A Deeper Understanding of Rabbinic Authority

Several years ago, my wife and I had a very intelligent Baal Teshuva at our home many times, who had become observant through one of the Baalei Teshuva yeshivos in Israel. Over time, as he learned that things in Yiddishkeit are a little bit more complex than he had originally believed, he started to get bothered more and more. This was probably exacerbated by his chosen profession and passion, which involved some activities which are not permitted according to halacha, which may have created some cognitive dissonance for him. He is no longer observant, as far as I know right now, and this has bothered me.

One kasha that bothered him and he asked me, and about which I could not adequately answer him at the time, was the following; With the large number of halachos d’rabannan (Rabbinical Laws) that we keep, and the idea of Daas Torah and Emunas Chachamim (faith in the Sages), and the mitzva we have of “לֹא תָסוּר,” not to disobey the sages in every generation, it seems like the idea of rabbinical authority is almost a foundation of everything orthodox Jews believe in. But the truth of that authority seems so weak when there is only one little pasuk that backs it up; Devarim 17:11, “לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ–יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל.” “Do not stray from the thing which they tell you, to the right or to the left.” How can such a brief and unclear pasuk be the source for such all-pervasive power and authority over the whole Jewish people?!

Recently, I was speaking with a local Rav who turned most people’s initial understanding of the relationship between the Oral and Written Torahs on its head. We were talking about how to learn a certain halacha out of a pasuk in the Torah (“בנך הבא מישראלית קרוי בנך ואין בנך הבא מן < העובדת כוכבים> {הגויה} קרוי בנך ,אלא בנה”, Kiddushin 68b). He told me that according to the opinion of Rebbe Akiva, all of the principals, details, and minutiae of halacha were given on Har Sinai to Moshe Rebbeinu. However, the actual parshios, the text of the Torah, was not fully given, according to whatever method, until the end of the 40 years in the desert.

If that is so, then what is the gemara always doing when it figures out how to derive all of the halachos of the mishna from psukim in the Torah? All of those halachos were known anyway from the time of Ma’amad Har Sinai! Why do they bother “learning out” those halachos from the Chumash, when they were known independently of the text of the Torah anyway?

He explains that part of our mitzva of Talmud Torah, learning Torah, is that Hashem gave us all of the halachos, and he also gave us his “notes,” or “shorthand,” for what is written in the Torah. One of our jobs in learning Torah is that Hashem wants us to find all of the hints to all of the halachos that we received orally on Har Sinai in His “notes,” the Written Torah. This means that we are not so much “learning out” halachos from the Chumash, but are rather “learning in” halachos into the Torah! That is how we are zoche to find all of the places where Hashem “hinted” at the halachos in the Written Torah. (The fact that there is machlokes about many halachos and which pasuk to “learn them from” is also Hashem’s will, and is due to human forgetting, and is a separate issue from what I am talking about here.)

One major ramification of this new understanding of the relationship between Torah She’bechsav (Written Torah) and Torah She’ba’al Peh (Oral Torah), is that it totally changes what we would expect to find in the Oral Torah. Those aspects of Halacha which are most obvious and known to the masses of the people, need to be hinted at in the Written “notes” Torah the least!

For example, the halachos of having a lunar calendar tremendously affects our lives, in determining what date our Yomim Tovim, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Rosh Chodesh, and Sefiras HaOmer fall out. However, all of that is hinted at in one half of one pasuk in Shmos 12:2, “הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים!” Whereas the halachos of Tuma and Tzara’as (Vayikra 12-15 ), which hardly ever affect anyone and only the kohanim need to fully understand how to pasken, take up perakim in sefer Vayikra! This can now be understood. The purpose of the psukim in Torah for, for purposes of halacha, is not to be the primary source for how we know these halachos. Rather, they are the notes that hint to those halachos. So just like one needs less notes for things that they understand better already, the Torah needs to say less when it comes to important things that are already well known and part of society. So there is little need for reminders about the halachos of the calendar, something people live with every day, while there is a greater need for hints (more detailed “notes”) to remember the halachos of Tuma and Tahara and Tzara’as, which are not well known and understood on the whole.

Similarly, with our problem regarding “לֹא תָסוּר,” rabbinical authority granted in the Torah, we can now understand that the written Torah is not, its self, granting this rabbinic role and rabbinic power, in which case one could understand why that would seem like a terse and oblique granting of that “power.” Rather, the rabbinical role of protecting and guiding the Jewish people in all generations is an integral part of our lives, and Hashem vested them with that responsibility and the necessary authority to exercise it along with all of the other halachos on Har Sinai. Since it is such an integral part of our Yiddishkeit and our society, like many other well-understood parts of halcha, little “reminding” was needed in Hashem’s “notes”, the written Torah. That is why the reference is so brief.

At least next time this issue comes up with someone, I’ll have a better understanding for myself, so that I will be able to understand the inyan better and be better able to explain it to others next time!

20 comments on “A Deeper Understanding of Rabbinic Authority

  1. “My problem is that of course the written Torah itself is, indeed, more authoritative than the TSBP.”

    Ron, what is your basis for this assertion? I believe the opposite is the case — we always follow the TSBP in halakha over the peshuto shel mikrah. Indeed, one possuk about yibum (Devarim 25:6) has no halakhic force on a pshat level at all.

    I think DY’s point is quite valid — the Torah, acc. to the gemara he cites, was given in unwritten form in all its details and minutiae. The written form is simply a shorthand for these details.

    Although that is backwards from what we generally think of in, lehavdil, Constitutional interpretation, even there it is not unprecedented.

    The U.S. Constitution uses certain phrases which were established over hundreds of years at English common law. “Habeas corpus.” “Ex post facto.” “Suits at common law” These phrases are all shorthand for well-developed bodies of English law around the time of adoption of the Constitution. When a modern court interprets these Constitutional provisions, it looks back to this body of legal history.
    (Thus the Seventh Amendment guarantess a right to a jury trial in civil cases, but only in “suits at common law.” The Supreme Court has held that one looks to the law in 1789 to determine this issue.)

  2. Marshall in Marbury exhibited a gemora kop in another way too. He gave the judiciary review power in a case where it affirmed what the executive wanted to do, which was not confirm that judge.

    -Dixie Yid

  3. Daas Torah is an invention of the haredi world and is not part of out Mesora, in fact its akin to Papal infallibility. Here is a link to Harav Hagoan Nachum Rabinovitch’s article which clearly enunciates the parameters of Emunas Chachomim, a Jewish Concept
    RNR is a talimd of Harav Ruderman Z’tl who was his schadchan and married Rav Ruderman’s niece.

  4. Ron Coleman-when you think about, Justice Marshall’s thesis of judicial review and power as set orth in Marbury v Madison is very original or one would say in yeshivish-mchudishdik.

  5. Yes, Dixie, but unlike Marbury, that’s bad jurisprudence.

    And let’s not get into “penumbras and emanations” — that’s precisely what we want to show is not going on here!

  6. Forget Marbury v. Madison. Think of the Commerce Clause! It seems like just about all of the congressional power seems to come from those 3 or 4 words in the “primary document”!

    -Dixie Yid

  7. I think we are just changing the labels here. Maybe because to me it is axiomatic that if indeed we believe in the primacy of the TSBP (and it is primary in the sense that we cannot even purport to understand the written Torah without it) we must indeed place all faith in the sages, regardless of the times we’re in. My problem is that of course the written Torah itself is, indeed, more authoritative than the TSBP. So while it is appealing on a certain logical level to come up with a reason that this big concept should rely on so few words, as a lawyer or a person interested in legal or governing regimes that is simply never how one would assign authority in a primary document. And ultimately to base this argument from an argument found in the subsidiary source of authority would be like…

    Well, actually, it would be exactly like Marbury v. Madison, wouldn’t it! LOL. Ok, never mind!

  8. Ron, his question was not about the legitimacy of the oral Torah. It was about the legitimacy of rabbinic authority (a big thing) and how it could all be based on one verse (something small). The explanation answers that because it explains why it is normal and expected that the bigger things would need *less* of a reference in the written Torah.

    STeve, thanks!

    -Dixie Yid

  9. DY-excellent point! There is no doubt that we live and breath by TSBP and how Chazal, Rishonim, Acharonim and Gdolei HaPoskimn understood, understand apply TSBP to any and all halachic issues.

  10. I think you did not understand my question, with all due respect. You are misconstruing my use of “superior,” by which I do not mean “better.”

    I know what the premises of our religion are. I am trying to say that if I were the fellow who asked you this question, I would find the answer about quite unsatisfactory, because you answer it by reference to, and depending on, the Oral Torah itself. The question is about the very legitimacy of the Oral Torah.

  11. Dixie – you’re right on in stressing the mutual Divine Source of the two Laws. Perhaps, Ron, it would be helpful to view the Oral aspect as the more explicit. Like listening to a tape of a shiur vs reading the notes. Neither are comparable to getting the real thing real time, but surely less mistakes should be expected in the tape.

    Or to use an entirely different metaphor, the Written is the blurb on the backcover of the book. The Oral is the book itself.

    Yet here too I stress neither hold much water relative to chavrusa time with the Rav. This is what I meant by applying this principle to Tsaddikie Emes in every generation. We have a chiyuv to seek them out and hear the living INNER Torah in which they specialize.

  12. R’ Bar-Chaim:

    Thank you! But could you do me a favor and flesh out your question a bit more? Are you saying that the Torah would be easier to follow if we had smicha ish mi pi ish from Moshe Rebeinu?


    I hear what you are saying. Halevai some of these pieces of advice would be more widely followed in chinuch.


    Not sure how your question relates to what I wrote. I wasn’t writing about whether the Oral or the Written Torah is superior. But regardless of that imporant fact, your question rests on another false premise. You’re assuming that the oral and written Torahs do or may have different opinions from each other. In fact, since both are from G-d, it wouldn’t matter where one learned a certain fact about the relationship between the written and oral law. Whether you learn that fact from the written or the oral Torah, it would be agreed upon by both, since both are the work of G-d (though the oral Torah works through human hands, as is known).


    He was a broadway style musical composer.

    -Dixie Yid

  13. Thank you, Dixie. I thought my understanding of Oral v. Written Torah was on its head, but I guess I was partly right all along. Marvellous.

    Curious: What profession did your friend have?

  14. There is a difference between halacha and hashkafa when it comes to the application of Rabbinic Authority.

    Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan has a great article on how halacha is determined, which Dixie Yid’s post here is addressing.

    As far as hashkafa it is much more dependent on local Rabbinic Authority and more subject to change. Issues such as class size, age to teach gemorra and dealing with difficult students are hashkafa questions and therefore global rules of thumb from the gedolim have to be brought down and applied to the situation of the local community.

  15. What bothers me is the paucity of people/institutions that really follow the will of the gedolim. For example, it is known that the gedolim say on “chanoch lenaar al pi darcho” that class size must be limited, Rav Schach warned that throwing children out of school is like shedding blood, R Wolbe said that gemora should be taught at an older age, etc. But their opinions are not followed in the majority of our schools, which are run by those who profess to be followers of their opinions!

  16. Thank you, DY, for spelling out such a lucid perspective on the lifeblood of our holy nation. Without a Lchatchilla appreciation of the role of Kabbalah (“Recieving” of Rabbinical authority) there’s no way for critical thinkers to ever make their way in.

    Now we just need to consider the spiritual implications. I.e. shouldn’t there be Tsaddikei Emes who have been appointed already since Sinai for teaching H’s Will for spiritual matters?

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