Parshas Terumah - How Do We Do That Mitzvah?

By BJLife/Reb Dovid Fink

Posted on 02/15/18

It’s important to keep things fresh.  After all, repetition and familiarity can lead to taking things for granted.  That’s why I thought it might be a good idea this year to shake things up a bit.  For starters, while there has been an expansion into “Green” in recent years, most Esrogim are still yellow.  The Torah actually never identifies an Esrog as the fruit which we are supposed to take on Succos, Rather, it says “Pri Eitz Hadar” (Emor 23:40)  So I’m thinking an Esrog – be it yellow or green, is way too flashy anyway. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to use a fruit with a more conservative appearance?  A date or a fig would do nicely.  Indeed, they are less loud in color and at least they are among the Sheva minim. 

While we are at it, T’fillin is something deeply personal.  I think it’s high time that we made T’fillin more accurately reflect the person who is wearing them.  Do we really all need to wear the same black boxes?  The Torah never says anywhere that our T’fillin have to be black.  In fact, the Mitzvah of T’fillin is only alluded to when we are told to “place these words between our eyes and on our arms” (Eikev 11:18).   So why not have T’fillin made black and white – more along the lines of our Talleysim?  It would be greatly symbolic between Tahor and Tameh, right and wrong, good and evil etc.  And, we should make them so they actually are worn “between our eyes” as the Torah instructs.  This could further serve to keep us from becoming distracted while davening.  Imagine if our T’fillin were opaque, worn between our eyes and blocked our sight lines.  How much more Kavana we could maintain.

Welcome to the world of K’firah, just a short commute from Observant Judaism.  The ideas posited above were actually taught and practiced by several groups throughout Jewish history, most notably, the Tziddukim.  The Tziddukim claimed to be “literalists – that is to say they accepted the Torah as Hashem’s word but rejected Torah She Beal Peh (The Oral Torah) as Rabbinically created.  Observant Jews understand that Torah She Beal Peh were the details in how to observe many of the Mitzvos, which was transmitted orally to Moshe Rabbeinu at the time of Matan Torah.

An objective analysis of observant Jews throughout the world leads one to the inescapable conclusion that there must have been oral descriptions to the Mitzvos at the time of Matan Torah.  How else could it possibly be that in the four corners of the earth, from Brazil to Hong Kong, from London to South Africa every pair of T’fillin is black?  Did everyone simply decide that we should choose that color?  How is it that Shechita (Ritual Slaughtering) is done virtually identically by every Kosher slaughter house in the world, when there is precious little guidance on how it is to be done in the written Torah? There are countless examples of laws which we rigidly follow which are only described in the most general terms in the written Torah. 

One need not rely on our observations however.  In this weeks Parsha, the Torah itself states that Hashem told Moshe details about the Mitzvos which do not appear in the written Torah.  In discussing the intricate construction of the Menorah, with its detailed carvings, branches, cups, flowers etc., Hashem says “you shall make it according to what I show you on the mountain”. (Terumah, 25:40)  In fact, Rashi on this Pasuk says that Moshe was having a difficult time envisioning what the Menorah should look like with only the written description provided. Accordingly, Hashem showed him a completed Menorah made out of fire on Har Sinai[1]. (Rashi, 25:40)  This identical concept is advanced again in the construction of the Mishkan where the Torah specifically says, “you shall erect it as you will have been shown on the mountain.” (26:30) While it may be inconvenient to understand that Torah She Beal Peh is divinely given, the irony is that to deny this idea you actually have to reject the specific words of the written Torah.

The Torah She Beal Peh was not given in written form for specific reasons - to insure that the Torah could not be hijacked by later religious leaders who would claim it as their own.  With no instructions on how to perform the Mitzvos, it would be readily obvious that the written Torah without the Oral Torah is lacking a great deal and could not be Hashem’s only words or will.  We have seen this concern realized with the adaptation by the Church, who accept the written Torah.  It’s akin to someone dumping a truckload of building materials on a piece of land with no drawings, blueprints or foreman.

In time, much of the Oral torah was forgotten or was being remembered differently in different places until Rav Yehuda Hanasi declared that it must be written down in the form of the Mishna, lest it be forgotten altogether.  Even then, the Mishna was written down in the generalist of terms so those that knew the halachos would remember them, and those who it was not meant for would not be able to decipher it in detail.  Generations later, when even the outlines of the Mishna proved to be insufficient, the Gemara – the detailed discussions of the Mishna were written down to form the Talmud.

In conclusion, I would point out that many of today’s customs; (men wearing black hats[2], Tashlich and Kapporos[3] ) are of relatively recent origin.  Just because a lot of people do something does not mean it is part of our Mesora.  There is a VERY big difference between Torah She Beal Peh and minhagim and recently adopted customs.  We are required to become proficient in halacha so we don’t just “follow the crowd”.  While each person can and should consult with a qualified Posek if uncertain in a matter, I will go out on one limb.  Tznius is not a recent adaptation.  It is real for both men and women.  If you are walking to shul in the rain, either spend three dollars on an appropriate hat cover or leave the hat at home.  Parading down the street with a blue Seven Mile Market bag on your head, really tells people that you have your Ikar (Primary) and Tufful (Minor) a bit mixed up and tarnishes the majesty of Hashem’s Am.         

[1] It’s interesting how simple it was for Rashi to perceive that our greatest Navi and teacher, Moshe, had difficulty with written instructions but absorbed information to the minutest detail when taught visually.  This obvious notion is universally lost in present day educational institutions.

[2] The earliest reference to this idea is in the Misha Berura which was written 100 years ago and was described as something we should do because it is the way people dress at that time in a respectable manner.  The Mishna Berura’s rationale is inapplicable today as noone greets the President or leaders today wearing a hat.  That is why in some Yeshivas there is now a practice of wearing ties to davening instead of hats – an attempt to directly comply with the intent of the Chofetz Chaim as opposed to what he described as the appropriate practice in his day.

[3] There are rabbinic sources which forbid the practice of Kapporos as something which was adapted from a Pagan ritual and may be a form of Avoda Zora.