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Getting the Right Answer

In Jewish tradition, the gold standard for authenticity is HALACHA L’MOSHE M’SINAI, ‘it’s a law Moshe Rabbeinu received from Sinai’. When it comes to Torah, Moshe is literally the ‘know it all’. So, we find it unnerving when Moshe Rabbeinu doesn’t know the answer to a query. According to tradition this happens four times, but there may be a fifth. How do we deal with these situations? Well, I’ll do my best to suggest an approach. 

Let’s begin with the cases: the blasphemer, Vayikra 24:10-12; Pesach Sheni, Bamidbar 9:7-8; the wood gatherer, Ibid. 16:32-34; and the daughters of Tzelofchad, Ibid. 27:1-5. In each of these cases, Moshe puts the issue at hand on hold while he confers with God about the relevant legal procedure. The possible fifth is also in this week’s Torah reading. Pinchas takes the law into his own hands and executes Kosbi and Zimri, without conferring with Moshe, and God gives approval, but this one may be different because, Moshe doesn’t call a halt to the proceedings, waiting for an answer from on High.  

Many traditional commentaries find this whole issue upsetting, this group believes that the default position for Torah precedent is that Moshe learned every possible legal situation while on Mt. Sinai. So, they explain these anomalies by saying that there were extraordinary circumstances for Moshe’s lapse of memory, perhaps to reward and highlight the sincerity of other party. As I grow older, I have no need for an excuse for lapses of memory. 

There is a school of thought that Moshe’s inability to recall the law in these cases was a punishment for sounding a bit arrogant when he told the nation, ‘And any matter that is too difficult for you, bring to me, and I will hear it (Devarim 1:17). I have difficulty with that position as the literal interpretation of the text. Rashi does bring this Midrash (Sanhedrin 8a). I believe strongly that Rashi is using this source homiletically to teach us humility. I don’t think Moshe needed the lesson; he was the most humble human (Bamidbar 12:4).  

I prefer another Rashi: Thereupon he said to the men who were impure: ‘Stand still and I will hear the Law’ — he said this with confidence, like a pupil who is certain that he will get information from his teacher at any time. Happy, indeed, is a human being who may so confidently rely that at any time when he wishes to do so he may speak with the Divine Presence! (Bamidbar 9:8). I believe the literal meaning of these cases is that, indeed, Moshe had to get guidance from God occasionally, because not every possibility had been given at Sinai. 

I think that the question about Moshe’s knowledge of Torah is actually an argument between the two famous Tana’im, Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Yishmael. Rebbe Akiva held that all of the Torah and its details were given to Moshe. This was so true that one of his students (Rebbe Eliezer) prided himself on never teaching any idea that he hadn’t heard from his mentors. Rebbe Yishmael, on the other hand, didn’t believe that every detail of Torah was communicated to Moshe.  

For those of you who think that never discovering an original idea might diminish the excitement of Torah study, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev has advice. He said that even though Moshe learned everything that would ever be said about Torah, it was all forgotten so that the seemingly revolutionary ideas could still be propounded and attributed to later generations (Megilla 19b). 

All of this is fascinating, but I’m a ‘If it looks like a duck’ kind of guy. I don’t think that we, in any way, diminish Moshe Rabbeinu by allowing for new material being discovered after his departure from Sinai. It sure sounds like Moshe didn’t know the answers to all these conundra. 

Even the expression HALACHA L’MOSHE M’SINAI is open to interpretation. In spite of the fact that there are many instances when this expression appears to refer to the fact that Moshe really received all this material, even though it was enacted later, but not always. The most famous use of the phrase is an Aggadata about God giving Moshe a vision of a lecture by Rebbe Akiva, and just when Moshe seems disoriented by the proceedings, Rebbe Akiva states that the material under discussion is a HALACHA L’MOSHE M’SINAI (Menachot 29b), and Moshe regains his equilibrium. 

Clearly, Moshe wasn’t the direct source for all the material, but is given due credit because we derive the material from the basic sources and methodology he imparted. Rav Zecharia Frankel wrote that the Sages considered many very old laws HALACHA L’MOSHE M’SINAI, even though clearly post Moshe.  

I don’t think any of this diminishes Moshe Rabbeinu. As a teacher, nothing made me prouder than an original idea from a student. To this day, I beam with delight when I hear a student teaching or publishing Torah ideas. This perspective only enhances the pedagogic power of history’s greatest teacher. 

Moshe Rabbeinu isn’t my Rebbe because he taught me every detail; he’s my Rebbe because he inspired my humble efforts. HALACHA L’MOSHE M’SINAI isn’t about the details; it’s about the process.  

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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