Osniel ben Kenaz
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שנפטר משה רבינו לגן עדן אמר לו ליהושע שאל ממני כל ספיקות שיש לך אמר לו רבי כלום הנחתיך שעה אחת והלכתי למקום אחר לא כך כתבת בי (שמות לג) ומשרתו יהושע בן נון נער לא ימיש מתוך האהל מיד תשש כחו של יהושע ונשתכחו ממנו שלש מאות הלכות ונולדו לו שבע מאות ספיקות ועמדו כל ישראל להרגו אמר לו הקב”ה לומר לך אי אפשר לך וטורדן במלחמה שנאמר (יהושוע א) ויהי אחרי מות משה עבד ה’ ויאמר ה’ וגו’ במתניתין תנא אלף ושבע מאות קלין וחמורין וגזירות שוות ודקדוקי סופרים נשתכחו בימי אבלו של משה אמר רבי אבהו אעפ”כ החזירן עתניאל בן קנז מתוך פלפולו
Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: At the time that our teacher Moshe was released to gen eden, he said to Yehoshua, “Ask me about any uncertainty you may have.” [Yehoshua said, “Have I ever left your side, even for a moment? You have written about me, ‘and his assistant, the young Yehoshua, did not stir from the ohel mo’eid.’ ” Immediately, Yehoshua’s strength waned and he forgot 300 halakhos and 700 doubts were born to him. All of Israel got up to kill [Yehoshua]. Hashem said to him, “It is impossilbe for Me to [let Myself] tell you. Go, distract Israel with war.” As it says, “and it was, after Moshe, Hashem’s servant, died . . . God said, ‘Go and cross the Jordan…’ .” (Yehoshua 1)
– Temurah 16aאמר רבי יוחנן שעורין ועונשין הלכה למשה מסיני עונשין מכתב כתיבי אלא הכי קאמר שיעורים של עונשין הלכה למשה מסיני תניא נמי הכי שיעורין של עונשין הלכה למשה מסיני אחרים אומרים בית דינו של יעבץ תיקנום והכתיב (ויקרא כז) אלה המצות שאין נביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה אלא שכחום וחזרו ויסדום
Rabbi Yochanan said: Measures and punishments are [all] laws given to Moshe from Sinai. “Punishments”? They are written [and thus wrong to classify them as orally given to Moshe]! Rather, this is what was said: The measures over which one is punished were given to Moshe from Sinai. Other say the court of Yaavetz established them. But doesn’t it say “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on? Rather, they forgot them, and they went back and reestablished them.
– Yuma 80a
תנא הוא עתניאל הוא יעבץ
Mishna: Asniel is Yaavetz.
– Temurah (ibid)
Today, the 7th of Adar, not only marks the birth and death of Moshe. I want to point out another significant event. Until Moshe’s death, one could resolve halakhah by turning to Moshe to ask Hashem. However, we see in this gemara that the moment Moshe died, “lo bashamayim hi — it [the Torah] is not in heaven” took effect. Hashem couldn’t restore the lost Torah to Yehoshua, that’s not what Torah is supposed to be.
Osniel ben Qenaz did something new. He was the first rabbi in the sense of the halachic give-and-take we find in the mishnah, gemara, codes, commentaries, responsa and lomdus. The era of Rabbinic Judaism begins with Osniel, even as Yehoshua carries on the prophetic inspired approach to Torah.
Osniel prefigures another event in Jewish history. Note the phrase “שכחום וחזרו ויסדום — they forgot [the laws], and they went back and reestablished them.
דאמר רבי ירמיה ואיתימא רבי חייא בר אבא מנצפ”ך צופים אמרום ותיסברא והכתיב (ויקרא כז) אלה המצות שאין הנביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה אלא מה’ הואי, מידע לא הוה ידעין הי באמצע תיבה הי בסוף תיבה, ואתו צופים תקנינהו. -ואכתי, אלה המצות – שאין הנביא רשאי לחדש דבר מעתה! – אלא: שכחום וחזרו ויסדום
Rabbi Yirmiyah said and others believe it was Rav Chiya bar Abba: Menatzpa”kh [an acronym listing the letters that have final forms] were said by the seers. Is this logical? But doesn’t it say “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on? Rather, they are from Hashem, but they didn’t know which went in the middle of the word and which at the end of the word, and the seers came and fixed it. But again “These are the mitzvos” (Vayiqra 27) — that no prophet is worthy of adding anything from now on! Rather, they forgot them, and they went back and reestablished them.
– Shabbos 104a, Megillah 3a
And similarly the Ashuris script is described as restored, as well as many other things forgotten during the Babylonian Exile. This same using reason to restore what was forgotten was a key part of the job of the Anshei Kenesses haGdolah. Theirs was not only an era after much Torah was forgotten during the pressures and assimilation of exile, but also the end of a prophetic alternative. The Great Assembly included the last of the prophets. One couldn’t “feel for” the right answer as reliably, and halachic reasoning came to the fore.
I fell in love with one of the central ideas in Professor Moshe Koppel’s book, “Metahalakhah”. There are two ways to learn a language: The native speaker doesn’t learn rules of grammar before using them, he just knows what “sounds right”. In contrast, an immigrant builds his sentences by using formalized rules, learning such terms as “past imperfect” and memorizing the forms that fit each category. R’ Koppel notes that the rules can never perfectly capture the full right vs wrong. A poet has to know when one can take license.
He argues that halakhah is similarly best transmitted by creating “native speakers”. It is only due to loss of our progressive loss of the Sinai culture with each generation that we need to rely on transmitting codified rules. In each of our cases, there was a major cultural shift.
With Moshe’s death, we not only lost Moshe’s level of prophecy. Note the words spoken by Yehoshua. “I have no doubts; I never left your side.” Overconfidence, in contrast to Moshe’s anavah. And therefore there was a shift from knowing by having a prophetic feel for what’s right to formal rules of derashah, of qal vachomer and gezeira shava.
Similarly the reestablishment of numerous laws by Anshei Keneses haGedolah when their prophecy was waning, and they needed to restore the Torah forgotten by our being mingled among the nations by Sancheirev.
The 7th of Adar therefore also represents Torah in our generation. We’re still reeling from the cultural dislocation caused by the Holocaust and the shift of Torah centers from Europe to Israel and the United States. From Sepharadim being forced out of century old communities. We’re still rebuilding. And again we see a focus on formal rules, on halachic guides.
However, there is a next step. Osniel was from the tribe of Yehudah and later became the first of the Judges, but he is not the one with whom Hashem established the kingship. It’s not until a leader emerges who is not only king, warrior and sage, but also the author of Tehillim — David.
Perhaps this is what it means when we say in the birkhas ahavah, the second blessing before the morning Shema, “lishmor vela’asos ulqayeim — to guard, to do, and to make permanent.” Shemirah, guarding, is a term used for prohibitions, mitzvos lo sa’asei. Asiyah obviously refers to duties, mitzvos asei. However, after watching to refrain from the prohibited and to do the mandatory, one has to allow them to make a permanent impact on one’s soul. This is qiyum hamitzvos —making the permanence of the mitzvos.
An Osniel can reestablish a mitzvah. Yasdum, literally — he gave them a foundation. But we still had Yehoshua giving us a building atop that foundation. We are now rebuilding our foundations. Now we need to Davidically stand upon them and sing.