In describing the Giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai, Deuteronomy 33:2 tells us: “From His right hand, [G-d gave] a fire of Law to them.” Rashi (ad loc) comments that the Almighty’s Torah was written before Him as “black fire on white fire.” Nachmanides, in the introduction to his commentary on the Torah, explains that just as a scribe must copy one Torah scroll from a pre-existing Torah rather than writing it from memory, Moses too was required to follow the same dictate in order for his Torah to be valid. He therefore copied the very first physical Torah scroll from a pre-existing “manuscript,” that of the Almighty Himself, which the Almighty kept before Him in spiritual form, represented by fire. Hence, G-d’s Torah “scroll” is described as written as “black fire on white fire.” But what does that have to do with the title of this blog?
The Talmud in Bava Bathra (73A) records:
Rabah said: A sea-farer told me: ‘The wave that sinks a ship appears as though there are sparks of white fire at its head. We strike it with a club upon which is engraved, ‘I Will Be That Which I Will Be, Y-ah, the Lord of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah,’ and [the wave] rests.”
This cryptic Talmudic passage begs for explanation. The most beautiful interpretation of this passage I found in a commentary to Pirkey Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) entitled Doresh liPhrakim by Rabbi Mordechai Rubinstein:
The sea-farer represents the Torah scholar, who sails the sea of Torah, as the Torah is compared to water. The waves in the sea are those that challenge one’s commitment to the Almighty and his Torah.
One of the strategies of those who wish to “sink one’s ship,” to demolish one’s commitment to the Torah, is to challenge one with “white fire.” The Torah is called “black and white fire,” as mentioned above. Why is the fire of Torah both black and white? The Torah contains two elements – the written and the oral. White fire represents the written Torah, as white represents something that is “in the light,” or clear for all to see. So too, the written Torah is presented in a simple narrative that can be read and understood even by a child. The oral Torah, however, is obscure, and can only be learned through disciplined study, diligence, and perseverance. The methodology of the Talmud requires hard work and mental exercise to master, and this difficulty of study is represented by “black fire,” as one who becomes blackened through hard, gritty labor.
One of the severest attacks against the Torah comes from those who pledge their loyalty to it, but only in its “white” form. “I believe in the written Torah,” they say, “but not the oral.” Those who tout this philosophy do so with the utmost facade of righteousness, claiming to be the true defenders of the Torah, against the rabbis who molested it by perverting it with their oral fabrications and misinterpretations. However, these crusaders for the written word, by denying the oral, have completely countermanded any faith in the written Torah as well. This is because it is impossible to fulfill the commandments laid out in the written Torah without the necessary instructions detailing their proper performance. Without the body of oral information that accompanies the written injunctions, we have no way of understanding them, let alone carrying them out.
For example, how can one fulfill the commandment to “bind these words upon your hand and between your eyes,” when the text is vague about exactly which words or where exactly on the hand or how exactly one can bind words to a body part? In fact, while all Jews throughout history and throughout the world have observed this commandment by binding black leather boxes filled with scrolls with the exact same four sections of the Torah written in them with black leather straps onto the exact same places on the bicep and above the hairline in the center of the head, the written Torah is completely silent about all these details. (There is no historical evidence of Jews ever having an alternative method of practicing this commandment while there is quite a plethora of physical evidence indicating the antiquity and universality of this practice among Jews.) The Torah commands the Jewish people to observe the Sabbath. Abrogators of the Sabbath shall be put to death, the Torah commands. Yet almost no details are offered as to what proper observance of the Sabbath entails. It is entirely inconceivable that such a central commandment with such harsh consequences could have been communicated to the Israelites without a body of instructions to make it practical. Likewise, the commandment to build a sukkah includes to no written guidelines as to what sort of physical structure constitutes a “sukkah.” And so on and so forth.
Therefore, the consequence of rejecting the Oral Law is that the Written Law becomes impractical or impossible to observe. That renders the document itself irrelevant, and all loyalty to the Torah in any form is undermined. Indeed, we find that all Jewish groups throughout history that adopted this philosophy ceased to exist. The Sadducees used this position to justify a permissive and assimilated Hellenistic lifestyle, but they are gone today. The early Christians, too, disdained the oral traditions of the “rabbis” and while they otherwise considered themselves observant Jews, they no longer exist. Even the more contemporary ideological movement know as Reform Judaism began (in the 19th century) by a relaxation of so-called “rabbinic tradition” while maintaining a philosophical loyalty to many of the written laws, but they too have joined those before them who completely abandoned any semblance of Torah observance after first rejecting the authority of the Oral Law.
The solution is to counter the challenger with a like challenge. The Torah refers to the Almighty with a variety of names. “I Will Be That Which I Will Be (‘Eh-yeh Asher Eh-yeh’),” “Y-ah,” and “Lord of Hosts” are all unusual terms used in Scripture to refer to G-d, among His other more common names. For what reason does the Torah deviate in these instances to these names? What meaning do they carry? The written Torah gives us no answers to these puzzles. Only by virtue of the oral tradition do we have explanations for each of these names that make them meaningful in context. Likewise, the entire written Torah, the “white fire,” only becomes meaningful when overlaid with its oral component, the “black fire.” When confronted with this counterattack, the “wave of white fire,” the opponent to the oral Torah, must relinquish his position.
In light of this Talmudic passage and its meaning, “black fire” becomes a symbol for the oral component of the Torah, that body of Divine knowledge that cannot be known by simply reading a book, but can only be garnered by live interaction and study with a Torah master who in turn received his tutelage from a master of the previous generation. It is our greatest link to the original Giving of the Torah at Sinai and what makes our tradition a living one, ancient and eternal rather than an antiquated relic of the past. This blog, which I hope to be a dialogue (dia-blogue?) between myself and its readers, represents, for me, this concept of black fire on white fire, the living transmission of authentic Jewish wisdom.