Besides the written and oral Torah which Moses received directly from G-d at Mount Sinai, there are many Rabbinic decrees and ordinances which we must follow. Some examples include the prohibition to eat poultry with dairy, though only meat is Biblically forbidden; the waiting period instituted by the Sages between eating meat and milk products; the added day of Yom Tov for Jews in the Diaspora; and the laws of muktzah, which are additional restrictions of the Torah prohibition of working on Shabbos. The million dollar question that everyone demands an answer to is, of course, “From where do the rabbis get the right to tell us what to do??”
In this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shoftim, the Torah discusses the “rebellious sage” who, in a nutshell, ruled or acted against the High Court, the Sanhedrin, in Jerusalem, in the matter of a chiyuv kares, a prohibition carrying a severe punishment. In this discussion is included the verse, “You shall not stray from what [the Sages] tell you either right or left.” (Deuteronomy 17:11)
There is some dispute as to what exactly the guidelines of listening to the Sages are. Maimonides (Mamrim, Chapter 1, Law 2) includes in this negative commandment the prohibition to violate any tradition from Moses, a drasha (a law extrapolated by the Sages from a verse in the Torah), or even any decree that the Sages create as a proverbial fence to safeguard us from violating a Torah commandment. (An example of this would be muktzah, as mentioned above. By holding an object of forbidden use, such as a pen, you are more likely to violate the Shabbos, such as by writing.) According to Maimonides, by virtue of this commandment, all these Rabbinic ordinances are now Biblically prohibited. (He is referring only to decrees made by the Sanhedrin, High Court, in the Holy Temple.) Nachmanides in his gloss on Maimonides’ Book of Mitzvos disagrees. He contends that while the Torah vested the power of making decrees to the Sages, their decrees do not take on the status of a Biblical commandment. They are legally binding, but of a different status than a decree explicit in the Torah.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvos 495 and 496) includes in this commandment the obligation to obey the great Sages of every generation, including those in our times. He explains the reason for this commandment as follows. If the Torah were open to all to interpret as they see fit, Judaism would fall apart, as everyone would determine their own ideas of right and wrong. Therefore, G-d left it to the Sages of every generation who toil in Torah day and night to determine and teach what the true intent of the Torah is. As he explains, “And the punishment of one who transgresses this commandment and doesn’t listen to the Sages of his time is very severe, for this is the strong pillar upon which the Torah rests.”
We’ve seen the truth of this throughout the generations, and even more clearly in recent history, as multiple movements which strayed from the directives of our Sages sprang up and led to mass assimilation. When the Torah is open to interpretation by all, we lose the integrity of the Torah. By keeping the right of interpretation in the hands of acknowledged and revered rabbis who spend their lives in study of Torah, G-d ensures that the Torah will remain true to His intent.
So to answer our original question, Who gives the rabbis the right to tell us what to do? G-d Himself does. And we all know we have to listen to Him.
Shmuel Dovid Kirwan