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The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 26

The Law and the Rabbins.

Before I conclude this part of my subject, that is to say, the proofs of the divine origin of the Mosaic law and the reasons of the continued adherence of the Jews to the same: I must say a few words relative to the veneration we pay to the book of the law itself. The great Ezra (who was next to Moses the principal instrument of God to perpetuate the law amongst us), together with the prophets and the wise men of his time, made a regulation, that the law should be read in the Synagogues every Sabbath, Monday, and Thursday, that the Israelites should never be three days without reading the law or hearing it read. This regulation is not an addition to the Mosaic Law, for there we are commanded that the book of the law shall be read at every time (Deut. chap. xvii. and several other passages,) and once at least every seven years the chief of the nation was obliged to read the law publicly to the whole assembled people, men women and children, nay even the stranger. (Deut. chap. 31. v.12.) In the same chapter we are commanded: "To place the song in the mouth of the Israelites," meaning, to make them perfectly acquainted with it; upon further examination, however, it will be discovered, that not only the last song of Moses, but also the whole law was to be known to every Israelite. (Chap. 30. v.14.) It needs not be told, that in the Mosaic law many commandments are given in general terms, without defining their extent or the mode how they should be done; and we find, that God empowered the judges to explain any contested matter, according to the general rules given through Moses. (Deut. chap. 17. v.11. and ibid. chap. 21. v.5.) This being the case it cannot be doubted that Ezra and the Sanhedrin, at the time being, had the right to make the above regulation, it being in accordance with the general law amongst the people. — According to this regulation the whole five books composing the Pentateuch are divided into fifty-four portions, namely, Genesis is twelve, Exodus in eleven, Leviticus in ten, Numbers in ten, and Deuteronomy in eleven; in general one is read every Sabbath in the year, commencing on the first Sabbath after the feast of Tabernacles, and closing on the last day of this feast; but in the common years of our calendar, which are only three hundred and fifty-five days, there are read on some Sabbath days two portions, so as to read the whole law once at least in every twelve months. — On the festivals and fast days portions appropriate to the days are read; for instance, on the first day of the Passover, Exodus, chap. 12. v.21, — on the seventh day, ibid. chap. 13. v.17, — chap. 15. v.26; on the Day of Atonement, Leviticus, chap. 16. v.1-34, and in the same manner on the other days. On Sabbath afternoon, and Monday and Thursday, the first section of the following Sabbath is read. The usefulness of this custom will be apparent to any person endowed with the smallest share of penetration; the law being continually read to the people, and whereas it has been recommended by the Rabbins, to read, before the reading in the Synagogue, the Hebrew twice and a translation once, it must be continually, in the literal sense of the words, in the mouth and heart of all Israelites; and can they fail, if they attend to this strictly, to become intimately acquainted with the whole law: — Nor can the Rabbins be charged with a desire of shrouding the law in mystery and withholding the explanations from the people; so far from this being true, men capable of teaching deliver lectures (in every village and town of Europe) to the congregations before the afternoon service of the Sabbaths and holy days; and those who are able frequently give sermons and discourses of their own composition during or immediately after the morning service.

After the reading of the law on the mornings of the Sabbaths and the festivals, and on the afternoons of the fast days, an appropriate portion is read from some of the historical writings and the prophets prior to Daniel, (that is in the order in which the prophets are placed in our canon.) The origin of this custom is this: when Antiochus had conquered Palestine he forbade the reading of the law by the Jews, hoping that by degrees it might be altogether forgotten. But so convinced were our ancestors of the good to be derived from the institution of Ezra, that they, not being able to read the law itself, substituted portions of the prophets bearing resemblance to those passages of the law which ought to have been read on that Sabbath. It is well known how cruelly Antiochus treated the aged priest Eleazar and the seven sons of Hannah; but his day of destruction soon arrived, and he was driven from our soil with ignominy and shame; but the Israelites to this day retain the custom of reading the passages of the prophets as just mentioned; and thus not only the law, but also the prophets, will be remembered by us, as the frequent perusal of them must fix them indelibly in our minds.

It is also universally known, that all the copies of the law in use amongst us are precisely alike. If we now wish to know how this extraordinary result was brought about, how it could possibly happen, that in the many countries, where our dispersions dwell, all our copies of the Pentateuch should agree: we must look to the mode prescribed by our wise men, before and after the destruction of the temple, for the reason of the miraculous preservation of the purity of the Scriptures. — These men have laid down rules for preparing the parchment and the ink, and in what manner the books of the law, the Tefillin and Mezuzot were to be written. No man, who has not been previously examined as to his competency in writing and knowledge of the rules, and who cannot produce testimonials of an upright and religious conduct, can be admitted to be a writer of the law. The Masorites have carefully noted every word, how it is to be written; and if a man follows the rules they have laid down, it is impossible but he must write frequently. No book, which has an error in it, can be used for public reading in the Synagogue, and if any error be discovered during the reading of the law, another book must be used. Before a book can be considered as fit for public service, it must have been several times carefully revised. It is unlawful to erase any name of the Most High; but in case the error discovered can not be rectified without this being done, the whole sheet, in which the error is, must be taken out, and a correct one substituted. — The law is written upon parchment, and on one side only; every word must be written upon lines, and the letters must stand so that no one touch the other. The letters, it is almost needless to say, are Hebrew; they are, however, somewhat different from those used in printing, as some of them have certain marks upon the top, called Taggim, which any one can discover by just inspecting one of the rolls, which, moreover, are mounted on two rollers, for the purpose of being the more easily conveyed from one place to the other, and of being better adapted for the use of the Synagogues.

Thus we see, that all the rolls existing are written after one rule, by men who are virtuous and competent to the task; no dishonor can therefore belong to the name of Scribe; for can it be dishonorable for a man to transcribe the law of his God, when this very permission stamps him as a man of virtue and knowledge? I really wonder how any man, who professes to venerate the Bible, should dare to call the body of Scribes hypocrites, when Ezra says of himself, "that he was a ready scribe of the law of God!" Would Ezra have said that of himself, which would class him amongst hypocrites? And is it rational to suppose, that at any time the whole community of the Jews was so depraved, that the persons appointed to write the law were uniformly taken from amongst those who assumed only the cloak of piety to conceal their hideous moral deformity? It is impossible: and from the time of Ezra to the present day the station of a Scribe has been an honorable one, though worldly riches have seldom been the portion of any one of this fraternity.

If we consider the above with due attention, our astonishment will cease at the accuracy of all our copies of the law. But shall those men, the Pharisees and Rabbins, who strove so hard to accomplish this desirable object, be branded with every opprobrious epithet which malice or ignorance can invent? It surpasses any intellectual powers to comprehend the reason they could have had to take so much care to preserve the law free from additions, alterations, and forgeries, if it was their intention to twist and turn the text as they pleased! — And whilst teaching, that this law must be observed according to the letter, without addition or diminution, can it be possible, I ask, that they should have promulgated aught that was not warranted by the law itself, or the tradition they had received from their fathers? However, I need not trouble myself to find arguments for our opponents, who, as they continually make those charges against our wise men, are in reason bound to explain the above mental phenomenon, and to prove the truth of what they otherwise assert.

But I hear asked on every side: "Did not the Rabbins disagree about the meaning and extent of many passages of the law?" Yes, they did; but this is no reason for rejecting their enactments. Let us consider a few moments, if it be possible for a whole assembly of delegates from various quarters of a state to agree in every question of importance brought before them. Let it be borne in mind, that they act under a law whose general principles are known, but whose extent in particular cases is unknown. Each member thus called upon ventures to express his opinion, and to give his reasons for his vote, and the view he has of that general law, according to which he is bound to decide. Can any man assert, with a strict regard to truth and justice, that each one of this assembly may not be actuated by the best motives and the highest reverence for this general law? If I might be permitted to hazard an opinion, I should say, that this very disagreeing, where no party is personally interested, (as was the case with all the Sanhedrin,) and where each man might relinquish his own views without any personal sacrifice — this disagreeing, I say, proves the sincerity of the individuals composing this assembly, for each man contends for right in the abstract, and his maintaining his own opinion with argument against that perhaps of all the other members, shows, that his veneration for the general law is so great that he cannot remain silent, though he is sure of being in a minority, or perhaps alone.

I will relate one instance of a disagreement of the Rabbins from the Talmud, which, I am sure, will be sufficient to exonerate them from the charge of quarrelling, and endeavoring to make the law obscure by their disputes. — During the time that Rabban Gamaliel was Nasi, or chief of the Sanhedrin, a man, who lived in the country of the Ammonites, wished to join the Israelites. Rabban Gamaliel was on opinion that he could not be received, for it is written in Deut. chap. xxiii. v.4: "No Ammonite or Moabite shall come in the congregation of the Eternal." Rabbi Yehoshua, however, thought that he might be received, "For," said he, "it is well known that Sannherib mixed all the nations (those around Palestine); amongst this number were the Ammonites, who, since that time, no longer exist as a separate and distinct people. Now, since the greater number of the nations thus driven from their homes were not of those whose acceptance as proselytes was interdicted by the passage in question, the living in the country of the Ammonites does not constitute any one an Ammonite; it may be that he is a descendant from this people, but the greater probability is, that he is not, for it is a rule, whatever separated, separates from the majority." I do not think that this requires any explanation, for both reasons are very plain. No man reading this can doubt but that both Rabban Gamaliel and Rabbi Yehoshua were sincere and pious Israelites, both passionately attached to the law, and each of them ready to sacrifice his life for the sanctification of God and his laws. On the other hand, no man can doubt that there was good reason for either side of the question, and that, though the opinion of Rabban Gamaliel was strictly according to the Mosaic law, yet did Rabbi Yehoshua clearly prove that the passage cited by the Nasi was inapplicable in the present instance for the reasons given. — I beg leave to draw the reader's attention to another circumstance attending this difference. Rabban Gamaliel was a descendant of David, and was besides a man of great wealth and influence; Rabbi Yehoshua, on the contrary, was but a poor man, who maintained himself by his own labor; but he was a man of great learning, piety, and virtue. He was not deterred by the greatness of the Nasi from speaking his opinion freely; and this is not all, for it was afterwards found that it had been the right one, and it was in consequence adopted.

The debates incident to a disagreement of opinion amongst the Rabbins called forth the most acute and close reasoning, and those persons at all acquainted with the Talmud must acknowledge this in spite of themselves. But let it not be imagined, that upon every question arising there was necessarily a difference of opinion; far from it, as a reference to any part of the Mishnah and Gemarah (which both together are called Talmud) will amply demonstrate. I will just mention, that this difference amongst the Rabbins produced no angry feelings, and they ever lived together in the greatest harmony, with but very few exceptions. In fact, they did not contend for the mastery in argument, nor the establishment of their own particular views; but only that the truth might be brought out by discussion, and all their differences were for the sake of Heaven, for the ultimate glory of the name of God. Such differences as these must raise the parties in our estimation, and compel us to respect the opinions of those men, who, with an eye solely to the advancement of religion and social virtue, braved persecutions, and poverty, and distress, to accomplish this noble object. There are materials enough to prove this last assertion more fully, but enough has already been said for the conviction of those who are disposed to be convinced.

I will not attempt to deny that the Rabbins were very strict and austere; but is this an objection to them? Can any man be blamed for adhering to his opinion, which he conceives to be right, even in trifles? I imagine not. Besides, the limit between right and wrong is so delicate as to be hardly perceptible, and it is always safer to be too strict, than too lax, as the author of Lacon so elegantly says: "Many persons say, in cases of doubtful morality, what harm can there be in doing it, but he (the author of L.) would be glad to know what harm there could be in letting it alone." — Why not judge the Rabbins by the same rule? Moreover, let it be considered that many little things, of which we are daily guilty, are unlawful, if we will but take the trouble to investigate our conduct a little. But this is a thing which we will but seldom do. We love ourselves so much, and are so tender of the peace of our conscience, that we will never suffer any disagreeable sensation to disturb us, if we possibly can help it. And this want of courage and command over ourselves is no trifling fault, for if we would always be courageous enough to accuse ourselves, and correct trifling faults in the commencement, or when we first discover in us a strong propensity to any vice, we would often be prevented from committing many crimes, or becoming notorious for vice or irreligion. It is a common and a true saying, that no man becomes bad all of a sudden. We commence by doing a trifling wrong, next one of greater magnitude, till by degrees we have broken through every law, both human and divine. We, therefore, read in the second perek of Abot: "And be as careful of a trifling good deed as of a weighty one, for thou dost not know the reward for good actions; and always contrast the loss which any good action may occasion with its reward, and the benefit of sin with its ultimate injury." — Perek iv.: "Ben Azai says: Run to do any good action, though trifling it be, and shun any sin; for one good deed is the parent of another — and one sin is the parent of another; for the reward of any virtuous action is another virtuous action, and the punishment of sin is sin." And do we not find daily, that we never stop short upon the road of virtue or vice? — In the same spirit the Talmud also says: "That when God will destroy the יצר הרע Yetzer hara (figurative for evil inclinations) he will appear to the pious men as a large mountain, who then will say: How were we able to overcome so large a mountain? To the wicked, however, he will appear as a hair, and they will say: Woe to us, that we had not firmness enough to overcome even a hair." And so it is, if we take a view of all the temptations we had to encounter, we will often be astonished how we escaped them without giving way to our inclinations. On the other hand, if we have been guilty of any crime, religious or moral, and we take a look at our past conduct, we will often shudder at the trifle which was the first cause of our present degradation. Shall I search through the annals of crime and infidelity to prove this? My readers, I think, will gladly dispense with it; and each will perhaps be able to supply an example of both virtue and vice from his own recollection.

No rabbinical Jew will, therefore, attempt to deny that the Rabbins were, in old times, austere, as regards themselves, and that they are so even yet; since this is no fault. But let it not be thought that they are gloomy fanatics and bigots: so far from this being the case, I am inclined to think that they are the most cheerful class of men; but their hilarity is not boisterous, and their mirth is tempered by piety and a knowledge of the uncertainty of life. The shortness of our existence is not with them a goad to hurry them on from pleasure to pleasure (as with the Epicureans of old); but it always reminds them that the time must be spent in good actions — in deeds of kindness towards mankind, and in adoration to God.

Having touched in succession upon those points which appeared to me best adapted to demonstrate the divine origin of our law, I think that I cannot close this part of my little book better than by extracting the following from the Proverbs of the Fathers, chap. ii.:

"Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the work is great (multifarious), the workmen are lazy, the reward is ample, and the master of the house is urgent. — He also used to say: It is not incumbent on thee to finish the work, nor art thou at liberty to divest thyself altogether of it; if thou hast learned much of the law, much reward will be given thee, and the master of thy work is trustworthy (capable) to pay thee the reward for thy labor; and know thou that the reward of the righteous is in the world to come!"

No man, whatever his religious principles may be, can find fault with the moral contained in this beautiful allegory, and its force and simplicity are perhaps unsurpassed by any saying that flowed from pens not wielded by inspired writers. — And I believe that it may be asserted, that whatever the Rabbins wrote bears the mark of a high elevation of thought, and a grandeur of conception, and although their figures may now and then seem too bold, yet their meaning is always very appropriate when correctly explained.

In fine, the law given by God through Moses is the citadel, in which we must take shelter; but let that rude hand be blasted which should impiously dare to break down the wall, which our good pastors and faithful guardians have with so much case built around it!

O GREAT AND ADORABLE BEING, who didst create the heaven and the earth, and the innumerable planetary systems which shine around us, look down with mercy and compassion upon thy servant, who feebly essays to vindicate the glory of THY HOLY NAME! O may the words of his mouth be acceptable to Thee, and may nought that he says be displeasing to Thee! — Vouchsafe also to look down from Thy high abode upon the descendants of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, Thy servants, and remember Thou the covenant which Thou didst make with them, saying, that Thou wouldst never forsake their children! Grant them, therefore, knowledge and wisdom, that they may all understand Thy law, and know what is pleasing to Thee! — Deliver them from all affliction, and bring to fulfillment the prophecy spoken through Thy prophet, that the earth should be full of Thy knowledge, as the waters cover the sea. May this be Thy will, and may we speedily behold Thy return to ZION. Amen!

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