The Bearers of Tradition

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Stories of rabbinic sages during the first two centuries CE seem to reflect a development in which the prevailing understanding of rabbinic law (halakhah) reversed itself. The earlier model of traditionalism, described in this article as reliance on the faithful transmission of teaching from master to student, is supplemented and then superceded by a reliance on accepted rules of interpretation that allow for creative innovation.

"Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets transmitted it to the members of the Great Assembly" (Pirkei Avot 1:1).

How does a rabbi know what is the correct understanding of Torah? After all, the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) hardly provides all of the rules for governing a Jewish life. To cover all of the other aspects of the law, the rabbis claim that Moses received a parallel, Oral Torah (Torah she'b'al peh); it is to the Oral Torah that Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:1 refers.

With the written Torah, there is a defined text, but how does one know if any particular statement of halakhah (Jewish law) is correct?

One approach, which I will call the traditionalist model, has a very clear answer: the oral tradition is correct if and only if one can trust the integrity and learning of the one who preserves the tradition and the chain of tradition to which he is heir. Consider the list of transmitters in Pirkei Avot 1:1; excluded from the list are the judges, the kings, and the priests, who arguably held the political power during the period between Moses and the rabbis, but who also did some pretty nasty things. Although it is not really clear who the elders or the members of the Great Assembly were, their anonymity also prevents any negative claims against them and ensures the claim of a trustworthy chain of tradition.

Consider a story about the sage Hillel, who was asked by the children of Beteira if he had ever heard whether the law of bringing a lamb to offer as a sacrifice on Passover overrode the laws of Shabbat or not. Hillel proceeds to make a variety of arguments, based upon logic and based upon midrashic interpretation. His arguments make no headway, and then the Talmud relates:

Although he sat and lectured at them all day long, they would not accept the halakhah [law] from him until he swore that he had actually heard [the tradition from his teachers] Shemaiah and Avtalyon. Having heard this from him, they got up and declared him President over them (Talmud Yerushalmi Pesachim 39a).

Neither logic nor midrash matter; for the traditionalist children of Betaira, all that matters is knowing the authoritative tradition.

In a similar case, the Tosefta (Eduyot 1:3) reports that Hillel, Shammai, and the rest of the sages dropped their own opinions in a dispute concerning the law of an invalid mikveh (ritual bath) in favor of two weavers from the Dung Gate in Jerusalem who had a tradition from Shemaiah and Avtalyon. The Tosefta asks self-referentially why their rather lowly occupation and location was recorded, and answers:

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Jeffrey Spitzer is Chair of the Department of Talmud and Rabbinics at Gann Academy, The New Jewish High School, Waltham, Mass., and a member of the Institute's Tichon Fellows Program.