The Transmission of Torah – Ethics of the Fathers


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by Rabbi Ruben Gober



“Moses accepted Torah from Sinai and passed it over (masrah) to Joshua” (Ethics 1:1)

Rashi explains that Moses had taught all of the Torah to Bnei Yisrael. However, the Mishna mentions Joshua exclusively, and not Elazar, Pinchas and the Seventy Elders. This was because Moses wanted to pass it over only to he who “to he who ‘killed’ himself from his days of youth in the tents of wisdom, and acquired a good name in the world…” Joshua was the only such person. There are a few questions that may be asked on Rashi’s explanation: First, it is not clear from Rashi what actually transpired: did Moses pass over the Torah to Elazar, Pinchas and the Seventy Elders but the Mishna only mentioned Joshua; or was it truly only passed over to Joshua? Rashi says that for the specific reasons mentioned, Moses only wanted to pass it over to Joshua, but if that is the case, then what was bothering Rashi that he asked why the Mishna only mentions Joshua?

Second, what are these two qualifications of 1) “he who ‘killed’ himself from his days of youth in the tents of wisdom, and 2) acquired a good name in the world”? Why are they so valuable?

Let us begin with the idea of ‘masrah’, the root of which is ‘masar’, to transmit or pass over. What exactly does this connote? When Moses transmitted the Torah specifically to Joshua, how was it different from how Moses taught the rest of the nation?

To address this issue, let us take up a similar problem in the Rambam: In his introduction to the Yad Hachazaka, the Rambam says that “although it wasn’t written down, Mosestaught the Oral Law in his court to the 70 elders…and to Joshua his student, Moses gave the Oral Law and appointed him on it.” What does the Rambam mean by “appointed him on it”? He already said that Moses taught it to Joshua, so what does this “appointment” add?

Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, known as the Rav, explained that there is a unique process of ‘Mesora’, continuing the chain of transmission of Torah, which demands its own context of learning. When Moses taught it to Joshua, it was not enough to receive the knowledge, but rather, it was in the specific context of the chain of the Mesora. With this idea, the Rav explained why the Rambam says that although Achiya HaShiloni learned Torah from Mosesin his youth, he received it from King David and his court…why? Originally, Achiya did not learn in the context of Mesora, so in order to be charged with transmission of the Torah, he had to ‘re-learn’ it in that specific method, from King David.

We are now in position to understand the answer to our original question on Rashi. While it is true that all others received the torah and learned from Moses, only Joshua learned it in the context of Mesora, so that he specifically was charged with transmission of the Torah.

The Rambam, in his introduction to the Yad Hachazaka, makes an interesting statement regarding our Mesora. After listing 40 generations of the Mesora from the time of Rav Ashi back to Moses, who heard it from God, he concludes that the entire transmission was from God. The question presents itself: what does the Rambam mean? He just told us that only Moses heard it from God!

Clearly, the Rambam is trying to teach us an idea about out Mesora. When we learn that Moses set up a chain of transmission, he wasn’t just acting on his own; it was because this was God’s Will. God authorized Moses to pass over the Torah to Joshua which means that God setup the system of Mesora. Therefore, anyone who is a ‘baal Mesora’, charged with the transmission, must be viewed as partaking of a system having been setup by God and thus having been appointed by God. This is the idea of the Rambam: they all received it from God insofar as they all partook of the system of Mesora, which God set in place.

Now let us take up our next question on Rashi. What does he mean that Joshua “killed himself in his youth in the tents of wisdom”? We can begin to understand this when we understand the metaphor of “killing oneself”- what is the idea being conveyed? Death, we know, is the cessation of our physical existence. Here, death is used as a metaphor (we know Joshua was certainly alive when appointed by Moses!) to convey a removal from the physical pleasures and desires. An example of this is seen in the statement of Chazal that expounds that Torah is acquired only by those who ‘kill’ themselves for it: again death is used as a means of expressing a removal from the sensual and physical enjoyments; to be redirected towards the non-physical, conceptual world of wisdom. Joshua was one who was able to remove himself from the world of the physical and harness those energies to be engaged in God’s wisdom. Interestingly, Rashi points out that Joshua had done this from his youth. Why is this important to notice? Why is one who starts at this perfection from his youth better off? To be continued.