What happened after the giving of the Torah at Sinai? During the long desert-wandering years, what was the modus operandi for the dissemination of the Law? The Talmud details the post-Sinai procedure for bringing the Divine Torah into this physical world and the subsequent propagation of the tradition (B. Eiruvin 54b).
After the Almighty taught Moses, Aaron entered his brother's tent and stood before Moses, looking attentively at his brother (see Isaiah 30:20). Moses would then transmit to Aaron all that he had learned. At the conclusion of the lesson, Aaron would stand beside Moses, whereupon Aaron's two sons, Elazar and Itamar, would enter and stand facing Moses. Moses would then teach them, as he had taught their father, while Aaron stood to the side, diligently listening.
Having completed the class, the two sons would position themselves next to Moses and Aaron, as the Elders entered for their chance to study. Standing before the foursome with their eyes directed at Moses, the Elders were taught the lesson.
The Elders remained after their session as the doors were opened to the public. It was now the turn for all those who sought Divine knowledge to take advantage of the opportunity to learn from Moses.
At the conclusion of this fourth lesson, Moses would excuse himself, leaving Aaron, who had studied the material four times, Elazar and Itamar, who had been present for three of those times, the Elders, who had heard the class twice and the people, who had just completed their instruction.
It was now Aaron's turn to teach all those present before leaving the tent. Moses' departure from the tent before his brother began to teach reflects the stricture on teaching in the presence of teachers. Later codes express the severity of this act by citing the death penalty for those who teach in the presence of their teachers (Maimonides, 12th century, Cairo).
Once Elazar and Itamar had heard the information four times - thrice from their uncle, Moses, and a fourth time from their father, Aaron - they turned to teach the Elders and masses before exiting.
Having studied the material four times, the Elders now took their place as teachers and instructed all those present. Thus everyone in attendance had heard the Tradition recounted four times - from Moses, from Aaron, from Elazar and Itamar and lastly from the Elders.
The Talmud queries why a simpler, time-saving procedure was not instituted: Why did Aaron need to have a private lesson? Perhaps it would have been less cumbersome to have the public enter from the beginning. That way everyone would have studied the material four times with Moses as the instructor.
Notably, our sages explain that Aaron, Elazar and Itamar and the Elders were afforded the occasion to teach in a move to bestow honor upon them. Thus we see that the opportunity to transmit our Tradition is considered a mark of distinction; a privilege and not a burdensome chore.
Still unsatisfied with the procedure, the Talmud asks why an alternative was not considered: If a desirable by-product of the education system was to pay homage to Aaron, his sons and the Elders, perhaps Moses should have taught Aaron four times privately. Upon Moses' departure, Aaron would have taught his sons four times. Elazar and Itamar in turn would have taught the Elders four times. The Elders would then have carried the word to the people, teaching them four times. This method would not have compromised the number of times each student heard the lesson and would have been more effective in paying tribute to the teachers and demonstrating this honor before the public.
Our sages clarify that there was particular value in Moses' lesson, for he had studied from the mouth of the Almighty. Accordingly, the entire teaching process was enhanced through Moses' personal participation, since everyone had the opportunity to study from the one who had received the Tradition directly from God. Studying from second-hand sources, irrespective of their accuracy, cannot replace an encounter with a primary source.
According to Maimonides, following the conclusion of the official teaching routine, less formal studying would continue. The people would disperse, discussing with each other what they had just learned and transcribing the Written Law onto scrolls. The leaders of the people would circulate among the populace teaching and reviewing the material. The process continued until everyone could accurately recite the Written Law and recount the accompanying Oral Tradition.
Thus the post-Sinai reality was suffused with an educational program - centers of study, teachers, classes and methods of review. The Divine, other-worldly giving of the Torah amid smoke and lightning, with visible blasts of the shofar that made all present retreat with trepidation (Exodus 19-20) was transformed. Torah study became an accessible endeavor appropriate to our reality.
Though the giving of the Torah at Sinai was a monumental event in our history, it was closely followed by an exemplary practice that was at least of equal significance: the practical dissemination of the Tradition. The valuable Torah was not locked in an ivory tower, with access limited to select scholars. Nor was it housed in a glass museum case for all to see, but not to sully. Despite the risk that it might be innocently tarnished by plebeians, it was proffered to the masses. To be sure, choice scholars were appointed as bearers and as teachers of the Tradition, but once the treasure was entrusted to their safekeeping, the public was invited to partake and participate in the propagation of the Torah.
Thus our Tradition was meticulously and lovingly disseminated. It is this inviting paradigm that we continue to emulate today. As we conscientiously and industriously study, diligently reviewing and later teaching the material we have assimilated, we reproduce a practice that dates back to the desert years as we made our way from the bonds of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Moreover, as we open the doors to our houses of study, inviting all to freely encounter the Torah, we continue a tradition begun long ago in the tent of Moses.
The writer is director of Advanced Programs at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.