Editor’s note: This series is reprinted with permission from “Insights & Attitudes: Torah Essays on Fundamental Halachic and Hashkafic Issues,” a publication of TorahWeb.org. The book contains multiple articles, organized by parsha, by Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mayer Twersky.
The Midrash points out that while all of Klal Yisrael were busy fulfilling the hora’as sha’ah of asking for gifts from their neighbors (bizas Mitzrayim), Moshe Rabbeinu busied himself with taking care of one of the mitzvos (which are binding through all future generations), namely, keeping one’s oath (Yalkut Shimoni to Mishlei 10:8, #946). The Torah tells us that before Yosef died, he had his brothers and all his relatives swear to him that they would have their children swear that they in turn would have their children swear, etc., that when the time for geula came, they would take Yosef ’s bones with them to be buried in Eretz Yisrael (Rashi to Shemos 13:19, quoting from the Mechilta). Yosef knew that the return to Eretz Yisrael would not take place during the lifetime of his brothers; they all knew from the prophecy of Avraham Avinu that the galus would last for four hundred years. Therefore, Yosef didn’t have the brothers swear that they would take care of it, but rather had them swear to have the next generation swear, etc., that it would be taken care of when the time came.
In Shir HaShirim, we read about the three oaths taken by the Jewish nation many centuries ago (see Kesubos 111a). No one alive today remembers ever taking these oaths. Apparently, it was not necessary for each generation to have the next generation accept these oaths. They were accepted at one point in history by the Jewish nation as a whole, and automatically all future generations are bound by these oaths, similar to a treaty entered into between two nations which is binding on all future generations, since they are a continuation of the original two countries. Based on this point, the Rogachover Gaon raised the question, why was it necessary for Yosef to have his brothers swear that they would have the next generation swear, etc.? Why didn’t he simply have the brothers swear, representing Klal Yisrael, and that shevua would automatically be binding on all future generations? (She’eilos uTeshuvos Tzafnas Paneach, New York, 1954, #143, 2. See also Beis Yitzchak vol. 39, p. 513).
The Gemara (Nedarim 15a) tells us that a minhag is binding miderabbanan just as if one had accepted upon himself a neder, and we know that both an individual minhag tov as well as a minhag hakehilla are binding; so clearly there can be an individual neder as well as a neder or shevua of the kehilla.
To this, the Rogachover responds that before mattan Torah there didn’t yet exist a concept of a tzibbur or a kehilla of Klal Yisrael. The Gemara (Nazir 61b) tells us that strictly speaking, the concept of a goy constituting a single entity only applies to the Jewish people. The other nations are really not considered a kahal, but rather a collection of many individuals.16 When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, this unified us to create the concept of a tzibbur. To use the expression of Rav Sa’adya Gaon, “our nation only achieved its status as a nation through its Torah.”
When we bentch Rosh Chodesh, the minhag is that the chazzan holds on to a sefer Torah and declares, “חברים כל ישראל.” Rav Soloveitchik pointed out that from the Rambam it would appear that nowadays, when we have no Sanhedrin, the responsibility of establishing the Jewish calendar by declaring when Rosh Chodesh will occur is given back to the Jewish people. The chazzan holds the sefer Torah to demonstrate that this is what binds us and unites us to become one goy, and thereby enables us to determine the Jewish calendar.
Yosef died many years before ma’amad Har Sinai, at a time when a Jewish nation as such did not yet exist. Therefore, he couldn’t have had the brothers take an oath as representatives of Klal Yisrael; rather their oath was an individual oath (shevuas hayachid). Since Yosef knew that they would not live to see the geula, he had them swear that they would have the next generation swear, etc., to take care of his burial. Shlomo HaMelech, however, who lived after mattan Torah, wrote in Shir HaShirim about the shevua taken by Klal Yisrael that is binding on all future generations.
16 Rav Soloveitchik was fond of quoting from the Radak that the word goy comes from the word geviya which means “a body;” the implication being that all the members of the nation of Klal Yisrael are considered as if they join together to constitute “one body.” Various gedolim were careful to recite as one of the morning berachos, נכרי שלא עשני instead of שלא עשני גוי because the berachos and the tefillos are supposed to be recited in biblical Hebrew, and in biblical Hebrew we, the Jewish people, are the only goy! (See Eretz HaTzvi pp. 118-120; Nefesh HaRav p. 107, #1.)
Rabbi Hershel Schachter joined the faculty of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in 1967, at the age of 26, the youngest Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS. Since 1971, Rabbi Schachter has been Rosh Kollel in RIETS’ Marcos and Adina Katz Kollel (Institute for Advanced Research in Rabbinics) and also holds the institution’s Nathan and Vivian Fink Distinguished Professorial Chair in Talmud. In addition to his teaching duties, Rabbi Schachter lectures, writes, and serves as a world renowned decisor of Jewish Law.