"That You Shall Set Before Them"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



"That You Shall Set Before Them"

Summarized by Matan Glidai

Translated by David Silverberg


"These are the laws that you shall set before them" - before whom? The Gemara (Gittin 88b) offers as one explanation, "Before them, and not before laymen." From the Gemara it thus emerges that the verse refers to a specific group within Benei Yisrael, rather than the nation in its entirety. The laws are to be transmitted to the elite - the judges and leaders.

The Ramban, in his commentary on the verse, introduces a very different approach:

"'These are the laws' - [this verse] refers to [the tenth commandment,] 'You shall not covet.' For if one does not know the law regarding a [given] house, field or other assets, he will think that it [the property in question] belongs to him, and will covet it and take it for himself. Therefore He said, 'Set [the laws] before them' - they shall establish just laws among them, and [thus] they will not covet that which does not legally belong to them."

The laws are thus to be transmitted to the masses, those likely to stumble and sin, and not specifically to the spiritual leadership. Surprisingly, however, the Ramban himself later cites the aforementioned comments of the Gemara. How can we accommodate both interpretations?

One may perhaps suggest that the laws were in fact taught to both the masses as well as the leadership, but each group learned something different. Before the judges were placed the "judicial paraphernalia," as the Gemara comments (Sanhedrin 7b):

"'That you shall set' - it should have written, 'that you shall teach!' Rather… [this refers to] the judicial paraphernalia… a staff, whip, shofar and sandal."

The commoners, by contrast, studied the general guidelines of proper social conduct and the like.

It would seem that a similar two-tiered process was employed during the giving of the Torah itself. On the one hand, the Torah was given to all of Benei Yisrael. The entire Nation of Israel stood as one at Mount Sinai during the Revelation, and they all received the Torah and participated in this remarkable experience. On the other hand, throughout the entire drama of Ma'amad Har Sinai, the superiority and singularity of Moshe Rabbenu are emphasized:

"Go, say to them, 'Return to your tents.' But you remain here with Me, and I will give you the whole Instruction - the laws and the rules - that you shall impart to them." (Devarim 5:27-8)

More generally, we may accurately posit that the whole of Sefer Shemot depicts two concurrent processes. One involves Moshe's ascent onto the stage of history and his development into both leader and prophet. The second process relates to the development and establishment of Kenesset Yisrael. With the Revelation at Sinai, these two processes coincide: Am Yisrael reaches its apex in terms of both its internal cohesiveness and connection to the Almighty, and Moshe emerges as an individual standing on a level much higher than the rest, as clearly manifested by the impenetrable divider that separated between him and the nation at Ma'amad Har Sinai.

The Gemara (Makkot 23b-24a) derives from the verse, "Moshe commanded us the Torah" (Devarim 33:4) that Moshe taught Benei Yisrael 611 commandments (the numerical value of "Torah"). They heard the remaining two - "I am the Lord your God" and "You shall have no other gods beside Me" - directly from God, as it were. This distinction arises as well from the sudden shift from first to third person during the Ten Commandments. Whereas the first person form is used for the first two commandments - "I am…"; "beside ME" - the text reverts to the third person thereafter: "You shall not bear the Name of Hashem your God;" "for in six days God created…"

The Ramban (Shemot 20:7) challenges this assertion, basing his question on a verse in Sefer Devarim (5:19), "God spoke those words to your whole congregation," which implies that all Ten Commandments reached the ears of Benei Yisrael directly. The Ramban answers:

"Certainly, all of Israel heard all the Ten Commandments straight from God, as the simple interpretation of the verses suggests. Only that regarding the first two commandments, they would hear the commandment and understand it from Him as Moshe understood it. Therefore, He spoke with them as a master speaks to his servant… From then on, throughout the rest of the commandments, they would hear the sound of the commandment but would not understand it. Moshe was needed to interpret for them each commandment until they understood it from him."

According to the Ramban, there emerges a vast difference between Moshe's receiving of the Torah and that of Am Yisrael, both quantitative and qualitative. Am Yisrael received the majority of the Torah from Moshe Rabbenu, whereas he heard it all directly from the Almighty. Indeed, the Gemara (Shabbat 89a) observes that the Almighty actually incorporated Moshe's name within the name of the Torah, as the prophet exhorts, "Remember the Torah of Moshe, My servant" (Malakhi 3:22).

Yet, "Moshe commanded us the Torah" comprises only half a verse; the verse continues, "a heritage for the Congregation of Israel." The Torah was given to Israel as an inheritance from antiquity. The Almighty created Am Yisrael only after first looking at the Torah - from the outset He ensured the mutual compatibility of Benei Yisrael and the Torah. Moshe taught the Torah to Benei Yisrael, but the Torah belonged to Benei Yisrael already from the earliest of times.

Commenting on the opening verse of the parasha, Rashi writes,

"'That you shall set before them' - The Almighty said to Moshe, 'Do not think to say, I will teach them the subject matter two or three times until it is fluent and accurate in their mouths, but I will not take the trouble to explain to them the reason and explanation of the given law.' It is therefore written, 'That you shall set before them,' like a table set and ready for the individual to eat."

According to Rashi, Moshe may have believed that since Benei Yisrael did not hear the Torah directly from the Almighty, they did not need to learn all the underlying reasons behind its laws. The Torah is meant strictly for the elite, the leadership. For the masses, a mere superficial knowledge of the laws suffices. The Almighty specifically negates such a notion as He charges Moshe with his educational responsibilities towards the people. The Torah is meant for everyone. Even the commoners must probe deeply into the teachings of the Torah and learn it thoroughly and in-depth - "be-iyyun" - and not just at a superficial level - "bekiut."

True, the Torah and its intricacies were, in one sense, given specifically to Moshe and, thereafter, to the nation's intellectual leaders. On the other hand, however, they were given as well to Am Yisrael in its entirety, and everyone is granted the opportunity to learn Torah in all its depth and profundity. The leaders bear the responsibility of transmitting Torah knowledge to the entire nation. The Rambam expresses this notion in the beginning of Hilkhot Mamrim, as he describes the "Bet Din Ha-gadol" - Jewish Supreme Court - as the legal body that continues the authority of Moshe Rabbenu:

"They are the mainstay of the Oral Law, they are the pillars of Torah rulings, and from them law and judgment are issued to all of Israel… Whoever believes in Moshe Rabbenu and his Torah is obligated to attribute to them the application of the religion, and rely upon them."

Masekhet Avot manifests these two dimensions of Torah knowledge. On the one hand, the Machzor Vitri explains that this tractate is traditionally studied specifically after mincha on Shabbat because it is easy, straightforward, and readily understandable by even the simpleminded. Therefore, it found its place in the synagogue on Shabbat afternoon, when the masses are gathered. On other hand, in his introduction to Avot (4), the Rambam bases the location of this tractate after Sanhedrin, Makkot and Shevuot upon its specific and in fact primary relevance to the nation's judges:

"Should the laymen not be ethical people, no damage will be done to the community at large, but only to themselves. But regarding the judge, if he is unethical, education will be lost and it will harm all of humanity."

What is true of Pirkei Avot can be said of the entire Torah. While it speaks to the elite at their level of proficiency and scholarship, it must be transmitted to and rigorously engaged in by all strata of the Jewish People.

(Originally delivered on Leil Shabbat, Parashat Mishpatim 5753 [1993].)


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