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What is the “Oral Torah”? What role does the rabbinic tradition play vis-à-vis the Bible? The dialectical interplay, sanctioned at Sinai, between the Oral Torah and the Written Torah.

Lesson 3. The Written and the Oral Torah

Lesson 3. The Written and the Oral Torah

Scroll Down - Part 3

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Jochanan Colombia November 9, 2016

Todah Rabah! Thank you, Dr. Chigel, once more, and again for your time and dedication in this subject. I have greatly appreciated that you avoided me to delve into the historical circumlocution of Yochanan Girchan and the so questioned validity of the Pharisee priesthood in the second temple. For the same historical reasons, the Sanhedrin was affected and both Judges and Kohanim have no significance in the context of the last 1650 years. If you Please, my understanding of the full context just before Deuteronomy 17: 6-9 clearly indicates to me that one will go to judges and Kohanim when a man or woman has committed an abomination, like worshiping ellilim in the land of Yisrael, against the instruction in Ha Torah of YHVH and such Abomination is punishable with the ultimate punishment. It says nothing of going to Judges and Kohanim for something else. Then, please illustrate me if Judges and Kohanim are also subjects of a tradition beyond what is written and ordered by Moshe Avinu. Reply

Michael Chighel Jerusalem November 8, 2016

During the latter part of the Second Temple period (160 BCE-70CE), the authority of the Kohanim as designated in Deut. 17 atrophied in a rather organic historical way. For a number of reasons, it was eclipsed by the ever-increasing authority of a group of sages known as the Pharisees. By the year 70, with the Temple's destruction, the Kohanim were left utterly "unemployed" and with little authority. So it's very true that this still holds of Kohanim today.

As for the Judges designed in the same verse, they never disappeared from history. And their authority was only diminished in scope. In 358 CE, the great body of judges known as the Sanhedrin convened for the last time. Since then, there are many halakhic laws that can be neither passed nor enforced; e.g. capital punishment. Nevertheless, judges do sit on a tribunal (Bet Din) until today.

Moreover, the study of Law (judgement) has been an ongoing and never interrupted process since Moses. So Deut. 17 is still quite valid. Reply

Jochanan Hernández Colombia October 27, 2016

Dear Dr. Chighel. Thanks, once more. Please, allow me to remark respectfully on your last answer, that even if you are right, today we do not have neither kohanim nor judges, not even a temple to go to. Do you mean that Rabbis replace the Kohanim? or that any schule replaces The Temple? I do not think so. Teaching to think upon what is read, I can understand and accept from an educated teacher, like most Rabbis are. But even sound and respected scientists like Stephen Hawking have incurred in absurdities and blunders like saying that the universe came to be in existence by itself, out of nothing, just because The Creator does not exist, or it is simply unthinkable. You do not have to be a PhD or educated to understand that Mr. Hawking is dead wrong. But, of course, where there are two Jews together, there are three opinions at least. Thanking you truly from the bottom of my heart, for your answers. Todah Rabah V Baruchot, Shalom. Reply

Michael Chighel Jerusalem October 26, 2016

Dear Jochanan, as I mention all too briefly in the video, the key text is Deuteronomy 17:8-9. "If a case is too baffling for you to decide ... you shall promptly repair to the place that the Lord your G-d will have chosen, and appear before the levitical priests, or the judge in charge at the time [הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם] ...." There is more to say about this verse than a short note can contain, of course. But I hope the verse suggests clearly enough that the truth of the Torah is entrusted to the educated human decisions of kohanim and judges. And not just entrusted but com-manded, both in the simple and in the etymological sense of the word. Human judgement is part and parcel of the divine plan. Reply

Jochanan Hernández Colombia October 26, 2016

Dear Dr. Chigel: once more, thank you for your patience and time to answer. The October 25 answer was indeed ingenious. Please, forgive me if You may, for returning back onto this theme, that is indeed crucial to one's faith. Let me assure you that I am not pretending to convince you of anything. However, In your fascinating lesson you explain clearly that it is one's responsibility to choose which rabbi to follow, very much the same as to which doctor I choose, especially if he / she is needed to perform on me a heart operation. These themes are even more delicate for me, for it is an operation of brain and faith. Where in HaTorah are Rabbs appointed with HaShem "imprimatur" to decide what HaShem's will is, or meant in such or such line. With all due respect, isn't it what we criticize to the christian's Pope and his so-called "infallibility", is it? In my opinion, it is quite arrogant to pretend (humanly) the understanding of HaShem's mind and reasoning. We are not His pairs. Reply

Michael Chighel Jerusalem October 25, 2016

"Do not add to the word [הַדָּבָר] which I command you, nor diminish from it, to observe the commandments of the Lord your G-d which I command you." (Deuteronomy 4:2)

For a Karaite, for whom the written word exhausts the meaning of the "davar" (הַדָּבָר) mentioned in this verse, the Oral Law must indeed seem like an addition. For a traditional Jew, "davar" has always included the Oral Torah. There was never a Written Torah without an Oral Torah; in which case there is no addition to speak of.

Moreover, while the term "davar" often means "word," it just as often means "thing" or "matter," "issue," etc.. In Hebrew, there is no clear-cut distinction between "word" and "thing"; at least not in so far as דבר is concerned (see e.g. Gen. 12:17, 18:14, 19:21 etc.). So Deut. 4:2 could also be translated: ""Do not add to the matter which I command you ..." And in the traditional view, again, the "matters" brought up at Sinai were both written and discussed. Reply

Jochanan Hernández Colombia October 7, 2016

Dear Dr. Chighel: Thank you, both for your answer as the lesson in humility. I concur in the fact that I should not talk about being a karaite and have a 'tradition' for it is indeed an oxymoron, very much like having circular triangles, or having a written 'oral' instruction, for the same matter. Following the same line of thoughts, the 'instruction' at Devarim 6 would indicate that we must "Shemah" not "לִכתוֹב" - write the instructions... but please, forgive my ignorance. In my poor point of view, writing the oral Torah would contradict the order - mitzvot - of just hearing and repeating. Therefore comes into scene the specific order at Devarim 4:2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish from it, that ye may keep the commandments of YHVH, your God, which I command you. Then, the explanations of the written Oral Torah would violate the instruction itself. Is not it in itself contradictory? HaShem does not contradict Himself, Does He? Reply

Anonymous October 1, 2016

Just a technical remark. On 3:26 there is just a simple mistake - instead of quoting Proverbs 22:17, it is quoted Proverbs 22:10. Reply

Patricia Baker Raeford, NC June 29, 2016

Your wit on the Written/Oral is wonderful. Following you on this subject is different and easy to understand. Thank u sooooch.. Reply

Anne-Marie Dheere Cyprus June 22, 2016

The most amazing issue is that the more one delves into the Torah whether it is the Oral or the Written Torah the more my curiosity grows, my thirst for learning increases; a never ending process of trying to connect with the "Truth" of what was handed down to the Israelites. A most amazing, fascinating presentation. Thank you Rabbi Chighel. Always looking forward to more enlightened discussions. Reply

Michael Chighel Jerusalem June 20, 2016

Re family members around the table telling a story, I certainly have the experience myself. I'm sure everyone does.

The question is, can this relaxed family scenario be compared to the Oral Torah? If you look into the mechanics of the Oral Torah, you'll find the comparison doesn't hold.

The rabbis ("masters") in charge of the Oral Torah were in no way relaxed about their God-given assignment. Oral Torah is not a family get-together or a game of Broken Telephone. It's an intense discipline, requiring all one's mental faculties. And even after much training, only very few rabbis qualified as expert enough to transmit the Oral Torah -- Tannaim. Fewer than the athletes who qualify for the Olympics. Fewer than Nobel Prize winners.

Could there have been mis-heard points anyway? To be sure. The Talmudic rabbis were human. But just as a football fan doesn't kid himself about how hard it is to be a Pro Football player, we must not kid ourselves about what it meant to be a Tanna. Reply

Michael Chighel Jerusalem June 20, 2016

Dear Yochanan Hernández,

Thank you for your respectful disagreement. Please allow me to disagree with equal respect.

You say you are a Karaite who belongs to the "Sephardi tradition." Is this not self-contradictory? If you adhere to the strict letter of the Torah, how can you have any "tradition" whatsoever?

But of course the problem goes deeper. You say that you "understand that Hashem Himself spoke directly to the people of Yisrael several times before giving the Written Torah, as it is described in Shemot 19:16." But where is there any mention in Exodus of a Written Torah? Exodus only speaks of the Ten Commandments. The very notion that a Written Torah was handed over at Mt Sinai is itself an oral tradition.

In general, if there were no oral tradition, one must wonder how you read the Torah at all. How did you learn Hebrew? The text can't teach you. Which is why no one could read Hieroglyphics before the Rosetta Stone was deciphered: there was no tradition.

Please consider the following story from the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) ...

The rabbis taught: It happened that a gentile came before Shammai and asked: “How many Torah’s do you have?” Shammai replied, “Two. A Written Torah and an Oral Torah.” The gentile said: “I trust you regarding the Written Torah, but I do not trust you regarding the Oral Torah. Convert me on condition that you teach me the Written Torah.” Shammai admonished him and angrily removed him. The gentile came before Hillel. He converted him [by means of the following lesson]. The first day, Hillel taught him “Alef-Bet-Gimel-Daled.” The next day, he reversed the order [of the letters]. The convert said to him, “But yesterday you did not say that!” Hillel said to him, “Didn’t you rely on me then? Rely on me regarding the Oral Law as well. Reply

Michael Chighel Jerusalem June 20, 2016

Shmuel notes a very important qualifier, which actually runs quite deep.

The etymological root of "Rabbi" is indeed "rav," which does indeed mean "big." See e.g. Genesis 25:23. The main problem with rendering "rabbi" in English as "master" is that the counterpart of that can also be "slave," rather than pupil. (Unlike "maître" in French.)

So indeed the Japanese term "sensei" is a better approximation of "Rabbi." One of my favorite illustrations for this is the scene in the original Karate Kid (1984), where the master makes the disciple wash and wax cars. "Wax on! Wax off!" The disciple does not understand what waxing cars has to to with learning Karate. But because he does humbly submit to the master's higher wisdom, he gets it in the end.

Likewise, when you take someone on as your Rabbi (see Pirke Avot 1:6), you are willingly making yourself small before the greater quotient of your master's wisdom. Something you don't do with every "teacher."

Yahar Koach, Shmuel! Reply

S U.K. June 19, 2016

Dear Mr Chighel,

Thank you for your response to my discussion participation. I still feel inclined to think that the oral Torah was also known by the Israelites prior to leaving Egypt, otherwise these individuals would not of known who the G-d of their fathers was or the hereditary covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even though I can accept that the oral Torah at this time, was not as comprehensive as both the written and oral Torah given at Sinai. HaShem gave clearer instructions at Sinai, due to the lifespan of mankind diminishing, where the forefathers had a greater longevity. Reply

Anonymous Florida June 19, 2016

Your short and visually exciting lessons are easy to attend to. Many times, educators make videos that aren't in bite-sized chunks like yours and they lose their audience. I've watched every "episode" so far.
My question about Oral Torah is this: ask family members around the table to tell a story about something that happened in the family. My experience is that everyone remembers what they heard differently.
Maybe I missed this in your video but how was/is the integrity of the Oral Torah intact after all this time with so many rabbis teaching it? We can't even get family stories right! Reply

Shmuel Jerusalem June 19, 2016

Technically,I think Rav means "Master" not "teacher." The Eastern "Guru" or "Sensei" are really equivalents, and have very similar linguistic meaning. Rav comes from the root "great," or "big". Reply

Shmuel Jerusalem June 19, 2016

Amazing class! Very fun. Todros: There are lots of English translations... These are geared towards explaining well... google on amazon "Shotenstein Talmud" .. they also sell an app on artscroll.

There are excellent video and audio Mishna/Talmud/aggadita/chassidus etc.. classes on this site.. also many Oral texts on the Chabad site as well (Rambam's law code, for instance).. all of those subjects fall under: Oral Torah.... Here is a site with Oral Torah books: hebrewbooks. org Over 50 million on pdf!! Many are in English, but most English with no copyright aren't the best learning tools. Reply

BRENDAN EWY Denver June 18, 2016

I would like to present a conjecture to the statement that the oral Torah's a retro fit. Contreras the tablet begot the Torah. the Torah begot the oral Torah. G_D's connection with man, the JEW. was very strong with Moses as G_D's chosen one, and he introduced the oral Torah to his people as instructed by G_D. So we should have creed to it's existence and honer it, even though it wasn't intended to become published. Reply

Laudia 15206 June 18, 2016

thank you very much Reply

יוחנן הרננדז Santiago de Cali June 18, 2016

Dear Dr. Chighel: I am Sephardic by tradition. I am a karaite by definition. To see is to believe, in spite of acknowledging the existence of those who trick your eyes as your mind. I understand that Hashem Himself spoke directly to the people of Yisrael several times before giving the written HaTorah, as it is described in Shemot 19:16 on. Although, I sympathized with your explanation of a living Torah and the need of 'adjusting' the instruction and therefore the teachers since the Yisraelim themselves 'feared' the voice of Hashem as it is described ahead in Shemot 20:15 on, to the point that finally Hashem gives up in speaking directly to the Bney Yisrael. With all due respect, is not the "Oral Torah" void of meaning by the fact that it is not "oral" anymore? It sounds very much like saying "squared circles" something illogical and Hashem is the logic itself. Why was not recorded the fact that there would be an "oral instruction" if it was meant to be given? Reply

Scroll Down is designed to initiate auditors into a first acquaintance with the Torah and with Jewish history and ideas. The video lessons are presented at an introductory level of Jewish Studies at college.
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