Laws of Slaughtering
This week's parsha speaks of laws pertaining to coming into Eretz Yisrael, destroying the pagan idols and establishing the House of God; the laws of a true prophet and the false prophets; the list of kosher animals and fowl; the ways of the Land - tithing the produce, shemitta (the Sabbatical year), and it ends with a brief review of the Holy Days.
Rashi cites evidence for the antiquity of the Oral Law Code.
"When the place which Hashem, your God, has chosen to place His name there, is distant from you and you will slaughter from your cattle and your herd which Hashem has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates as all your soul desires."
And you will slaughter etc. as I have commanded you - RASHI: This teaches us that there is a command regarding slaughtering [animals to be eaten], how one should slaughter, and these must be the laws of slaughtering which were told to Moses at Sinai.
The laws of shechita, ritual slaughter, are an important part of daily Jewish living. The fact that meat must be prepared in a specifically kosher manner is something with which every traditional Jewish household is familiar. These laws are quite complex and precise. Yet, despite their centrality in Jewish life, these laws are nowhere to be found in the Written Torah! Why something so basic to the Torah way of life should be missing from the Torah, is answered in our verse.
WHAT IS RASHI SAYING?
Rashi bases his comment on the fact that the verse tells us that we are to slaughter an animal "as you were commanded." Yet, nowhere in the Written Torah do we find a command relating to slaughtering animals in a specified halachic manner. Thus, Rashi concludes that these laws were, in fact, commanded to us, but since they were not incorporated into the Written Torah, they must have been given by God to Moses orally at Mt. Sinai.
The SIGNIFICANCE OF THIS COMMENT
I have chosen this Rashi-comment, not because of any difficulty in interpretation, but rather because it teaches a very important concept about the Oral Torah. The halachic corpus in Judaism is comprised of different levels of authority. There are the 613 mitzvot that are taught to us in the Written Torah and explained in finer detail by the Sages in the Talmud. These explanations, based on argumentation and analysis, comprise a substantial part of what is called the Oral Law. The source of these laws was also God, Who gave them to Moses at Sinai together with the Written Law. There are other laws that the Talmudic Sages themselves promulgated; they are called Rabbinic Laws, and are of a lesser authority than the Written Law. Some examples of these: The laws of muktza on the Sabbath; taking the Four Species on Sukkot for the seven days of the holiday, in the synagogue; and the writing of a marriage contract (ketuba).
There is yet another category of laws called "halachah l'Moshe mi'Sinai" - "a law given to Moses at Sinai." These are laws that do not appear in the Written Torah, nor are they laws decreed by the Sages. And while there is no hint of them in the Written Torah they, nevertheless, have the same authoritative level as the laws found in (or derived from) the Written Law. Rashi is telling us that the laws which regulate the slaughtering of animals belong to this latter category.
THE IMPLICATION OF RASHI'S COMMENT
The implications of Rashi's statement are quite significant from an historical and a theological perspective. What this means is that along with the Written Law, an accompanying codex of laws was received by Moses from God and imparted by him to the people at Sinai. It must be emphasized that these laws existed at the time of Moses (as is implied by our verse). They were not later accretions to the basic Sinai laws.
Thus when the Torah says, "and you shall slaughter as I have commanded," this indicates clearly that we were commanded at some point by God as to how to slaughter animals, even though we find no hint of these laws in the Written Torah.
The whole question of the existence of a corpus of Oral Law, which accompanied the Written Law, has now become a matter of dispute between traditional Jewish philosophy and more modern interpretations of Judaism. Our verse offers validation for the belief that the Oral Law Tradition did indeed exist side-by-side, contemporaneously, with the laws found in the Written Torah.