Moses received the Torah at Sinai,
And transmitted it to Joshua,
And Joshua to the elders,
And the elders to the prophets,
And the prophets transmitted it to the People of the Great Assembly.
(Mishna, Masechet Avot, chapter 1, mishna 1)
Foundations for Planning
- Why is it important for people and cultures to spin narratives around their experiences or their histories?
- In what ways is the story of the Torah also my story?
- How can I add my voice to the ongoing commentary and interpretation of the Torah?
- What can we learn from the different generations?
- What is the significance of passing down tradition?
- How can I fulfill my role as a link in the chain of Jewish tradition?
- How can I take my place in my Jewish community?
The tractate in the Mishna entitled Masechet Avot (“Tractate of the Fathers”) is a collection of sayings from chazal (the Jewish sages) on the topic of morals and good behavior. The tractate begins with a description of the lineage of Torah transmission, from Mt....
The tractate in the Mishna entitled Masechet Avot (“Tractate of the Fathers”) is a collection of sayings from chazal (the Jewish sages) on the topic of morals and good behavior. The tractate begins with a description of the lineage of Torah transmission, from Mt. Sinai to the People of the Great Assembly.
The text begins with Moses who received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Joshua, Moses’ student and successor, received these words from him and transmitted them to the 70 wise elders of the nation. They then transmitted these words to the next generation – the generation of prophets, who in turn transmitted them to the council of wise men during the Second Temple period, called the People of the Great Assembly.
The end of this period brings the beginning of the Tanaim period, the period in which the Mishna was compiled. According to tradition, the Mishna is based on those same laws that were passed down from generation to generation.
The Mishna is essentially the first of the Jewish texts written after the Torah, and it consolidates the laws and principles of faith that were formulated orally throughout the generations from the time that the Torah was given.
These teachings, studied and passed down orally by memory, were called the Oral Torah (Torah Sh’Baal Peh), and the name remained the same even after it was written down.
The Oral Torah is an additional tier of the written Torah (known to us as the “Five Books of the Torah”) and the books of Prophets and Writings.
This text in Masechet Avot is brought to reinforce the authority of the Oral Torah. The description of the transmission lineage from Moses to the People of the Great Assembly, gives the sages’ words spiritual authority, and suggests that the Oral Torah was also received by Moses at Mt. Sinai and transmitted in turn.
Rabbi Obadia of Batanura, in his interpretation of the Mishna, says that the tractate begins with this topic in order to distinguish between moral advice created by people, and the moral path brought forth in this tractate which comes from God: “To tell you that the virtues and morals in this tractate were not fabricated by the sages of the Mishna from their hearts, but that even these were said at Sinai.”
The importance of transmitting and receiving, from teacher to student and from generation to generation, is a central principle in Judaism. The Torah is passed down through study and tradition; at the same time as preserving its character and principles, it undergoes a process of adjustment and innovation in line with the times.
Different midrashim discuss this process. For example, the midrash in Masechet Hagiga in the Babylonian Talmud (29, 2) tells the story of a miraculous event in which Moses saw Rabbi Akiva teaching innovations in the Torah that even he, Moses, did not know – and yet Rabbi Akiva told his students that these words were “the law of Moses at Sinai”.
This midrash, along with others, reinforces the chain of interpretation and innovation of the Torah, in which we today can also take part, through the study of Torah and its teachings.
- Play a game that demonstrates the transmission of knowledge from one person to another and requires memory and innovation. Have the students arrange themselves in a circle. One student will make movements with their body and show them to the student beside them; that second student should then repeat the first student’s movements and add some of their own, which they will then demonstrate to the next student. The game continues as such, with each of the subsequent students repeating the previous movements and adding more of their own.
Alternative: The same game can be played through the creation of a story. The first student will begin with one word, and each subsequent student will repeat the words that came before and then add a new word, until the last of the students receives a full story.
Explain to the students how the Torah was passed down from generation to generation. Discuss similarities and differences between the way the Torah is transmitted and the game just played.
- You can play a musical composition of the Mishna (in Hebrew).
Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.
- Why do you think the text details the transmission lineage of the Oral Torah?
- How do you think the Oral Torah was transmitted from generation to generation before it was written? What are some advantages and disadvantages of this method vs. transmission of the Written Torah?
- Although it is not detailed in the text, it is known from the continuation of the transmission lineage that at each stage of transmission, people received the Torah and also added their own words. Why are both important?
- Who transmits the Torah to you? In what way?
- What part do you play in the tradition of passing down the Torah from generation to generation? Do you see yourselves as also responsible for transmitting the Torah to future generations? Why?
- How might we relate to and deal with traditions with whose values we do not agree?
- How can we pass down traditions passed down to us by previous generations, and still infuse them with content that is personal and up-to-date?
- Tell us about a family tradition whose source is at least one generation back (grandparents). How was this tradition passed down from generation to generation?
Teach an example of the development of Torah tradition over time – legends and interpretations, additions and explanations of them according to the different periods. For example:
“Do not place an obstacle before a blind person”
(Leviticus 19, 14)
Ask the students: What do you understand to be the intention of this verse? Give an example.
Sages (Chazal, approximately 0-500 CE)
The sages often learned Torah by uncovering and suggesting meanings and ideas that they found in the verses. For example, regarding this Biblical verse they wrote:
“Do not place an obstacle” – before someone who is blind to something [specific].
If a person takes advice from you, do not give him advice that is unfair to him.
Do not tell him to “go out in the morning” – so that robbers will steal from him, “go out at noon” – so that he will be hit by an unbearable heat.
(Sifra, Kedoshim, parsha 2,14)
The commentators are those who lived after the sages; there are Torah commentators in every generation until today. They interpreted the Torah, sometimes according to the sages, and they sometimes interpreted and expanded upon the words of the sages.
In the following example, the commentator Moshe Chayim Luzatto (known as Ramchal – approximately 1700 CE) explains and expands upon the words of the sages brought above:
“But this is the duty of the honest man, when a man comes to consult with him, he will give only advice that he would actually take himself.”
(Mesilat Yesharim, chapter 11)
- You can use this template. The students can add their own interpretations from today’s point of view. They can choose whether to relate to the words of the Torah or other later traditions (by expanding upon them, giving an example, or even expressing disagreement with them).
- The students should make up an original saying of their own dealing with how we should relate to other people’s difficulties or limitations. You can have them create stickers which express their suggestions.
- Teach the section in the Book of Shemot (Exodus) where the Torah is given. According to the story, how was the Torah transmitted to the people of Israel? What was the people of Israel’s place in the transmission lineage before the Mishna? Why do you think they aren’t mentioned? There are those who claim that this difference reflects the sages’ non-egalitarian perspective, ostensibly contradicting the idea expressed in the Torah verses which state that we are all participants in passing down the tradition. Discuss with the students: Who has the authority to pass down Torah and innovate in it?
- Think of a class initiative in which students will teach and transmit one Jewish value to their communities, or to another class in the school (for example: tzedaka, mutual responsibility, gratitude, etc.). You can do this as part of an all-night learning session the day before Shavuot (a tikkun leil Shavuot) that the students produce or in which they play a central role. The invitation to the event or the opening words of the event can include the words from the Mishna: Moses received the Torah at Sinai…” with the addition of the students’ part in the lineage of transmission: “and we, this class, are passing it on to…”
- Read the midrash that discusses the presence of every generation when the Torah was given:
Rabbi Abbahu said, in the name of Rabbi Shmuel Bar Nachmani: Why does it say: “For the one who stands here with us… and the one who is not here” (Deuteronomy 29, 14)?
Since the souls were there and yet their bodies were still not created, therefore it does not say they were “standing”.
(Midrash Tanchuma, Nitzavim 29, siman 3)
Rabbi Abbahu offers an exegesis of the verse in the book of Dvarim (Deuteronomy), where Moses gathers the nation together to reaffirm the covenant made with God at Mt. Sinai. He explains that from the use of the word “standing” in the verse, we can understand the covenant was made with all who were present (“standing”) there, in other words, the living – and also with all who were not present. According to his interpretation, the souls of all subsequent generations were also present in a non-physical manner.
Explain the midrash and then discuss the connection between what the midrash claims and the authority of all future generations to innovate in the Torah.
- Rabbi Rinat Tzfania, inspired by this source, wrote about the chain of tradition passed on by women:
Miriam received the Torah at Sinai
and passed it on to Tzelafchad’s daughters
and Tzelafchad’s daughters passed it on to Deborah
and Deborah passed it on to Ruth
and Ruth passed it on to Bruriah.
They said three things:
Make your voices heard,
Train many students,
and interpret the Torah.
Listen to both texts (rabbinic and modern) set to music and sung by Rabbi Oded Mazor and musicians from Kol Haneshama synagogue in Jerusalem.