Rules of the Game
Adapted from Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
To play basketball, you need to know the rules. Otherwise, what you’re playing won’t be basketball, it will be make-believe.
The same applies to Judaism. Jewish law is derived from the written verses of the Torah, but you can’t just derive anything you want. There are rules about how verses may be interpreted, and any interpretation that doesn’t fit within those rules is not Judaism, it’s make-believe.
The rules of the game of Judaism are called the Oral Torah. Without the Oral Torah, there would be no way of knowing exactly what the Almighty meant to be telling us in His book.
Any of the verses in the Written Torah could serve as an example. Let’s look at these:
“But (ach) on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the crop of the land, you shall celebrate Hashem’s festival for a seven-day period... You shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a citron tree, the branches of date palms, twigs of a plaited tree, and brook willows, and you shall rejoice before Hashem, your God, for a seven-day period... You shall dwell in booths for a seven-day period; every native in Israel shall dwell in booths” (VaYikra-Leviticus 23:39-42).
These verses describe the commandments forming the holiday of Sukkos. If we tried to celebrate the holiday based on a superficial reading of the verses, we wouldn’t know where to begin or what to do. Booths? Take fruit? What does that mean? The bare-bone verses need some fleshing out in order to apply them to our lives.
How long is the rule-book of the NBA?
In Judaism, there are 613 rules that you need to follow in order to derive the practices and lifestyle choices that the Almighty wanted us to learn from His verses. These rules allow us to examine the etymological source of each word, the grammatical relationship between the words vis-a-vis each other, sentence structure, and many other telling details that hoard treasures of meaning if we just take the trouble to look.
The Talmud, also called the Gemara, teaches these rules in a debate format. This format allows students to analyze the competing premises of various perspectives on the same issue, leading to a broad and thorough appreciation of both the issue at hand and the intellectual game rules that apply to it.
But let’s get more detailed in our example. The first of the verses says, “But (ach) on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the crop of the land, you shall celebrate Hashem’s festival for a seven-day period” (ibid).
Some of the words in this verse have already been defined. Many other verses in the Torah use the word “celebrate” to mean “bring korbanos (offerings)”. In biblical times, Jews celebrated the holidays by taking a family vacation to Jerusalem in order to bring korbanos in the Beis HaMikdash (temple). That’s not new.
What we don’t know from previous verses is whether we are supposed to bring these particular offerings even on Shabbos. A superficial reading of the verse leaves us confused about how to handle this eventuality. Shabbos? Sukkos offerings? A Jew living in Israel at that time needed to know what to do.
The Gemara steps in to resolve our problem: “The academy of Hillel declare: May a person celebrate [by bringing an offering] on Shabbos? It teaches to say: ‘ach’ on the holiday you celebrate, and you do not celebrate on Shabbos” (Sifra on VaYikra).
The Ayelet HaShachar, Rabbi Meir Leibush Weiser’s classic corpus of Hebrew grammar rules, explains, “The word ach limits [the statement of] the sentence in which it appears.” Rabbi Weiser, better known by the acronym of his Hebrew initials, the Malbim, was a Torah leader in the eighteen hundreds whose authority regarding Hebrew grammar rules is universally acknowledged to this day. His observations and teachings make consistent sense through the entire corpus of Torah texts, illuminating concepts and fine points that might otherwise have been obscured or less clear.
His explanation of this Gemara is a perfect example. By applying the grammar rule as the Malbim explained, the sages of Hillel’s academy informed us that Jewish law prohibits bringing holiday offerings on Shabbos. Their decision wasn’t dictatorial. The law was right there in the words of the verse. Hillel’s academy simply told us where to find it: in the word “ach”.
Now whenever we encounter the word ach, we will know that it was placed there to limit the application of the verse it appears in. A quick review of the literature will prove that this rule applies to every verse using the word ach in the entire written Torah.
Without the rules of the game, we wouldn’t know how to play. We would have the ball in our hands, but we wouldn’t know how to score with it. We would have the Written Torah in our hands, but we wouldn’t know how to practically apply what it says.
Bringing Torah to Life
The Oral Torah teaches us the rules of the game, how to apply them, and how to actualize the Almighty’s beautiful vision for every situation in our lives. The Oral Torah brings the Written Torah to life.
Importantly, the rules described in the Oral Torah are nothing but logical imperatives flowing from the linguistic structure of the words themselves. The etymological, grammatical relationship between words, sentences, and sections is not given to flights of fancy. Rather, anyone who masters an accurate understanding of Hebrew etymology and grammar is free to gain his own footing and join the dialogue of Jewish scholars spanning generations.
Conversely, any effort to interpret a verse with even a single word unjustified by these rules sends the entire structure of Torah philosophy and law spinning into no-man’s-land. The secret of the Torah’s brilliance is in its interconnectedness – every rule of the game works together to form a whole picture.
With a puzzle, if one piece is missing, you might still be able to enjoy the rest of the picture, but Torah is more like a bowl of marbles. If you move one marble, all the rest must adjust to settle around it. It’s not that just one part of the picture changes; the whole picture changes. The integrity of every part is crucial for the integrity of all parts, and the integrity of the whole.
And as the secrets of the Written Torah are unlocked by the Oral Torah, oh, what an amazing whole it is. Crack the code – let Torah study unlock the secrets you were born to know. Getting to know the Torah from the inside out will astound you. Pick up a Gemara, find a teacher, and get in the game.