Each generation and its own Holy Writ
“All holy writings are to be saved from fire [on the Sabbath; ordinary objects are not saved because ‘he might quench’ the fire], whether they are read from [‘such as the Prophets, which are read on the Sabbath in the synagogue’ — Rashi] or are not read from [‘like the Writings’ — Rashi], and though they may be written in any language, they require disposal in a genizah. Why do we not read from them? So as not to deprecate the study hall” (Mishnah, Tractate Shabbat, chapter 16, mishnah 1)
Our Holy Writ has been accepted since the completion of the Talmud (the 5th century CE) — the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings. The Writings include: Ruth, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Daniel, the book of Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Chronicles (as they are sequenced in Bava Batra 14b).
Know, student, that the determination of which books are called Holy Writ is very important, and a prohibition from the Torah is connected to the matter, as Maimonides wrote in Sefer HaMitzvot, prohibition 65: “In which we are warned against breaking or destroying houses of G-d Almighty’s worship or losing prophetic works or erasing the honored names and such. The language of this warning is (see parashat Re’eh) ‘Do not do so to the Lord your G-d’.”
About these things the Mishnah Berura wrote in paragraph 154, sub-paragraph 24: “And dispose of it in a genizah — this is also the rule for the rest of the books which have worn out. They must be disposed of in a genizah, and one is forbidden to burn them even if his intention is to prevent them from coming to dishonor — for even in this case, it is a way of destruction. Maimonides wrote in Sefer HaMitzvot, paragraph 65, that one who destroys books of the Holy Writtransgresses the prohibition of ‘Do not do so to the Lord your G-d;’ and in the same manner one should be careful about all ritual objects.”
We will show you who seeks knowledge that the whole issue of determining what the Holy Writ is changes from generation to generation and is not fixed at all! For example, all the books included in the Writings were only accepted and included into the Holy Writ long after their writing, and even then were not sanctified unanimously, but only after discussion and debate. As is written in the Encyclopedia Miqrait, entry ketuvim, pg. 392: “The differentiation between the Prophets and the Writings can not be explained except for the fact that the Prophets were closed and sanctified before the Writings were, and so [those books] were included in the Writings…”
The Mishnah writes that we do “not read from them” and gives a reason: So as not to deprecate the study hall. Rashi explained on Shabbat 115a: “So as not to deprecate the study hall, for [these books] draw the [public’s] attention, and on Shabbat they would preach to the laymen who worked all week and in the sermon they would teach laws of the forbidden and permitted — so it would be better for them to hear than to read the Writings.”
But according to the Tanna Rabbi Nehemia (Shabbat 116b) there is a different reason: “Rabbi Nehemiah said: why did they say that one does not read the Holy Writings? So that they would say: ‘We do not read the Holy Writings, much less common correspondence’.” We find that it was not clear to the Tannaim why it was forbidden to read the Writings in the synagogue, and so they gave two completely different reasons. If you look carefully you will see that these two reasons are odd. Because the Writings draw attention we should not read them to the public in the synagogue? Just as we read the after-portion from the Prophets as part of the service, we could read from the Writings (as we now do on holidays read from Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Ruth) — and what has this to do with a sermon? It would not take anything away from the preacher teaching the people what’s forbidden and what’s permitted. Rabbi Nehemiah’s view, forbidding it due to common correspondence (according to the Tosafot this is business correspondence), is also odd; see what the Tosafot says, s.v.vkol sheken: “Thus it is also in the Jerusalem Talmud, which says: ‘Why do we not read the Holy Writings? Because of common correspondence — if you say to him this is permitted, he will say, ‘Why should I not deal with my writings?'” But Rabbi Nehemiah’s view seems strange. What does he say? “If you permit reading the Holy Writings, they will come to permit reading common correspondence.” Why should this pertain only to the Writings and not to the Pentateuch and the Prophets? Why is Solomon’s Song of Songs any less than the prophet Isaiah’s words? It seems this reason is very shaky.
But our explanation of the prohibition is that one does not read the Writings simply because they had yet to be sanctified, and this is a mishnah which precedes the period of Rabbi Judah the Nasi (the words of the Tannaim begin some 300 years before the days of Rabbi). But in the period of Rabbi, editor of the Mishnah, there was already a change in how they saw the “Writings” and included them in the Holy Writ; therefore they had to give a new reason for the prohibition on reading the Writings and said it was “so as not to deprecate the study hall.”
Here is another rock-steady proof that the Writings became Holy Writ at a later period: When out rabbis discussed which books were included in the Holy Writ (see what we explained in Pamphlet 8) they disagreed only about books in the Writings (Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Ruth). Thus says the Mishnah in Tractate Eduyot, chapter five, mishnah three: “Ecclesiastes does not impurify the hands [is not part of the Holy Writ] according to the House of Shammai, and the House of Hillel says it does impurify the hands.” This is a proof for you, student who seeks truth, that in the period of the Houses of Shammai and Hillel (end of the first century BCE) there was yet no final determination whether Ecclesiastes was included in the Holy Writ. The book of the prophet Ezekiel, for example, was not discussed because it was clear that it was included in the Holy Writ (but they wanted to put it aside since in many places it contradicts the words of the Torah; see what we have written in our essay The Prophet Ezekiel Contradicts the Words of the Torah). On the other hand, the sages decided that the book of Ben Sira’s Proverbs, which was as well-known and common as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, would not be included in the Holy Writ, though there are places in the Gemara which treat it as though it were definitely a holy book (see what we wrote in Pamphlet 8).
We have seen how time passes and the relationship to the Writings changes from generation to generation.
In the period of the Mishnah it is stated that one does not read the Writings in the synagogue on the Sabbath.
While in the period of Samuel the Amora from Nahardea they had already begun to read from the Writings on the Sabbath, as brought in Tractate Shabbat 116b: “Nahardea was Samuel’s place, and in Nahardea they read from the Writings on Sabbath afternoon”!
The Tosfot on Tractate Megillah 21a, s.v. hakoreh: “In Nahardea they read verses from the Writings at Sabbath afternoon prayers as an after-reading, and there are places where this is still done.” So you see that in the period of the Amoraim there were already places where they read the after-portion from the Writings — precisely what was forbidden in the period of the Mishnah.
Nowadays those of Ashkenazic decent read from the Writings on the Sabbath and holidays and make a full blessing on the reading, as stated in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, paragraph 490, section 9, in the Rama’s gloss: “We say the Song of Songs on the Sabbath of Chol HaMoed, and if the last day is a Sabbath, we say it on that Sabbath; this is also the rule for Sukkot and Ecclesiastes. It is customary to say Ruth on Shavuot (Abudarham). The people make the blessing ‘to read the megillah’ on these and not ‘to read the Writings’.”
In the Rama’s responsa, paragraph 35, he wondered about this: “This blessing is puzzling. Do these readings require blessings including ‘Who sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us’? Where do we see that the Sages command this? These readings are not mentioned in the Talmud nor by any well-known arbiter.”
Come see something more, how the sanctity of the books changes from generation to generation. Rav Huna (Shabbat 115a) forbids saving Writings translated into Aramaic or any other language, since it is forbidden to read from them: “Rav Huna said we do not save [the Writings. According to Rashi all holy writings which are in translation into any language other than the Holy Tongue are not to be save] since they may not be read from.” Thus Maimonides, too, ruled in Laws of Sabbath chapter 23, halacha 26: “It is permitted to rescue all holy writings…which are written in Ashurit [Ashurit is the letter style now used in Hebrew. The true Hebrew script is completely different and was used until the destruction of the First Temple. Since then, the Jews have ceased using it] and in the Holy Tongue, but if they are written in any other language or script they are not saved, even if there is an eiruv, and during the week one is forbidden to read them; they are left in a vulnerable spot and are destroyed on their own.” According to the Talmud and Maimonides Holy Writ written in another language (such as English) may not ever be read from and must be disposed of.
See something amazing. The Tosafot in Shabbat 115a, s.v. aliba, wrote: “Now we save our books, for we are allowed to read from them due to ‘A time to do for G-d, overturn the instructions’.”
Thus, too, rules the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, paragraph 334, section 12: “We now save all holy writings from the fire and read from them, though they be written in other languages, or be they written in colors on any thing.”
Thus ruled the Mishnah Berurah, paragraph 334, subparagraph 31: “But now, since the hearts have lessened and knowledge and memory have lessened, it is permitted to write the Oral Torah so that it would not be forgotten, in any script or language, and the Written Torah may also be [written] in any language and in any script so that the nation will understand the words of the Torah, for not all are expert in Holy Tongue. For all this we rely on what is written, ‘A time to do for G-d, overturn the instructions.’ Therefore we read from them and save them from a fire on the Sabbath.”
Notice that this ruling is absolutely contrary to the opinion of the Talmud, for even in the Talmudic period most people were not expert in the Holy Tongue, but only in the Aramaic language, as brought in Tractate Megillah 21a: “Our rabbis taught: For the Torah, one reads and one translates…for the Prophets one reads and [up to] two translate.” Rashi explains, s.v. u’vnavi: “The translation is only for the women and the am ha’aretz who do not know the Holy Tongue [know that at the time of the Talmud am ha’aretz was meant literally — the majority of the people resident in the country, anyone who was not part of the minority of Torah scholars]. The translation was into the tongue of the Babylonians. They had to repeat the translation of the Torah so that they would understand the commandments, but they were not so stringent about the translation of the Prophets.”
So we have solid evidence (from other places, too) that in the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud most of the nation did not understand the words of the Hebrew Torah scrolls and would use a translator, who translated into the Aramaic language so they would understand. Even so, the Amoraim did not permit writing and reading translated Writings with the excuse of “A time to do for G-d.” Indeed, in contrast to the Tosafot, the Shulchan Aruch, and the Mishnah Berurah, the Gemara ruled that these are not Holy Writings at all. Here before you who seeks knowledge is proof that each generation has its own Holy Writ.
We will add more to illustrate the matter: See the fluctuations regarding the holiness of the Book of Esther. The Mishnah in Tractate Yadayim, chapter three, mishnah 5: “All holy writings impurify the hands. The Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes impurify the hands. R’ Judah says that the Song of Songs impurifies the hands and Ecclesiastes is in dispute. R’ Yossi says that Ecclesiastes does not impurify the hands and the Song of Songs is in dispute. R’ Simeon says Ecclesiastes is a leniency on the part of the House of Shammai and a stringency on the part of the House of Hillel.” See how the mishnah does not mention the Book of Esther at all; it is not even in dispute. According to Rabbi, the editor of the Mishnah, Esther isn’t a part of the Holy Writ at all. [The Gemara, in Megillah 7a brings this mishnah in a distorted form, which adds Esther to the Holy Writ. It seems clear that this addition was made by the Amoraim; see the Tosfot Yom Tov on the Mishnah, Yadayim chapter 3, mishnah 5.]
The Gemara in Megillah 7a: “Rav Judah said that Samuel said: Esther does not impurify the hands. Did Samuel suppose that Esther was not written through guidance of the Holy Spirit? But Samuel said: Esther was written with guidance of the Holy Spirit! — It was said to be read and not to be written.” This means that the writing of Esther was not done under guidance of the Holy Spirit.
According to Samuel, who is of the Amoratic period (the 3rd century CE), the Book of Esther is not included in the Holy Writ. His opinion matches that of Rabbi Joshua; see there in the Gemara, where it is a dispute amongst Tanaaim. Hence, according to Samuel we should not rescue the Book of Esther from a fire on the Sabbath, even if it is written in the Ashurit script with ink on parchment.
But the Shulchan Aruch ruled differently: If it is written in the Ashurit script we save it from a fire, and if it is written in another language or is printed we do not save it, as it is not considered Holy Writ.
Thus writes the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, paragraph 334, section 13: “Some say that the Book of Esther, since it does not contain G-d’s name, if it is not written as it should be — Ashurit, on parchment in ink — has no sanctity and should not be saved from a fire.”
But the Mishnah Berurah came (in the early twentieth century) and allowed saving it from a fire. Paragraph 334, sub-paragraph 39: “The Gemara concludes that all this is only in the time of the Talmud, for then it was forbidden to save it unless it was written as it should have been, as one may not have written in nor studied from it. But now, since it is ‘A time to do for G-d,’ we may study from it, even if it is written on paper in a different language. We also save it from a fire like all other holy books.”
In summary, see that according to the Gemara and Maimonides, the books of Esther, written in English, may not be read from at all and must be disposed of, and even if it is written as it should be, in Hebrew, Ashurit script, on parchment, in ink, there still is a dispute amongst the Amoraim whether it is Holy Writ at all. Now, even though it is written in a different language, printed on paper, we save it from a fire and it has the rule of holy writing. We have already stated above that the sanctity of the Holy Writ is from the Torah and one who, heaven forbid, destroys holy writings transgresses the prohibition of “Do not do so to the Lord your G-d.”
Therefore our mishnah (Shabbat chapter 16, mishnah 1), “All holy writingsare saved from the fire” is interpreted differently from generation to generation.
In the period of the Tannaim: It was not yet clear whether Esther, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs were part of the Holy Writ.
In the period of the Amoraim: The holy writings (which are saved from a fire) were those written in the Holy Tongue and in ink; but were they written in other languages, they were not holy writings and would not be saved. The Book of Esther would be saved if it were written in Ashurit script, in ink on parchment, for only then would it be considered Holy Writ.
In our period: All holy writings are saved from fire, be they written in Ashurit script, Aramaic, or English, be they written in ink or anything, even if it has no permanence, and the Book of Esther is saved, be it written even in English.
So just look with your own eyes and see that the definition of Holy Writ is not from the Heavens but is a human determination which changes from generation to generation. Know this.
Now we will return to the Talmudic era prohibition against writing the Holy Writ in foreign languages. From studying the issue we suspect that our rabbis of the Talmudic period preferred to leave the Holy Writ in the Holy Tongue so that the majority of people would not be expert in it. Indeed, this is an excellent way to impart the people with ethical teachings and laws acceptable to the scholars of the period, even if they are not consistent with the Holy Writ. There is some proof of that from the mishnah in Megillah 25a: “The incident with Reuben [‘And he bedded Bilha, his father’s concubine’] is read [in the synagogue] and not translated [for fear we will defame him — Rashi], the incident with Tamar is read and translated, the incident of the first calf is read and translated, the second is read but not translated. The priestly blessing, the incident of David and Amnon — are read and not translated.” Perfect! Our rabbis did not allow sections of the Scriptures to be translated for the public and they left the majority of Jews in ignorance about these sections. This is rabbinical censorship of the Torah itself. As the Meiri wrote on Tractate Megillah 25b: “The tenth mishnah: it is intended to clarify which sections we are wary of and do not want to publicize and which we are not wary of. The incident with Reuben is, ‘And he bedded Bilha…’ It is read but not translated so that all may not know his rankness.”
Come, wise student, and see something lovely. Religious Jews claim that the Torah has been passed down whole from generation to generation. in the whole nation, from every father to every son after him. Therefore, they all must have received it at Mount Sinai; how would it be possible to lie to a whole nation? According to the believers this claim is sufficient to prove the veracity of the tradition. But if most of the nation didn’t even understand the words of the Torah in Hebrew and their knowledge of the Torah’s words was only from the translation, and if Chazal censored some of the Torah’s words, then it is clear that most of the nation lived not according to the Torah but according to Chazal. That which the public knew was only what the censors let through to the public. With the public lacking knowledge and understanding, Chazal could treat the Torah’s words as they wished with none to stop them. If one can hide the second calf incident, the first calf incident can also be changed. We have seen that our rabbis censored the translation of sections of the Torah and even forbade the translation into languages known to the majority of the public. This is an excellent way to pass along tradition with changes, according to the spirit of the times and the place, but according to the opinions of those who have control of the written text, bending it to their will.
Words of True Knowledge