Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Something About Mesorah (Among MANY) Has Been Bothering Me

Before Ezra and Nechemia and the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah Came along, there was virtually NO commentary of any kind on the Chamisha Chumshei Torah. None. Not Midrashic. Not Halachic. Nothing. From Yehoshua bin Nun UNTIL the early Tanaic period (starting with the Knesses HaGedolah), no commentary. No recorded Halachic decisions. No pretty Midrashim about what Avraham, or Yaakov, or Yosef, or Moshe did in some unrecorded-in-the-Torah account to show us how great they were.

Certainly, there were some allusions to Torah concepts. Certainly, even some future Halacha was discussed, as in Yechezkel, which Chaza"l wanted to put into geniza (read: made apocryphal) because Yechezkel discusses halachas that might have been read as contrary to what the Torah says. But NO actual commentary. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zero. It all magically started showing up with the building the second Bais HaMikdash.

I find it COMPLETELY inconceivable that there is simply NOTHING but what may be historic, prophetic accounts left over from the times between the death of Moshe through the end of the Babylonian golus.

How is it possible that for nearly ONE THOUSAND (yes, that's 1,000) years, there was simply NO commentary on Torah?

This has been bothering more and more lately. DID Torah exist before Ezra and Nechemia came along?

With the plethora of literature JUST about Torah itself available from the time of the Knesses HaGedola, one would think SOMETHING had been written before the destruction of the first Bais HaMikdash, wouldn't one? I find it completely inconceivable that NOTHING survived. It just doesn't make sense. After all, many writings by ancient civilizations that existed parallel to the Israelites' civilization have been found over the centuries. Why not Torah commentaries?


BrooklynWolf said...

The answer that you'll get is that it was all transmitted orally before then.

Not that I buy it, but that's the answer you'll get if you ask for the "official party line."

The Wolf

Am Kshe Oref - A Stiff-Necked People said...

Don't buy it at all. It makes no sense. If it WAS transmitted orally, why is there no mention from Tanaic times of people who said this and that as there is in the Mishnah and Gemara? Besides, how is it that all the Prophet books, NAC"H, made it, but nothing else was written? Up to Ezra and Nechemia and the Knesses HaGedola was the time of Torah She'B'Chsav. If that is the case, anything mentioned would have been written...

But yes, that is the official party line. And it's pure BS...

josh said...

1) You are dating things from when they are first recorded, and/or by inference from the form they eventually took.

It's more likely that the ancient commentary is the kernel around which later material, in later literary style, crystallized.

2) You are not talking about that much time. The "Nach" part of Tanach is itself the (edited-down) literary tradition up to and including the Babylonian exile and return.

The next commentaries to emerge are Aramaic Targumim - some of which already incorporate proto-Midrashic material. So much of what appears in Midrash (written in heavily Aramaic-influenced Hebrew) seems to have been around earlier.

Am Kshe Oref - A Stiff-Necked People said...

Saying "it's more likely" is not an answer. And yes, I am dating things from when they were first recorded.

When I mean commentary, I even mean halachic decisions, as found in the mishna.

Further, I am pretty much talking about 1000 years. Perhaps 100 or 200 years less, but certainly no more. that's a pretty long dry spell, especially considering that from the Tanaic period to today it's never really stopped. Even if you're going to reply that the writing of things didn't start until Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, which I also have a lot of trouble really believing - that much detail does NOT survive for hundreds of years without a written record - RY"H probably found records and compile and edited them into the Mishnah as we know today - that NOTHING halachic, midrashic, no commentary on the Torah - purely Chamisha Chumshei Torah - survived the first nearly 1000 years of Jewish history. There's something wrong here.

rustin said...

Just some off-the-cuff remarks:

1) We should question the notion that commentary is quintissentially Jewish. Was it always fashionable? And if so, did the commentary itself take on a canonical status so as to be transmitted along with the text?

2) The vast majority of everything said or written has been lost, including by Jews. What we still have from the Egytians, Sumerians, Babylonians, ancient Chinese, etc, etc can each fill only a coffee table book. Even if commentaries were written the chance we should still have them are minute; it's pretty humbling. Jews are extremely fortunate to have as much as we do! Think DSS's and Elephantine: aspects of ancient Judaism that we knew nothing about and came across only accidentally after they had been wiped from memory. And you don't think even the works of the Nvi'im haven't suffered as well? Compare the lists of verified prophets to the preserved records. How about "The books of the Wars of the Lord", "Chronicles of the Kings of Israel", and the other references from Nach that we just don't have! And we don't even need to mention the toll that time takes on Oral Tradition! The halachic texts such as we are told some Tzadikim kept, suffered the same fate.

3) It is not true that we have no commentaries! Chronicles is certainly commenting on the history and theology of the Former Prophets. And how about the fact that Bereishis is a kind of midrash against the prevailing Mesopotamian creation myths? There are many more examples within Tanach and the older apochrypha. This commentary might be implicit but it is still commentary. Think Jubilees, all those Enoch stories, ben Sirach, etc. It's not necessary to quote the verse like Rashi or Bartinora in order to weigh in on tradition.

We've lost most of what we once had and can only have faith that what's left represents the best, most inspired, part.