Torah For The Times    

Parshat Shoftim:
Torah Reading: Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18 - 21:9)  
Haftorah:  Isaiah 51:12 - 52:12

Shabbat Candle Lighting: 7:43 PM 
Shabbat ends: 8:46 PM  


Prerequisites for the Sanhedrin

This week’s parsha discusses the role of the Sanhedrin, the most authoritative body in Jewish life. Any question in any area of Jewish practice could be brought to its attention for resolution. The Sanhedrin’s decision was the final word in all matters of Jewish law.

The Torah introduces the types of questions that must be brought to the Sanhedrin for resolution with the words: “If a davar-matter of law eludes you.”

The word “Davar-matter” is translated differently in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. 

In the Babylonian Talmud, it is translated as “matters of Halacha-legal matters.”  The Jerusalem Talmud it translates it as “matters of Aggadah.”

Aggadah refers to the non-legal parts of the Talmud that deal with morality, ethics, history and stories of the great Sages.  Aggadah shares the same root as Haggadah, telling the story of the Exodus.  Aggadah is about the stories of the Jewish people and their relationship with G‑d.

The Jerusalem Talmud maintains that the Sanhedrin has to be proficient in matters of Aggadah as well as matters of Jewish law. The question is why? If Aggadah, by definition, is non-legal, why would it matter if the judges of the Sanhedrin were not experts in it? And what is the crux of the dispute between the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds?

Telling us Who is the Creator

Our Sages tell us, “If you want to know who spoke and the world came to be, you must learn Aggadah.” Aggadah is the key to appreciating the Torah’s Divine authorship. To master Jewish law without believing that it is Divine renders a judge deficient in his ability to render an accurate legal decision.

This would explain why the Jerusalem Talmud emphasizes the need for the members of the Sanhedrin to be versed not only in Halacha but also in Aggadah.

This approach is consistent with what our Sages teach us in the first chapter of Ethics of the Fathers (which we customarily will read and, in fact, study this Shabbos): “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it over to Joshua, Joshua to the elders and the elders to the prophets.” The Rebbe asks, why does it refer to them as prophets? What role does prophecy play in the transmission of the Torah? Doesn’t the Torah forbid a person from using prophecy to decide matters of Torah?

Since the Torah was given to us on Mount Sinai, it is no longer in heaven, as the famous Rabbi Yehoshua declared when his colleague Rabbi Eliezer sought Divine support for an opinion. Once the Torah was given at Sinai, Rabbi Yehoshua declared, it was exclusively in the hands of the Sages to transmit and interpret it in accordance with rules that were also given at Sinai. In the event of a dispute, the Torah instructs us to follow the majority. Why, then, does the Mishnah mention the prophets as transmitters of Torah?

The Rebbe answers that although prophecy is not the medium through which a matter of law is determined, prophecy, which entails a close connection to G‑d, is the inspiration needed to go in the right direction. When the Talmudic sages decided a matter of law, they were guided by Divine inspiration to look in the right direction. They did not, however, render any decisions based on their prophetic inspiration alone.

We thus learn that although we are not prophets, we must have a connection with G‑d, based on a profound awareness of His presence in our lives, as a prerequisite to proper Torah study. A rabbi who provides direction to others must certainly be guided by an awareness of the Divine source of Torah.

The Rebbe’s analysis is consistent with the Jerusalem Talmud’s assertion that the Sanhedrin had to be proficient in Aggadah, because it is that part of Torah that generates an awareness of and reverence for G‑d. And that awareness and reverence, in turn, is what guides the judge to make the proper rulings in matters of law.

Divergent Approaches of Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud

However, this explanation begs another question. The above analysis merely transfers the question to the Babylonian Talmud that defines the “davar-matter” discussed in our Parsha as strictly refrring to Halacha and omits the mention of Aggadah. If Aggadah leads to recognition of the Divine authorship of the Torah, which is indispensable for rendering accurate decisions, why does the Babylonian Talmud not require it?

Perhaps the answer lies in the different approaches of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.

The Babylonian Talmud is the Talmud of exile, while the Jerusalem Talmud is associated with the Land of Israel, where the exile was not as intense.

There is no question that the Babylonian Talmud recognizes the necessity of the study of Aggadah to be qualified as a judge. That is a given and it need not be mentioned. After all, it does not say that the judge cannot be a thief, either. He cannot properly recognize the legal dimension of Torah unless he also appreciates its Divine origin. And if it takes the study of Aggadah to acquire that awareness, then so be it. It need not be mentioned as a separate area of endeavor for the judge for it is subsumed in the knowledge of law that he must possess. Halacha is only Halacha if it is the word of G‑d and is seen as G‑d’s will, not some human system of jurisprudence. 

Will and Delight

Indeed, Halacha, the laws of the Torah, is an expression of G‑d’s will which transcends even His wisdom. In other words, the study of Halacha transcends the study of other theoretical parts of Torah and is compared by the Talmud to a crown. Just as the crown sits above the head of the king, so too the teachings of Halacha transcend even G‑d’s wisdom or “Head,” as it were.

The Jerusalem Talmud, however speaks of the knowledge contained in Aggadah as a separate and independent endeavor beyond its role as a prerequisite and accessory to the study of Halacha.

If we return to the analogy of a crown, the crown itself has two functions. The first is that it literally covers the head and protects it; figuratively, it is an accessory to his mind. When a subject of the king sees the crown, it reinforces his respect for the monarch’s royal decrees and his need to submit to them. In other words, the crown is subordinate to the king’s orders and the implementation of his ideas and agenda.

But the crown also possesses an independent character that has nothing to do with his role as the one who issues decrees to his nation. The exquisite bejeweled crown evokes the most profound sense of awe, reverence and devotion to the King himself that transcends his orders. It is the ornament that expresses royalty in its unadulterated, pristine and august state and elicits the most profound reaction from his subjects.

In Chassidic parlance, the crown is a metaphor for the faculties of both will and delight. Will influences and controls our intellect, emotions, and all that we think, speak and do. It encompasses our entire personality just as the crown envelops the head, which controls the body.

But the driving force behind will-power is the delight that one experiences from doing the things that one wants to do. In other world, delight is the inner dimension of the crown and will is its outer manifestation.

So it is too with respect to the crown of Torah. The outer manifestation of the crown is G‑d’s will expressed in Halacha. We must realize that Halacha is not a human creation, but is G‑d’s very crown! The last thing a person would want to tamper with is the king’s crown!

But beneath the surface of the will is a deeper level of Divine delight that one acquires only through the study of Aggadah and its related study of Jewish mystical texts, particularly the teachings of Chassidus.

In the famous exchange between the Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the Alter Rebbe) and Rabbi Pinchas of Korits (a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov), the Alter Rebbe explained the reason for the proliferation of the mystical teachings of Torah. He provided a parable of the king who agreed to pulverize the crown jewel and dilute it in water to save the life of his son, the prince. Similarly, the teachings of Chassidus are like the crown jewel. They are G‑d’s innermost thoughts that express His innermost essence and we need to disseminate its teachings to save us, G‑d’s children, from spiritual death.

These teachings of Chassidus were kept secret for millennia because the crown was off limits to the world. But as we come closer to the time of Redemption, it is time for these teachings to be disseminated to help us cope with exile and prepare us for the imminent arrival of Moshiach, when these teachings will be fully revealed.

Hence, the Babylonian Talmud, that reflects exile in its deepest form, omits the mention of Aggadah because it is the part of the crown that is an accessory to Halacha. It is a part and parcel of Halacha. Without an awareness that Halacha is His will, it is not Halacha.

However, the Jerusalem Talmud, which is more closely connected to the future Age of Redemption, highlights the study of Aggadah as an independent area of study for the Sanhedrin. In their role as Jewish leaders, the Sanhedrin must impart these teachings to inspire greater fidelity to Halacha, to be sure, but also as an independent domain of study to give the people a taste of the future.

The lesson for us is clear. We have to study the inner dimension of Torah today more than ever before for two reasons: First it is an indispensable part of Judaism, without which our observance of the Mitzvos lacks the respect for the Commander of the Mitzvah. And second, by immersing ourselves in the teachings of Moshiach, we prepare for the final Redemption, when the King’s Crown will be exposed to the entire world.


Moshiach Matters

Every generation has its goal.
Ours is to hasten and ensure the coming of Moshiach.(The Rebbe, 5741—1981)

For more info about Moshiach,