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Thought for the Day: Oral and Written Law are Inextricably Linked

I think most people know the famous physics equation, E = mc2. Whether or not you know (or even care) what it means, it would not occur to any sane person to suggest meanings for the symbols.  You are never going to hear the following:
I am a fundamentalist scientist.  I believe only the literal writings of Newton and Einstein, the Written Physics.  I know those old orthodox physicists have their own Oral Physics that interprets the symbols a certain way,  and according to their interpretation that is an equation that relates energy, mass, and the speed of light.  But we are not tied to old, dogmatic beliefs; especially claimed "oral traditions".  We are modern and have our own interpretation: 'E' means enlightenment, the double lines means, of course, stay between the lines, and mc2 means riding motorcycles in tandem.
That's obviously hogwash.  The same physicists who told you "E = mc2", also told you what it meant (or tried to; sigh...)  Even more profoundly stupid is to try to discuss the "Written Law" (torah sh'bichtav) divorced from the "Oral Law" (torah sh'b'al peh).  The Oral Law is not an interpretation of the Written Law!  They are one and the same with the, each appropriate to a different mode of communication.  One without the other is meaningless; or worse, a terrible distortion.

A few examples should suffice.  How about this?  The pronunciation of the letters and the vocalization of the words.  Small changes in either make big differences in Lashon HaKodesh.  My favorite example is "cheilev" (fats around the inner organs) versus "chalav" (milk).  Both spelled the same: ches, lamed, beis.  Without having a rebbi with an authentic chain of transmission, you would not know whether you are forbidden to eat a kid with its mother's milk or with the internal fats.  You wouldn't know if the internal fats or milk of domesticated animals is strictly forbidden.  The beauty of this example is that even context can't help.  No one has ever heard of a Jewish society that refrained from fried meats (not on religious grounds, anyway).  With nothing but an oral transmission, we all know what mixtures are forbidden and which fats are forbidden.

Even when you have context you are lost.  Vayikra 19:14 says, "Do not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind."  There actually is an issur d'oraisa of cursing a deaf peraon (even though he can't hear you).  On the other hand, there is no specific issur at all of putting a stone in the path of a blind person.  (You probably aren't going to get shishi on Shabbos, of course.)  That phrase means not to give someone advice that is unsuitable just because it will benefit you (even though it won't hurt him).

That is one reason that shtayim mikra v'echad targum -- reading the text of the parsha twice each week and its explanation once -- is so crucial to knowing about Judaism.  The Shulchan Aruch says that now a days since we don't understand targum so well (that was 400 years ago...), you can substitute Rashi (with some caveats; see the Mishna Brura there, siman 285).  Once you have clarity on how to properly read Chumash, then you can see the other m'forshim -- Ramban, S'porno, Ohr Chaim, Kli Yakar, and so forth as developing a deeper sense and appreciation for our Torah haK'dosha and you are drawn to love for HaKadosh Baruch Hu; the Author of reality.


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