Is the Oral Torah a Later Development?

January 15, 2021 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

My parents were both of the belief that only the Torah itself is sacred, and that the Talmud and the Oral Torah were developed much later. They were the attempt of self-appointed rabbis to interpret the Scripture, but it is not the Torah itself. My parents saw the Oral Law as having developed slowly over the years, adding layer upon layer upon the Torah itself – and that we should really just keep God’s word rather than the invented interpretations of the rabbis. I’m sort of confused about this topic myself and would like to hear your take. Do we have any way of knowing if my parents’ understanding is accurate or not?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

Thank you for raising the very important issue. I’ll write up front that our belief is very different from that of your parents. We discuss this at length elsewhere. I’ll write a brief summary of the traditional view and then will add a few reasons why I believe it is clearly the most plausible explanation.

The traditional view on this is that God gave Israel both the written Torah and the Oral Law together at Sinai. The written Torah contains very many broad, inspiring-sounding laws and principles, but it leaves out most of the details about what God actually wants us to do. It provides us with noble directives, such as “Fear God, serve Him, and cleave to Him” (Deut. 6:13), “You shall be holy for I am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), “Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:6), and “You shall bind them as a sign on your arm and as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8). Clearly, more detail is required if we are to know what God actually wants from us. Some oral explanations must have been given with the written. (See this past response for more information, as well as the additional links it contains.)

A clear example of this is slaughtering an animal. The Torah states, "You shall slaughter your cattle… as I have commanded you" (Deut. 12:21). Moshe thus makes mention of the fact that he instructed us how to slaughter animals – but there is no verse in the Torah which discusses this. It is thus a clear allusion to an oral body of knowledge which existed together with the written Torah.

There is therefore no question that an oral explanation accompanied the written Torah. The question which remains is: Is this more or less the Talmud as we have it? Perhaps the oral law which existed earlier was very different and forgotten, and the Talmud which came only after many centuries was basically a rabbinical invention? Alternatively, perhaps the original oral law was very simple and straightforward, and the Rabbis later created layer upon layer of their own interpretation – making a very pure and simple religion extremely detail-heavy and onerous?

Both such premises are very difficult for two reasons. First of all, the Talmud is the ultimate peer-reviewed document. It was not the work of one or a few rabbis in a short time. It was developed by hundreds of great rabbis over several centuries. It records opinions of rabbis from as early as around the 3rd century B.C.E. till as late as the 5th century C.E. So many major and minor issues were debated – with ample verses brought to back up positions – that it inconceivable that there was some grand conspiracy to invent a new canon. No single rabbi could have ever gotten away with adding or changing something that the others knew was not legitimate. Had any one rabbi ever suggested something out of the ordinary or suspiciously novel, twenty other rabbis would have immediately jumped on him to disagree. (Anyone who has ever studied the Talmud before – even minimally or superficially – will realize how accurate a depiction this is.)

In addition, even with the many arguments, the vast majority of the laws of the Torah are undisputed. The debates are generally on minute details, infrequent laws, rabbinical extensions, and precise sources. Often all rabbis agree to a certain conclusion – such as that “thou shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” is not meant to be taken literally – and they merely debated how one can derive this from the relevant verses. In such cases, all rabbis agreed to the veracity of a law which had most surely been handed down as part of the Oral Torah. They only debated how one can prove the law from the Torah’s wording itself.

A second reason why it is difficult to imagine the Oral Law was a later invention is because the law was in observance ever since it was given at Sinai. People knew what Tefillin looked like because every male was wearing a pair since the time of Moses. If Tefillin did not mean as we understand them today, and a rabbi came along later and tried to introduce funny black boxes with straps, insisting that this is what the Torah wants us to wear, everyone would have laughed him off. The entire nation knew what Tefillin did look like (or if they meant a literal object to be worn at all). It is inconceivable that an imaginative rabbi could have pulled off getting an entire nation to believe his wild new creation if no one had been wearing Tefillin until then.

On this topic, it’s interesting to note that there have been – and to a very small extent still are – groups which have accepted the written Torah but not the Oral Law, such as the Sadducees of antiquity and the Karaites of today. There were several famous debates recorded in the Talmud between the Pharisees and Sadducees of old. And there is something very significant about them. Without exception, they relate to laws regarding which the written Torah seems to say the opposite of our oral tradition – such as if the counting of the Omer begins the day after Passover or the day after Shabbat (see Leviticus 23:15 and Talmud Menachot 65a).

It therefore seems very clear that contrary to the common understanding, the Sadducees did not reject the entire Oral Torah. They only refused to accept it when it appeared to disagree with the written law. But for example, we never find them debating if Tefillin should be worn. There was obviously some meaning to the vague verses which command us to bind something upon our arms and head. Even those who questioned the oral tradition had no better explanation for Tefillin – as well as no doubt about the meaning of the vast majority of the laws of the Torah (as heard from Rabbi Yochanan Zweig).

It’s interesting to note that some Tefillin with cylindrical boxes have been found in the Cairo genizah (where old religious (and secular) writings and artifacts were stored in an attic of an ancient synagogue in Fustat for many centuries). I’ve heard the suggestion made that this is what the Karaites of the time wore – because they insisted on doing things differently from the Rabbis. This would mean that in past generations the Karaites did wear Tefillin – since again what on earth else could Deuteronomy 6:8 and several other verses mean? However, they made them slightly differently from the passed tradition that they must be square to show that they were not bound to rabbinical traditions.

Along those lines, it is known that there were Jews in earlier times – Sadducees and their equivalent – who would literally wear their head Tefillin between their eyes – as Exodus 13:9 and other verses seem to state. The Mishna (Megillah 4:8) likewise states that if a person wears his head-Tefillin on his forehead or his arm-Tefillin on his palm, “this is the way of the heretics.” (It is actually easy to show from the Torah itself that the phrase “between the eyes” actually means the front part of the head, as Deuteronomy 14:1: “…and you not shall place baldness between your eyes on account of a dead person.”)

Based on all of the above, it seems clear that there was no serious debate that there was some type of Oral Torah which clarified the meaning of the written. In fact, the Sadducees and Karaites of old (as well as no doubt the Cutheans (or Cuthites, Samaritans)) appeared to have observed much of the Oral Law as the rest of the Jewish people, only refusing to accept specific laws in which the oral and written laws seemed to be at odds.

Of course, as any living body of law, the Torah grew and developed as it was being observed, as new questions arose, and as additional rabbinical safeguards were added. (See here about the obligation to follow rabbinical law.) But that is to be expected in a thriving society which took its laws and practices seriously. It’s easy to study the Mishna today and to see that Jewish observance has remained essentially unchanged for the last 2000 years – and to me, it’s a stretch to claim that the first 1200 years were drastically different.


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