Shas Man – By Pinchas Winston
The Rosh HaYeshivah leaned onto his desk in our direction, and with a glint in his eyes, asked us, quite provocatively, “Are you a Shas Man? Eh? Who’s going to be the first one of you to learn through the entire Talmud?” He spoke with a pronounced New York accent, though we sat in his office in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, a long way from New York.
He smiled as he spoke. We smiled as he spoke. The Rosh HaYeshivah had a way of talking right to your heart, of lighting a fire under and within people. He has inspired a lot of great people over the years to do great things. You didn’t have to believe in yourself. You just had to know that the Rosh HaYeshivah believed in you.
But the entire Talmud? In a single lifetime? We were struggling just to make a laining, just to read the text, understand it, and interpret it properly. A quarter of a page could take hours to understand; 2,700 folio pages could take a couple of lifetimes. However, the Rosh HaYeshivah believed in us and continued to encourage us.
In essence, each page of gemora is really just point form. Most words require an explanation from Rashi, the main commentator on the Talmud, and many statements usually can only be understood after being analyzed by Tosfos, another commentator on the page. Furthermore, quite often, the gemora, Rashi, and Tosfos are only properly understood after reading super commentaries, the result of moving further away in time from the Mt. Sinai experience. It really is a “Sea of Talmud.”
The totality of Torah encompasses both a written section called Torah Sh’b’Ksav—Written Torah—and one called Torah Sh’b’al Peh—Torah of the Mouth. The former is referred to as the Chamishah Chumshai Torah—the Five Books of Torah, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moshe. The latter is called the Oral Law, and without it, it would be impossible to understand many parts of the Written Law and to properly perform its mitzvos.
With respect to the importance and centrality of Torah Sh’b’al Peh, the Talmud states:
The Holy One, Blessed is He, only made a covenant with the Jewish people because of the Oral Law, as it says, “For it is according to these words that I have made a covenant with you and with the Jewish people” (Shemos 34:27). (Gittin 60b)
Hence, the Oral Law not only assists us to understand the Written Law, but it is the very basis and symbol of the unique relationship that the Jewish people have with God.
There are fundamental differences between the Written Law and the Oral Law. First of all, when it comes to the Written Law, what we have is what we got. Moshe Rabbeinu received the entire Written Law from God, letter-by-letter, word-by-word, book-by-book:
The Master said: Yehoshua wrote the book which bears his name and the last eight verses of the Torah. This statement agrees with the authority who says that [the last] eight verses in the Torah were written by Yehoshua, as it is taught: “ ‘Moshe, the servant of God, died there’ (Devarim 34:5); is it possible that Moshe, being dead, could have written, ‘Moshe . . . died there’? Rather, up to this point Moshe wrote, and from that point, Yehoshua wrote.” This is the opinion of Rebi Yehudah, or according to others, of Rebi Nechemiah. Rebi Shimon to him: “Can the Torah be missing even one word [written by Moshe]? Is it not written, ‘Take this book of the Law?’ (Devarim 31:26)? Rather, up to this point the Holy One, Blessed is He, dictated and Moshe repeated and wrote, but from this point God dictated and Moshe wrote with a tear in his eye . . .” (Bava Basra 15a)
Nevertheless, even though the Oral Law, unlike the Written Law, has expanded over the generations, still all of it was taught to Moshe Rabbeinu, as it says:
These are the statutes, the judgments, and the Torahs that God gave, between Himself and the Children of Israel, on Mt. Sinai through Moshe. (Vayikra 26:46)
And the Torahs: A Written Torah and an Oral Torah, teaching us that all of it was given to Moshe on Sinai (Toras Kohanim 26:54). (Rashi)
God gave me the two stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God. And upon them was [it written] according to all the words that God declared to you on the mountain out of the fire, on the Day of Assembly. (Devarim 9:10)
Rebi Yehoshua ben Levi said: “The text does not say, ‘upon them,’ but rather ‘and upon them’; not ‘words’ but rather ‘the words’; not ‘all’ but rather ‘according to all.’ These extra words allude to Torah, Mishnah, Talmud and Aggadah. Even what a learned student was destined to rule before his teacher was already told to Moshe at Sinai. (Yerushalmi, Megillah 28a)
However, if God told Moshe Rabbeinu that it is forbidden to turn on a light bulb on Shabbos, he didn’t write it down or tell it to anyone else in his time. Nor did Moshe Rabbeinu leave instructions regarding the permissibility, or lack thereof, of advanced medical procedures according to halachah. Even had he tried, who would have understood what he was talking about?
But does it really matter? Though the principles of Torah Sh’b’al Peh, like Torah Sh’b’Ksav, were fixed in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu and cannot be changed, they can be applied in every generation. Even as technology rapidly advances, everything that is created and modified is always based upon principles as old as Creation itself, which are always subject to the principles of Torah.
Thus, though the principles of Torah never change, its application over the ages has expanded the body of Torah Sh’b’al Peh astronomically. As Jewish history evolves, it constantly places the Jew in new and sometimes even unusual situations causing the poskim in each generation to have to decide when and how the principles apply.
In the beginning, the Oral Law was, in fact, only oral. Teachers and students had their own notebooks to help keep track of what to teach and what was learned, but it was not a scroll, like the Written Law, that could be picked up and read. It had to be verbally taught and verbally learned, something that was only possible if one went to drink from a place through which the stream of Torah tradition flowed.
However, persecution and exile, especially during Roman times, interrupted the process of Torah transmission, which depends heavily on exactitude. This prompted Rebi Yehudah HaNasi, also known as Rebi, in the year 186 CE, to break with tradition and begin the process of collecting together all of the known oral teachings, and to record them, a huge task. This resulted in what is called Mishnah—Teaching, the Oral Law in written form.
In order to maintain some oral aspect of the Oral Law, Rebi left the Mishnah in point form, necessitating research and discussion to ensure that a student arrive at the correct conclusion and halachah. But over the centuries, the exile deepened and persecution intensified until even the Mishnah was no longer enough to guarantee the survival of Torah.
Therefore, in 499 CE, Rav Ashi, in his time, continued the process begun by Rebi in his time. He recorded the discussions of the Mishnah in written form as well, and this became called the Babylonian Talmud, or Talmud Bavli. Even though an earlier version had already existed by 350 CE in Eretz Yisroel, called Talmud Yerushalmi, the Jerusalem Talmud, it is the Bavli that has become the most prominent over time, and which is learned primarily in yeshivos around the world to this very day.
Unlike the Mishnah, which is all halachah, the Talmud contains much more than just explanations of the Mishnah and its halachic applications. It also contains historical information, as well as many stories just for transmitting important concepts, some of which are probably more allegory than they are fact, all of which fall into the category called Aggadata.
Rav Ashi, like Rebi before him, and those who helped to compose and edit the Talmud also maintained some of the integrity of the Oral Law, even in written form. Hence, a single sugia, which can cover just a few lines of Talmud or pages, always requires much thought, and usually insight from some of the many commentators who have elucidated the words of the Talmud over the ages, especially as we move further away in time from the giving of Torah.
Hence, though the Bavli may only occupy one shelf in the average Torah library, the rest of the shelves around the room are usually filled to capacity with commentaries on it. To learn the entire Talmud is to merely “see” 2700 plus folio pages; to know the entire Talmud (as do the leading rabbis in each generation) is to also know the hundreds of seforim in such a library as well. That’s what it truly means to be a Shas Man.
“Rebi! Rebi!” the excited student called out to his teacher. “I just went through the entire Talmud!”
“Perhaps,” the teacher answered, before adding, “But did Shas go through you?”