THE 14 FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF OUR TORAH TRADITION
Rabbi Michael Shelomo Bar-Ron
1) Torah is a G-d-given constitutional law whose 613 Commandments are eternal and can never be changed. Even the domains of ethics, spirituality, and the basic principles of faith are included within the Commandments. Relating to Torah Law as a whole, and striving to obey the entire Law in the proper spirit (see Principle 12)—nothing more— is the essence of our Covenant with HaShem. Failure to keep the Law, or acting as if any part of it is no longer binding, breaches the Covenant.
2) The Torah was given to Moses in two forms: an oral form (the Oral Law), and a written form (the Written Law). It is impossible to fulfill the written form of the Law without the oral; the Oral Law is absolutely fundamental to the Covenant.
3) At the Command of HaShem, Moses instituted a Supreme Court of Torah sages, the Sanhedrin, to be the guardian and absolute authority on the Oral Law for all future generations. Only the form of the Oral Law that was faithfully transmitted down to the last Sanhedrin is valid and obligatory. The Talmudic literature, the legal writings of the Tannaim and Amoraim, is the final repository of the legal traditions of the last Sanhedrin. While there are Torah traditions and oral knowledge that have been forgotten over the ages, the authentic Oral Law of Moses is in our hands today, well in tact.
4) Just as the Sanhedrin of 71 sages has the sole authority to interpret the Torah, it is also the only court with the authority to legislate decrees and institute customs (rabbinical law) that are binding on the entire Jewish People and the rest of the world, including Gentiles.
The only post-Sanhedrin court whose legislative authority was universally recognized, was the unique court of Rav Ashe and Ravina in Babylonia. After the last Supreme Court was disbanded, disputes arose regarding authoritative legal traditions that appeared contradictory or had become unclear. The law was given a final recodification by Rav Ashe’s court: the Talmud Bavli. Although it includes new decrees and customs that were not instituted by a Sanhedrin, it is recognized as the final and most authoritative written source from which the Law is determined.
Even the Babylonian sages never had the power to contradict the authoritative legal traditions established in the Land of Israel. Their new decrees and customs were only intended to safeguard the law. Their authority was based on their unique ability to determine and officially codify what the original law was, and the fact that its rulings were accepted by the majority of the Jewish People—which no later court could claim.
It is still a question, however, as to whether any original Babylonian legislation truly obligates the Jewish People or not. In either case, it is practically impossible to distinguish with certainty between their decrees and the authentic Israelite law. In the context of the rest of Talmudic literature, the Talmud Bavli remains the primary source of the Halakhah (official Jewish Law).
If there is a question regarding original Babylonian legislation, certainly no post-Sanhedrin court or individual after Rav Ashe has the authority to add to, or give an alternative ruling to rabbinical law as it was written down by the time the Talmud Bavli was formally sealed, about 500 C.E. Since then, only authentic Talmudic Law—based purely on the written word from the original Talmudic literature—is the Halakhah.
5) Over 1500 years have passed without any single, nationally recognized, compulsive legal authority over the Jewish People. As times changed, it may have been desirable to consider the reasoning behind the law, and reinterpret the written sources contrary to the Halakhah as it was instituted. New rabbinical decrees may have seemed necessary according to the needs of the times. However, since post-Talmudic legislation was made without the proper authority, it does not have the status of Halakhah. In the absence of a Sanhedrin, new rabbinical legislation and customs cannot obligate the Jewish People (except in a specific area of law which the Halakhah explicitly left to follow the local custom, such as monetary law). The reasoning behind the Law or “spirit of the Law” may not interfere with the practice of Halakhah.
Over the centuries, it is natural that certain traditional customs have developed and spread among the common masses of religious Jews, even though they contradict the Halakhah. Since modern rabbinic rulings may not conflict with Talmudic Law, popular custom certainly has no authority to contradict the Halakhah, even if it is in agreement with the majority opinion of currently recognized rabbinical sages. (The majority opinion of Torah sages only rules in the context of the Sanhedrin.)
There is a widespread opinion that the above only applies to popular customs that are more lenient than the Halakhah, while prevalent custom that is stricter or adds to the authentic Halakhah is obligatory. We differ with this position. However, regarding customs and traditions that are more lenient than the Halakhah, there can be no argument: they must not be followed.
In short, without a Sanhedrin, Talmudic Law is a closed system. What the Talmudic sages decreed and recorded in the Talmudic literature is legally binding, even if the reason for the decree no longer exists. Likewise, if they didn’t record any ruling on a particular case, then no ruling exists; there is no Halakhah on that case.
6) Talmudic literature contains Halakhah (law) as well as Aggadah (legend). There are schools that insist on an absolute, literal understanding of Aggadah, and a figurative interpretation of Halakhah. We strive to understand these in the spirit in which they were originally written: Halakhah according to the plain and simple meaning of the text, and the Aggadah figuratively, so that it does not seem to contradict the Halakhah.
7) Whenever there is doubt regarding any matter of Halakhah (for example, if the text is unclear, or there is a difference of opinion between two reliable sources), one must always be strict on Torah Law, and lenient on rabbinical law.
8) The terrible suffering of the Jewish People over the millenia is a direct result of our having failed to keep the Halakhah properly as a nation. The gentile nations are not ultimately to blame for our terrible suffering. Rather, those nations that afflict us are agents of HaShem that will eventually be punished.
The weight of the blame of our suffering falls on the shoulders of traditional Jewish leadership: Rather than assuming the authority to innovate new customs or reinterpret the Halakhah, post-Talmudic sages have the responsibility to serve as role models of proper halakhic behavior, to teach and show how the authentic Halakhah applies to their generation, and to enforce the Law to the extent of their power, rebuking the people when they stray from it. They also have the responsibility to guide the Jewish People towards the fulfillment of the entire Covenant, which includes restoring the Sanhedrin.
Failure to guide the Jewish People properly is largely rooted in three problems:
(1) A failure to educate the common masses of Jews—including laymen, women,
and children—in practical Halakhah and train them in the art of warfare (see Principle 14). Instead, there is an exaggerated emphasis on spirituality, which is widely perceived as separate from Jewish Law, and on the study of mysticism. Simplistic interpretation of kabbalistic teachings not only leads many to transgress key points of Halakhah, but emphasizes the importance of theology over practical action: the opposite of the authentic Torah approach.
(2) A feeling of obligation and mandatory confinement to the majority-accepted custom and halakhic interpretation. In classical yeshiva training, independent, critical study of classical texts for the letter of the Law is discouraged. Future leaders are groomed to pursue Torah study as a highly sacred academic ritual.
(3) This narrow approach to Halakhah fails to relate to the Torah as a whole. Halakhah that cannot be practiced outside of Israel, or without a Temple, has often been dismissed as not practical in our times and either reinterpreted, or largely ignored. (As mentioned above, acting as if any part of the Torah is no longer actively binding breaches the Covenant.)
9) The RMb"M’s Mishneh Torah is the only code of Jewish Law that relates to the entire Torah as a whole, and practical for every generation. It was written in order to put the entire breadth of Halakhah in the hands of laymen, women, and children, besides Torah scholars. The best way to learn, practice and teach Halakhah in our times, is straight from the Mishneh Torah. It is also the only comprehensive summary of the entire Talmudic literature.
Theoretically, the entire Halakhah can be completely learned, successfully practiced and taught straight from the written sources: Bible and the sum total of Talmudic literature (Mishnah, Tosephta, Mekhilta, Sifrei, Sifra, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Talmud Bavli). Practically, however, this is very complicated. Many years of intense learning are required to master this vast literature. The most authoritative work, the Talmud Bavli, is written in a difficult dialect of Aramaic mixed with other languages. Furthermore, in our times, we no longer have texts of the Talmud that are uncensored and totally accurate. We no longer have the tradition required to identify non-authoritative conclusions added into the Talmud by post-Talmudic sages. We no longer have the ability to accurately distinguish between the authentic traditions received by the Geonim—which were not included in the Talmud—and their non-authoritative conclusions.
The RMb"M, one of the greatest masters of Talmud ever, was a highly critical researcher, who possessed all of the above. Mishneh Torah preserves the most authentic understanding of that literature from 850 years ago. Written in relatively simple, clear Hebrew, it requires far less time to master.
Normal, healthy, and serious individuals with proper discipline and guidance have the ability to master the entire Halakhah, using the Bible and the RMb"M’s Mishneh Torah alone—without any other source, outside of any formal rabbinical training or yeshiva program. This is the very purpose for which the book was written.
(The RMb"M’s earlier sources do not reflect his final understanding as the Mishneh Torah does, since the latter was written in his maturity, and the work continued to be revised until his death. Furthermore, only Mishneh Torah editions from Yemenite manuscripts should be used. The European printed editions are notorious for their numerous censorships and countless unintentional copyists’ errors.)
10) The only alternative to learning for oneself with a teacher, is choosing a halakhic guide—such as a rabbi—to dictate how one should practice Halakhah. However, following such a rabbinical figure does not exempt the follower from his rabbi’s mistakes. Every Jew is personally responsible for practicing the Law correctly, and is punishable for his mistakes—even those he learned from his rabbi.
For the serious student, even the greatest rabbi is a poor alternative to taking responsibility for his own learning; for him, there is no viable alternative to learning in Hebrew, in the Land of Israel.
Although independent study is ideal, some measure of guidance is necessary. Unlike more recent rabbinical works, the early authoritative rabbinical sources were written in order to be read in their entirety, and understood in the context of the whole text. Mishneh Torah must be read several times in its entirety, in order to gain the most accurate understanding of any part of the Law. Until one has completed the whole text several times, one should have the guidance of a teacher who has.
11) Learning Torah must only be done with the intention of putting into practice
what one learns: Therefore, there is no such commandment as “to learn Torah” (as an intellectual exercise), but rather “to train in Torah”—to practice according to the plain and simple meaning of the text. Likewise, the opinion of most recognized Torah scholars—who mainly relate to Talmudic literature and Mishneh Torah on a theoretical level—cannot be compared to that of scholars who literally live by the authority of what is written in these sources. The latter are clearly more reliable than the former.
Although it is less common today, this pure independent learning and practice of the Halakhah straight from the original sources is not a modern invention or theory. It has been the authentic tradition of Yemenite Jewry for centuries, as it was passed down to the former Chief Rabbi of Yemen, HaRav Yiħia Qafiħ z”l, and his grandson, Rav Yoseph Qafiħ, z”l, renowned Torah giants in their respective generations. It is also practiced in other circles, such as the serious students of the Vilna Gaon. Most Andalusian rabbis (Spanish Portuguese) are also part of a tradition that learns in this way...
12) Accurate practice of the Halakhah must not be done mechanically, without feeling (like a robot), not in a morose or melancholy spirit, and not in arrogance, with an air of superiority. Rather, the Commandments must be practiced in a spirit of joy, and in a way that they influences one’s character, so that one fulfills them in a spirit of genuine goodness of heart.
Accordingly, in the above-mentioned tradition, Torah learning and service of HaShem are only possible in the spirit of humility. Honest study of Torah can bring a person to challenge modern Jewish practice. Unless he is careful, one is in danger of looking down on his fellow Jew and holding other Torah scholars in contempt, G-d forbid. Anyone who joins this tradition just to be different from others, in a spirit of rebellion against the mainstream, or for any purpose other than to serve HaShem properly could bring a curse upon himself and others, rather than a blessing.
Furthermore, there is absolutely no permission given or reason to look down on any traditional Jewish community, be it Ashkenazi, Sepharadi, etc. When measured against the standard of the authentic Halakhah, every group has kept certain laws better than others, and every group has ignored or remained ignorant of laws that others faithfully kept. Every Jewish community has important lessons to teach and many to learn.
13) The Torah is the inheritance of the entire Jewish nation, not only one community or school of thought. Just as there are Commandments that obligate each and every individual and even whole communities, there are Commandments that obligate the entire nation as one, such as rebuilding the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Without a proper Sanhedrin, many national obligations are practically impossible to fulfill. Therefore, even living according to the most rational and authentic understanding of Talmudic law (Mishneh Torah) is not a long-term ideal. Nothing can replace the Divine Commandment to form a Sanhedrin, whose rulings must be accepted by the entire Jewish People and the rest of the world. Living in a Torah state under a Sanhedrin, with a Holy Temple and a righteous Jewish king, is our long-term ideal.
That being said, the only practical way for true rabbinical ordination and the Sanhedrin to be restored in our times, HaShem-willing, is through careful adherence to the rules set forth by the RMb"M.
The greatest challenge to be faced by a restored Sanhedrin in our day, is consensus: Effective judicial leadership of the nation requires general agreement among 71 Torah sages on literally hundreds of basic, critical legal issues from the outset, before they can even approach the enormous backlog of issues and challenges of the modern age. Over the centuries of exile, the range of rabbinical opinion has grown too broad, and the ideological rifts that divide the Torah world too deep for meaningful consensus to be reached over any practical span of time.
Besides being the common legal base of all rival sects and communities in the modern Torah world, the Mishneh Torah is the only authoritative Code of Law written, covering whole areas of Law that become applicable for the nation under a Sanhedrin. Only by accepting Mishneh Torah as the initial baseline of the Halakhah, the general foundation and framework of Jewish Law, can the future Sanhedrin hope to fulfill an otherwise insurmountable task: unifying the Torah world and restoring Israel's national observance of Torah after 1600 years of exile.
14) Since no one can serve HaShem properly with a sick body, it is a fundamental Torah value to keep the body in good physical condition. Similarly, in every generation there are Jews who cannot live— much less practice the Commandments freely—without constant fear. A weak Jewish People that does not invest in Jewish warrior training for its army certainly cannot fulfill HaShem's Commandments to the nation. Therefore it is fundamental principle of Torah that Jews be trained in warfare—on the individual, communal, and national level. The RMb"M teaches us that our kingdom was lost, our Holy Temple destroyed, and our exile prolonged for this very reason: that we did not involve ourselves in the study of warfare and conquest of lands. (Epistle to the Sages of Marseilles)
Many fall into the error that modern warfare has done away with the need for comprehensive martial arts training. However, recent wars have proven an already universally-recognized principle of warfare: it is well-trained foot soldiers that secure victory in battle—not merely bombs and missiles. Except for the residents of border towns, the main terror threat being faced daily in Israel is by unarmed citizens being accosted by attackers on foot—armed and unarmed. In many—if not most of these cases—the police are unable to respond in time. Even worse, we are seeing more and more that it is the police whose training is inadequate to handle serious incidents.
All the Commandments, including the establishment of kingdom and Temple, were given by HaShem to be fulfilled in a hostile world that is often hateful towards Him, His Torah and His Chosen nation of priests. Fittingly, the nation's forefathers bequeathed their descendants with a unique art of warriorship, according to the twelve tribes of Israel, referred to as Qesheth in the Bible and Aggadah.
(From the works of Josephus, the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, down to the writings of Rash"i, RMb"M, Malbim, and Rav Ovadiah ben Avraham of Bartenura; references to this unique martial tradition in antiquity is running theme throughout post-biblical literature— both rabbinical and secular. Hints to its continuation in the communities of the Diaspora are also found in the writings of RMb"M, HaRav Shmuel HaNaggid, and travelers to Yemen. The memory of the special fighting prowess of the Habbani, Kafkazi, Kurdish and Benei Yisraeli (Indian) Jews up until the recent past is preserved in the stories of their elders.
For over two thousand years, Qesheth (also known as "Abir") was continuously and rigorously maintained by the Habbani Jews of the Hadramaut region (including Yemen), until two generations ago, particularly in the Bin Awel-Sofer/Maatuf-DoH clan. Over a period of over twenty-five years, the chief of this clan and his son ensured that this tradition was passed down in its entirety to the grandsons, Yehoshua Sofer and his brother. As scion and elder of his warrior clan, Mori Yehoshua Sofer adapted Abir/Qesheth to the modern age on every level: from the individual up to the largest military groupings. This was done partly under the auspices of the Israeli Defense Forces, and even includes techniques against suicide bombers and airplane hijackers. Today, Abir/Qesheth is a living tradition available for Jews in Israel to learn, and as relevant as it ever was in the past.)
Training in foreign martial arts is not the fulfillment of this Torah principle: The Bible is replete with negative examples of kings and armies who were defeated due to their fighting in the G-dless manner of gentiles: They trusted in pure military strength alone, with the corrupt belief in "my strength and the might of my hand." (Deut. 8:17) Ultimately it is by the blessing of HaShem that wars are won; not physical might. Sadly, today's widely-marketed martial arts are all taught in this same G-dless mindset, and/or they are the customs of idolatry, or even idolatry in and of themselves. Besides the legal and spiritual implications, they are taught as sport or past-time: they cannot provide the deadly effectiveness and comprehensive scope of the authentic Hebrew warrior tradition, together with its unique, ancient Torah wisdom and proper spiritual focus. That is aside from the special health and exercise benefits for young and old that are unique to Abir/Qesheth.
It is for these reasons and more that warrior training in Abir/Qesheth is no less than a fundamental principal of our Torah tradition, as King David exhorted the tribe of Judah: "(The principle) to teach the sons of Judah Qesheth; behold it is written in The Book of Yashar." (Shmuel II, 1:18)
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