THE DECREES OF MOSHE – PART II
Taken from a shiur byRav Yoseif Dov Soloveitchik in Shiurim L'Zecher Avi Mori z"l
Despite all that we have said until now, there still exists another avenue of investigation that needs to be pursued. The decree for the Jews to read the Torah every three days was made before the Torah was given. This being the case, what did this decree actually concern itself with? What mitzva did the Jews fulfill by following this commandment – there was no actual Torah in existence yet!
It seems that the words of the gemara are crucial. It states that after three days the Jews weakened, a fact highlighted by Shemot 15:23 which speaks about the complaints of the Jews at Marah. As such, it was not the lack of Torah per se that this decree came to correct, but rather this general sense of spiritual weakness that comes as a result of lacking the word of Hashem. As such, this decree was made by the prophets not as a law about Torah but rather as a kindness to the people to save them from spiritual ebbs.
In truth, once the Torah has been given and there are several commandments making it incumbent upon us to study it, there exists as well a fulfillment of Torah that relates to the sanctity and holiness of man. We are commanded to guard the individuality and holiness of man via the learning of Torah. At the same time, there is a special warning against forgetting Torah or even letting our minds wander from it ("hesech ha-da'at"). This idea is borne out by Devarim 4:5-10, which stresses the mission of the Jewish people to be a nation of wisdom and understanding. As these traits come through the study of Torah, our neglect of it can only lead to our becoming a small and foolish nation, and thus we fail in achieving our national destiny.
The words of Tosafot (Berachot 11b) are telling in this regard. They ask why one makes a blessing on the Succah every time he enters it to eat, yet one only makes a blessing once a day on the learning of Torah, even if he breaks to engage in other activities? They answer that Torah is different since one never fully takes his mind off of it, since he has a constant obligation to be studying it. Even when one is not actively engaged in the study of Torah, he still maintains a connection to it. What is important is not the learning itself as much as it is the object or concept of the Torah (cheftza shel Torah). As such, the blessing made every morning concerning the Torah is "to engage" (la'asok) in Torah, and not to study it.
With this background, with can understand why the reading of the Torah was established once every three days. If we are concerned with the learning of Torah, then why were we not instructed to read from it every day? However, all can now become clear. Since the focus here is on preventing one's soul from descending into lethargy and apathy, the reading of the Torah comes as an antidote to such a problem. This could explain why the gemara in Bava Kamma mentions not only the days on which the Torah is read, but also the days of the week when it is not. The days on which we do not read from the Torah do not need a Torah reading since they receive their strength from the previous day on which the Torah was read.
Rashi on Shemot 15:25 highlights this point. In explanation of the laws given to the Jews at Marah, he explains that they were given laws "to involve" themselves with. The purpose of these laws was not necessarily that they should live by them as much as it was for them to pore over them and revitalize their waning feelings of spirituality.
In truth, the commandments given to the Jews at Marah were not sanctified immediately as being part of Torah. They were the word of Hashem, but were not part of the entity of Torah with all of the implications of that designation. Eventually, they were sanctified as part of the Torah. As Rashi points out, in the name of the Mechilta, in his commentary to Shemot 24:4, Moshe write down all of the events and commandments found in Bereishit as well as the commandments that were given at Marah and included them in the Torah that was being composed. Only when the Torah was actually given were these things able to be transformed into part of Torah.
If this is so, then we have to ask on what strength the original decree of reading the Torah rested? It seems that before the Torah was given, there was only one source of authority – the connection to the word of Hashem. All that existed was the holiness of Hashem and it was that holiness that obligated the Jews to read the Torah. Even once the Torah was given, this holiness continues to act as a force in halacha, without making any difference between Torah, the Prophets (Nevi'im), and the Writings (Ketuvim). It is for this reason that Rambam and Ra'avad forbid the destruction of any of the books of the Bible or their commentaries.
This can also help us understand a detail in Rambam's phraseology. While the gemara states that the decree was so that the Jews should not go three days without Torah, Rambam changes the wording to say that it was so they should not go three days without "hearing" Torah. Why does he make this change?
We can perhaps understand this move of Rambam by taking a closer look at the role of hearing with regard to Torah. In commanding to Jews to observe hakheil, when all of the people would come every seven years to Yerushalayim to hear the Torah read by the king, the Torah specifies that the men, women, and children should all come (Devarim 31:12-13). The gemara in Chagigah 3a asks why the women and children had to come? They answer that the women came to hear (even though they did not necessarily understand, which was often the case in those times), and the children came so as to bring reward to those who brought them for making the extra effort. It thus emerges that there are two parts of the mitzva of hakheil: the commandment to learn and understand, and the commandment to hear, even if one does not understand. This distinction applies not only to the mitzva of hakheil, but to the learning of Torah in general. There are two types of "reading" that apply to Torah: reading the Torah in order to understand it, the type of learning that is involved with the Oral Torah, which is known as mishna and gemara, two words which imply serious study, and reading in order to hear the word of Hashem in public, which is connected to the written Torah, which is known as "mikra," implying that its purpose is related to the fact that it is read out loud without necessarily being understood by all.
As we have noted, the decree made by Moshe and the prophets of his time was concerned specifically with the hearing of the Torah. As the Torah had not yet been given, there was as yet no commandment to learn Torah, but only to hear it. For this reason, Rambam alters the gemara and emphasizes the hearing aspect of the reading of the Torah.
It could be that the prominence of the number three, with regard both to number of people who are called up during the week and number of psukim that each one must read, is connected to this idea. There is a debate in Megilla 21b whether the prominence of three represents the three parts of the Jewish people – Kohanim, Levi'im, and Yisraelim – or whether it represents the three division of the Bible. It seems that both opinions can be accurately reflected by the idea that we have laid out here. All of the Jews are commanded to hear the Torah being read, and thus a representative of each segment of the population is called up to the Torah. Similarly, we have noted that the holiness of Hashem that stands behind this decree applies not only to Torah, but to Nevi'im and Ketuvim as well, and thus the three verses that are read each time are symbolic of these three sections of the holy writings.
Finally, there is another point to be made. The reading of the Torah in public serves as a re-enactment of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. When a person hears the Torah being read, he has to imagine for himself that the Torah is being given right now at Sinai, with all of the sound and light that accompanied that event. The original decree of Moshe came right after the revelation by the Reed Sea, and the re-establishment of this law came in the wake of the revelation at Sinai. When the Torah commands the Jews not to forget or forsake the Torah (Devarim 4), they are told not to forget the entire experience of Sinai. The commandment to hear the Torah is connected directly to the awesome events of the giving of the Torah.
This idea can explain several laws related to the reading of the Torah. Although most authorities rule that one does not have to stand for the reading of the Torah, Maharam MiRutenberg rules that one does have to do so (this is brought down by Ramo as well). If the reading of the Torah is an act of hearing the word of Hashem, then hearing it would certainly require that one be standing at that time. Also, there are two possible sets of cantillation notes (trop) that can be used for the reading of the Ten Commandments (or ten utterances, or ten sayings – I am just going with the vernacular on this one) – one divides them into the verses that they are divided into (ta'am tachton), and one divides them into commandments, with each commandment becoming its own extended or truncated verse (ta'am elyon). Again, if our goal is the re-enactment of Sinai, then they should be read the way they were given, with each commandment being read on its own (and that is the practice is most places today). Finally, this issue relates to the law of whether or not we make someone repeat the verse if he reads with an error that does not change the meaning. While Ramo rules that one does not have to do so, Rambam and Rav Chaim Soloveitchik rule that one does. If the reading of the Torah is all about learning, then as long as the meaning remains the same there should be no issue. However, if we are concerned with the hearing of the word of Hashem, then any alteration in the text is one that mandates correction.
An idea from Rav Moshe Soloveitchik can also be fit into this notion. He claimed that even if one had already heard the Torah being read, he nevertheless has to hear it again if he is passing by a place where they are reading it. He claimed that this was based on the gemara in Sotah 39a which states that once a Torah is opened no one is allowed to talk about anything else, even halacha. This law is not talking about the mitzva of reading the Torah, but rather about the respect that is due when one is hearing the word of Hashem.
The comparison between the reading of the Torah and the giving of the Torah at Sinai adds one additional facet to the mitzva, that of accepting the yoke of heaven. Even though each person called to the Torah only has to read three psukim, we nevertheless rule that the total number of verses read must be at least ten. Why is this so? Anything that is deemed to be a declaration of Hashem's holiness (davar she-bikedusha) requires ten people, and thus our reading of the Torah also adopts this symbolic number. What is the point of this symbolism? To show that in addition to merely reading the Torah, we are at the same time accepting upon ourselves the yoke and glory of heaven.
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