What is the Oral Torah?


The word “Torah” is a loaded term. A dozen people might have a dozen different ideas about what it means. Let’s nail down what the Torah actually is and explore some of why people might have different meanings in their heads for the word. “Torah” comes from the word “Yarah,” which is also in the biblical vocabulary and means to point out, to direct, or to teach. The word “Torah” has a rich meaning, it means law, instruction, and teaching. The meanings of law and instruction are tightly woven together in the minds of the biblical authors. The word is most often translated into English as law but is often translated as “instruction” or “teaching.” Even when it’s translated as “law,” it always carries the undertones of instruction and teaching. It’s important to note that there are other words for “law” in the biblical vocabulary. “Torah” is the word for “law” that the authors used to bring up the connotation of laws for the sake of instruction. The biblical authors use the same Hebrew word “Torah” to refer to the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible. These 5 books include all the laws God gave to Israel through Moses and are situated right in the center of a story.

The Torah section of the Tanakh/ Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament) is the 5 books of Moses. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

Torah: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy

When later biblical authors used the word “Torah” they were almost always talking about the collection of books, not the commandments given in the books (Josh. 1:8, 2 Kings 14:6). It makes sense that you’d call the book with all the instructional laws in it the “book of the Law [Torah].” Today we commonly use the term “Torah” in the same way, we say “Torah” to refer to those 5 books. In Rabbinic Judaism, these 5 books and, the laws in them, are considered part of the Torah, but other laws passed down orally are also part of the Torah. So to Rabbinic Judaism, the Torah is made up of the written Torah (Genesis-Deuteronomy) and also the body of laws called the Oral Torah. 

Oral Law

What does this body of Oral Law consist of?  The Oral Torah teaches that it wasn’t supposed to be written down (Shemot Rabbah 47.1). Instead, it was to be taught orally from generation to generation. But, in the second century CE, the sages, who were the elders and respected teachers in Judaism, began to write this oral tradition down starting with a book called the Mishnah, which contains the laws.  Next, they wrote down commentaries on these laws, called the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara make up the many volumes of the Talmud. There are actually two different Talmuds written down around the same time. The first was written in Jerusalem, and the second was written in Babylon. The Babylonian Talmud is studied more widely today, although both are very much accepted.

The Oral Torah’s writings are divided into “Halacha” and “Aggadah”. The parts that explain how to live are called Halacha (literally law). When it is a story, or non-Halacha, it is called Aggadah. The Talmud is made of the Mishnah and the Gemara, The laws and the commentary. But it doesn’t stop with the Talmud. Various sages and Rabbis have written many more books over the past two millennia attempting to organize and expound the now written “oral” traditions. Today we can find these traditions documented in the Shulchan Aruch, the Tur, Chafetz Chaim, Mishnah Brurah, Mishneh Torah, Zohar, and countless more.

Oral Torah vs Written Torah

The book of Exodus in the written Torah records Moses going up Mt. Sinai and God giving all the laws for Israel to Moses (Exodus 24:4-7). These laws made up a covenant between God and Israel. They weren’t just stand-a-lone commands to keep. God was clear when he gave this contract to Israel that these laws are all part of one body of laws. All of them were to be kept, none could be taken out, and none could be added.

“You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, so that you may keep the commandments of YHWH your God which I am commanding you.”

(Deuteronomy 4:2)

Moreover, the Oral Torah speaks at length about the written Torah, as you would expect if they are 2 parts of a whole. But the Torah is absolutely silent about the Oral Torah. The written Torah and the whole Hebrew Bible never mention the Oral Torah even once. No figure in the Torah or entire Hebrew Bible ever says anything about the Oral Torah or is shown obeying any of its laws.

Many observant Jewish people today think the Oral Torah was not actually given at Mt. Sinai but was created later. However, as you just read, that belief can’t be consistent with the Torah. Because absolutely no laws can be added to the Torah. The Torah itself says no laws can be added, and other places in the Tanakh hammer that point home.

“Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him. Do not add to His words Or He will rebuke you, and you will be proved a liar.”

(Proverbs 30:5-6)

The misconception that the Oral Torah was created later comes from the idea that the Oral Torah must make a fence or boundary around the Torah.  In the Torah, there are laws that Jewish people must not break. So part of the Oral Torah’s job is to have stricter laws to keep you from breaking the Torah’s laws. Suppose a law in the Torah was “no diving at a pool” to keep anyone from accidentally breaking that law the Oral Torah might clarify, “no one may jump in a pool you can only use the stairs or ladder.” It’s a silly example but illustrates the point of having a group of boundaries around the Torah.

Each generation of Rabbis is supposed to make new laws in the Oral Torah to create a fence around the Torah for every generation. But this is something of a paradox because the Oral Torah teaches that the entire Oral Torah was actually given to Moses at Mt. Sinai along with the written Torah. How do you create a new law, if that law was already told to Moses and then passed down orally to you?

“When God revealed Himself at Sinai to give the Torah to Israel, He taught to Moses the following order: Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and Aggadah, as it says: ‘God taught all these words, saying’, even what a student will ask his teacher. God then said to Moses, after he had learnt it from the mouth of God, ‘Teach it to Israel’”

(Shemot Rabbah 47:1 – Oral Law – )

So the idea is that God gave Moses the written Torah first and the Oral Torah next. According to the Oral Torah, even everything the Rabbis would later add to set up as a fence around the Torah was actually given to Moses at Mt. Sinai. So they set it up as a fence around the Torah because it was passed down to them from their ancestors who got it from their ancestors who got it from Moses, who got it from God.

There is an insurmountable problem with the Oral Torah being given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, though. In the written Torah, it says over and over again that Moses wrote down everything God commanded Moses.

So Moses wrote this Law [Torah] and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi who carried the ark of the covenant of YHWH and to all the elders of Israel. Then Moses commanded them, saying, ‘At the end of every seven years, at the time of the year of the release of debts, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before YHWH your God at the place which He will choose, you shall read this Law before all Israel so that they hear it. Assemble the people, the men, the women, the children, and the stranger who is in your town, so that they may hear and learn and fear YHWH your God, and be careful to follow all the words of this Law.’”

(Deuteronomy 31:9-12; emphasis mine)

This is strong evidence that according to the Torah, the entirety of the Torah was written down. In other words, the Torah claims that Moses wrote down the entire contract God gave him. According to this passage, there was not any part of the law that was not written down. How do we know that? It says that Moses wrote down the Torah and that every seven years, the priests were charged with reading the Torah to all of Israel. Why would they read it to Israel? Well, it tells us why “so that they may hear and so that they may learn and fear YHWH your God and be careful to do all the words of this law [Torah]” (Deut. 31:12). In other words, if the people heard the Torah read to them, they would be able to keep all the words of the Torah. That means there were no rules the people needed to keep that were not written down. How else could all the laws be read?

It’s clear that according to the written Torah, the Oral Torah cannot be legitimate if it is an addition to what God commanded Moses at Sinai (Deuteronomy 4:2). But even though many Jewish people think the Oral Torah is a later creation, the Oral Torah actually teaches that it was given to Moses at Sinai. But the written Torah is crystal clear that everything God commanded Moses he wrote down (Exodus 24:7, Deuteronomy 31:9-13, and Joshua 8:34-35, 1 Kings 2:2-3)

The Oral Torah replaced the written Torah

Even though the idea of an Oral Torah contradicts what the Torah teaches, the sages claim that you need the Oral Torah to understand the written Torah. Let’s take a look at a story in the Talmud about the respected sage Hillel convincing a convert that the Oral Torah is necessary to properly understand the written Torah. The Sages taught:

“There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains. “

(Shabbat 31 a – Oral Law- )

Hillel helped his student realize that for everything we’ve learned, at some point, we relied on a teacher to explain the meaning to us. You wouldn’t know how to read if someone didn’t explain the interpretation to you. Hillel is right, at some point in your education, you just relied on what you benefitted from some sort of oral tradition. Otherwise, you wouldn’t know how to read or write. So, according to Hillel, since you need someone to teach you how to read and write, you also need someone to explain to you what the written Torah is about. Obviously, that conclusion does not follow. You learned how to read at some point in your life so that you could learn things on your own by reading. You do not need to go back to the person who taught you how to read to explain the meaning of everything you read. That would defeat the whole purpose of learning how to read in the first place.

 In Judaism, as it is known today, whether orthodox, conservative, or reform, nearly all the traditions come from the Oral Torah, not the written Torah, from Bar Mitzvahs and Kippahs to the Kashrut laws. None of it appears in the Torah.

“Our theology is not the theology of the OT. The tradition that we follow today is not the tradition of the OT, it’s the tradition of the Sages. Shabbat laws, kashrut laws, you name it, it’s not in the Scriptures, not in the OT. In the OT, there is no Synagogue no Kaddish, no Kol Nidre, no Bar Mitzvah, no Tallit. Everything that somebody would define as Jewish and look for its root; it’s not the OT it’s the Sages’ literature. That’s where everything started.”

– Professor Avigdor Shinan

Not only is the Oral Torah inconsistent with the Torah, it actually seeks to replace the Torah. The sages heavily discourage Jewish people from studying the Torah and instead push them to spend their time studying the Talmud. The Talmud says the following,

“For those who engage in the study of Bible, it is a virtue but not a complete virtue. For those who engage in the study of Mishna, it is a virtue and they receive reward for its study. For those who engage in the study of Talmud, you have no virtue greater than that.”

(Bava Metzia 33a – Oral Law-)

In other words, studying the Bible is fine, but really you should study the Talmud because there is nothing better than studying Talmud. Rashi, one of the most recognized sages in Judaism, added to this, “Do not let them get used to learning the Bible” Along the same line of thinking, Maimonides explained that one should not learn anything except for Talmud his entire life “he should focus his attention on the Gemara alone for his entire life” (Hilchos Talmud Torah: Chapter 1:12).

The Torah is a word that means law. It carries connotations of instructive law, or laws that teach you something. Since the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible contain all the laws God gave to Israel, it’s called the Torah. The Oral Torah is an ever-growing body of laws that claims that they were all given to Moses at Mt. Sinai and were supposed to be transmitted by mouth only and are necessary for correctly understanding the Torah. The written Torah teaches that Moses wrote down all the laws that God gave to Israel, every one of them and that there could be no laws added later. The written Torah and the Oral Torah are not compatible.

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