World of the Sages: Foundations of a mountain

When we embark upon Torah study, what is our primary goal? Are we trying to grasp and then master the sources that our tradition has preserved? Or perhaps we seek to innovate, to discover new paths, to forge new roads?

When we embark upon Torah study, what is our primary goal? Are we trying to grasp and then master the sources that our tradition has preserved? Or perhaps we seek to innovate, to discover new paths, to forge new roads? The Talmud reports that two sages - Rav Yosef and Rabbah - represented two different qualities in Torah scholarship (B. Berachot 64a, B. Horayot 14a). Rav Yosef had a phenomenal command of the tradition, recalling by heart many rabbinic statements without recourse to outside aids. In this sense, Rav Yosef was a veritable personification of Sinai, the mountain upon which the Torah was given, for he remembered teachings as lucidly as the day they were given at Sinai. Indeed countless times in the Talmud, Rav Yosef faithfully reports ancient traditions that are then discussed in depth by the sages. His colleague, Rabbah, embodied the opposite characteristic: He was an uprooter of mountains, an oker harim. Though he was not as well-versed in the rabbinic material as Rav Yosef, Rabbah's sharp mind and incisive intellect lead him to turn sources on their head and reevaluate the texts of our tradition. When it came time to appoint a new rosh yeshiva who would stand at the helm of the talmudic academy, the wise people in Babylon sent a succinct message westward to the Land of Israel: "Sinai or oker harim - which takes precedence?" Without necessarily knowing the context of the question, a pithy response was sent forth: "Sinai takes precedence - for all need a gatherer of grain." A "gatherer of grain" was one who had collected rabbinic traditions, the basic bread of Torah study: Most questions could be answered directly from the primary sources, without recourse to complex analysis or intricate scrutiny. The answer was received and a decision was made: The Sinai-esque Rav Yosef would be appointed to head the academy. Rav Yosef - who had not been hitherto consulted - had been told by Chaldeans, known for their astrological prognostications, that he would rule for a mere two years before his demise. Hoping to forestall this fate, Rav Yosef declined the position. Rabbah was therefore appointed rosh yeshiva and served as the head of the academy for 22 years, until his death. Only then did Rav Yosef agree to take the reins of the academy and he served for two and half years before he died. During the entire reign of Rabbah, Rav Yosef was mindful of his place. When he needed the services of a blood-letter, he did not ask for a home visit as was perhaps befitting for a person of his stature; instead he journeyed to the blood-letter's clinic as did every common person. In another talmudic passage, we find two other talmudic scholars who embodied Sinai and oker harim (B. Eruvin 67a). These sages were in awe of each other's capabilities. When Rav Hisda and Rav Sheishet would meet, Rav Hisda's lips would quiver from the vast bank of knowledge at the disposal of his colleague. Like Rav Yosef, Rav Sheishet was blind and commanded a supreme and exact erudition of rabbinic traditions. Rav Hisda was worried lest Rav Sheishet question his suggestions by quoting a little known but authoritative rabbinic statement. In Rav Hisda's company, however, Rav Sheishet's entire body would tremble in fearful anticipation of Rav Hisda's incisive questions and sharp reasoning. Without using the terms Sinai and oker harim, rabbinic tradition traces the two roles back to biblical times. While Joshua succeeded Moses as the keeper of Torah, his role was not to innovate. Joshua was charged with accurately and precisely preserving the tradition. Thus he is compared to the moon who reflected Moses, the sun, without generating his own light (B. Bava Batra 75a). In this sense, Joshua did not fully fill the shoes of his predecessor, who had been both a conduit for the tradition and an innovator of law. Thus when Moses is commanded to invest Joshua as his replacement, he is instructed to place some of his honor (Numbers 27:20) upon Joshua, but not to empower him with all his faculties. Moreover, while Joshua is considered an indispensable link in the chain of the oral tradition: Moses received the Torah at Sinai and passed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the Elders… (M. Avot 1:1), our sages do not include him when listing the expounders and innovators of the tradition (B. Eruvin 54b). Hence, when precious laws are forgotten in the mourning period after the death of Moses, Joshua - the keeper of the laws - is held accountable (B. Temura 16a). Yet Joshua is unable to retrieve the lost laws for his capacity was to preserve, not to create. The task of returning the lost laws fell to another who recovered the missing material using his analytical powers. At the root of the classification of Rabbah and Rav Yosef is the recognition of two streams of Torah scholarship: Sinai - precise knowledge, preserved in the original format, and oker harim - sharp analysis of the material. Undeniably, there is no strict demarcation between these two disciplines. Elsewhere in the Talmud, we are told about a thorny legal question that both Rabbah and Rav Yosef were unable to solve for 22 years - the full reign of Rabbah (B. Ketubot 42b). When Rav Yosef took the position of rosh yeshiva he immediately succeeded in unraveling the problem. Both qualities - Sinai and oker harim - contribute to the preservation, transmission, understanding and application of Torah. Both traits have their place in the tradition; both should be respected and lauded for their contribution. Nevertheless, the message from the Land of Israel - "Sinai takes precedence" - reflects the need to first have an understanding of the material before beginning to analytically scrutinize and reassemble the sources. Before we begin to dissect the hallowed texts of our traditions, our foremost task is to have a firm grasp of the sources. In talmudic terms: With no Sinai, there is no mountain to uproot; we are merely uprooting air. Only once Sinai stands firmly, can we contemplate uprooting it. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.