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Was the Torah Happily Accepted, or Thrust Upon Us?

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Jul 29, 2005
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The Talmud relates that G-d compelled the Jews to accept the Torah, threatening to drop the mountain upon them if they declined. This seems somewhat at odds with the depiction in the Chumash, where the Jews are quoted as saying “Na’aseh V’Nishma”. The Midrash Tanchuma (Parashat Noach) distinguishes in this area between the Oral Torah and the Written Torah. The Written Torah was indeed happily accepted; the Oral Torah, however, with its complexities and intricacies, seemed burdensome and was not willingly taken.

R. Ya’akov Betzalel Zolty (Mishnat Ya’avetz, Orach Chaim 31) suggested this distinction may be helpful in elucidating a discussion in the Talmud (Berakhot 11b) where it is debated what types of Torah study require the recitation of birkhot haTorah: Mikra only; Mikra and Mishnah; or Mikra, Mishnah and Talmud. The implication is that the berakhot are in actuality recited only on the Written Torah; Mishnah and Talmud are considered because of their role in explicating the Written Torah [Rashi, however, understands differently].

R. Zolty suggests, based on the understanding of the Ramban, against the Rambam, that birkhot haTorah are biblically obligated, as implied by Berakhot 21a. This suggests that these berakhot are thus of a category with the also-biblical berakhot of Birkat HaMazon: not birkhot ha-mitzvah, but rather special berakhot of praise and gratitude. If so, it would follow that such berakhot should only be recited in connection with something willingly enjoyed: this is the case with Birkhat HaMazon, which is not recited after being force-fed (see Rama, O.C. 204:8). Hence, if only the Written Torah was willingly accepted, it can be understood that that would be the focus of birkhot haTorah.

Gemara:

References: Shabbat: 88a Berachot: 11b Berachot: 20b 

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