Necessity of Oral Law

August 17, 2011 | by

It's my understanding that the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash comprise the collective body of wisdom called the "Oral Law." How does this differ from the Written Law (the Bible), and why do we need both? Why didn't everything get written down together? And if there's supposed to be an oral part, why do we have it in written form? I'm confused. Please explain.

The Aish Rabbi Replies

It's important to clarify a common misconception many people have about the role of the Oral Torah in Judaism.

The Oral Torah is not an interpretation of the Written Torah. The fact is, the Oral Torah preceded the Written Torah. When the Jewish people stood at Mount Sinai 3,300 years ago, God revealed Himself to the entire nation. He then gave Moses the 613 commandments along with a detailed explanation of how to fulfill them. At that point in time, the teachings were entirely oral.

It wasn't until 40 years later, just prior to Moses' death and the Jewish people's entering the Land of Israel, that the Written Torah as we know it (containing various stories and sources for the mitzvahs), was given to the Jewish people.

Which raises an important question: Why do we need an Oral Torah?

The story is told about a fellow who applies for a job at a prestigious investment banking firm. The interviewer looks at his resume and says, "I see you went to Harvard Business School. Very nice. Tell me, what year did you graduate?"

The fellow says, "2000."

"2000. Did you ever take any courses with Professor Stevens?"

"Stevens? No."

"Okay, how about Professor Phillips? He's one of the most popular professors at Harvard. Older fellow, grey hair. Did you meet him?"

"Nope, never heard of Phillips."

"You went to the Harvard Business School and you don't know two of the most popular professors?! I don't get it. Did you go to Harvard or not?"

"Well, I guess I should be honest with you. I didn't actually attend Harvard. My roommate attended the Harvard Business School. He used to bring home all his notes and textbooks and I used to read everything he brought home. I read everything he read, so when he graduated, I figured I also graduated."

The interviewer was not impressed. And our "graduate" didn't get the job. (Or if he did, it's one of those firms that's out of business now...)

Why isn't it enough just to read the notes to be considered a Harvard graduate?

Because you need to hear the lectures. The professors add so much information that the notes simply don't represent a full view of the subject. If you want to get a full understanding of a text, what's the best way to find out? Ask the experts: "What's behind this? Please explain it."

Information in the written form is, by definition, secondary and limited in scope. That's why the Oral Torah is 50 times the size of the Written Torah!

(In actuality, the Oral Torah is infinite. It contains the totality of Torah, which – as the word of the infinite God – is by its very definition infinite.)

In effect, the Written Torah is a form of Cliff Notes or summary notes of the information that God gave the Jewish People, through Moses at Sinai.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (1808-1888) writes in his commentary to Exodus 21:2:

"The Written Torah is to the Oral Torah, just as short notes are on a full and extensive lecture on any scientific subject. For the student who has heard the whole lecture, short notes are quite sufficient to bring back afresh to his mind at any time the whole subject of the lecture. For him, a word, an added mark of interrogation or exclamation, a dot, the underlining of a word, etc. is often quite sufficient to recall to his mind a whole series of thoughts.

"For those who had not heard the lecture from the Master, such notes would be completely useless. If they were to try to reconstruct the scientific contents of the lecture literally from such notes they would of necessity make many errors. Words and marks which serve those scholars who had heard the lecture as instructive guiding stars to the wisdom that had been taught and learnt, stare at the uninitiated as unmeaning sphinxes. The wisdom and truths, which the initiated reproduce from them (but do not produce out of them) are sneered at by the uninitiated, as being merely a clever or witty play of words and empty dreams without any real foundation."

If the Oral Torah is such a great idea, then why isn't the Torah entirely oral? Because the Written Torah is necessary to provide the basics. If everything was by heart, then you'd have no reference point at all. There has to be a shell from which to extract the vast Torah teachings.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains in his "Handbook of Jewish Thought" (Moznaim 1979):

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 (Ecclesiastes 12:12), "Of making many books there is no end." 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, 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...

Do you have an encyclopedia? When was the last time you used it? Most people haven't looked at their encyclopedia in ages. Usually, the only time you use an encyclopedia is when you need to look up something specific. Otherwise, it is just a reference work that sits on your bookshelf.

Imagine if there was no such thing as an encyclopedia. How would life be different? We'd all have to retain a lot more information!

This was God's objective in devising the Oral Torah. Because Judaism is not a reference work made to sit on a shelf. Torah is meant to be lived and internalized. To do that, you need to know it backwards and forwards. That's why God gave us both a Written Torah and an Oral Torah. The basics are laid out in writing, but the rest of it must be learned orally, encouraging every Jew to constantly review and remember.

Furthermore, when it's oral, people must transmit it personally from teacher to student, from parent to child. That way, it's constantly on everyone's lips, being discussed and clarified.

God – in His infinite wisdom – devised the consummate system for transmitting Torah throughout the generations. It is not a written law, and it is not an oral law. It's both.

Because the Jews have had such a turbulent history, parts of the Oral Torah were written down because it was in danger of getting lost. Even still, the majority of the information remains oral until today.

(source: Aish HaTorah's Discovery Seminar)

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