“The Efficacy of the Oral Code”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Shemini, we read of the first full sacrificial service that was offered in the recently erected Tabernacle, on the first day of Nisan in the second year after the Exodus of Egypt, on the day that the Tabernacle was dedicated and the priests invested.

In order to begin with these inaugural proceedings, the people needed to be cleansed of sin. However, Aaron the officiant, could not achieve atonement for others, unless he himself, atoned for his own wrongdoings.

With all the people gathered before the Tabernacle standing before G-d, Moses announced (Leviticus 9:6),”Zeh ha’da’var ah’sher tzee’vah Hashem ta’ah’soo, v’yay’rah ah’lay’chem k’vod Hashem,” This is the thing that G-d has commanded you to do; then the glory of G-d will appear to you.

Moses instructed Aaron to approach the altar, bring his sin and elevation offerings, in order to provide atonement for himself and the people.

When Aaron approached the altar, the verse states,(Leviticus 9:8) “Va’yish’chaht et ay’gel ha’cha’taht ah’sher lo,” And he [Aaron] slaughtered the sin offering calf that was his.

Since much of the Book of Leviticus concerns the sacrificial rite, the obvious question arises. What exactly is the proper process of slaughtering? Nowhere in the book of Leviticus have the priests been instructed how to perform the complicated and complex ritual of slaughter, known today as Shechita. In fact, we do not find description of the process for Shechita, anywhere in the entire Bible.

The only thing we know about the process of Shechita, is that the Bible states in Deuteronomy 12:21, that when the People of Israel arrive in the land of Israel, they will be permitted to eat unconsecrated meat that is not brought upon the altar. There, Scripture states that if one lives too far from Jerusalem, where the sacrifices generally take place, “V’zah’vahch’tah mee’b’korcha oo’mee’tzohn’cha ah’sher na’tahn Hashem l’cha, ka’ah’sher tzee’vee’tee’chah, v’ah’chal’tah bish’ah’reh’cha b’chol ah’vaht nahf’sheh’chah,” You may slaughter from your cattle and your flocks that G-d has given you, as I have commanded you, and you may eat in your cities according to your heart’s desire.

Clearly this biblical verse implies that G-d had already commanded the people and instructed them how to perform the ritual of sacrifice. Yet, if we search the entire Torah, it is nowhere to be found–alluding to the existence of an Oral Code, to which traditional Jews subscribe.

The Oral Code is an extensive body of laws and rituals that are traditionally believed to have been transmitted and taught to Moses while he was on Sinai for forty days and forty nights. It basically assumes that the Written Code, the Five Books of Moses, cannot be properly understood without this oral explanation. It is called an oral tradition, because it was forbidden to be written down and was transmitted orally for many hundreds of years, until the writing of the Mishna and Gemara in the second century of the Common Era, when the oral tradition was in danger of being entirely lost.

Although the law commanding the slaughter of animals in a specific ritual manner is one of the clearest indications of an Oral Law, it should be abundantly clear to any serious student of the Bible that this is not an exception. In general, the Biblical text cannot be taken only literally, and, in many instances, alludes to the existence of an Oral Code.

So, for instance, we find repeated three times in the Bible (Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21), instructions about not seething a goat in its mother’s milk. This rule is understood to mean that one may not eat or cook milk and meat together or even have pleasure from the mixture of milk and meat. Similarly, the Bible (Exodus 13:9,16, Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18) informs the people to “bind them [these words] as a sign on your hands and let them be frontlets between your eyes.” What is this sign, what are the words, and what is the meaning of frontlets? Yet, we have the singular tradition of donning little black leather boxes with specially inscribed parchment scrolls inside, that are called Tefillin.

The Bible instructs the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 6:9 and 11:20) to “write them as a sign upon your doors.” What are we supposed to place as a sign on our doors? How do we know that it refers to a Mezuzah, and what is supposed to be inside the amulet that we place on our door? All this is clarified in the Oral Code.

In the biblical narrative of the Covenant Between the Pieces (Genesis 15:13), G-d informs Abraham that his children will be exiled, enslaved and persecuted in a land that is not theirs for 400 years. And yet, we can easily calculate by the ages of the people who went into Egypt, that the Israelites remained in Egypt for only 210 years. The Oral Code explains that the counting of the 400 years begins with the birth of Isaac, which marked the beginning of the “reason” for the ultimate descent of the people to Egypt, and is not intended to be a record of the actual time of enslavement in Egypt.

The Torah clearly does not make sense without an Oral Code. Although every verse of the Biblical text has a definite literal meaning, virtually every verse has its own particular Oral Code interpretation.

Many of the more weighty issues are simply incomprehensible, such as: animal sacrifice, slavery, conflicting texts in the Bible, such as the Ten Commandments, and many seemingly cruel rituals, such as the killing of the Canaanites and the Sotah, the woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband.

For some students of the Bible, many of these issues are simply inexplicable. For others, of faith, it is the Oral Code that renders them comprehensible.

The great gift of the Oral Code, is that we, contemporary Jews, become part of the process of elucidating the Torah. In fact, it is a fulfillment of the biblical declaration (Deuteronomy 6:6), “Ah’sher Ah’no’chee m’tzav’cha ha’yom,” Which I command you this day. That every day, the words of G-d should be in your eyes as if these verses were just given!

It is a great gift to be able to struggle over the meanings of the verse, its Oral Code interpretations and our unique understanding of what the Torah is instructing our people.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day,  is observed this year on Wednesday night, April 18th, and all day Thursday, April 19th, 2012.
Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, will be observed on Wednesday night, April 25th and all day Thursday, April 26th, 2012.