Wednesday, 18 Jan 2012

Written by Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner

The Mishnah (edited c. 200 ce) is terse. Its format proposes laws with very few references to the process of development of the law itself and it seems almost allergic to giving credence to Torah as the source of Mishnaic laws. Unravelling the link between Torah, Mishnah and Talmud is therefore one of the tricky challenges of teaching rabbinic texts.

I recently discovered a fascinating section of Mishnah that acknowledges its tenuous relationship with Torah. In this Mishnah, (Chagigah 1:8) the legal content of the Mishnah is placed in three categories, each determined by their link to Torah.

The Mishnah paints a wonderful image of the laws most removed from Torah, such as the laws of dissolution of vows. These laws, is states, “hover in the air because they rest on nothing.” Just to reiterate that, in case you missed it – “they rest on nothing!”

The laws of Shabbat and festival offerings in the Mishnah are closer to the Torah, but even so, the Mishnah describes them as “a mountain hanging by a thread; having a scanty scriptural basis but containing many laws.”

Finally, the Mishnaic laws most intimately connected to the Torah are civil law, Temple ritual, purity regulations and regulations concerning forbidden marriages, “which truly make up the essential part of the Torah.” What a remarkable assertion of the development of Jewish law and the ability of the Mishnah to enact laws which are not based on Torah law.

The categorisation hints at two almost independent authoritative texts developing – the Torah and the Mishnah. This is where the Talmud fits in, completing (thus “Gemorah”, “completion”) the Mishnah, connecting it to the Torah through repeatedly posing the question when any passage of the Mishnah is studied: “From where do we know this?”

Parashat Va’era contains a great concrete example of this interesting phenomenon:

The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:1) states that at the Seder all Jews, irrespective of class, should eat reclining and should drink no less than four cups of wine. There is no Biblical source given in the Mishnah for either the reclining or for the four cups of wine.

When the rabbis of the Talmud studied the Mishnaic Pesach Laws of drinking four cups of wine, they asked their usual question: “from where do we know this?”

Different Rabbis – different options.  The Jerusalem Talmud (Pesachim 10:1) lists several viewpoints and this is where the link to our Parashah comes in.  Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Benayah suggested that the four cups correspond to the four verbs of redemption used by God in reassuring a still sceptical Moses that God will personally bring Israel out of bondage I am God. I will bring you out from under the cruel hard labour of Egypt. I will rescue you from slavery. I will redeem you, intervening with great acts of judgment. I’ll take you as my own people and I’ll be God to you. “ (Exodus 6:6-7).

In complete contrast, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi suggested the four cups correlate to the four times the word “cup” occurs in Pharaoh’s butler’s dream in prison (Genesis 40:9-14). Rabbi Levi goes down the route of symbolism – the four cups, he states, representDaniel’s four kingdoms of Israel’s oppressors. Other Rabbis prefer to regard them as standing for the four cups of punishment to be administered by God to the nations of the world at the end of days.

The interpretation offered by Rabbi Yochanan become the favoured option – this despite a slight problem. The problem with his linking the four cups to the four types of redemption is in the verse that follows his listing of the four aspects of redemption, which promptly lists a fifth –  “and I will bring you into the land” (Exodus 6:8). It seems that the medieval custom of pouring but not drinking a fifth cup for the Prophet Elijah attached itself to this fifth and unused verb of redemption in our parashah.

One more thing – what might the variety of Talmudic views that link a Torah verse with the custom of the four cups show us? The Rabbis’ diversity of opinions might show that what we do may dictate exegesis. Deed before interpretation. I believe that this is an excellent example that laws, customs and beliefs evolved over time and are often justified retroactively by attaching a type of “hechsher” (kashrut-certificate of authenticity) through Torah.
Shabbat shalom

Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner
January 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.