didn't come from Sinai, and that somewhere, a few thousand years ago, a group of rabbis got together to compose the Talmud and pass it off as though it came from God.

Picture this: 50 rabbis are sitting in a big hall, (probably somewhere in the Catskills). The rabbi who's chairing the meeting stands up and says, "Okay, folks, let's deal with some of the issues. What are we going to talk about in the Oral Torah? How about the idea of a weekly Torah reading in the synagogue? How many of you think this is a good concept to include?"

Everyone raises his hand. (It's the first time in history that a group of rabbis agree on anything.) Weekly Torah reading, everyone agrees. "What about reward and punishment?" Everyone agrees.

Now they get to the matter of a wedding ceremony. They discuss the basic premises ― canopy, Ketubah, witnesses ― everyone agrees. "Now, let's say the groom is supposed to give the bride a gift. How much should that be worth?"

Hillel says, "I think it should be worth a penny, that's seems about right." Shammai says, "Now wait a minute. I think it should be a dollar."

Hillel says, "Nope, a penny." Shammai says, "I beg your pardon, I think it should be a dollar."

"Penny!" "Dollar!" "Penny!" "Dollar!" Back and forth, back and forth. An intense debate fills the convention hall.

What's going on here? Weekly Torah reading, no problem. Reward and punishment, everybody agrees. But when it comes to a penny or a dollar, "Hey, now you've gone too far. I've put up with you before, but I'm not giving in on this!"

The rabbis have agreed on all the important issues. Couldn't you just split the difference and make it 50 cents?!

No. they can't. Because Judaism does not compromise on the truth. We don't swallow even the smallest details ― never mind an entire religion.

Jewish Thinking

Critical, independent thinking, and seeking the truth is the nature of every Jew.

How many major political parties are there in America? Basically two. How many in Canada? Four. England? Five. Italy? More fractious ― nine major political parties.

Then we come to Israel. There are 17 major political parties, including four communist parties!

What's going on here?

The United States has 300 million people and it only needs two parties. Israel, a tiny country, of seven million people, has 17 political parties.

It's no accident. This is the way the Jewish people are. Jews are committed to their beliefs and will not budge. In fact, in the Torah itself God calls the Jews a "stiff-necked people."

It's ludicrous to say, "Well, sure, the rabbis just got together and made this all up. They agreed on everything except these little details." And it's even more far-fetched to believe that rabbis could get together and foist a hoax of an Oral Torah onto the entire Jewish people!

Concerning disagreements in the oral law, the rabbis only disagree about the minutest of details, which shows you:

• How vast the points of agreement are, and
• How meticulous and careful the rabbis were to get even the smallest matter perfect.

All this evidence gives the Jewish people great confidence to observe the words of the Oral Torah, as they have been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation.


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