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Why Not Just Go By the Book?

Why Not Just Go By the Book?



Many—if not most—of the customs and traditions that comprise “Judaism” are not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. Why can’t we just follow what’s written there? Really, isn’t it heresy to add on to G‑d’s word?


You can go ahead and just follow your own literal understanding of the Five Books of Moses, but it may make life a little uncomfortable. For one thing, a lot of people will have to be stoned to death—for such matters as breaking Shabbat, adultery, etc. And an awful lot of teeth and eyes are going to go missing, too. Please let me know just where you’re planning to sacrifice all the sheep necessary to atone for other sins. Also, better find a kohen who will take all your tithes. Then come all the laws of impurity, which—if you want to follow “what’s written there”—may make marriage quite a feat nowadays. And you’ll have to sit in your house all day every Shabbat—in the dark and cold.

Or you could follow the traditional reading of the Torah, one that explains “an eye for an eye” as monetary compensation, and renders a sentence of capital punishment close to impossible—and a lot more humane when it does have to be carried out. Sheep offerings apply only in times when there is a Holy Temple; in the meantime, other means of atonement are available. The laws of ritual impurity as they apply today will be quite manageable, even enhance your marriage. And you could sit in a warm house, or take a walk in the park on Shabbat. All with the knowledge that this is what the text really means, and always meant. After all, do you really think G‑d meant for you to lead an impossible life?

Perhaps that’s why the Torah itself instructed us to take any difficult case that arises to the wise men of our times, and to “not turn from the words they tell you to the right or to the left."1 We don’t just read the book and decide what it means, each man for himself; we follow a tradition of received interpretation. When it comes to extending that interpretation yet further, G‑d Himself authorized those wise men to do that job. That way, the entire structure grows organically, with integrity to its original meaning. And that way, there’s one Torah for all the people.

Text and context

But then you’ll probably have a bigger question: Who says we got the interpretation right? And anyways, how could human beings, no matter how wise, have the right to interpret G‑d’s Torah?

Well, that would be a problem if we accept the Joe Smith version of the Five Books of Moses. That’s the version in which Moses goes up the mountain, finds five books, brings them back down and tells the people, “Look here what I found! We better keep what’s written in these five books, or else!”

In other words, if we believed the text has no context other than that G‑d said to do it, then we would be stuck with just what the text says, and that’s it. But the truth is, there is no text without context. Context is to text what water is to fish, roads are to cars and the internet is to web browsers: the text is still text without context, but it’s totally meaningless and irrelevant. Context is the breath of life. Because context is what tells you the purpose of the text, how to read it and what to do with it.

Political parodies, such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm, are good examples of books that take on new meaning when you know their context. A personal diary or a biography written for family members might be another example. The insider reads a totally different story than an outsider who just snuck a peek.

So let’s take a look at the context behind the Five Books of Moses. Fortunately for us, unlike Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, Moses himself references much of the context within the text itself. He even provides some hints as to how the book was written. At the end of forty years of wandering, just before entering the land, Moses tells the people, “Listen, I’m not coming in there with you. But G‑d told me to to write all this down and hand it over to you as a testimony, so you’ll keep everything I’ve taught you over these forty years. Here it is. Learn it as you learn a song. Teach it to your children, so that they will teach it to their children. Because everything you will need until the end of days is in it.” That’s basically the content of the book of Deuteronomy, known in Jewish circles as Mishneh Torah—“the repetition of the Torah.”

Real-life story

Let’s now imagine the scene when those ancestors of ours get their hands on a freshly written scroll of Moses’ books. They start reading the story of Creation, of the Garden and of the Flood—all very familiar stories to them, stories they had heard from their grandparents and great-grandparents.Imagine the first time our ancestors got their hands on those scrolls Stories that were likely written in earlier scrolls as well. Of course, when they had heard those stories, there had been much elaboration. That’s the way scrolls were read back then: you read a verse and then explained, elaborated and expanded the panorama, then read a little more and explained again. So, of course, Moses understood they would do the same thing.2

They get to the stories of their great-great-grandparents, Abraham and Sarah. Someone says, “Hey, it’s missing the story of how Abraham smashed the idols in his father’s house!” Someone else says, “Look, how big a scroll do you want him to write? He wrote the most crucial points and those things we might forget. But that story? Nobody will forget that story, never.”

So when they read that part of the scroll to their children, they added in that story. And of course, no one ever forgot.

Eventually, they arrive at the story about themselves. Imagine that: they get to see all that they had experienced from a different perspective, the way G‑d and Moses saw it happen. They read about the plagues, reading out loud (all reading was out loud until modern times) and excitedly adding in their own memories and emotions, so that the story would be deeply embedded in their children’s minds, hearts and souls. Often, they were able to see how Moses alluded to a missing detail with a nuance of the text or an extra word.

And then, to the dos and don’ts: all the laws that Moses had taught the entire community over forty years. The issues they had been debating with one another, that the elders had spent years working out. Until now, whenever an issue was unclear, or its application ambiguous, they had gone to Moses himself for clarification. Thousands of such cases had been resolved in this way. Joshua, Eleazar, Ithamar, Phinehas, Caleb and many other elders had likely recorded the decisions on those cases, and taught them to their students in turn.

Moses writes, “Keep the Shabbat holy.” He doesn’t need to tell them what is Shabbat, when is Shabbat, how it’s kept. Everyone knows that. They will teach it to their children when they read the text. And anyways, everyone will grow up doing it. “Keep the Shabbat” (and why) is just about all that needs to be said.

The same with “they shall be for totafot between your eyes.” Everyone knows what those are, just as they know what is to be written on the doorposts of their homes and how to make strings on the corners of their garments. There will always be Jews doing those things. For the next thousand years or so, not much more need be set in writing. And again, these students of Moses are amazed to find how the details themselves are all subtly alluded to in the nuances of the text.

But look at this: When it comes to laws of the priests and the temple, a wealth of detail lies before them. How many sheep, what age sheep, where, who, when, how. These are things, it appears, that may be corrupted. The priests could turn around one day and say, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be done. What do you people know?” It makes sense, therefore, that here Moses’ scroll goes into the gritty details. So, too, does the degree of detail on laws to do with the land, such as tithes, the sabbatical year and the jubilee year. Although they must have discussed these with Moses at length, they haven’t yet had a chance to yet put them into practice.

There is no doubt that these five books must have been extremely fascinating (and revered) as soon as they were available. Imagine now, in the midst of all this excitement, that some literate smart-aleck walks over the hill and turns up in the Jewish encampment on the east bank of the Jordan. He asks to look at this scroll and proceeds to give his interpretation. “You guys have got it all wrong,” he declares. “There’s nothing in here about Abraham meeting Nimrod. Totafot are not leather boxes. And it says clearly that you can’t leave your home on Shabbat.”

Some smart-aleck comes from over the hill thinking he knows better

If the people would have the patience, they would simply retort, “Listen, mister, are you a grandchild of Abraham? Were you there when G‑d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai? Did you ever meet Moses and speak with him?”

Perhaps that is why we call it not Torahism, but Judaism—as in Jew-daism. Because it is not an ideology defined by a book on a mountaintop, but by a book within the Jewish people. In fact, there is a Jewish sect called Karaiteskara meaning “text”—who reject the entire concept of received tradition. But that is not how the vast majority of our sages over the ages have understood us. They did not see us as “the people of the book,” as the Koran describes us—a people defined within the neat framework of a book—but rather the other way around: a people whose very existence defines the meaning of the book. For the book has meaning only within the context of our people, our experiences as a people, and the way that our people have unfolded and applied that which we have received.

The un-book

Really, the root of the error is to believe that the Torah is a book. The Torah is G‑dly wisdom. Moses, the greatest of all prophets, tapped into that wisdom directly. The book is one form of its manifestation—it’s what we call “the written Torah.” In it, Moses managed to encode the entirety of that wisdom, even that which he himself did not fully grasp, somewhat as the double helix of a strand of DNA encodes all the features of an entire organism.

Yet before it was written, the Torah already existed in our world as a lesson from Moses to the people (especially the elders) and their discussion with him. That’s what we call “the oral Torah,” which, contrary to popular misconception, preceded the written Torah. You could say, then, quite literally, that the fullest manifestation of that G‑dly wisdom we call Torah is not how it is written in a book, but how it exists in the minds of the people that received it. And since the Torah is a way of life for all seasons, the Torah includes all the discussions and innovations that have organically emerged from it through the medium of those people over the past 3,300 years.

After all, a G‑dly wisdom must be given by a G‑d who is above time and foresees all. He gave us His Torah through Moses like a gardener plants a seed or a forester a sapling; yet unlike those, knowing all that would sprout and grow over the long life of that tree. “They are the shoot of My planting,” He says, “the craft of My hands in which I take pride.” Like a gardener, He plants the seed. Like a craftsman, He forms the final product, step by step.

Until, by the time Moses finally leads us into the Promised Land, the entire Torah is unfolded in full blossom, through the struggle of the people who received it, guarded it and cherished it. For if the context is earth and the text is the seed, then the Jewish people are a fertile field, the scroll of the Torah a virile seed, and the Torah itself is the planting, the growth and the fruits of a mature tree of life.

For more on the chronology and method of Moses’ writing, see How and When Was the Torah Written?

We still have several examples of such running commentaries, known as targumim, that were originally recited orally between verses. Some, such as Targum Onkelos, stay fairly close to presenting just the text in a different language (Aramaic) with only minor embellishments. Others, such as Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, often richly supplement the narrative. Although these were set in writing much later, they demonstrate that such was the modality of reading a text in ancient times—to embellish the text as you read out loud.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
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Anonymous October 20, 2014

On what authority did Judah HaLevi have to write down Oral law? Was his room full of scholars a room full of Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol? Why should we trust anything the Rabbis have written. There were already splits among the groups of Jews at that time. Im not convinced on half of any oral tradition being accurate, especially not from a group of so called scholars. History is loaded with sages and scholars, even today, and we know from todays world that most of it is biased, contrived or inaccurate. Reply

Lisa Providence, RI October 6, 2014

613 Commandments When you have 613 Commandments, it can be difficult trying to keep up with all of them!

Nobody's perfect! Reply

Abe & Ephraim London, UK January 29, 2013

Thank you for making the Torah "easier" for us to keep however... ...the next time you change it we'd really appreciate it if you'd make pork Kosher. Thanks in advance.

Quote : "You can go ahead and just follow your own literal understanding of the Five Books of Moses, but it may make life a little uncomfortable. For one thing, a lot of people will have to be stoned to death—for such matters as breaking Shabbat, adultery, etc. And an awful lot of teeth and eyes are going to go missing, too. Please let me know just where you’re planning to sacrifice all the sheep necessary to atone for other sins. Also, better find a kohen who will take all your tithes. Then come all the laws of impurity, which—if you want to follow “what’s written there”—may make marriage quite a feat nowadays. And you’ll have to sit in your house all day every Shabbat—in the dark and cold". Reply

Jeff G. Springfield, MO/USA August 19, 2012

We should 'just go by the book.' Because we don't and have effectively ignored Torah for the opinions of Men is it any wonder there hasn't been a prophet in millenia? Is it any wonder Judaism is fractured into various interpretive movements and traditions? Any wonder that the diaspora even exists in the time Israel does? Any wonder G-d seems to have fled from us lest He break His word and destroy us all again? From the very beginning in Bereishit we rebelled. And by Ber 6 G-d regretted having made us. And it's only gotten worse since then. Why? Because we're rebellious creations and have rebelled from Torah and His law choosing instead Men we believed know better than G-d. (passes the soapbox) :) Reply

Anonymous mumbai April 27, 2012

great achievement Very nicely explained and in great length which helps in understanding in depth. It went straight in my head though a bit of clarity at certain places is required i feel.

Tzvi You rock. Sincere Thanks to you and the chabad team for their kind service. Reply

Vicki York London, UK April 26, 2012

Impossible to give proper consideration It is totally unsatisfactory to give a broad brush response to what I consider to be a very serious error in direction taken by our rabbis.
I would much appreciate a deeper consideration to my concerns regarding the way that our rabbis have chosen to play legal games with G-d.
It has nothing to do with the Talmud. It is merely a way around G-d's commandments and teachings.
This only leads to the community finding a way out of doing what G-d has commanded.
Is a man less guilty of a crime because his lawyer has found a loop hole in the law?
Neither should we be given loop holes by our rabbis.

I would appreciate proper consideration to my question as opposed to this glib response to suit all ills.
Thank You

Anonymous LEBANON August 3, 2017
in response to Vicki York:

did you not just paint broad brush strokes in your re fence to Rabbis? I take offence at anyone disparaging the Rabbis that spread enlightenment and Love for Hashem on Reply

Anonymous wc March 6, 2012

Charlie March 5 , 2012 My answer would be that Jews don't proselytize. We have nothing to prove. We are a supra-rational people. The Oral Torah was losing some stuff as it got handed down, and so Judah HaLevi wrote it down before everything got lost.

John Calvin interpreted stuff based on the second testament with the main themes of depravity, hell and damnation. Lots of other Christian leaders did as well. Which one do you believe ? At least you have lots of choice. You chose Reform Calvinism. If that brand makes you a better man, i am all for it, There is no need for you to explain your choice to me. There is one religion that dunks a man's head under water a few times. i don't know why, but they made a choice and don't need to prove anything to me. Reply

Anonymous wc March 6, 2012

Charlie March 5 , 2012 Great question why Jews believe in the Oral Torah beyond having a super strong faith in it.

Simple answer is we don't. Super strong faith is good enough in most religions including the forms of Calvinism in which you have chosen one of the many forms. Reform Calvinism refutes other forms of Calvinism and eschews Roman Catholicism, and other faiths. In Judaism super strong faith is not good enough. We need supra-rational faith.

As the Oral Torah got handed down it was losing portions in the retelling, and so Prince Judah HaLevi wrote it down. Mr. Calvin did the same thing for you. Calvin wrote down stuff and based it on damnation and fear. You found a brand of Calvinism that appeals to you. I prefer our Oral and Written traditions where love of G-d trumps fear of hell. Like you, I strive to refine my character. There's nothing for me to prove to you. There's nothing that you need to prove to me about Reform Calvinism nor all other religions that your brand of Calvinism rejects. Reply

Charlie Tomah, WI March 5, 2012

I'm a Christian so please help me understand.. I am a Reformed(Calvinist) Christian and to me oral tradition seems hard to trust. Have any of you ever played that game where you tell someone next to you something and then they tell the next person etc? Well, even if you haven't, try playing it, I guarantee that by the time it gets to like the 7th time it won't resemble what was originally said at all. Now, you could say that I just need to have faith but, so far from the articles by Jews I've read, you guys aren't big on the whole "faith" concept. Rather you guys seem to be into empiricism and I don't believe(by faith) that anything can be proven empirically, infact I don't even believe in "proof" since our criteria for proof cannot be proven itself, rather I hold to evidence(which is always less than 100%). So anyways, can any of you provide me with the answer to how you would avoid the need of super strong faith to believe this oral tradition stuff? Reply

Anonymous June 28, 2011

About rabbis .. Torah June 27 , 2011 I don't happen to have time to read the articles or books, but here is my take anyhow. I just learned it and it makes perfect sense.

The Torah was in existence before Creation. So take Matriarch Sarah for example. G-d added a Hei suffix. G-d added because He can. He can only looks to us that He did. That Hei was around before existence. G-d knew the story of Sarah even before Creation. The Hei already existed. It just looks like an addition to us.

Take Joshua. Moses gave him a Yud to his prefix, Yehoshua. That Yud came from Sarah's name. Moses did not add or subtract, he transferred. As a matter of fact , it is not Moses who did the transaction. That ' lost ' Yud had actually gone to G-d to complain about being dropped from Torah. a couple hundred years later nad the Yud receives a promotion. G-d knew that it was going to be that way,

I am relating this story as a shortcut to where rabbis cannot change The Torah. They are limited like any one of us. Only G-d is not limited.

B"H. Reply

Tania Hammer Far Rockaway, NY June 28, 2011

An interesting tragectory Rav Tzvi, you seem to have struck a chord over here that is leaving people with more questons than answers. Maybe you can have a part 2 for this week's question, or take out some points of your essay 'Is It Really Torah...?' I do worry about these doubters, especially since you have a strong gentile population reading this. I look forward to the next remark! Reply

Anonymous w June 28, 2011

Bet Din judges June 26, 2011 " Well maybe " leaves enough doubt for me.

" On of a very few ( dayanim ) in a major Jewish population " does not sound encouraging. Too much power in too few hands. Each of those dayanim would need to bring on board two others to make a bet din. Unless they could get together themselves. What two dayanim, never mind three, are going to be in accord ? It seems to me to be a touchy situation right there.

In any event, despite my skepticism i respect your view. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman June 27, 2011

About rabbis adding to the Torah On this topic, please read How Can the Rabbis Add to Torah. Also see, Is It Really the Torah, Or Is It Just the Rabbis? Reply

Anonymous Philadelphia, PA June 27, 2011

Interpret the law, not make new laws Dror ben Ami is on the right track. I understand that it is impossible to live a literalist Torah life. I feel sorry for the Karaites who have jettisoned the wisdom of the Talmud, and I suppose have no Chanukah either. We need explanations of how to carry out the Torah's mitzvoth.

However, how do you justify adding completely new mitzvoth: doubling Yomim Tovim; prohibiting dairy-poultry and fish-meat combinations; forcing women to ruin their hair, etc., none of which is in the Torah?

"Placing a fence around the Torah" appears in Pirkei Avoth, not in Tanakh. Chumash commands us not to add commandments.

Yes, follow the judges in your generations. This reminds me of the controversy over judges creating new laws, rather than interpreting existing laws.

How is our community doing in observance? By multiplying laws, you are encouraging Jews to give up because it's too hard for most of them. What a shame. Reply

Franklyn Hollywood, FL June 26, 2011

Bet Din judges Anonymous wrote: "Like any other exclusive institution it smacks of who you know not what you know"
Well, maybe, but in order to sit on a bet din, you need to be a dayanm judge, and dayanim are tested (by the Israeli rabbinate) before the title is awarded. My rabbi is a dayan, one of a very few in my state with a major Jewish population - much of it observant. Reply

Esther Israel via June 26, 2011

Well done! I thought this article answered the question well with a great presentation and was VERY well-written.

Kol hakavod! Reply

Marty Denver, CO June 25, 2011

Reason The Talmud forbids eating dairy with chicken because at that time, there was concern one might confuse meat with chicken.Fish were considered distinct enough that it would not be mistaken as meat. That is why we can eat dairy with fish.In today's clearly marked packages, is there legitimate concern one would confuse chicken as meat? Did we have 4 sets of dishes when we wantered in the wilderness? We didn't make animal sacrifices everyday so why pray daily and for that matter, 3x a day? Is G-d offended if we carry a handkerchief and our keys on Shabbat? Or carry warm clothes in case the weather changes? Since we have a more merciful way to slaughter animals shouldn't we use it? Why not make it law that the infant receive at least a local anesthetic before circumcision? From the circumcisions I've attended, the baby sucking on the wine on the handkerchief is useless. The Oral Law was not supposed to be written so that the Torah would be applicable to each generation. No characters left Reply

Anonymous June 24, 2011

Tzip- Women judges - June 23, 2011 Excellent assessments. From another forum about judges, R Tzvi elucidated that he meant Beit Din and not secular courts. Nonetheless, the Beit Din of desert days ( 70-71 members ) no longer exists, and even so, it doesn't cut any ice, in case it comes back. Today's Beit Dins are mainly a 3 man show. Like any other exclusive institution it smacks of who you know not what you know. Throw in territorial jurisdictions and whatever else goes into an exclusive mens' club, and what do you get ? Political plays, popularity contests and any form of corruption to yield inferior judges.
One difference you and i have is that i see the process hijacked by insecure men, doing anything possible to control the high ground above women.

Yasher koach to you. I am a male, and so it is not like i have an agenda, other than desiring that the best person be the judge, and not bring any sexist machinations/hubris into play. Reply

Anonymous Melbourne, Australia June 24, 2011

Why Not Just Go by the Book? Thank you, Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. I loved what you wrote. It's a beautiful article, and somehow - not quite sure why yet - made me feel a rare peacefulness. Reply

Steve Parker Marietta, GA June 24, 2011

Torah You've confused me. I understand that G-d conversed with Moses long before His gifting of a written Torah, and I assume that by imparting wisdom gained from G-d, Moses was in fact presenting an oral version of what would become the written Torah. Conversely, therefore, why present Moses with a written Torah at all? If G-d is orally sharing the rules by which mankind must live, why duplicate the effort in written form? Was the giving of Torah, then, G-d's way of proving his existence to the Jewish people -- simply a means by which He removed all doubt? If so, was the giving of Torah necessary for any other reason, especially with the oral teachings inscribed in the mind of Moses? Couldn't G-d have allowed Moses to write it himself? Was written Torah presented for dramatic effect? Reply

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