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What If I Believe in Only the Written Text of the Torah?

What If I Believe in Only the Written Text of the Torah?


I’m glad to hear that you have such strong faith in the “Hebrew Bible.” My question is, how do you know that this is true? Certainly, you must be relying on tradition. Otherwise, how do you know that the words you have before you are the original words written by Moses and the prophets? How do you know that they ever received this to begin with? What other way is there than to rely on the integrity of the Jewish people over the ages?

And that, really, is Judaism: a faith in the integrity of the Jewish experience as transmitted to us by previous generations. It turns out that everything we believe, including faith in the word of the written Torah, is based on this faith in the Jewish people. Perhaps that is the reason we call it Judaism (or Yahadut, or Yiddishkeit) and not “Torahism” (or Karaism)—because the most basic faith we have is in the Jewish people, and from there extends our faith in the written word and in the prophets.

There’s a story along these lines in the Talmud:

About two thousand years ago, there were two great sages in Israel: Shammai and Hillel. A certain gentile came to Shammai and asked, “How many Torahs do you have?”

Shammai answered, “Two. The Torah that is in writing, and the explanation of the Torah that we know by tradition.”

So the gentile answered, “About the written Torah, I believe you. About the oral Torah, I don’t believe you. Make me a Jew on condition that you will teach me the written Torah.”

Shammai responded with wrath and deprecation, chasing the man away.

So, the gentile went to Hillel. And Hillel performed the conversion. Then came time for the first lesson.

“This is an alef,” said Hillel, “and this is a bet.” And so Hillel taught the new convert the Hebrew alphabet that he would need to read the written Torah.

The next day, the man returned for his second lesson. But this time, Hillel reversed everything. “This is a bet,” he said, pointing to the alef. “And this,” he said, pointing to the bet, “is an alef.”

“Hold on a minute!” cried the convert. “Yesterday you told me the other way around!”

“And you trusted me?” said Hillel.

“Well . . .”

“So, why not trust me about the oral tradition as well?”

Hillel’s point was that without an oral tradition, there is no written Torah. Written symbols on a scroll are meaningless without context. We have no clue what the words mean, or even whether they are at all true.

The Torah says to rest on the seventh day. I once met a man who told me that he tried to keep the Sabbath as written in the Torah, but it was too hard—by four in the afternoon he just had to get up out of bed! Who says his interpretation is worth anything less than anyone else’s?

The Torah says that “these words should be totafot between your eyes.” What on earth are totafot? Where is “between your eyes”? When do you wear them, and how?

The Torah says, “You shall slaughter an animal as I have commanded you.” What was it that G‑d commanded Moses? How can we know? There seems to be no hint whatsoever in the entire Five Books of Moses. Obviously, everybody knew what Moses had been told; they did it all the time, and nobody needed it in writing.

The Torah says three times, “Don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Is it referring to a kid goat, or to a calf as well? What about a lamb? And is it only talking about boiling, or cooking with cheese too? And what about if the milk and kid are boiled separately but eaten together? And why does the Torah repeat this three times? Could it be some sort of idiom of speaking that everyone understood in those days? Who knows what their traditions and understandings were back then, and in what context they took these words?

There are many other examples, all around the same idea: The Torah is given within a certain context. Moses put the content of the Torah into writing. The context, however, we know only by tradition.

What does the context include? It includes the knowledge that an alef is an alef and a bet is a bet. It includes the meaning of the individual words, and how they are to be grouped as sentences. It includes the traditions of the Jewish people, many of which were in place long before the Torah was given, to which the Torah was simply giving G‑d’s official imprimatur. It includes explanations of the commands and stories that Moses wrote. Because when Moses taught us the word of G‑d, he explained it and elucidated it for us. But in the written form, he wrote only the bare basics.

The oral tradition also includes later decisions and exegeses made by those who led the Jewish people and were empowered to make decisions on their behalf. These are the seventy elders in every generation, as established originally by Moses himself (read all about it in Numbers 11). It is to these sages that Moses refers when he charges the Jewish people that if anything is to difficult for them to solve, they must take it to these wise leaders, and “do not turn from whatever they tell you, not to the right and not to the left” (read that one in Deuteronomy 17:8–12). Otherwise, what on earth are we supposed to do when Faraday discovers how to harness electrical power? Is it fire? If not, what is it? So, a rabbinical assembly came to the consensus that we will treat it as fire, and not turn it on or off on the Shabbat. Now all the Jewish people can keep one rule and one Torah.

These same sages were empowered to protect the Jewish people from breaking the Torah by “building fences” about the prohibitions. If you can walk right up to the edge of a serious transgression, it’s unlikely that no one is going to fall off. Which should provide an answer to your question about the boundaries for walking on Shabbat.

Are the words of the sages also Torah? How do they make their decisions? How do we know that G‑d approves of these decisions? How do we know that the interpretation we have today is correct? There are these and many more such questions. My advice is: go and learn. Adin Steinsaltz wrote a very good introductory work, The Essential Talmud, that covers many of these issues. It’s a small book, and makes good reading.

On our site, you’ll want to read Is it really the Torah, or just the rabbis? There’s also a nice series of four oral presentations on The Oral Tradition by Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, for listening to on that long commute to work.

But allow me to summarize the most crucial point: You can choose to believe in a book. Or you can choose to believe in a divine revelation. The divine revelation was encoded into a book by Moses, but its light never ceased to shine. In every generation, more and more of it enters into the world, through the medium of those sages who study the book and its surrounding traditions and all the accumulated wisdom that has unfolded over the millennia. One day, we will see how all that we unfold was contained in those original words Moses wrote. But to access it all now, make yourself part of the Jewish people, and have a little faith in us. After all, if it weren’t for us, where would that little book be?

Let me know if this helps . . . or raises more questions (questions are also part of the oral tradition) . . .

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

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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Andre Colon Bakersfield January 11, 2018

If Hashem is generous in giving spirit of understanding, If he reveals his secrets to the pure of heart then who can tell you no?

Even Psalmist knew more than his teachers! Reply

Ilja December 23, 2017

No questions, just a big thank you. I love my Jewish people. Very proud to be Jewish.
Shalom Reply

Joseph May 11, 2017

I suppose this both helps, and raises more questions... Reply

Anonymous February 13, 2014

Only the Written Text There is in fact a book written by someone who tried to live according to the Written Text , for a short time and found it impossible( the author was not Jewish ) because he either did not know about the Oral Torah/tradition or chose not to.
The other obstacle he felt was trying to do all of this on his own without a community .
Although the hidden agenda was probably to promote his own religion , it was an interesting story. Reply

Yaakov Mark Los angeles February 13, 2014

@Paul Westerink I take these fences as suggestions. That does not mean I don't take them lightly. These suggestions were given by great men. I wish to follow Hashem to the best of my ability, so I will see what those who were considered the smartest, and holiest would have me do. These are suggestions how how to get your soul to resonate at a higher level closer to Hashem. It is a road to higher revelation of Hashem. They may not be perfect, but they are the best we got, and therefore doing your best means listening to them. Reply

Chaim Teleshevsky February 13, 2014

sources I Love how you usually post all the sources ... Reply

K. Khan Lahore, Pakistan February 11, 2014

This is a wonderful explanation of this subject. Bless you Chabad. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman via February 11, 2014

To Anonymous Montreal Have you tried following the text as it is written? How do you treat your Canaanite slaves? Do you keep the rules of ritual purity and impurity? Do you move from your place on Shabbat? How do you deal with electricity? Automobiles? Telephones and computers?

The Torah has a built-in mechanism for adaptation to every possible situation that can arise. It is the authority of the Bet Din to enact fences around the law and extensions of the law, based on precedent. The Torah itself provides this authority many times. It is not a static document that lives only in the past. It is the word of the living G‑d—living at all times, and communicating to us through our sages. Reply

Anonymous February 10, 2014

To James Babb 5 Feb 2014 How uncanny, I am in a similar place in life as you are, in the middle of no where taking care of someone, and yet the light of Judaism still reached me , or literally felt as though it grabbed hold of me one day and I have not turned back since.
I too do not know where this is taking me and how, but will trust HaShem whether or not I will be among the Jews one day or if my Tikkun is different.

Changing back to the main topic of this discussion,
with regards to the fences (halachic) built by the sages , weren't they motivated by the will to obey Hashem? And these sages understood the fallible human nature very well. The fences were more likely made to protect the believer .
Therefore I do feel they have equal weight with the revealed halacha in the Torah. Reply

John Michael UK February 10, 2014

Midrash comment? Hi, Can anyone tell me where in the Tanak it says,

"The Torah instructs the sages of the community to make these fences. Without them, Torah observance is simply not sustainable.

If you believe that G‑d is the giver of the Torah, that He is omniscient, and that He remains engaged in the destiny of His people, then it makes sense that He knew from the beginning what fences these sages would make, and that He was involved in the decision.

This is what the Midrash says: "A person should not say, 'I won't be so careful about the lights of Hanukah, since it was the rabbis who established it, not G‑d.' On the contrary, G‑d Himself says, 'Do not think that way. To whatever the rabbis decided, I have given my approval, and it is as though I have commanded you.'" Reply

Pamela Dayton, OH February 9, 2014

I have struggled with some of the prohibitions in the Oral Torah for several years, but am thinking now that it doesn't matter even if some of them were made by Jews who were sinful in their motivations and were looking for ways to keep the Jews separate from the world, no matter the cost to themselves and to the rest of the world, because I think it is very possible that Ha Shem's will was in whatever decisions were made. So if the separation of meat and milk and not breaking a string on Shabbat were rules made by man apart from the mind of Ha Shem, I am beginning to think it was all for a purpose, and that He still holds the Jews to those rules they made -- for His own reasons having to do with tikun olam. Reply

Daniel Perez Brooklyn, NY February 9, 2014

To Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell (And James Babb) A Noachide is NOT a Jew. Technically, all people alive today are "Children of Noah," of which the Children of Israel are a subset.

But the term "Noachide" as commonly used today refers specifically to those non-Jews who take upon themselves the covenant G-d made with Noah via the Seven Noachide Commandments.

So, a Noachide observes those parts of the Torah applicable to him or her as a non-Jew, but they remain a non-Jew. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, since anyone can have a relationship with G-d and Jewishness is not a prerequisite. (As the psalmist wrote: "G-d is near to all those who call upon Him in truth.")

"Noachidism" is absolutely a legitimate path for a non-Jew to get closer to G-d without becoming Jewish. But "Noachide Jew" is an absurd and misleading term. Noachides are G-d-fearing non-Jews, deserving of respect, but not of the title "Yehudim." A Jew is either: someone born to a Jewish mother, or who undergoes a halachically-valid conversion. Period. Reply

Tzvi Freeman February 7, 2014

Re: Prohibitions or suggestions? The Torah instructs the sages of the community to make these fences. Without them, Torah observance is simply not sustainable.

If you believe that G‑d is the giver of the Torah, that He is omniscient, and that He remains engaged in the destiny of His people, then it makes sense that He knew from the beginning what fences these sages would make, and that He was involved in the decision.

This is what the Midrash says: "A person should not say, 'I won't be so careful about the lights of Hanukah, since it was the rabbis who established it, not G‑d.' On the contrary, G‑d Himself says, 'Do not think that way. To whatever the rabbis decided, I have given my approval, and it is as though I have commanded you.'" Reply

John Michael UK February 7, 2014

The Torah of HaShem Q, Does one believe in HaShem or does one believe HaShem? Reply

Paul Westerink Strelley. WA February 6, 2014

Prohibitions or suggestions? The fences you mention, were they intended to have equal weight with Torah, or to be understood as SUGGESTIONS to help one be prudent in obedience to Torah? Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA February 6, 2014

To James Babb You are a part of the Jewish family whether or not you become a Jew, because you are a "Noahide" Jew. Thank you for caring so much! Please look up this term and you will see you are a part of God's chosen people. Reply

Brad Reed Tennyson, Tx February 6, 2014

Holy Bible I truly enjoyed this article as well as all of the others that I have read from you and and have learned much . I have grown up a Christian for 58 years and it is sometimes difficult to un-learn things which are drilled into my head , but with Hashem's great mercy H- is making progress . My Jewish teacher told me years ago that I would need to sacrifice some "holy cows" over the next few years , but I did not know the extent of that statement. He has shone me many errors in the Christian doctrine . I began my quest with a simple question my Christian brothers, "Why does Israel need to be saved as Christians when they are already G-d's Chosen?" Since the Christian doctrine is once saved always saved then either it is a false statement or Israel's promised salvation by G-d was false.
Thank you for putting up with me and my ignorance of Israel and Judaism .
Brad Reply

Avraham Ben Yaacov Orlando February 6, 2014

tORAH I always find after reading such stories about the Torah, that I find something new. I have the story in a similar fashion and I have heard this since being a kid. It still fascinates and amazes me. Toda. Reply

Yaakov Mark Los Angeles February 6, 2014

The Oral Torah was not meant to be Perfect. Only Hashem and Torah are Perfect. @Julie Smith from Sydney. Julie it is entirely possible the Oral Torah is not completely perfect. However, it is the most perfect we have. Think of Hashem's precise will as a line. We know that is Torah in its perfection, right? And we know Hashem told us to have our wisest examine it and teach it. Hashem knew when he left unanswered questions that the people would have to rely on these sages, and continue to rely on these sages. He also knew that there would be disagreements and different perceptions, and from time to time even possibly an error. Yet he told us to do it in the Torah itself.

Bonnie auburn , ca. February 6, 2014

your making me crazy Rabbi Freeman
I enjoyed your post'' a ''non-Jew .. I get the 'Chabad Daily .
My ex husband is a Jew , .. our 2 Children Son and Daughter are older .. my daughter had converted . She Married a Converted Jew the Shul'.
I have studied'' , and been a part of many different Religions ,,
Of all , I feel most close to Jewish Laws , & Traditions....
I am going to be 72yrs. in June' , it to late for me ''to belong ?

. Reply

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