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What is the "Oral Torah"?

What is the "Oral Torah"?

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The Torah has two parts: The "Torah Shebichtav" (Written Law), which is composed of the twenty-four books of the Tanach, and the "Torah Sheba'al Peh" (Oral Law).

G‑d told Moses1 that he will give him "the Torah and the commandments." Why did G‑d add the word "commandments?" Are there any commandments which are not included in the Torah? This verse (amongst others) is a clear inference to the existence of the Oral Torah.

The Oral Torah was transmitted from father to son and from teacher to discipleOriginally the Oral Law was not transcribed. Instead it was transmitted from father to son and from teacher to disciple (thus the name "Oral" Law). Approximately 1800 years ago, Rabbi Judah the Prince concluded that because of all the travails of Exile, the Oral Law would be forgotten if it would not be recorded on paper. He, therefore, assembled the scholars of his generation and compiled the Mishnah, a (shorthanded) collection of all the oral teachings that preceded him. Since then, the Oral Law has ceased to be "oral" and as time passed more and more of the previously oral tradition was recorded.

The Oral Law consists of three components:

1. Laws Given to Moses at Sinai (Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai):

When Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah, G‑d gave him the Written Torah together with many instructions. These instructions are called "Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai" (the Law that was given to Moses on Sinai). Maimonides writes that it is impossible for there to be an argument or disagreement concerning a Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai, for the Jews who heard the instructions from Moses implemented them into their daily lives and passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, etc.

Some examples of Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai are: tefillin straps must be black, a sukkah must have at least two and a half walls, and all the different Halachic measurements and sizes.

2. The Thirteen Principles of Torah Exegesis (Shlosh Esreh Middot ShehaTorah Nidreshet Bahem):

When G‑d gave the Written Law to Moses he also instructed him how one is to study and understand the Torah. Every word and letter in the Torah is exact, and many laws can be extrapolated from an extra (or missing) word or letter, or a particular sequence which the Torah chooses to use. The thirteen principles which are the keys to uncovering the secrets of the Torah are called the "Shlosh Esreh Middot ShehaTorah Nidreshet Bahem."

For instance: One of the rules is: "Anything that was included in a general statement, but was removed from the general statement in order to teach something, was not removed to teach only about itself, but to apply its teaching to the entire generality." An example for the usage of this rule is: In Exodus 35:3 the Torah says "You shall not light fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day." Now, kindling a fire was already included in the general statement that prohibits work on Shabbat (Exodus 20:10). It was removed from the general rule and stated independently in this verse to teach us that it is a distinct form of work and, as such, carries a distinct penalty. Moreover, this lesson applies to each of the 39 categories of work included in the general statement. Thus, there isn't a broad category called "work," rather each type of work is to be viewed as distinct. Therefore, if someone should do several kinds of work while unaware that they are forbidden on Shabbat, he must bring a separate sin-offering to atone for each type of work that he did.

A full list of the thirteen principles can be found in the prayer-book.2

3. Edicts (Gezayrot):

The rabbis constantly added gezayrot according to the needs of their timesThe Torah3 authorizes the rabbis to protect the word of the Torah through making "Gezayrot" (edicts).

For example: The Torah prohibition of eating or possessing chametz (leavened products) on Passover begins at midday of the fourteenth day of Nissan. Our sages added two hours to this prohibition, for they feared that on a cloudy day people would err and eat chametz after noon.

Just like the Congress is constantly enacting new laws and regulations, for the old laws are not always adequate for modern trends and tendencies, so too, the rabbis constantly added gezayrot according to the needs of their times.

Although the Torah commands us to follow these gezayrot, there are distinctions between a rabbinic decree and a Torah law. One of the distinctions is that when there is a doubt concerning a Torah law one must be stringent, whereas if there is a doubt in a rabbinic decree one may be lenient. [In case of an actual dilemma, always make sure to ask a rabbi what to do.]

Until the end of the Talmudic Era (approx. 1500 years ago) there was a central rabbinic authority which issued gezayrot which were accepted by all the Jews.4 Since that time, different communities have assumed upon themselves various stringencies, but rarely are there universally accepted gezayrot.

Footnotes
2.

P. 26 in the Kehot prayer-book (available - with English translation - at kehotonline.com.)

3.

See for example Deuteronomy 17:8-11.

4.

For a Rabbinic decree to become part of Judaism it not only had to be issued from a qualified rabbinical court, but the community had to accept it upon themselves as a new institution in Judaism.

Rabbi Silberberg resides in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Chaya Mushka, and their three children.
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Ben brooklyn July 5, 2017

Can anyone please provide some real proof (website article) to the oral torah being unchanged and definitely passed down from Moses? I haven't found decent articles on the subject only decent articles on the opposite.

Peace,
Ben Reply

JW Texas November 24, 2016

finer details from Sinai? Does Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai contain full explanations of all the mitzvot of the written Torah? (y. Meg. 28) Or did Moses receive further revelation in the incidents of Lev 24:10-23; Num 15:32-36, etc? Reply

Eli Feruch June 21, 2015

In all There is a constant lineage of teachers up to our years. Even if huge parts of the Zohar were lost. The oral law is still taught almost as when she was given. Reply

Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org January 5, 2015

To Anonymous Although no one had composed a written text for the purpose of teaching the Oral Law in public. In each generation, the head of the court or the prophet of that generation would take notes of the teachings which he received from his masters for himself, and teach them orally in public. Similarly, individuals would write notes for themselves of what they had heard regarding the explanation of the Torah, its laws, and the new concepts that were deduced in each generation concerning laws that were not communicated by the oral tradition, but rather derived using one of the thirteen principles of biblical exegesis and accepted by the high court. For although there was a prohibition against writing the Oral Torah, it applied only to actually transmitting it through writing. One was however permitted to write it down for personal use.

Rabbi Yehudah and his colleagues, foreseeing future turmoil and the increasing dispersal of the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora, which would then lead to further uncertainties about the Oral Law, set about collecting all the teachings, laws and commentaries that had been heard from Moses and which were taught by the courts in each generation concerning the entire Torah. After analyzing these teachings, Rabbi Yehudah composed a single authoritative text that would be available to everyone. Reply

Anonymous December 27, 2014

How can we prove that the oral Torah is complete and not corrupted? How was it possible for Rabbi Judah the Prince to recall and remember everything mentioned in the Oral Torah from the time of Moses to his own age, given that there was a difference of around 1600 years? And if so, where is the original version, or a copy even close to his time, of this Mishnah that he wrote down? Reply

Deb Anacortes, WA December 14, 2013

Sin Offerings These are two questions....since the Torah is the written rules that Moshe laid down from G-D, then how are Jews atoning for their sins? If you follow some of the Law/teaching, but neglect one element of the Law/teaching, are you not defiling all of the Law/teaching.? How soon will it be before the Temple is rebuilt on Mt. Moriah? Reply

Naftali Silberberg (Author) December 7, 2009

Re: Gezaira Shava Shmuel,

While you are correct in saying that not every individual can find two similar words in the Torah and make his own Gezaira Shava (see Talmud Pesachim 66a), it nevertheless differs from Mosaic tradition in many ways.

Firstly, Maimonides maintains that a Gezaira Ahava need not be a Mosaic tradition at all, it simply requires that the Sanhedrin (Rabbinical Supreme Court in Jerusalem) sanctions it.

And even those, such as Rashi, who maintain that it does require Mosaic tradition, the tradition isn't complete. Rather, at times the tradition is regarding the law, and the rabbis need to find the corresponding words, and at times the tradition is regarding the words, and the rabbis need to find the appropriate law to be learned from them.

For more on this subject (as well as all the sources) see Encyclopedia Talmudis, entry Gezaira Shava (vol. 5 pg. 549). Reply

Shmuel W jerusalem December 7, 2009

13 principles I learned that the principle of Gezira Shava was only used when there was a tradition regarding it. If that's the case then why is it included in the 13 principles? It really is a Halacha L'Moshe M'Sinai. Please explain. Reply

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