Don't Get it in Writing: Gittin 60

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 
Vekatav lah sefer krietoot”, and he shall write for her a book of separation (Devarim 25:1). A get must be in writing. This is in contradistinction to a wedding in where an oral declaration accompanied by a gift from the man to the woman binds the couple together. It is speech that brings people together and the written word that can often separate us. When one has something important to say to someone we meet with them and speak directly with them. As important and beautiful as the written word may be it cannot convey the personal touch and warmth that a face-to-face conversation can.
 
The distinction between the oral and the written word is a most significant one and not only in relation to a get. As is well known our Torah consists of a small written corpus and a vast oral one. And it is the oral one which is much more important. “Rav Yochanan said: the Holy One blessed be He established the covenant with the Jewish people only because of the Oral Law as it says ‘ki al pi, because[1] of the these [oral] words G-d established the covenant with you.”(Gittin 60b)
 
It was due only to historical necessity that the Oral Law was written down. Moving from an oral tradition to a written one was so radical and so fundamentally changed the nature of Torah that the Gemara in justifying the change invokes the verse “there is a time to act for G-d they have nullified the Torah.” (Tehillim 119:126) Putting the oral law down to writing was no less than a nullification of Torah. Yet at times “nullification is fulfillment” and without such nullification there would be no Torah left to fulfill. 
 
What is so important about the law being transmitted orally? Is being the people of the books so terrible? We have on past occasions (see for example here) discussed the fascinating introduction of the Dor Revii[2], a commentary on masechet Chulin by Rav Moshe Shmuel Glassner where he develops the notion of an oral tradition being a more flexible one allowing Jewish law to respond to changing circumstances.
 
I would like to focus on a different approach, one that ties into one of the underlying themes of the masechet as a whole. Our Sages (Brachot 7b) teach that “greater is the service of Torah [scholars] than the learning of Torah.” As important as book learning is, interacting and servicing those who teach Torah is more so. Book knowledge can only go so far. Torah is most effectively and most completely passed down by living example. One may love books but one forms a relationship with a person not a piece of paper. It is our parents who are meant to be our primary teachers, both in general and specifically our Torah education. It need not be stated that it is the parents’ daily presence in our life that is crucial. Nannies can be hired to cook and clean and many parental duties - including education - can be outsourced but such does not compare to the child-parental bond. If parents are tasked with teaching us Torah it is because it is they who can form the strongest bond with their “students”. “And you shall teach your children - these are your students.” (see Rashi, Devarim 6:7) Torah can be transmitted fully only if one sees one’s students as one’s children. And such cannot be done through a book. 
 
Torah is about relationships and the greater the relationship the greater Torah will be. Sadly a get is the result of a broken relationship and instead of people coming together they are torn apart. The get must be in writing, writing that is unable to convey nuance, facial expression, tone and cadence, aspects that are so important in actual speech. Email is not the most effective method to convey important messages. 
 
As Haym Soloveitchik notes in his classic and must read article, Rupture and Reconstruction, we today have taken the notion of the written word to an extreme. The written word no longer elucidates the oral tradition but has come to replace it [3]. While today we may out of necessity gain most of our knowledge from books the Rabbinic imperative of aseh lecha rav, make for yourself a teacher is as applicable as ever. 
 
 
[1] As our Sages point out the word ki has many meanings and while the pshat, plain meaning of the verse means because (or since) our Sages understood it to also mean despite. The context of this verse is G-d’s reestablishing of the covenant after Moshe had broken the original set of tablets written by G-d. G-d thus instructs Moshe “write for you these things, ki al pi, as it is based on things i.e. the Torah that I am reestablishing the covenant with you. Rav Yochanan translates the verse to mean that G-d is commanding Moshe to write the Torah despite the fact that the essence of Torah is al pi, from the mouth, i.e. the oral Torah. 
  
[2] His name derives from the fact that he was the eldest great-grandchild of the Chatam Sofer.
  
[3] Rav Natan Adler, the Rebbe of the Chatam Sofer refused to record any of his Torah thoughts arguing that permission to record words of Torah was only allowed lest one forget. Blessed with a photographic memory he saw no allowance for himself. No doubt many without photographic memories would be wise to follow in his ways.