Parshah Bereishit (Genesis 1:1 – 6:8) is filled with beginnings; from the beginning of the world, to the beginning of mankind. However, one of the less well-known beginnings in this week’s Torah portion is the beginning of the Oral Torah, and the story of how our failure to pass it on correctly almost led to our end!
Now, the story of Adam and Eve that most of us are familiar with explains that they ate from the Tree of Knowledge because they couldn’t resist temptation, and had to help themselves to a taste of that delicious looking fruit. But, the plain meaning of the text actually paints a very different story. In fact, we find that their transgression came about almost entirely because Adam failed to properly teach God’s commandments to Eve! From this incident we learn a number of important lessons for Noahides that are fundamental to proper observance of our mitzvoth.
Our Oral Tradition
It all began shortly after the creation of Adam, where it says:
“And Hashem God commanded the man, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat; for in the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.'” (Genesis 2:16-17)
Looking closely at the text (especially in Hebrew), you’ll notice a seemingly superfluous word. The text could have simply said, “And Hashem God commanded the man: ‘Of every tree you may freely eat…'”. Why is the extra word “saying” in there?
We find this same expression repeated over and over throughout the Torah, when God is teaching the Torah to the nation of Israel. For example, in Leviticus 4:1 where it says, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying…” (see also, Leviticus 5:14,20; 6:1,12,17; etc). The Sages inform us that this specific wording indicates that God spoke the command to Moshe, and then instructed him to teach it to his students, who in turn must teach it to their students, and so on, in an endless chain of tradition. So, essentially, the text could be read as, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe: ‘(Teach Israel to) say…'”
Likewise, in this passage in Bereishit, this extra word teaches us that when God commanded Adam not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, He was also instructing Adam to teach this command to Eve, and to their future descendants. Based on this understanding, the text is actually saying, “And Hashem God commanded the man: ‘(Teach Eve to) say: Of every tree you may freely eat…'”.
This illustrates an important principle in Judaism which states that there is nothing extraneous in the Torah. In fact, it doesn’t even contain any fancy poetic flourishes or phrases. Rather, every single word and letter was placed precisely where it is, in order to teach us something. And, this seemingly extra word is no different.
So, Adam was not only being commanded to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit, but was also being commanded to pass this instruction on from generation to generation, in an unbroken oral tradition. This was the beginning of the Oral Torah.
Adding to the Torah
Of course, as we all know, shortly after being commanded not to, Adam and Eve transgressed the command and ate of the forbidden fruit anyways. But, as we pointed out before, this wasn’t because they were acting rebelliously, but rather because of the incorrect transmission of this Oral Torah. Where do we find this in the text?
Soon after this first command was given, we see Eve having an argument with the serpent, who asserted that Hashem had forbidden her to eat any fruit. So, she corrected the serpent, saying:
“We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden! But, regarding the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat of it, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” (Genesis 3:2-3)
Surprisingly, we find Eve bringing forth a whole new commandment: The prohibition against “touching” the Tree of Knowledge! But, of course, God never forbade such a thing. Commenting on this, Rashi points out, “She added to the command, thus she was led to subtract from it.” (Rashi on Genesis 3:3-4)
Where did she get this idea about touching? While the Sages don’t give us a definitive answer, the most likely explanation is that Adam added this idea when teaching her. His reasoning could have been that since they were accustomed to eating whichever fruit was at hand, if he and Eve spent too much time near the Tree of Knowledge, they would be more likely to eat its fruit without thinking. Therefore, he added a sort of “rabbinic fence” to God’s original command, in order to keep them from accidentally transgressing.
And, since Adam was the halakhic authority of his time, this would have been permissible for him to do. The fundamental principle that we are to “neither add to nor subtract from” the Torah (Deuteronomy 13:1) doesn’t prohibit the Sages from adding protective fences around the commandments of the Torah. In fact, doing this is even encouraged by the Torah, as God tells us, “And you shall guard my decrees” (Leviticus 18:30).
What this principle forbids is the act of either permanently negating the commandments of God or the act of adding new decrees or fences, and then claiming, in either instance, that they were commanded by God. Essentially, the prohibition against “adding to or subtracting from the Torah” teaches us that we must be very careful to distinguish between those things which God has commanded and those things which the Sages have decreed. But, based on Eve’s statement, we see that she did not understand this distinction, as she stated to the serpent, “God has said, ‘…neither shall you touch it, lest you die.'” (Genesis 3:3)
So, clearly Eve was being sloppy in differentiating between what God commanded and the fence that Adam had created, but how do we know this is what led to their transgression? And, why make such a big deal out of this? Shouldn’t it be good enough to simply say, “don’t do this”, without specifying who forbade it? The answer to these questions is made clear in what happens next in the story.
Forbidding the Permitted
After Eve explained to the serpent that she is forbidden to eat or even touch the Tree of Knowledge, lest she die, the clever serpent saw his opportunity to strike. The Midrash tells us that the serpent then pushed Eve into the tree, and said, “as you have not died from touching it, so you will not die from eating it!” (Bereishit Rabbah 19:3) And, seeing that touching the tree didn’t kill her, Eve then incorrectly concluded that the rest of the command must also be false, and she ate the fruit and gave to Adam, as the Torah continues:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat.
Eve’s train of logic demonstrates why making precise distinctions between the permitted and forbidden is so vitally important. Her reasoning went like this: “God has commanded us not to touch the tree of life or to eat of its fruit, lest horrible things happen as a result, and we die. However, now that I’ve touched it and nothing has happened, I see that this part of His commandment was a lie. Therefore, the rest of His commandments must have also been lies! So, clearly bad things won’t happen when I eat of the fruit – it will be nothing but good!”
So, we see that is was Eve’s inability to distinguish between God’s command and Adam’s fence that gave the serpent the opening to trick her into transgressing. Perhaps if Eve had known the difference, the serpent wouldn’t have been able to trick her at all, and this story would have turned out much differently.
The Sages warn us against making this same mistake through the dictum, “He who forbids the permitted will come to permit the forbidden.” From this we learn that, just like in the case with Adam and Eve, when we fail to precisely distinguish between the permitted and forbidden, and between what has been commanded by God and the Sages, then we open the door for our Evil Inclination to deceive us and lead us down a wrong path.
And, in our own day and age, we can find many examples of this principle in action. From the teaching that Gentile women are required by God to cover their hair, to the teaching that Gentiles are forbidden to place valid mezuzot on their homes – neither of which are true – we see a disturbing lack of distinction being made between the permitted, the forbidden, and wise practices. And, as the story of Adam and Eve teaches us, this lack of distinction can have dire consequences for generations to come.
So, knowing this, let us strive to be careful to distinguish in our own minds between those things which are permitted and forbidden, and between those things forbidden by God, and those things forbidden by the Sages. For, indeed, it is these distinctions which make all the difference in keeping us on the true path of Hashem.