R. Zadok and the Oral Law

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #27:  R. Zadok and the Oral Law



            The Oral Law may be the most prominent topic in R. Zadok’s writings.  He returns to this topic in almost every work while analyzing it from different angles.  What are the strengths and weaknesses of written and oral communication?  Did the methodology of Halakha change during the course of Jewish history?  What distinguishes the Oral Law from other expressions of human wisdom?  R. Zadok reads several biblical stories in light of these questions.  His analysis weaves together a remarkable amount of halakhic and aggadic material.  


Yaakov Elman wrote two pioneering articles on these matters that proved extremely helpful in the writing of this shiur.[1]  Elman notes how R. Zadok highlights several points in Jewish history as the beginning of the Oral Law.


One derasha suggests that the Oral Law begins with Sefer Devarim.  According to many commentators, Moshe himself composed this final volume of Chumash and God chose to incorporate it into Scripture.  Thus, this work symbolizes the contribution of human effort and initiative.  For that reason, the word “tov” only appears in the second account of the aseret ha-dibrot (the Ten Commandments), which is found in Sefer Devarim.   The goodness refers to the creative potential of the Oral Law.[2] 


            Moshe attempts to inaugurate the Oral Law at an earlier point when he sends the spies.  For R. Zadok, the contrast between life in the desert and the entry into Israel parallels the difference between the Written and the Oral Law.  The desert generation have all their physical concerns taken care of by God, whereas the Land of Israel requires cultivation of the land and human effort.  Sending spies is a human initiative moving toward a lessening of reliance upon God.  However, this was not yet the time for the Oral Law.  Thus, Moshe proposes the idea of sending spies but God then commands him to do so.[3]  God taking the leading role brought the episode back to the realm of the Written Law.


            Life in Israel and the Oral Law present the identical challenge.  Remembering God’s dominance is easy when He sustains us in the desert or when we read his written Torah.  It is much harder to understand that everything comes from God while we toil in the land or use our human intellect to think of a creative Torah insight.  This test provides fresh meaning to the Talmudic statement: “A person does not succeed in Torah unless he first stumbles in it” (Chagiga 14a).  For R. Zadok, the stumbling stems from the very essence of the Oral Law.  Employing human reason means acting as if we accomplish on our own without God.  Yet this represents the snare of the Oral Law that we must avoid.  For this reason, Moshe was concerned about Yehoshua.[4]   His very proficiency at the Oral Law made him susceptible to this type of stumbling.[5]


The previous discussion dates the growth of the Oral Law to the time of Yehoshua.  This fits with another passage in which R. Zadok analyzes an aggada about the death of Moshe (Temura 16a).  According to that gemara, the Jewish people forgot hundreds of halakhot during the mourning period for Moshe until Otniel ben Kenaz restored them with his pilpul.  Moshe Rabbeinu represents the pinnacle of the Written Law.  Since his death brings about the beginning of the Oral Law, the Jewish people do not receive a new prophecy to clarify the missing material.  Instead, Otniel uses human reasoning to work out the law.[6]  


Other discussions in R. Zadok’s writings imply a later date for the full flowering of the Oral Law.  A famous gemara (Shabbat 88a) states that at Sinai God coerced the Jewish people to accept the Torah.  The gemara states that we had an excuse for lack of observance until the free acceptance of the covenant during the Purim episode.   R. Zadok adopts the view of Midrash Tanchuma (parashat Noach) that coercion was only needed for the Oral Law.  Am Yisrael was happy to accept the Written Law but did not want the work and responsibility that comes with the Oral Law.  Only at the time of Purim did the Jews joyously accept this burden.[7] 


According to R. Zadok, reluctance to accept the Oral Law is not merely avoidance of hard work; it reflects a religious value judgment.  The Written Law model allows for tremendous clarity because receiving guidance directly from the mouth of God removes ambiguities and doubt.  On such religious grounds, the people preferred accepting the Written Law without the Oral Law.  Only in later history did they come to understand that the human component of the Oral Law brings with it certain advantages as well.


This transition in modes of Torah misled Haman.  He knew that Moshe had died during the month of Adar; therefore, he correctly saw it as a month in which Torah ceases.  He did not know that Moshe was also born in Adar; thus, it reflects a month of Torah growth as well.[8]  This month witnessed the sealing of kitvei ha-kodesh (Holy Scripture) even as it also saw the growth of the Oral Law.[9]


The Purim episode coincides with the rise of the Men of the Great Assembly.  These scholars start to create enactments and edicts which reflect the human additions to Torah. In fact, the very first such addition was the mitzva to read the Megilla on Purim.  This episode and the associated mitzvot do receive mention in Scripture as the final part of the Written Law.  However, in their essence, they reflect the transition to the Oral Law.[10]


            In other passages, R. Zadok portrays Chanukah as the time of the Oral Law‘s growth.  The gemara (Yoma 29b) describes Purim as the last miracle to find written expression.  Chanukah, on the other hand, does not appear in Tanakh.  For R. Zadok, this distinction lines up with the legal requirement for a festive meal on Purim but not on Chanuka.  The written word reflects bodily existence, whereas oral material symbolizes lack of corporeality.  The written word of Purim belongs together with a physical mitzva performance.


The same divide exists regarding the nature of the persecution.  Persecution of the Jewish people prior to the Oral Law, be it from Egyptian, Babylonian, or other sources, was purely physical.  The first edicts aimed against Jewish law occur in the Chanukah story.  The advent of the Oral Law brought non-corporeal components to the fore.[11]


            This split leads R. Zadok to a remarkable resolution of a famous question.  Many medieval authorities wonder why the Torah focuses attention on rewards and punishments of this world rather than focusing on what awaits us in the World to Come.[12]  Abravanel lists seven solutions for this difficulty.[13]   R. Zadok‘s explanation builds upon the essential physicality of the written word.   That corporeality makes it only appropriate that a written text should highlight physical reward and punishment.  Only the non-corporeal Oral Law can instruct us about the spiritual compensation of the World to Come.[14]


Beyond the lack of written expression, other aspects of Chunuka also emphasize the Oral Law and human wisdom.   As we saw in last week’s shiur, R. Zadok contends that the priesthood symbolizes human understanding and teaching Torah.  Thus, the prominence of the priests in the Chunuka story reflects deeper currents at work. Additionally, the light of the menora represents the illumination of Torah wisdom.[15]   


            The same passage describes Purim as a middle ground between the Oral and Written Laws.  The gemara (Megilla 7a) reports that Esther faced some opposition regarding the writing of the Purim story.  For R. Zadok, this reflects Purim’s ambiguous place on the margins of the oral/written divide.  Along similar lines, the Purim episode contains no direct reference to God and can be read as a purely naturalistic tale.  Such a story would belong to the human initiative associated with the Oral Law.  On the other hand, God clearly orchestrates the events of Purim so that we could see it more in line with the Written Law.[16]


            Yaakov Elman notes a striking aspect of R. Zadok’s historical thinking.  Most rabbinic writers are reluctant to see the halakhic process as changing over the course of time, preferring instead a portrait of constant continuity.  R. Zadok, on the other hand, sees the methodology of halakhic decision-making of the First Temple period as quite different from that of the Second Temple period.  During the time of the First Temple, Jews addressed all their halakhic questions to prophets and not to sages.  The prophets did not answer based on human reasoning; they turned to God for guidance.   We can appreciate why they preferred this method.   The clarity of the divine word seems to beat the murky obscurities of human thought.[17] 


            On the other hand, this approach has certain limitations as well.  Cases were addressed on an ad hoc basis without developing a concrete code of law.  Aspiring students stopped learning Torah from their masters once they achieved their own prophetic ability; instead, they listened for their own prophetic message.[18]  The case-by-case nature of prophetic rulings meant no possibility of formulating general principles of law.[19]  Furthermore, the ability to achieve some form of answer when God does not offer direct assistance and the strength to find light among darkness reflects a higher level of revelation.  The gemara (Sanhedrin 24a) associates the Babylonian Talmud with darkness.  For R Zadok, as for Netziv, this statement does not criticize the Babylonian sages.  Quite the contrary!  It praises their ability to illuminate the passageways of divine law in the darkness that lacks clear revelation.[20]


The desire to experience a full Oral Law in the Second Temple period actually brought about the end of prophecy.  We might think that the end of prophecy inspired greater reliance on human wisdom but R. Zadok reverses the causality.  Actually, the desire for the human effort of the Oral Law brought about the closure of prophecy.  When Am Yisrael indicated readiness for the next stage of Torah development, things soon progressed in that direction.[21]   R. Zadok indicates a sharp division between Bayit Rishon (the First Temple) and Bayit Sheni (the Second Temple).  R. Zadok posits that all the prophets of the Babylonian exile, such as Zekharya, Chaggai, and Malakhi, must have been born before the destruction of the First Temple.  Apparently, the shift in religious mode after the churban (destruction of the Temple) was so sharp that prophecy could only come from someone born before that event.[22]  


R. Zadok sees several advantages to oral communication over the written word.  A written text can convey ideas but not the vitality of the speaker.  Thus, something invariably gets lost when concepts are put on paper.   God represents the single exception to this rule, since He is capable of expressing His vitality in writing.  Humans cannot, so oral transmission allows for a more intensive expression than a written text.[23]  Furthermore, oral communication includes a host of tones and gestures that help to clarify the speaker’s intent.  The written word lacks comparable aids to communication.[24]   If so, we can easily understand why the Torah prohibits writing down the Oral Law.  However, once circumstances dictated the writing of this material, it became a mitzva to do so.  R. Zadok suggests that the mitzva to write a Torah scroll now includes writing the Oral Law.[25]


R. Zadok’s emphasis on the Oral Law might be understood as an expression of the great value he places on human initiative.  Indeed, he refers to the Oral Law as the “essence, the glory, and the splendor of Torah.”[26]  However, R. Zadok constantly reminds his readers that these human accomplishments truly come from God.  As we have seen, he describes this realization as the essential test of the Oral Law.  Will the scholars take personal credit or will they attribute the insight to God?  R. Zadok apparently means more than just the idea that God gave humanity intelligence with which to analyze.  Rather, God actively helps bring about the insight in an ongoing fashion.  R. Zadok refers to the ru’ach ha-kodesh that animates the Talmudic scholars[27] and also cites the opinion that prophecy now belongs to the sages (Bava Batra 12a).


This helps distinguish the Oral Law from the products of human reason.  Secular wisdom stands detached from God, whereas the Oral Law comes from above.  R. Zadok gives a novel explanation for the term “chokhmot chitzoniyot.”  This wisdom is on “the outside” in the sense that it remains divorced from God.[28]  R. Zadok insists that the wisdom of Chazal is not the product of human reason.  In this regard, he even distinguishes between the Talmud and other Jewish works:   


The words of Chazal and their laws are not like the set customs found in an ethical work based on human estimation because, if so, how would our holy Talmud differ from other works by the sages of Israel?  Rather, all their laws come from the revelation in the heart.[29]   


And all of [Chazal’s] wisdom is to comprehend that there is a wisdom above human reason and that all of their understanding does not come from the human intellect at all.[30]


Another important factor divides the Oral Law from other types of wisdom.  For R. Zadok, true wisdom affects the heart.  Knowledge means more than knowing facts or analytical ability; it means the wisdom that edifies and affects who we are.  Do’eg Ha-adomi knew a great deal of Torah information but he lacked this internalized wisdom.  Thus, the gemara says that his wisdom was “from the lips outward” (Sanhedrin 106b).[31] 


Strikingly, R. Zadok has no problem with Rambam saying that Aristotle knew the esoteric material of ma’aseh bereishit and ma’aseh merkava.  He even thinks that the Athenian sages knew some of the kabbalistic ideas of the Zohar.  Yet they lacked the most important aspect of wisdom. Their wisdom was only intellectual, not internalized in a way that fully impacts on one’s being.[32]    

[1] Yaakov Elman, “R. Zadok Hakohen on the History of Halakha,” Tradition 21:4 (Fall, 1985), pp. 1-26; “Reb Zadok Hakohen of Lublin on Prophecy in the Halakhic Process,” Jewish Law Association Studies 1985, pp. 1-16.  I also benefited from the references in Alan Brill’s Thinking God.

[2] Pri Tzaddik, Kedushat Shabbat 7.

[3] See Rashi Bemidbar 13:2.

[4] See Rashi Bemidbar 13:16.

[5] LIkutei Ma’amarim, pp. 84-87.

[6] Machshavot Charutz, p. 139. 

[7] Machshavot Charutz, p. 142; Resisei Layla, p. 158.

[8] Megilla 13b.

[9] Machshavot Charutz, p. 138.

[10] Resisei Layla, p. 84.

[11] Resisei Layla, pp. 158-159.

[12] See Vayikra 26, Devarim 11, Devarim 28.

[13] See his commentary on Vayikra 26.

[14] Resisei Layla, pp. 159-160.

[15] Resisei Layla, pp. 162-163.

[16] Resisel Layla, p. 159.

[17] Machshavot Charutz, p. 142; Resisei Layla, p. 160.

[18] Resisei Layla, p. 161.

[19] Resisei Layla, p. 162.

[20] Machshavot Charutz, pp. 139-140.

[21] Machshavot Charutz, p. 142.

[22] Resisei Layla, p. 84.

[23] Resisei Layla, p. 156.

[24] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 104.

[25] Machshavot Charutz, p. 113.

[26] Resisei Layla, p. 158.

[27] Machshavot Charutz, p. 140, Resisei Layla, p. 158.

[28] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 83.

[29] Resisei Layla, p. 14.

[30] Machshavot Charutz, p. 143.

[31] Divrei Sofrim, no. 15; Resisei Layla, p. 13.

[32] Likutei Ma’amarim, p. 109.