Nedarim 38: Moshe's Torah

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

In our last post we discussed the renewed interest today in the study of Tanach. Concurrent with that, for the first time in Jewish history the study of Talmud has become mainstream, studied by the masses. Up until World War II Talmud was the domain of the elite (one of the factors that led to the emergence of Chassidut). Typically Jews studied Chumash with Rashi, Mishnayot, Ein Yaakov, recited Tehillim but no more than 5-7% ever studied Talmud. The full ramifications of this shift have yet to be seen and while there is much positive from this development it is not all rosy. Many are turned off by Talmud study and often time and effort spent studying Talmud could be put to better use in another area of Torah study[1]

I mention the above as something to keep in mind as we come across a rather startling piece of Gemara. "Rabbi Yossi the son of Rav Chaninah said; the Torah was only given to Moshe and his descendants as it says, "write for you, hew for you [the tablets]" (Nedarim 38a). It was only because Moshe had "a good eye", i.e. a sharing nature, that he gave the Torah over to the Jewish people. This teaching seems to go against our basic understanding of Judaism and the Gemara is quick to point out verses which contradict it. "Behold I have taught you [the Jewish people] ordinances and statues (Devarim 4:14); you [the Jewish people] write down this song"(Devarim 31:19). In fact this later verse is the source of the obligation for each person to write (or commission) their own personal sefer Torah (Sanhedrin 21b).

To resolve this contradiction the Gemara gives a rather cryptic answer, pilpula be'almah. Originally the pilpul of Torah was given only to Moshe and on his volition Moshe shared it with others. As to the meaning of "pilpul" the commentary attributed to Rashi explains that "to understand something based on something else". Pilpul requires analysis, debate and investigation - all the things that make up Talmud study.

While Moshe did share such with the Jewish people it clearly is a secondary aspect of learning Torah. We are first and foremost to study the basics of Torah before we engage in any form of pilpul. We must begin with chumash, a basic overview of Jewish law and philosophy - in depth intricacies of Talmudic debate can wait. And even when studying Gemara we can focus on the basics or focus on "pilpul". As Rav Schachter would often say to us "Gemara and Rashi is 90% of learning".

I am well aware that such flies in the face of classical yeshiva learning. That being said the assumption was that those who entered yeshivot were very well grounded in the basics and well beyond[2]. As such an assumption is often no longer true many yeshivot have changed their curriculum to reflect both the wider range and weaker backgrounds of many a yeshiva student.

Of course Moshe did share with us the "pilpul" of Torah. Torah study should involve intricate analysis. It is such which allows for new insights into Torah, the development of new ideas and methodologies. Torah is much more than a handbook telling us what is and what is not allowed. It is lively and exciting something that is hard to see unless one is involved in the "pilpula" of Torah. In modern Hebrew pilpel is pepper, that which gives food taste. One can eat tasteless food but it is just that. Add the right spice and bland food becomes delicious. We all enjoy good food but one cannot exist on spice alone. We must first emphasize the basics. And even before we discuss the basics of Torah study we need to focus on the basics of being a Jew, that of character development. Derech Eretz Kadma laTorah.

[1] As I mentioned in my last post in another context there is much to say about this but "this is not the place to expound".  


[2] The entrance exam for the Yeshiva of Chachmei Lublin required mastery of 400 blatt Gemara. Founded by Rav Meir Shapiro to develop Torah scholars and leaders the standards had to be elitist. It was this same Rav Meir Shapiro who came up with the idea of Daf Yomi, something that perhaps more than anything else brought Torah to the masses.