Forty days after the most awesome event in history – G-d’s revelation to man - the Jewish people were dancing around a golden calf. Though Moshe had successfully pleaded the case of the people and attained forgiveness from G-d while atop the mountain, actually seeing the goings on below was too much even for Moshe. He smashed the tablets – the handiwork of G-d – and after going back “up to G-d” to again plead on behalf the people, was told by G-d to “Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” (Shemot 34:1).

G-d then reveals Himself a second time, but this time to Moshe only - “no man may ascend with you” (Shemot 34:3)– teaching Moshe His 13 attributes of mercy. This is followed by a series of laws – a second set of Ten commandments if you will[1] – and then “The Lord said to Moses: Write down these words, ki al pi, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel (Shemot 34:27). The covenant was to be re-established and “these words”, presumably the Aseret Hadibrot – were to be written down once again.

But no longer would the written word be sacrosanct in quite the same way. “Rabbi Yocḥanan taught: The Holy One, Blessed be He, made a covenant with the Jewish people only for the sake of the matters that were transmitted be’al peh, orally, as it is stated: “ki al pi, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel” (Gittin 60b).

With a play on the words al pi, which in the context of the unfolding narrative refers to the words that Moshe was actually going to write down i.e. the Ten Commandments, Rav Yochanan totally reverses the meaning of the verse. Interpreting al pi to mean the words of one’s mouth, Rav Yochanan teaches that it is the spoken word, the Oral Law, which is the basis of our covenant.

The Torah shebectav, the written words – as holy as it may be – plays a very secondary role to the Oral. Many of the words of the Torah are incomprehensible without the Oral explanations. What is a “sign on one’s arms, what are we to “write on our doorposts, how do remember or guard the shabbat, what is a beautiful fruit, what is a sukkah, what is the difference between matza and chametz, what does it mean to respect one’s parents[2]. On and on it goes.

Furthermore, the oral teachings often contradict the words of the Torah. We do not exact “an eye for an eye” (Shemot 21:24) nor do we stone adulterers. Slaves do not work “forever” (Shemot 21:6), people are not put the death when their ox kills someone (Shemot 21:29), and we don’t begin the count the omer on the day after shabbat (Vayikra 23:15). In all the above and many more we follow a very different Oral tradition.

The written words of the Torah, the Bible as a stand-alone is as much – perhaps more – a book for Christians than for Jews. It is the Old Testament. It is the Oral tradition that turns the Bible into the Torah. Interestingly, while the written words of the Torah are open for all, the rabbis prohibited teaching the Oral law to non-Jews[3] - these spoken words being the basis of the special covenant between G-d and the Jewish people.

Yet is seems strange to derive the centrality of the Oral law from a verse that instructs Moshe to write the words of the covenant. And if the Oral law is so central why the need for a written one? Why not have the entire Torah be “Halacha leMoshe miSinai” an Oral tradition given by G-d to Moshe?

Apparently, it is the tension between the Written and Oral law that makes the Torah into a Torat Chaim, a Torah for life and for all time. The written word is fixed, unchanging, inflexible, static, speaking to the time in which it was written, but often outdated when read years or centuries later. The Oral Tradition is dynamic, flexible, changing, responsive and must be relevant to one’s time for it to have much impact.

Judaism demands that we properly balance the fixed and the flexible, the changing and the unchanging, tradition and modernity. We must carefully navigate the old and the new knowing when to say we follow the traditions of our ancestors and when to say times are different. This is no easy task – but it the basis of our covenant with G-d.

[1] You can listen to a shiur on this second set of “ten commandments given – the topic of our parsh hsiur this week given by Becky Friedman here 

[2] I did want to include at least one mitzva between man and man. Yet it is illuminating to note that regarding mitzvot between man and man the words of the Torah are quite clear. While the details and nuance may not appear it is clear what don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t gossip, and love your neighbour all mean.

[3] If this prohibition still exists and if so in what form is beyond the scope of this devar torah