Shabbat 87

The first rabbi.

Throughout rabbinic literature, Moses is referred to as Moshe Rabbenu, “Moses our rabbi.” Of course, historically, there were no rabbis in Moses’ day. But that doesn’t stop the rabbis from reimagining Moses in their own image.

Pirkei Avot (the famous tractate of Mishnah packed with pithy ethical maxims) begins with these words:

Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.

The rabbis viewed themselves as inheritors of Torah in the chain of transmission from the moment of revelation — and Moses was the beginning of this chain. For the rabbis, the highest intellectual value was that of reading the sacred text with erudition, sharpness and the ability to establish chiddushim, novel interpretations. On today’s daf, they imagine that Moses did much the same.

The subject is the days leading up to the moment of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Before receiving the Torah, God instructed the nation to “sanctify” themselves “today and tomorrow,” and “to be ready for the third day” when revelation would take place (Exodus 19:10-11). This sanctification has traditionally been understood as refraining from sexual relations. The rabbis go even further, asserting that men and women not only refrained from intimacy, but physically separated for three whole days. And they understand that it is Moses who interpreted the divine word for them in this way:

Moses added one day to the number of days that God commanded based on his own perception, as it was taught: Moses did three things based on his own perception, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, agreed with him. He added one day to the days of separation before the revelation at Sinai based on his own perception. And he totally separated from his wife after the revelation at Sinai. And he broke the tablets following the sin of the Golden Calf.  

In this passage from today’s daf, we see Moses acting on his own interpretation of God’s word in multiple ways — extending the period of separation for the people by one day and for himself indefinitely after the moment of revelation, and choosing to shatter the first set of tablets in response to the people’s sin with the Golden Calf — and the rabbis commend him for it:

And from where do we derive that the Holy One, Blessed be He, agreed with his (Moses’) reasoning? As it is stated: The first tablets that you broke [asher shibarta] (Exodus 34:1); Resh Lakish said: The word asher is an allusion to the phrase: May your strength be true [yishar kohakha] due to the fact that you broke the tablets. 

This midrash relies on a Hebrew pun. When God speaks to Moses of the broken tablets, God refers to them very simply as the ones asher shibarta (literally: “that you broke”). But Resh Lakish reads the word asher (“that”) as an allusion to a very similar-sounding word, yishar — “straight” or “true.” To his mind, this offers a hint that God strongly approves of Moses’ off-the-script decision to smash the first set of tablets. Elsewhere on the page, the rabbis provide midrashic “proof” that God approved of Moses’ other innovations as well.

This midrashic section of today’s page highlights the tension the rabbis grappled with in their own role as preservers of the biblical text and inheritors of the Oral Law. By portraying Moses as not only the person who received the Torah but also the first person to interpret it, they reinforce their own creative reading methods as both authentic and divinely-approved.

Read all of Shabbat 87 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 1, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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