Midrash and Method
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Shavuos 5765

Pre-Sinaitic Commandments

From time immemorial yeshiva study has not ceased from our forefathers.. They were in Egypt - study did not cease from them, as it says, "Go and gather the elders of Israel ". They were in the desert, study accompanied them, as it says, Gather for me seventy elders of Israel ". Abraham, our Father was an elder and he sat in yeshiva, as it says, "and Avraham was an elder, advanced in age". Isaac was an elder and sat in yeshiva, as it says, "and it was when Isaac became old…". Yakov was an elder and he sat in yeshiva, as it says, "and the eyes of Israel became heavy from age". Eliezer, the servant of Avraham was an elder and he sat in yeshiva, as it says, "And Avraham said to the elder of his household, who rules over everything that he possessed" (Yoma 28b) .

Seven commandments were commanded to Noach (Sanhedrin 56b).

"And in his Torah he engages day and night…" - this is Noach (Genesis Rabbah 26).

Noach derived Torah out of Torah (Yerushalmi Megillah 1,11).

The concept of Oral Law is quite foreign to the outlook and sensibility of our modern age. At a time in which information can be and is easily preserved and accessed, it is hard to imagine that there was a time when committing something to writing was difficult, time consuming and unreliable. Yet, it is now well-appreciated by those who study ancient cultures that oral transmission was an important, if not the primary method of passing knowledge from generation to generation. Witness, for example, oral transmission of Iliad and Odyssey for close to a thousand years in ancient Greece [1].

Among Jews, this argument for Oral Law is made in the first Dialogue of R. David Nieto's Matteh Dan. In the wider world, recognition of the importance of oral transmission of religious teachings has been popularized by the so-called Scandinavian school of Biblical analysis.

The Torah itself presupposes an oral tradition that precedes the Jewish people. Genesis assumes that there existed a widespread agreement on matters of human history, moral law and standards of behavior. In Genesis individuals and nations are judged and punished for infractions of moral law that has apparently never been written down but that that all humanity is expected to know and follow. The flood, the dispersion of the builders of the tower and God's censure of Abimelech are examples of this basic assumption implicit in the Bible itself. When Schechem takes Dina by force, the verse expresses a standard of behavior shared equally by the Canaanite nation and sons of Israel , "for they performed a vile thing to lie with daughter of Jacob, and so it is not done (Genesis 34, 7)". One may put this argument into modern language by stating that internal evidence of the Bible itself demonstrates reliance on and acceptance of oral law as basis of human society. Oral tradition something that is intrinsic to Scriptural mindset and not a later Rabbinic imposition upon its worldview.

R. Nissim Gaon offered an alternate explanation of these facts in Genesis in his introduction to Sefer Hamafteach. He writes: "All the commandments that depend upon reason and understanding of the heart were already binding upon all men from the time that God created man upon the earth…(the seven commandments)are derived from Scripture, as it is written, "And the Lord God commanded" - they are not just received commandments, for the obligation to know God and serve Him are fitting by the way of the law of reason, and the shedding of innocent blood and stealing are forbidden by virtue of the path of reason."

R. Nieto's explanation, however, resonates stronger in our own period in history. Modern man, after seeing and experiencing the horror of Holocaust and other genocides, hardly trusts in the ability of reason to support universally accepted standards of morality. He has seen and been exposed to many very different cultures and societies and what one nation calls good, another one considers evil. New trends in moral philosophy have demonstrated the ability of human mind to defend, rationalize and idealize beliefs and behaviors that Torah could never condone. From where then could have come the widespread consensus evidenced in Genesis if not from the oral tradition.

Happy Shavuos. May we all merit to study, understand and appreciate the teachings of our holy Torah.

[1] The famous Catalogue of Ships (νεων κατολογος) is recorded as a part of Book II (verses 494–760, Il.2.494 ( Perseus Project ) of Homer's Iliad. It lists the names of all the allies who came with the Greeks to lay siege to Troy along with the names of their leaders and the number of ships they brought with them. It is followed by a similar, though shorter, list of the Trojans' allies.
The Catalogue provides a rare summary of the geopolitical situation in the region although its reliability is disputed. Some argue that it dates from the time of the Trojan War in the mid 13th century BC, while others contend that it dates from the time of Homer himself in the 8th century BC and is an attempt to transfer later information back five centuries. An intermediate theory is that the catalogue originated through a process of accretion during the poem's oral transmission and reflects gradual inclusion of the homelands of local sponsors by individual singers.

See Lord, A. B. 1953. “Homer's Originality: Oral Dictated Texts.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 94:124–134.