“And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder between your eyes, so that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth” (Exodus 13:9). Similarly, in Deuteronomy 11:18, “Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”
From the plain text of the Scriptures we can not learn anything about tefillin. As the Rashbam wrote, “According to the plain text it will be for you an eternal reminder as though it were written on your hand, like ‘Place me as a seal on your heart’ (Song of Songs 8:6).”
So in explaining this verse we need the Oral Torah, which is Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai, as brought by Rambam, Laws of Tefillin, chapter one, halacha three, “There are ten issues in tefillin, all of them Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai and all of them inhibitory…two in their writing and eight in their covering and the tying of their straps.”
And therefore we are obliged to clarify: What is tradition given to Moshe at Sinai? According to the simple intent of the words, as the words of Rambam in his introduction to the Mishna commentary, “Know that any commandment which G-d gave Moshe our Teacher, OBM, was given with its explanations…and this is an example. G-d told Moshe, ‘you shall dwell in sukkot for seven days,’ and afterwards notified him that this sukkah is obligatory only for men and not for women, that the ill are not obliged, nor are travelers….
And it is the same thing with the laws of tefillin which were given at Sinai. G-d told Moshe “and it shall be a sign on your hand,” and explained to him that they must be written with specific ink on parchment, and so on.
But when you delve into the matter you will see it is not that simple at all, and on this issue we will explain to you something which is, in our humble opinion, wondrous. The Rambam, in his introduction to the Mishna commentary, explains that Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai are those things about which there has been no disagreement, and he listed there the laws which are from Sinai, and they are few. Amongst them he listed “a mentor who sees from where the children read” (and we do no fear that he might move the candle on Shabbat, violating a Torah prohibition). This is amazing, for the whole issue of not reading by candlelight lest the candle be moved is a restriction added by the Sages; how is it possible to say that the corollary of a restriction added by the Sages (that the mentor is allowed) was told to Moshe at Sinai?
The Rambam also listed, “[Those who live in] Ammon and Moav give tithe to the poor in the seventh year; this is an Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai.” This is very puzzling, as in Yevamot 16a it is brought that this law is a reform by the Sages, for Ammon and Moav have not the sacred qualities of the Land of Israel as is said, “[Those who live in] Ammon and Moav give tithe to the poor in the seventh year, as they say, ‘there are many districts that had been captured by those who immigrated from Egypt, but not by those who immigrated from Babylon’. The original sanctity is for that time only and is not sanctified for the future, and they left them so that the poor would have on whom to rely in the seventh year.” So you see that Ammon and Moav, when the Israelites entered the Land from Egypt, observed shmita and were exempt from tithes on the seventh year. How is it possible to say that it is Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai? (And what would this “Halacha” say? That “at first you shall observe shmita in the lands of Ammon and Moav and later the people of Israel will sin and be exiled and then return, but they will not conquer those same countries again, and therefore these lands will be exempted from shmitacompletely, but so that the poor have on whom to rely, give then the tithe for the poor, and this is Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai”? That is absolutely ridiculous.) And indeed, “Kesef Mishne” on the Laws of Gifts to the Poor, chapter six, halacha five, wrote, “And one must wonder at our rabbi [Rambam], who casually wrote that this was a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai, and it must be said that he just copied the words of the Mishna, but one who sees his words in the Laws of Terumot knows that it is not necessarily so.” But theChida, in his book “Machzik Bracha” halacha 275, wondered about the “Kesef Mishne,” for Rambam lists it also in his introduction to the Mishna commentary as a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai.
About the point that, according to the Rambam, “Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai” has nothing forgotten from it and no disagreement about it, this is also puzzling, both from the Gemara and from the common sense. From the Gemara, many gemaras disagree about matters of Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai; see “Chavot Yair,” Response 192, who went on at length about this matter with good taste and good sense. And from the viewpoint of common sence, why and wherefore should a matter that passed down orally from generation to generation have nothing forgotten of it? The Gemara in Eiruvin 21b asks, “If there is anything real in the decrees of the Sages, why were they not written? For the Scripture says, ‘The making of many books is without limit and much study is a wearying of the flesh’ (Ecclesiastics 12:12).” Tosfot ask there (in the first passage on the page) why the rules of the Sages were not said to Moshe at Sinai and passed down orally, so there would be no need to write books? They answer that it was so they not be forgotten, and we stand shaken from the words of Tosfot and their meaning: the words of the Sages, despite their being choice, were not given at Sinai so that they might not be forgotten! Therefore, learn that the laws given at Sinai were meant to be forgotten! And since Halacha given at Sinai is forgotten, it was left for the sages to say their words according to their own sense and learning. This is something whose end no one can foresee, for Tosfot place the whole issue of tradition handed down from generation to generation in doubt. (Had one relied on a chain of received tradition from generation to generation it would be impossible that the Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai would be forgotten.)
Another thing which you ought to know is that many times the Gemara, when it tries to bring proof for a specific ruling and can not, concludes that the ruling is Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai, as brought in Niddah 32a, in which the Gemara tries to bring proof that a day old baby girl from whom has issued blood is niddah. Finally it concludes, “Rava said, ‘It is Halacha [given to Moshe at Sinai], and the rabbis found an allegory for it in the Scripture’.” And even the Rishonim did thus, as brought in Tosfot on Kiddushin 17a, in the third passage: “And if you say about the pilgrim’s sacrifice itself that any quantity is sufficient, where from do we know it? One should say that probably it is a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai.” This is a proof that when they do not know the source of a ruling they determine that it is a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai. See this and understand: it is not that they received this from their rabbis who got it from their rabbis and so on up to the Sinai Revelation, but in their learning and deduction, when they did not find a reason or source for a ruling they determined that it was a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai, as is brought in Tractate Sukkah 44a, “Rabbi Yochanan said the Prophets instituted using the willow. But Rabbi Yochanan said the willow was a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai! They forgot it and once again established it.”
This is how things stand and it is possible that this is also the opinion of the Great Eagle, the Rambam: as all the halachot and rulings the sages determined from their own sense and deduction, according to their times, and they did not really get them as received tradition back to Moshe, so too they determined their validity and stringency. There are those they determined as the rule of the Torah and those are more strict, there are those they determined as Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai, and there are those they determined as a restriction added by the Sages. Now it is understandable why the Rambam listed restrictions added by the Sages as Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai; understand this foundation well.
When we return to the verse above from this week’s portion, see how Rambam determines, in the Laws of Tefillin, that writing the text of the phylacteries with ink is a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai. The opinion of Tosfot, however (in Gittin 19a), is that this ink is required only for a Torah scroll. See the “Biur Halacha,” Orach Chaim 32:3, that the halachic arbiters were divided on what that ink was and how it was made. The matter of the tefillin knot also is brought in Tractate Shabbat 62a, “Abaye said: The dalet-shaped knot of tefillin is a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai. Abaye also said: the yud-shaped knot of tefillin is a Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai.” But Tosfot are of the opinion that knots shaped like a dalet and a yud are not from Sinai. If so, from the time of the closing of the Talmud to the time of Rambam and Tosfot only 700 or so years passed and the matter was already forgotten, while from Moshe until the closing of the Talmud more than 1700 years passed, with troubles, exiles, and forgetfulness. Go and think what happened to halachot given to Moshe at Sinai.
Even the law that four passages from Torah should be placed in tefillin has no basis in the Scripture, and Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva were divided about the source of the ruling. In Sanhedrin 4b Rabbi Yishmael learns that from the multiple instances of the word ‘totafot’ and Rabbi Akiva learns that because “tot” in the Coptic language is two and “fot” in the African language is two. And “Chavot Yair” wrote about this in Response 192 something amazing and wonderful, even agreeing with our opinion here: “It might be assumed that it was given to Moshe at Sinai to write five Torah passages and to place them in tefillin, for really there is no requirement in the Torah for the number four, as brought in Tosfot, Sanhedrin 4b, and even if great and huge secrets depend upon it, once the Sages agreed there would be only four passages in tefillin this became the will of the Blessed One, and according to this His will the secrets and wonders above will be awakened, and we should not go on at length about this.” This is exactly and precisely what we are saying, that “Halacha given to Moshe at Sinai” was determined by the sages according to the inclinations of their hearts and minds and He, may His will be blessed, “fulfills what they commanded.”
Here it is worthwhile to conclude with the words of “Chavot Yair” at the end of that Response. “Finally I should say, G-d knows that my heart did not raise itself and my eyes did not lift themselves and I did not high-handedly seek out great things and wonders. Only I never kept my words from anyone at all, for they are Torah. I did not hide words of holiness and whatever G-d, from Whom are the dispositions of the heart and the answers of the tongue, put into my heart, that I shall say.”
It is worthwhile for every thinking person, any who seeks the truth with his heart and his mind, to have these good and wise words close to his soul, a sign on his hand and a reminder between his eyes. Amen, so may it be His will.
Words of True Knowledge.