Pirkei Avot 1:1:

Moshe received the Torah from Sinai...

Bartenura on Pirkei Avot 1:1:1:

... the author began with this tractate Moses received the Torah from Sinai, to say to you that the principles and the ethics that this tractate did not fabricate the sages of the Mishna counter to them, but rather this is what was said at Sinai.

I have bolded "said" as this implies that principles and ethics were delivered orally.

There is another rule (I'd appreciate if someone can edit the source:) דרד ארץ קדמה לתורה - Behavior (morals / ethics) preceded the Torah. IIRC, there are some that explains this to mean that the Torah was built on the foundation of Derech Eretz.

So if Derech Eretz was considered to be so important as to form the foundation of the Torah itself, why wasn't they written vs. being told orally? Something written tends to be less misinterpreted than something said, as there is a single original uniform source to refer as proof.

  • It should be noted that the Bartenura seems to belong to the "everything is from Sinai school". Rambam sharply disagrees and hols that only a small subset of Mishnah / Talmud are oral traditions from Sinai. These he calls the perushim hamekubalim. Everything else, (such as anything that is ever subject to dispute) is not from Sinai. The question of why something is not in the Torah is legitimate according to everybody. The question of Avot was transmitted orally, is not. – mevaqesh Aug 28 '16 at 15:57
  • This seems largely opinion based. You could narrow the scope a little bit by insisting on sourced answers. – mevaqesh Aug 28 '16 at 16:01

See the Introduction to the Sefer "Dor Revii" on Chullin written by Rav Moshe Shmuel Glasner a Hungarian talmid chacham, and in there he discusses the concept of "natural law".

ועוד תדע דבכל דברים המאוסים שנפשו של אדם קצה בהם, אפילו לא היה התורה אסרתן׳ היה האדם העובר ואכלן יותר מתועב ממי שעובר על לאו מפורש בתורה כי כל מה שנתקבל בעיני בני אדם הנאורים לתועבה אפילו איני מפורש בתורה לאיסור, העובר ע׳ז נרע מן העובר על חוקי התורה, למשל התורה אמרה לא ילבש גבר שמלת אשה, אבל שלא נילך ערום בשוק לא איפרש בתורה שהוא אסור׳ אבל הוא נימוס וחוק קבוע אצל כל בעלי דעה, ואדם וחוה מיד אחר החטא הרגישו בעצמם פחיתות גדל לילך ערום, כחית השדה, יתבוששו ויתפרו עלי תאנה לעשות מהן חגורות לכסות בשר הערוה׳ ועתה אשאלך מי שקץ משנתו ומושכב ערום במטתו, והבית ביער באש עד שמוכרח להמלט על נפשו ולרוץ החוצה ואין לפיו רק שמלת ^אשה לכסות עממיו, מה יעשה מוטב לצאת ערום בקרית חוצות שאין בזה לאו מפורש מללכוש כסות אשה שיש בו לאי דלא ילבש׳ ועיין בירד סי׳ שע״ב בכהן ערום באוהל המת. ועיין בפ״ת אות ס׳ בשם הנו״ב דעכ״פ ילבש הכתונת והמכנסיים, ובעיני פשוט הדבר דלצאת ערום עבירה יותר גדולה מל השהות באוהל המת, או לבישת שעטנז ובגד אשה, כי היא עבירה המוסכמת אצל כל בעלי דעה, והעובר עליה יצא מכלל אדם הנברא בצלם אלקים

Basic Gist: There are some things which are so axiomatic that their very inherent logic don't even warrant the Torah to prohibit explicitly. For example, The Torah tells us not to wear woman's clothing, but nowhere do we find in the Torah an explicit prohibition to walk naked in public. for the very idea is so disgusting to normal thinking people.

The Dor Revii further says regarding the difference between the Oral and Written laws:

מעתה מי שאינו רוצה לעקם האמת, יגיע להחלטה, שמה שנמסר פירוש התורה ע"פ ונאסר לכתבה, הוא כדי שלא לעשותה קיום לדור דורות ושלא לקשור ידי חכמי דור ודור לפרש הכתובים כפי הבנתם, כי רק על אופן זה נבין נצחיות התורה, כי שינוי הדורות ודעותיהם, מצבם ומעמדם הגשמי והמוסרי דרושות שינוי דיניהם תקנות ותיקונים, וראיתי בספר הכתב והקבלה, שטרח ג"כ למצוא טעם למה נמסרו רובי דיני התורה ע"פ, ולא עוד אלא שקשה לו יותר, כי הרבה פרשיות שבתורה נשתנו מכל וכל ע"י התושבע"פ, שהוציאם מפשטותם, ולמה לא כתבה לשון מבוררת שלא תהינה בה הבנות מתחלפות, וכתב דלדעתו הוא כדי לנסות את האדם אם יקבל פירוש האמיתי של חז"ל, עיי"ש מה שהאריך, ובאמת אינו כדאי להשיב על דברים בטלים כאלו ויפה היתה שתיקתו מדיבורו, וכל ההתחכמות בזה, אינו אלא להוסיף תימא על תימא, אבל האמת הוא, שהיא חכמה נפלאה מחכמת התורה, שמסרה לחכמי כל דור ודור פירוש התורה, כדי שתהיה התורה חיה עם האומה ומתפתחת עמה, והיא היא נצחיותה, ובזה מתפרש בטוב טעם נוסח ברכת התורה שלאחריה "אשר נתן לנו תורת אמת וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו"

English Translation:

Thus, whoever has due regard for the truth will conclude that the reason the [proper] interpretation of the Torah was transmitted orally and forbidden to be written down was not to make [the Torah] unchanging and not to tie the hands of the sages of every generation from interpreting Scripture according to their understanding. Only in this way can the eternity of Torah be understood [properly], for the changes in the generations and their opinions, situation and material and moral condition requires changes in their laws, decrees and improvements. Rather, the truth is that this [issues from] the wonderful wisdom [and] profound insight of the Torah, [which teaches] that the interpretation of Torah [must be] given over to the sages of each generation in order that the Torah remain a living force with the nation, developing with it, and that indeed is its eternity. In this way may we understand correctly the wording of the blessing "Who gave us a Torah of truth and implanted in us eternal life," which the Tur interprets as follows: "a Torah of truth" refers to the Written Torah and "eternal life" refers to the Oral Torah (Orah Hayyim 138, see Shulhan Arukh thereto). This can well be understood in light of what we have said: Written Torah can be called "truth" because it is absolutely true. No additions or subtractions can be made to or from it, and thus it is transmitted in written form, and a Torah scroll which is missing one letter is invalid for use. The Oral Torah, its interpretation, however, is not called absolute truth, but rather conventional truth which depends on the "judge in your days" [i.e., based on the agreement of the sages]. For this very reason, though, it is called "eternal life implanted within us," for in it enters the living spirit of every generation of human endeavor, and thus it is called "eternal life."

The purpose of halachos being passed down through oral law is to lend the Rabbi's the ability to apply the halacha for their generation.

Thus, with both of these ideas presented above, the picture that emerges is that the laws of ethics were not written for two very fundamental but possibly seperate reasons:

1) Laws of Ethics are so axiomatic and logical that the it does not require a written down code to be set down, for they precede the Torah.

2) The Laws of Ethics are and their application are inherently fluid and can be applied differently in each Generation. Having them passed down orally allows for them to have that requisite flexability.

See here for more on Rabbi Glasner.

  • Thanks for the great resource & your time to explain it well. The 2 principles in your concluding paragraphs appear to contradict each other. Q - If ethical laws were "logical" everyone would develop their own laws based on their own logic and we would have anarchy. That should be reason enough for the Torah to write them down so that it is not based on logic but b/c it is G-d's "logic", which transcends human logic. The fact that it is left to each generation's interpretation seems to, then, "promote" at least confusion, if not anarchy. How, then, do these 2 principles concur? – DanF May 21 '15 at 18:13
  • ??? I see that these are separate reasons which is what prompts my question that they appear to contradict each other. – DanF May 21 '15 at 18:21

Something written can often times be more misinterpreted than something said, but the situations are different.

In a case of he said she said, you are arguing over what was said or heard and you don't have the source to verify, except you do because you can call that person and ask.

With a written document, you have the source, and no one disputes what's been said, but often what was meant or how it was said, especially when dealing with a document that didn't come with written punctuation, and is constantly being looked at by people with thousands of years of separation.

So for example, is this the correct sentence? “Most of the time travelers worry about their luggage”

Or is this the correct sentence? “Most of the time, travelers worry about their luggage.”

And since we can't call up the author of the Torah to ask questions, the text is left ambiguous in that regard. Another example is we have forgotten what certain words mean, and we therefore have many different interpretations of the same word, because its original meaning has been lost.

There are also the cases of euphemisms. So let's just say for the sake of argument that you become a prophet of our time, and you write a book, and you write the sentence "It was raining cats and dogs." Everyone in your generation, who speaks English, would know that you are using a euphemism to describe that it was raining very heavily. But people 4,000 years from now who don't speak English will run the risk of thinking that there was a miracle, and that God was making cats and dogs fall from the sky.

The next level of potential misinterpretation grow further when you start to deal with complex and usually changing ideals of morality. In the time of the Torah, one of the great goods you could do in that world was to marry your sister in law once your brother, her husband, had died. That is hardly considered a good thing anymore, because women are able to choose a new husband for themselves in this era, and we don't have the issue of ancestral land anymore. If someone were to try to do this law of Yibum (levirate marriage) now, even though it's clearly a miswah d'oraita, there would probably be a communal uproar. In this vein, if one were to try and write all the nuances of ethics of the time, then you would end up with divine ethics of a particular time that would be unchanging, which isn't helpful in the long run. Therefore it makes more sense to have sets of rules, and to have sages throughout time write the mussar, because they will always (hopefully) be updated with the world in which you find yourself.

As for the derech eres point. Your point is valid, but i would suggest listening to some Rabbi Fohrman over at alephbeta.org as he has some interesting thoughts on that. Including the idea that the Torah does indeed incorporate some laws that are Derech Eres, but he also points out that the Torah might also be overturning certain Derech Eres. One of his main points is this law in Devarim Chapter 21

טו כִּי-תִהְיֶיןָ לְאִישׁ שְׁתֵּי נָשִׁים, הָאַחַת אֲהוּבָה וְהָאַחַת שְׂנוּאָה, וְיָלְדוּ-לוֹ בָנִים, הָאֲהוּבָה וְהַשְּׂנוּאָה; וְהָיָה הַבֵּן הַבְּכֹר, לַשְּׂנִיאָה.
15. If a man have two wives, the one beloved, and the other hated, and they have borne him children, both the beloved and the hated; and if the first-born son be hers that was hated;

טז וְהָיָה, בְּיוֹם הַנְחִילוֹ אֶת-בָּנָיו, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-יִהְיֶה, לוֹ--לֹא יוּכַל, לְבַכֵּר אֶת-בֶּן-הָאֲהוּבָה, עַל-פְּנֵי בֶן-הַשְּׂנוּאָה, הַבְּכֹר.
16. then it shall be, in the day that he causeth his sons to inherit that which he hath, that he may not make the son of the beloved the first-born before the son of the hated, who is the first-born; Blockquote

He posits that this Law is [possibly] a response to Jacob making Joseph the firstborn and thereby causing all the sibling rivalry.

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