Unlocking the Basic Understanding of the Oral Torah

Question 1: What is exactly the “Oral Torah”?

The short simplified answer is: the body of traditions, rules, stories and interpretations that serve to explain correctly the written Torah.

It might also be defined as things that do not appear directly in the written Torah, but are nevertheless considered basic principles of Judaism (Of course these things, although may not appear in the plain meaning of the text, they are concealed – so to say – or alluded to in it).

Question 2: If the Oral Torah came from Sinai together with the written one, why there are so many debates and contradicting opinions?

In order to understand this we must understand that just as the written Torah is divided in 5 books, the Oral Torah is divided in five different groups that together form what we call “Oral Torah”.

  • The first group of Oral Torah is called Kabbalah(reception). What is it? That which God told personally to Moses and Moses transmitted it to Joshua, and from Joshua it came to the prophets… until today. What are these? These are the explanations and stories that were passed down generation after generation and there has never been a debate about them among the sages; such as the 39 prohibitions of Shabbat, the Tefillin, the prohibition of cohabitation between a father and a daughter, or the doctrine of the Resurrection of the dead (and even though the sages received this by Oral tradition, they managed to demonstrate the existence of these things within the written text itself, through the 13 hermeneutic rules [methods of logical interpretation that also were received from Moses as an Oral Torah].
  • The second group of Oral Torah is called Hallacha Moshe miSinai(the dogma of Moses from Sinai).These are details within the commands and stories that were passed down from Moses to Joshua… and so forth; the sages accepted these rules from Moses with no debate, simply because Moses told them, but they could not find them in the text through the 13 rules of hermeneutics, so they needed to develop deeper methods of interpretation to find them. It must be noticed though that even within the so many methods of interpretation developed “a verse never departs from its simple meaning” (Shabbat 63a). An example of this group of Oral Torah is the rule that the Tefillin must be black and squared.
  • The third group of Oral Torah is called Dinim Muf’layim(wonderful decrees). These are explanations and stories that Moses didn’t receive orally from God, but were deduced by the sages of each generation. How? Simply, by studying exhaustively day and night the written Torah in its original language, and deducing what would be God’s opinion in those daily life matters in which the Torah kept silent. The sages’ authority for doing this is found in Deuteronomy (17:8-13). Specifically verse 11 states: “You must do according to the Oral Torah which they instruct you and according to the decree they say” and it comes with the warning not to act arrogantly against their decree. This gives Life to Torah and allows us to apply it in accordance with the needs of each generation. In the time of the Sanhedrin, the 70 sages (plus the high priest) discussed the matters, if there was disagreement they voted and the word of the majority became Hallacha (legal decree that must be obeyed). Of course, here it refers to the majority of the sages (with the logic that if the majority of wise people learned in Torah arrived the same conclusion, it must be logically the right choice).
  • The fourth group of Oral Torah is called Takanot(measures or remedies). These are rabbinic decrees that were given to observe Judaism according to the needs or the new knowledge of the people, and never interfere with the observance of Torah or the other 3 groups of Oral Torah. Examples of this are the grace before meals, the use of ritual bath for immersion (Mikvah) when there’s not a natural body of water, or observing the feasts of Purim and Hannukah as a commemoration of God’s miracles. It also includes the construction of an Eiruv (enclosure of the neighborhood) so that people could carry things on Shabbat, without breaking the rule of ‘not carrying things out of your house’ (cf. Jer 17:22; Ex 16:29).
  • The fifth group of Oral Torah is called Gezeirot(fences). A Gezeirah is a rabbinic prohibition or fence, made with the intention to protect common people from violating an actual command of the Torah by doing things that in essence are permitted. This is deduced from the verse: “Therefore you must protect my ordinance/ or my charge” (Lv 18:30; cf. Yevamot 21a). Since the Gezeirot were made for unlearned common people, they could be annulled by citizens, when the majority of the community was unable to observe such legislation.

Among the Gezeirot we may find the prohibition of eating chicken with dairy, so that gentiles will not think that one is mixing meat and dairy, or the prohibition of blowing Shofar on Shabbat, so that citizens will not carry them from their home to the Synagogue and break Shabbat.

Apart of these 5 groups there are other two important sub-groups in the Oral Torah that are somehow included in the last 3.

  • The sub-groupcalled Minhag(custom) has to do with customs within the communities that do not have the status of “Command” or “Law”, but one is obligated to obey them when he lives in a community that observes such customs, for respect to others and to the Rabbi. For example the decree to wear “Kippa” (Yarmulke), and the recitation of certain extra prayers are Minhagim (customs); not commands.
  • The sub-groupcalled Hashkafa(perspective) which is not binding. This group consists on personal world-views and philosophical ideas of different sages and commentators that not necessarily reflect a definitive opinion in Torah, and we are even encouraged to question them and even permitted to disagree, keeping in mind that each different opinion is but a separated piece of a big Puzzle called “the ultimate Truth”. Examples of Hashkafa are the idea that Kippa is obligatory in every situation, the idea that Messiah ben Yosef must die in a literal war, or the idea that shaving/trimming the beard harms the 13 attributes of mercy.

Opposing Hashkafot can be found:

(1) between Sages (Hillel vs the other sages in his view that Messiah will not come because he already came in the time of Hezekiah)

(2) between commentators (the commentaries of Rambam vs Raavad or of Ramban vs Rashi)

(3) between communities (Hassidim vs Mitnagdim).

Question 3:  Why do we have to accept the words of the sages? What if they are wrong and their Tradition is invented? 

According to Deuteronomy 17, the written Torah commands you to follow the decrees of the “judges of Israel”, or “sages” or “Sanhedrin”, whatever you want to call them.

Let’s say we deny the Oral Torah. Why do you accept the written text? Who canonized the Bible? It was the sages, the Sanhedrin – the Great Assembly – the ones that canonized the books of the Prophets and the Psalms. Anyone can write a book and claim to be David. How do we know the Psalms of David came from David, if not because the sages canonized the Psalms and told us they were written by David? Or are we to reject the Hebrew Scripture and follow the Torah alone?

How did the Torah come to us? Even the written text is Oral because we believe that it was transmitted orally by God to Moses, and that’s why we say the Torah is Divine. But why do we trust that the written text came from God? What evidences do we have? Maybe some guy made the text up and someone else believed him – like the book of the Mormon.

We might answer that the evidence that the Torah is real is the mere existence of the people of Israel, the Jews, because the existence of Judaism makes nonsense without the fact that Torah came indeed from God. That is true, but if that’s the case, then why do we choose to follow a different path? If Judaism is the evidence that the Torah is real, why would we reject the main traditions that prove that the Torah is real?

Question 4: Isn’t Deuteronomy 17 giving the Sanhedrin authority only in matters of criminal judgment, as is written: “between blood and blood, between plea and plea and between stroke and stroke”?

That’s a great part of its meaning. And in a great part, the decrees of the Oral Torah consist precisely of this. However there’s more to it than that.

The Scribes raised a question:

  • Does “between blood and blood” refer only to murder, or also to “types of blood that might be prohibited or permitted for consumption?”
  • and “between plea and plea” (lit. bein din l’din), doesn’t it imply matters where someone is liable or exempt from doing something that has to do with the Torah?
  • and “between stroke and stroke” (literally: bein Negah laNega – i.e. ‘between leprosy and leprosy’) doesn’t clearly imply matters of purity and impurity?
  • and who is going to say otherwise when we’ve found this in the text itself?

The phrase: “Between blood and blood” appears in Scripture only once more, in 2Chronicles 19:10, in the same context of the judges of the nation and Levites administering the Torah to the people (2Chr 19:4-11). Here, the term “between blood and blood” comes together with “between Torah and commandment, statutes and judgments”.

From the connection of the two verses (remez) we realize that:

  1.  the Sanhedrin only ruled over these legal matters of Torah (called Hallacha) that Deuteronomy – in the fullest potential of its meaning – allowed them to rule.
  2.  they ruled over matters that were brought to their attention, and many of them were not criminal matters.
  3.  only the Sanhedrin has absolute and final authority to decide questions of Jewish law and silence dissenting opinions.
  4. only in these matters (ie. Hallacha) one is obligated to obey the Sanhedrin, but concerning Ethical issues, philosophies, scientific information and the rest (minhag, hashkafa, etc., called by the general term of aggada – story), one is permitted to disagree with them.

This only implies the 3rd, 4thand 5th groups of Oral Torah; not the 1st and 2nd.

Question 5: What if we choose to follow only the written Torah and not the Oral Torah? Isn’t the written text self-explanatory?

  • The written Text is in Hebrew; a millennial language. How do we read it? We cannot read Hebrew unless someone teaches s Hebrew and tells us how the letters sound and what the words mean, and for this we have to rely on someone who also relied on someone who was taught that Hebrew is supposed to read that way. In other words, we have to rely on tradition.

But let’s say that we’ve found a method to learn Hebrew without anyone teaching us. This leads to the second point:

  • The written text doesn’t have vowels, and there are many words written exactly the same but pronounced differently, how do we know which word is which word, especially when we are supposed to obey a command? How do we know that we are commanded something about “Milk” instead of something about “Fat” when the two words are written the same way? We only know the difference by what we have been told. Again, we rely on tradition for this.

If we say that today there are manuscripts with vowel points, yes, that’s truth, and those manuscripts are called Masoretic, a word that comes from Masorah, which means “tradition.” In other words, the vowel points reflect the way the Torah is supposed to be read according to Oral Tradition; and yet, we accept it.

But let’s say we found a way to learn Hebrew without anyone teaching us, and we found a way to distinguish which word is which word without anyone telling us. This leads us to the next point:

  • The text gives us a lot of commands that are not totally defined, and yet we are supposed to obey them. What are we going to do? Do we invent the meaning as we see fit?

The slaughter of animals in the Torah is done only by “Shechita” (Ex 12:6; 2Chr 30:17), according to the command that in its literal translation says: “you must slay from the herds and flocks which the Lord has given you in the manner I have instructed you” (Dt 12:21). But the Torah does NOT instruct anywhere how the Shechita is to be performed; it says that the blood must be drained and buried once the Shechita has been performed, but is silent about the main process of the slaughtering.

Of course for the first generation of priests it was obvious, because Moses told them how to do it, but how about this generation? Do we know how to fulfil the Biblical standards for properly slaughtering an animal without the Oral tradition? Yet, there are those who prefer to twist the literal meaning of this verse.

  • Further, how is the whole community supposed to have the same Biblical standard in every corner of the planet if each person interprets the Bible as they see fit? Where is the unity when people obey Bible according to their own “guess” and not according to the communal Spirit of the Jewish people?
  • Even further, who are we to tell the sages of Israel how is the Torah supposed to be interpreted? Are we closer in time to the giving of the Torah than they?  Do we know Hebrew better than they? Have we studied Torah day and night and debated our ideas with the wisest members of Israel as they did? Does the Torah give us authority to override them? Have we canonized Scripture with them, and know their reasons for doing so? Or are we rebels like Korah who thought to be better than Moses and Aaron (cf. Nm 16)?