Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Va-era 5757
January 11, 1997 3 Shevat 5757
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
As envisioned by Rabbi Yehuda ben Tema at the end of the second century, the standard curriculum of a young Jew begins with the study of Bible at five, Mishna at ten and Talmud at fifteen. Age thirteen marks the transition to adulthood with the onset of obligatory adherence to the norms of Jewish life. Our parasha offers an instructive example of what this curriculum entailed, and a fleeting glimpse of the nature of rabbinic Judaism as a whole.
Noteworthy is the fact that this is a graded curriculum, an orderly approach to an expanding corpus of holy texts. By the second century, the Jewish Canon had been closed as the Written Torah, including the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. It is this literature, with an emphasis on the first part, which constituted the first five years of a normative education, though there is no indication that study of the Bible was halted at ten.
The second stage introduced a youngster to the study of the Oral Law in the form of the Mishna being edited by Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi (the Prince) but circulating in earlier versions. Organized thematically, the Mishna is a legal compendium with a vast amount of practice obviated by the destruction of the Temple and a diversity of opinion on almost every subject. It is a work of preservation as well as on-going applicability, composed in a cadenced and pellucid post-biblical Hebrew given to easy memorization.
But what is the body of texts referred to as Talmud which forms the highest stage of the curriculum? At the end of the second century we are still nearly two centuries away from the literary distillation of the Palestinian Talmud and probably some four from that of the Babylonian Talmud. Rabbi Yehuda ben Tema is not yet talking of a third book, but rather of an intellectual activity that would eventually complete the sacred trilogy.
The activity is expository and dictated by the bracing independence of the Mishna. The Mishna itself gives no hint that it is predicated on the Bible. Its depiction of Jewish practice appears to diverge again and again from what is stipulated or intimated in the Written Torah, without so much as an exegetical nod to link the two.
Indeed, in one revealing passage in the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi acknowledges this tenuous relationship. He classifies much of his legal matter into three categories according to their linkage to Scripture. The most removed, like the laws of the dissolution of vows, "hover in the air because they rest on nothing." Somewhat closer are the laws of Shabbat and festival offerings, because they are akin to "a mountain hanging by a thread; the scriptural basis is meager yet the laws abound." Finally, the most intimately connected are civil law, Temple ritual, purity regulations and regulations concerning forbidden marriages, "which truly make up the core of Scripture."
Thus at the apex of the educational system is the sustained effort to relate exegetically the disparate contents of two independent, authoritative texts, two poles of a single battery generating an endless flow of religious energy. The first question in studying any passage of the Mishna was always one of derivation: "From where do we know this?" Unstated is the assumption that the interpretation of Scripture is the primary soil of later practice, creating the impression of one vast seamless corpus deriving from a single moment of divine revelation.
Let me illustrate how this system actually worked. The Mishna states categorically that at the Passover Seder all Jews, irrespective of class, are to eat reclining and to drink no less than four cups of wine. No biblical source is given for either custom, probably because the institution of the Seder is largely a home ceremony sanctioned by the early Rabbis to replace the family paschal sacrifice at the Temple after its destruction in 70 C.E.
However, later Rabbis did speculate as to the biblical source for the four cups of wine meant to gladden the heart and herald the miracle of the Exodus. The Palestinian Talmud lists several opinions: According to Rabbi Yohanan, the four cups correspond to the four verbs of redemption used by God in reassuring a still skeptical Moses that God will personally bring Israel out of bondage (Exodus 6:6-7). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi suggests they correlate with the four appearances of the word "cup" in the dream of Pharaoh's butler in prison, correctly interpreted by Joseph (Genesis 40:9-14). Rabbi Levi declares the four cups to symbolize Daniel's four kingdoms of Israel's oppressors, while still 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 as foretold by Scripture.
In time, the linkage wrought by Rabbi Yohanan to our parasha swept the field. In fact, the medieval custom of pouring but not drinking a fifth cup for the Prophet Elijah attached itself to the fifth and unused verb of redemption in our parasha ("and I will bring you into the land" - 6:8), lending an urgent messianic note to the Seder.
As for the original diversity of views on why four cups, take your pick. The very multiplicity of choices strongly implies that in this instance, as in many others, exegesis follows practice rather than generates it. The doctrine of a dual Torah, one Written, the other Oral, but both going back to Sinai, cannot obscure the fact that Judaism too is governed by history. Its laws and rituals, expressions and beliefs evolved over time in response to changed circumstances, with the people often in the lead. It is this inescapable awareness of time that marks my understanding of Judaism. For me, Judaism is the stirring record of an unbroken dialogue between God and my people, whose sanctity flows from its hoary antiquity and consistent nobility.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,