Here's a great tip:
Enter your email address and we'll send you our weekly magazine by email with fresh, exciting and thoughtful content that will enrich your inbox and your life, week after week. And it's free.
Oh, and don't forget to like our facebook page too!
Contact Us

5. The “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah”

5. The “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah”


This dual characterization of Torah—Torah as the “given” wisdom and will of G‑d, and Torah as the product of the human mind that receives it and processes it—parallels the Torah’s division into two primary components: the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah.”1

From its very beginnings the Torah included both “written” and “oral” components

From its very beginnings as a divine communication to mankind, the Torah was comprised of these two distinct entities. When G‑d declares that the first Jew, Abraham, “kept My charge, My mitzvoth, My decrees and My Torahs,”2 the Talmud explains the plural “Torahs” as denoting “the Written Torah and the Oral Torah.”3 Maimonides opens his introduction to his codification of Torah law, Mishneh Torah, with the statement (based on Talmud, Berachoth 5a): “All the mitzvoth that that were given to Moses at Sinai were given with their explanation. As it is written,4 ‘I will give the tablets of stone, and the Torah, and the mitzvah.’ ‘The Torah’—this is the Written Torah. ‘And the mitzvah’—this its explanation. And He commanded us to fulfill the Torah in accordance with the mitzvah. This ‘mitzvah’ is what is called the Oral Torah.” Indeed, the two are inseparable, as no text can have any authoritative meaning without an accompanying tradition as to what it means and what are the principles that govern its interpretation.5

The “Written Torah” was transcribed by Moses “from the mouth of the Almighty”6 and is contained within the Torah scroll. The “Oral Torah” incorporates the traditions handed down from Sinai but not (initially) put in writing,7 as well as the interpretations and rulings formulated by the sages of each generation. Specifically, Maimonides enumerates five categories of teachings and laws which the “Oral Torah” includes: 1) The traditional meaning of the text of the Torah as taught by Moses and handed down through the generations. 2) Laws and principles not contained within the text, but taught by Moses as part of the oral tradition. 3) Interpretations and expositions of the text that are logically derived by the sages using the traditional rules and methods of Torah exegesis, with differences of opinion (machaloketh) amongst the sages decided by majority view. 4) Ordinances enacted by the sages of each generation as “safeguards” for the laws of the Torah, in accordance with the authority vested in them by the Torah. 5) Other ordinances enacted by the sages of each generation, in accordance with the authority vested in them by the Torah, for the sake of the common good or in response to the specific needs and circumstances of the time.8

The divinity of Torah is expressed via the Written Torah, and its human element in the deliberations of the Oral Torah

On a most basic level, the Written Torah represents the divine aspect of Torah, while the Oral Torah embodies its human element. But as we have seen—and as will be further discussed below—the Oral Torah is equally “the words of the living G‑d.” And the human element, as we shall see, is not exclusive to the Oral Torah, but has its roots in the Written Torah. Thus, it would be more correct to say that the symbiosis of divine wisdom and human intellect characterizes the whole of Torah, both its written-textual part as well as its oral-expositional part, but with each element finding its primary expression in its respective part: the divinity of Torah is most explicitly expressed via the words of the Written Torah, and its human element is most pronounced in the teachings and deliberations of the Oral Torah.

Likutei Sichoth, vol. 31, p. 137.
Talmud, Yoma 28b.
The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) illustrates this point with the following story: “Once a gentile came before Shammai and asked him: ‘How many Torahs do you have?’ Said he to him: ‘Two, the written Torah and the oral Torah.’ Said he to him: ‘I believe you regarding the written Torah, but not with regard to the oral Torah. I wish to covert to Judaism, with the stipulation that you teach me only the written Torah.’ Shammai scolded him and cast him out with a rebuke. He then came before Hillel, who converted him. On the first day, Hillel taught him the letters aleph, beith, gimel and daleth. On the next day, he reversed them (calling the aleph a beith, etc.). Said he to him: ‘But yesterday you taught me otherwise!’ Said Hillel to him: ‘In the same way that you accept what I say regarding the significance of the letters, accept my word regarding the oral Torah.’”
See citation from Maimonides at the beginning of chapter 1.
Originally the Oral Torah was in fact oral, handed down from teacher to disciple without being officially put in writing. That changed when R. Yehudah ha‑Nasi, foreseeing the expansion of the Jewish diaspora and the end of a single, centralized Sanhedrin (the council of sages which served as the highest authority on Torah law in each generation) to preserve the oral tradition, redacted the Mishnah in approximately 189 ce. The process was repeated some 300 years later when R. Ashi and Ravina redacted the Talmud in the 5th century. In the centuries since, the Torah sages of each generation wrote and published their commentaries, responsa and codifications of Torah law as their contributions to the constantly evolving Oral Torah.
Maimonides’ introduction to the Mishnah.
Yanki Tauber served as editor of
© Copyright, all rights reserved. If you enjoyed this article, we encourage you to distribute it further, provided that you comply with's copyright policy.
Join the Discussion
Sort By:
1 Comment
1000 characters remaining
Stephen Los Angeles, CA, USA September 12, 2014

Passing of Written Torah My question is: Was the Written Torah actually passed down orally - as some scholars suggest - or is there proof of actual documents going back to Moses?

Thank-you! Reply

An excerpt from a larger work, titled The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Philosophy of Torah.
Related Topics