Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha was sitting in his house, deeply engrossed in Torah study. On the table was an oil lamp. He thought to himself, ‘The Sages taught that a person should not study alone by lamp light on Shabbat. Perhaps the flame will get dim, and he will tip the lamp, bringing more oil onto the wick, so that the flame will be brighter. He would thereby transgress the prohibition of burning a fire on Shabbat. But that doesn’t apply to a knowledgeable rabbi like me. I would never forget that it’s Shabbat!’
And so he continued studying until deep into the night. Growing deeply involved in his studies, he squinted to see the page better. Without even realizing it, he moved his hand to tilt the lamp! Suddenly he stopped himself in mid-air. ‘What am I doing?’ he exclaimed. ‘I almost tilted the lamp and violated the Shabbat! How great are the teaching of the Sages! They knew that anyone could forget, as I did.’
When Shabbat was over, he took a piece of paper and wrote: I, Yishmael ben Elisha, read by lamp light and tilted the lamp on Shabbat. When the Holy Temple is rebuilt – may it be very soon, Amen – I hereby promise to bring a sin offering to the Temple as an atonement.
דְּאָמַר רַבִּי פַּרְנָךְ אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: הָאוֹחֵז סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה עָרוֹם, נִקְבָּר עָרוֹם. עָרוֹם סָלְקָא דַּעְתָּךְ? אֶלָּא אָמַר רַבִּי זֵירָא: עָרוֹם בְּלֹא מִצְוֹת. בְּלֹא מִצְוֹת סָלְקָא דַּעְתָּךְ? אֶלָּא אֵימָא: עָרוֹם בְּלֹא אוֹתָהּ מִצְוָה
Rabbi Parnakh quoted Rabbi Yocḥanan: One who holds a Torah with naked hands will be buried naked. The Gemara asks: Does it enter your mind to say that he will actually be buried naked (without shrouds)? Rather, Rabbi Zeira said: Naked of mitzvot. And the Gemara wonders further: Does it enter your mind to say that he should be buried naked of all mitzvot? Rather, say he is buried naked of that mitzvah.
In the first Mishnah of Ethics of the Fathers, our Sages teach us, “You shall make a fence around the Torah.” This means that the Sages are tasked with enacting injunctions to protect the laws of the Torah from infraction. In one instance, the Sages enacted the laws of muktzeh to safeguard the laws of Shabbat. For example, it is forbidden to write on Shabbat. In order to ensure that one would never transgress the prohibition of writing, the Sages decreed that, as a general rule, one may not even move a pen. If you don’t pick it up, there’s no way you will come to write with it.
The Maharam Schick (Shelach) teaches that this is the meaning of our Gemara. Some people feel that they know better than the Sages. ‘I know that the Sages warned against reading by lamp-light on Shabbos, for fear of tilting the oil. But I would never make that mistake.’ And so they begin to discount all the rabbinic laws, until it’s just them and the Torah law, with nothing in between. That’s the meaning of holding the Torah naked.
It’s only a matter of time, explains the Maharam Schick, before one begins to question the Torah itself. And the individual begins to dismiss the Divine decrees, because he thinks he knows better. ‘The reason the Torah commanded circumcision was in order to stop the spread of disease. Nowadays there are more effective ways to combat such concerns. Circumcision is no longer necessary.’ ‘When the Torah mandated certain ways of life, it didn’t really understand human nature and biology. Today, with modern science, we are much more knowledgeable in the way the world works and we must adapt the Torah accordingly.’ Ultimately, says the Maharam Schick, such an attitude leads to a person become stripped bare of one Divine commandment after another, God forbid.
Sometimes, rabbinic edicts can feel antiquated and lacking contemporary sensibility and understanding. It’s tempting to be dismissive of the wisdom of our Sages. It takes humility to accept the Torah mandate that we adhere just as strictly to the rabbinic injunctions as we adhere to the laws explicitly laid down by the Torah itself. But that indeed is one of the Torah’s laws – that we must abide by the decrees of the Sages, regardless of our personal feelings concerning their efficacy.
You wouldn’t question the advice of your dentist when she gives instructions about protection and maintenance of healthy teeth and gums. ‘What makes her think she knows how long I should spend brushing my teeth?’ You wouldn’t question the advice of medical professionals when they tell us the best way to stay safe and keep our loved ones safe from the terrifying virus engulfing the world right now. They are the experts. We must heed their instructions.
The Rabbis are the experts in the maintenance and continuity of Jewish tradition. When we suggest that we know better, we endanger our spiritual lives and those of our children. Maintaining that faith isn’t always easy, particularly when we’re faced constantly with ideas and perspectives that run contrary to Torah values. But committing to our faith in “Hashem and Moshe His servant” – the Torah and the Sages – as our ancestors did when God took them out of Egypt, will ensure the Torah and Judaism are kept pristine and faithful to the Divine will for generations to come.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that there is a tangible benefit to accepting the laws of the Torah and the rabbinic edicts, even when one does not understand their basis. Doing so prepares a person psychologically for the crises that inevitably come to pass throughout one’s life. If you accept that you cannot fathom God’s will and are prepared to obey Him nonetheless, you will be able to maintain your faith even when incomprehensible calamity strikes. Tragically, we find ourselves currently in the midst of such a calamity for all humankind. We pray that the Almighty show us all mercy very soon.
When we view Torah as a book of stories or history, and our Sages as wise leaders of their time, it makes sense to dismiss the Divine law and rabbinic enactments as out-of-date and no longer binding. The Torah is not a storybook, it’s a Divine guidebook for life. May you always maintain the humility to bow to Hashem’s infinite wisdom and thereby become an eternal link in the chain of Torah for generations to come.