Rabbi Bernard Fox



“And these are the laws that you should place before them.”  (Shemot 20:1)

One of the debates that regularly emerge in education concerns the proper role of the teacher in the educational experience.  Should the teacher impart knowledge to the student?  Should the teacher assume a more passive role and merely act as a facilitator in the student’s personal learning experience?  The technological breakthroughs of the last few decades have caused this debate to resurface.  With the use of computers, the internet and other technological devices that have been introduced into the classroom, the option of creating a classroom in which the teacher is more a facilitator and less an instructor has become very real.  But it is important to remember that we should not use technology simply because it is available.  We always need to ask, “What is the best model for the student?”  The first passage of this week’s parasha offers some insight into this debate.


In the first passage of our parasha, Moshe is commanded to teach the laws of the Torah to Bnai Yisrael.  However, Hashem does not merely instruct Moshe to teach the laws to the people.  Instead, He tells Moshe to place the laws before the people.  The Sages ask why Hashem refers to placing the laws in front of the people rather than using the more obvious formulation – to teach the people.  Various responses are offered.  Rashi quotes one of these responses.  Hashem’s instructions contain an injunction.  Moshe cannot fulfill his mission simply by reviewing the laws repeatedly until the people are fluent in them.  He is required to teach the laws in depth so that the people understand the underlying principles.[1] 


The precise meaning of Rashi’s comments is not clear.  We would imagine that a thorough knowledge of the law – the achievement of fluency – is quite an accomplishment.  What additional element is Moshe required to provide in his transmission of the law?  Rabbaynu David, author of the Turai Zahav, explains that Hashem is commanding Moshe to not limit his teaching to the Written Law.  In addition, he must transmit to the people the Oral Law.  In other words, the Written Law represents only a portion of the corpus of the law.  The Oral Law provides explanation and interpretation of the Written Law.  Moshe’s instruction must include the Oral Law.[2]


There is an interesting insight provided by this interpretation of Rashi.  This interpretation of Rashi posits a specific relationship between the Written and Oral Law.  The Written Law is the basic corpus of the entire Torah.  However, it is very brief and concise.  In order to fully understand its meaning a commentary or explanation is needed.  This commentary is the Oral Law.  This formulation of the relationship between the Written and Oral Laws is expressed in some interesting halachot.


One of the most fundamental differences between the Written and Oral Laws is contained in their names.  The Written Law is recorded in written form in the Chumash.  The Oral Law cannot be recorded.  Our Sages only allowed the Oral Torah to be recorded in written form because they feared that a strictly oral transmission had become impractical.  And if the Oral Law would not be recorded, large portions would be lost. 


But let us consider the original requirement – that the Written Law should be recorded and the Oral Torah should not be recorded.  Why was it initially prohibited to record the Oral Law in written form?  Torah Temimah explains that this is an outcome of the relationship between the Written and Oral Law.  As explained above, the Oral Law is a commentary and elaborate explanation of the Written Law.  As a result, it can only be properly transmitted through the efforts of a scholar with his students.  Because the Written Law is concise and relatively simple, it can be mastered from the text.  In contrast, the Oral Law is far more detailed and intricate.  It cannot be mastered simply through the reading of a text.  It must be transmitted through the more intimate and personal forum of the teacher and student.  In order to preserve the student – teacher relationship as the means of transmitting the Oral Law, it was not initially committed to written form.[3]


Following the lead of Torah Temimah, we can also understand the history of the recording of the Oral Law.  At first the Mishna was redacted.  This was followed by the compilation and recording of the Gemara.  Later the commentaries on the Talmud were recorded.  In other words, the Oral Torah was recorded in discrete stages.  Why was this necessary?  Once it was decided by the Sages that necessity dictated that the Oral be recorded, why was it not immediately recorded in its entirety?  According to the Torah Temimah, this incremental approach is quite understandable.  The Sages struggled with two conflicting considerations.  First, it was necessary to commit the Oral Law to a written form.  But they also recognized that the Oral Law could only be effectively transmitted through the teacher – student relationship.  Recording the Oral Torah undermines this relationship.  Once recorded, the Oral Torah can be accessed by any student.  The role of the teacher is undermined.  In order to resolve these conflicting considerations, the Sages recorded the Oral Law incrementally.  At each stage the Sages balanced their concern with the preservation of the Oral Law with their determination to maintain the traditional and essential relationship between teacher and student.  Enough of the Oral Law was recorded to assure its preservation.  But as much as possible of the Oral Law was left in its original oral form to be transmitted by teacher to student.


Let us consider another interesting halacha.  Maimonides explains that it is permitted for a teacher to accept payment for instructing students in the Written Law.  However, it is not permitted to accept payment for providing instruction in the Oral Law.[4]  It should be noted the common practice to compensate teachers of Oral Law is based on the position of Shulchan Aruch.[5]  But let us consider the position of Maimonides.  What is the basis of the prohibition against providing compensation for teaching the Oral Law?  Why does this prohibition not apply to teaching the Written Law? 


Maimonides provides an interesting response to the first question.  He explains that just as the Almighty taught Moshe the Torah without receiving compensation, so too we are required to provide instruction without compensation.[6]  This provides an explanation for the prohibition.  But now our second question seems even more justified!  Hashem did not just instruct Moshe in the Oral Law without compensation.  He also provided Moshe with instruction in the Written Law.  Based on Maimonides explanation of origins of the prohibition, we would think it should also extend to the Written Law.


 Perhaps, based on the above analysis of the relationship between the Written and Oral Laws, we can answer this question. As we have explained, the written and oral formats of these elements of the Torah reflect two different instructional models.  The Written Torah is recorded in order to make it readily accessible to every student.  However, the Oral Law is not written in order to foster transmission by teacher to student.  If this is the case, let us consider the role of the teacher in the instruction of each Law.  In the case of the Written Law, the recorded format is designed to make the Written Law accessible even without the aid of an instructor.  Therefore, the instructor is not an inherent element in the transmission of the Written Law.  The student learns from the text.  The teacher provides assistance and facilitates learning.  But he is not the source of the knowledge.  The teacher has a completely different role in the transmission of the Oral Law.  In this case, the Law is designed to be transmitted from teacher to student.  The teacher is not merely a facilitator and aid to the student.  The teacher is charged with the responsibility of acting as the agent for the transmission of the Law.


This distinction suggests an answer to our question on Maimonides.  A teacher can be compensated for providing assistance to the student in mastering the Written Law.  This is because the teacher is not truly acting as an instructor.  The student learns from the text with the aid of the teacher.  However, we cannot provide compensation for actually providing Torah instruction.  In the case of the Oral Law the teacher is actually assuming an instructional role.  Maimonides maintains that for such a role, the instructor cannot be compensated.


So is it best for a teacher to facilitate the student’s own learning?  Is it the role of the teacher to assume a more active role as an instructor?  If we use the Torah as a model, there is no one answer.  It depends on the material the student is studying.  There are some cases in which the teacher can best serve the student by acting as a facilitator.  However, in some areas this is not the appropriate role.  Some areas knowledge cannot be transmitted without the teacher – student interaction and dialogue.  In such cases, the teacher is an essential element of the learning process.

[1]   Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 21:1.

[2]   Rabbaynu David ben HaRav Shemuel HaLeyve Divrei David Torai Zahav, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1978), p 253.

[3]   Rav Baruch HaLeyve Epstein, Torah Temimah, Introduction.

[4]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:7.

[5]   Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 246:5.

[6]   Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Talmud Torah 1:7.