Written by student
Chapter 1, Mishna 3: “Ontignos, the man from Socho… said: Don’t be like servants who serve their master to receive ‘pras’ but rather be like servants who serve their master not to receive ‘pras’ and let Fear of Heaven be on you.”
We last left off with questions from an analysis of the Rambam’s account of the story of Tziduk and Bitus. To review the history: the Rambam, in his commentary on our mishna, explains that these individuals were students of Ontignos, the author of the mishna, and when they heard this statement, they thought he meant that there is no system of reward and punishment in the system of the Torah. They tried to convince people of this idea in order to start a movement but failed. They then tried to convince people that the Written Law of the Torah was valid but that the Oral Law of the Torah, transmitted through generations of Rabbinic authorities, was invalid. The Rambam comments that they argued this point in order to exempt themselves from many Rabbinic obligations and to have the power of interpreting verses in the Torah in their own manner. In this way, they created a following of people known as Tzidukim and Bitusim, named after them.
We raised two problems with the Rambam’s account. First, the Rambam seems to contradict himself with regards to the motivation of Tziduk and Bitus: first he says they were trying to gain a following of people and later he says that they were just trying to exempt themselves from the authority of the Rabbis. Which one was it? Second, how did the Rambam know that they had these devious motivations? Perhaps they sincerely doubted the authority of the Rabbis!
Let us begin with the first question: what was their motivation to gather a following or remove the authority of the Rabbis? The Rambam apparently held that both are true, that they had both in mind. Though it seems like a contradiction, the Rambam understood that these ‘leaders’ weren’t clear thinkers. For a thinker, only one of these motivations could be the real goal. For one who isn’t a thinker, he may not even realize his own inner workings and motivations. Most people fall into this second category - they don’t clarify their real motivations and for that reason they will do things for a few poor reasons, rather than one good reason. However, one who is an honest and clear thinker will act based on one good reason. Here, Tziduk and Bitus were looking to accomplish two goals: one, to exempt themselves from religious obligations and, two, to remove their own guilt by gaining approval from the masses.
Now we may move to our second question: how did the Rambam know this? The answer is that the Rambam knew that such a belief, the denial of the validity of the Oral Law, is rationally impossible. That’s why he says that this belief is the opposite of what the Torah itself says with the verse “according to the Torah they teach you and the statutes that they say to you”. It is simply impossible to accept the Written Torah and deny the Oral Torah. Either one denies both or accepts both, for which the commentaries bring proof. Therefore, the Rambam concludes that their irrational claim must have been motivated by ulterior, selfish motives.
Someone once asked how we learn from the verse “according to the Torah that they teach you” that the Rabbis have the right to establish laws, such as preventative measures? Maybe it means that they just have the right to interpret the Written Law? The answer to that question is that by doing the former they are doing the latter - they said that it means that they have the right to set up laws.
It’s impossible to have the Written Law of Torah without the Oral Law. For example, the verse says that on the Sabbath one isn’t permitted to do ‘melacha’, creative activity. What is the definition of ‘melacha’? How does one determine the meaning of ‘creative activity’? The punishment for doing this type of production on the Sabbath is death - it would not make sense for there to be a system that punishes with death for violations which no one knows the meaning.
In this story, Tziduk and Bitus were not guided by reason: there is simply no rationale for their position, so the Rambam must say that they had personal motives. This also explains why the Rambam adds that the Sages did not deal with them. This was because they weren’t interested in the truth so talking to them about the issue would not accomplish anything.
Chapter 1, Mishna 4: “Yose the son of Yoezer, them an of Tzeraida,said: Your house should be a place of gathering for wise men…” Rashi explains that this means that it should be a place they go to learn. To understand this, we need ask the simple question: why? What is the significance of the house in this advice? Why not just go to a ‘Beis Medrash’, a place designated for learning? To be continued.