The Jerusalem Talmud (Pesahim 6:1, 33a) describes how Hillel came to be appointed as the head of the Jewish community in Israel some two thousand ago. Passover eve coincided with Shabbat and the local community was uncertain about which took precedent. It is relatively rare for Shabbat and Pesah to coincide and the people did not remember what they had done previously. So they decided to approach a certain Babylonian émigré whose credentials impressed them. The question they put to Hillel was straightforward: may the paschal lamb be brought for sacrifice even though it is the Sabbath when slaughtering is precluded? Hillel responded with a flurry of logical deductions that confirmed the good impression the people had of him. And each argument led to the conclusion that the sacrifice of the paschal lamb took precedence over Shabbat, a conclusion later confirmed by the Mishnah (Pesahim 6:1).
But the people Hillel was to serve were no ordinary Jews. They were not scholars. And they had poor recall. But they did know how to recognize a valid, logical argument – or the absence of one. With each purported proof that Hillel offered, the locals found an inconsistency or marshaled a counter-argument. Exasperated, Hillel finally abandoned all logic and said: “This is a tradition I received from Shemaiah and Avtalyon.” By invoking the names of the respected authorities who were his teachers, Hillel ended the debate and was immediately elected to a position of prominence. The argument from tradition was more persuasive than any argument generated by logic.
This, however, is no longer the case. Nowadays, arguments from tradition are more suspected than accepted. Time honored practices no longer command obedience. And the most frequently observed practices are the ones that become the most frequently challenged and least respected.
In his commentary on the Torah, RaShI emphasizes that when God instructs Moses to “command” Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 6:2) it is to urge them to carry out their sacerdotal duties now and in the future as well. According to a twentieth century commentator, Rabbi Mordekhai HaKohen, Aaron and his sons needed to be urged because their responsibilities had to be performed in the future when their descendants may not be as enthusiastic about them. Over time, the sacrificial tradition may lose its luster – even for those obliged to carry them out. Hence, they needed encouragement. And so do we.
Our venerable traditions link us to our past. Perpetuating those traditions unify the Jewish people. They define who we are and for what we stand. They are too precious to be treated cavalierly.