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The Oral Tradition

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

In many respects, the Oral Torah is more important than the Written Torah.

It is a foundation of our faith to believe that God gave Moses an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text.

This oral tradition is now essentially preserved in the Talmud and Midrashim.

We thus speak of two Torahs. There is the Written Torah (Torah SheBiKetav) and the Oral Torah (Torah SheB'Al Peh). Both are alluded to in God's statement to Moses, "Come up to Me to the mountain, and I will give you… the Torah and the commandments" (Exodus 24:12).

In many instances, the Torah refers to details not included in the written text, thus alluding to an oral tradition. Thus, the Torah states, "You shall slaughter your cattle… as I have commanded you" (Deut. 12:21), implying an oral commandment concerning ritual slaughter (shechitah).

Similarly, such commandments as tefillin and tzitzit are found in the Torah, but no details are given, and they are assumed to be in the Oral Torah. Although observing Shabbat is one of the Ten Commandments, no details are given as to how it should be kept, and these are also in the unwritten tradition. God thus said, "You shall keep Shabbat holy, as I have commanded your fathers" (Jeremiah 17:22).

Just as we depend on tradition for the accepted text, vocalization, and translation of the Torah, so must we depend on tradition for its interpretation.

The Written Torah cannot be understood without the oral tradition. Hence, if anything, the Oral Torah is the more important of the two.

Since the Written Torah appears largely defective unless supplemented by the oral tradition, a denial of the Oral Torah necessarily leads to the denial of the divine origin of the written text as well…

The Oral Torah was originally meant to be transmitted by word of mouth. It was transmitted from master to student in such a manner that if the student had any question, he would be able to ask, and thus avoid ambiguity. A written text, on the other hand, no matter how perfect, is always subject to misinterpretation.

Furthermore, the Oral Torah was meant to cover the infinitude of cases which would arise in the course of time. It could never have been written in its entirety. It is thus written, "Of making many books there is no end" (Ecclesiastes 12:12). God therefore gave Moses a set of rules through which the Torah could be applied to every possible case.

If the entire Torah would have been given in writing, this would lead to division and discord.

If the entire Torah would have been given in writing, everyone would be able to interpret it as he desired. This would lead to division and discord among people who followed the Torah in different ways. The Oral Torah, on the other hand, would require a central authority to preserve it, thus assuring the unity of Israel.

Since many non-Jews also accept the Bible as sacred, the Oral Torah is the main thing that distinguishes Judaism and makes it . The Oral Torah could therefore not be written until the non-Jews had adopted their own religion based on the Bible. God thus said, "If I would have written the majority of my Torah, [Israel] would be counted the same as strangers" (Hosea 8:12).

The Oral Torah is therefore the basis of God's covenant with Israel. It is even more dear to God than the Written Torah.

Details of the Mitzvot

The Oral Torah is the means through which we devote our lives to God and His teachings.

God revealed all the details of how the commandments should be observed while Moses was on Mount Sinai. God also revealed to Moses many interpretations and laws that would not be used until much later. These, however, were not taught to the people at large.

There is a tradition that God taught Moses the written Torah by day and the Oral Torah by night…

Moses taught the Oral Torah to Aaron, his sons, and the Elders, in that order. It is thus written, "Moses called Aaron, his sons, and the Elders of Israel" (Leviticus 9:1). The laws were then taught to all the people and reviewed, until each person had gone over them four times.

Before his death, Moses again reviewed the Oral Torah and clarified any ambiguous points. It is thus written, "Moses took upon himself to expound this Torah" (Deut. 1:5).

Besides receiving many explanations and details of laws, Moses also received hermeneutic rules for deriving laws from the Torah and for interpreting it. In many cases, he was also given the cases in which these rules cold be applied. Although the study of these rules was originally a central part of the tradition, their details were gradually forgotten when persecutions destroyed the great academies.

Laws and details involving common everyday occurrences were transmitted directly by Moses. However, laws involving infrequently occurring special cases were given in such a way as to be derivable from scripture by hermeneutic rules. Otherwise, there would be danger that they would be forgotten.

Laws from Logic

Laws which Moses taught directly are referred to as "Laws to Moses from Sinai" (halachot le-Moshe mi-Sinai). These laws were carefully preserved from generation to generation, and for this reason one never finds a dispute concerning them.

However, in the case of laws derived from hermeneutic rules or logic, occasional disputes can be found. These include all the debates in the Talmud. The sages thus had the rule, "If it is law, it must be accepted. But if it is derived, it can be debated."

The laws received directly and those derived by hermeneutic rules are equivalent in scope and importance, and are approximately equal in number.

Both laws received orally and those derived by hermeneutic rules have the same status as laws written in the Torah, and are counted as Torah commandments (mitzvot de-Orayta). It is only with regard to oaths that they are in any way differentiated from laws that are actually written in the Torah.

All laws which were derived from scripture or logic were formally accepted by the Sanhedrin. They then became part of the Oral Torah and were transmitted from generation to generation.

Details of some rabbinical laws originated from Sinai.

All the laws received by Moses were transmitted orally from generation to generation and needed no further proof or derivation from scripture. In some cases, however, a scriptural or logical basis was provided for even such laws, so that they be remembered better. This was especially true in the case of laws that were not common knowledge.

Many oral laws were incorporated into the Bible in the works of the prophets.

God also gave Moses many rules regarding how and under what conditions to enact new laws. Therefore, details of rabbinical laws are sometimes said to have originated from Sinai.

All laws legislated by the Sanhedrin eventually became part of the oral tradition which was transmitted from generation to generation.


The Oral Torah was handed down by word of mouth from Moses to Joshua, then to the Elders, the Prophets, and the Great Assembly. The Great Assembly was the Sanhedrin led by Ezra, at the beginning of the time of the Second Temple, which undertook to enact legislation that would make Judaism viable in the diaspora.

The Great Assembly codified much of the Oral Torah in a form that could be memorized by the students. This codification was known as the Mishnah. One reason for this name was that it was meant to be reviewed (shana) over and over until memorized. The word also denoted that the Mishnah was secondary (sheni) to the Written Torah.

It was required that the oral tradition be handed down word for word, exactly as it had been taught. The sages who taught this first Mishnah were known as Tannayim, Tanna in the singular. This word comes from the Aramaic word tanna, equivalent to the Hebrew shana meaning "to repeat."

Although the Oral Torah was meant to be transmitted by word of mouth, it was permissible to keep personal records. Therefore, many individuals would write down personal notes of what was taught in the academies. This was especially true of teachings that were not often reviews. Many also added marginal notes to the biblical scrolls which they used to study.

Similarly, the heads of the academies would keep written notes in order to preserve the traditions accurately. However, since none of these notes was published, they were known as "hidden scrolls" (megillot setarim).

During the generations following the Great Assembly, the Mishnah developed into a program of study for the students to memorize. This was expanded by new legislation and case law. This was known as the "first Mishnah" (Mishnah Rishona).

As controversies began to develop, variations in the Mishnahs of the various masters began to appear. At the same time, the order of the Mishnah was improved, especially by Rabbi Akiva (1-121 CE). Certain parts of the Mishnah were placed in almost their present form.

At this time, however, no part of the Oral Torah had been published. The only exception were such minor works as the Scroll of Fasts (Megillat Taanit).

Rabbi Yehudah's Mishnah

The final and most precise redaction of the Mishnah was made by Rabbi Yehudah the Prince. This is the Mishnah that we have today, as part of the Talmud. The work was completed in 3948 (188 CE).

The Mishnah consists of six orders, comprising 63 tracts.

In compiling his work, Rabbi Yehudah made use of the earlier Mishnah, condensing it and deciding among various disputed questions. The sages of his time all concurred with his decisions and ratified his edition. However, even rejected opinions were included in the text, so that they be recognized as such and not revived in later generations.

There is a question as to when the Mishnah was put in writing. Some authorities maintain that Rabbi Yehudah himself published it. According to others, however, it was preserved orally until several generations later.

Tradition says that if there is danger of the Oral Torah being forgotten, it can be put in writing.

There was a tradition that if there was danger that the Oral Torah be forgotten, it could be put in writing. It is thus written, "It is a time to work for God, make void His Torah" (Psalms 119:126). This also implies that when there is danger of the Torah becoming voided and forgotten, it is a time to work for God and remedy the situation…

Since the tradition required that the Oral Torah be written under certain conditions, the commandment to write a Torah scroll now also includes an obligation to write or purchase books of Mishnah and Talmud containing the Oral Torah.

Besides the Mishnah, other volumes were compiled by the students of Rabbi Yehudah during this period. These included the Tosefta which follows the order of the Mishnah, as well as the Mechilta commentary on Exodus, the Sifra on Leviticus, and the Sifri on Numbers and Deuteronomy. Works from outside Rabbi Yehudah's school went by the name of Baraita. Not too long after this, the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi) was compiled by Rabbi Yochanan.

The Talmud

In ancient times, the practice was for students first to memorize the basics of the Oral Torah, and then carefully to analyze their studies. During the period preceding Rabbi Yehudah, the memorized laws developed into the Mishnah, while the analysis developed into a second discipline known as the Gemara. After the Mishnah was compiled, these discussions continued, becoming very important in clarifying the Mishnah.

The Gemara developed orally for some 300 years following the redaction of the Mishnah. Finally, when it came into danger of being forgotten and lost, Rav Ashi (352-427 CE), together with his school in Babylonia undertook to collect all these discussions and set them in order. Rav Ashi spent most of his life on this project together with his colleague Ravina. After his death, his son, Mar bar Rav Ashi (Tavyomi) continued the work along with Meremar. The Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), as it is called, was published in the year 4265 (505 CE).

The Talmud discusses legislation, and stories to enhance the discussions.

The Babylonian Talmud was completed on 37 of the 63 tracts of the Mishnah. Its main purpose was to clarify the Mishnah, establish which opinions are binding, provide derivations for the laws, discuss later legislation, and provide homilies and stories to enhance the discussions.

There were a total of 40 generations, comprising 1,817 years, from Moses until the final redaction of the Talmud.

The Babylonian Talmud was accepted by all Israel as the final binding authority in all questions of religion and law. All subsequent codifications of Torah law are binding only insofar as they are based on the Talmud. To oppose even a single teaching of the Talmud is to oppose God and His Torah.

From "The Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Vol. 1), Maznaim Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

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