Oral law

The Written law [Tanakh] makes it clear that it was being transmitted side by side with an oral tradition. Many terms and definitions used in the written law are undefined. Many fundamental concepts such as shekhita (slaughtering of animals in a kosher fashion), divorce and the rights of the firstborn are all assumed as common knowledge by text, and are not elaborated upon. The Oral Law, then, is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its commandments are to be carried out. – Wikipedia, Oral Torah

Pages of Talmud

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes:

Common sense suggests that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone is an insufficient guide to carrying out the laws in practice. For example, the fourth of the Ten Commandments, ordains, “Remember the Sabbath day to make it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From the Sabbath’s inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against lighting a fire, going away from one’s dwelling, cutting down a tree, and plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining from these few activities fulfill the biblical command to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals that are most commonly associated with holiness – lighting of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading of the weekly Torah portion – are found not in the Torah, but in the Oral Law.

The Torah also is silent on many important subjects. The Torah has nothing to say concerning a marriage ceremony. To be sure, the Torah presumes that people will get married “Therefore shall a man leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) – but nowhere in the Torah is a marriage ceremony recorded. Only in the Oral Law do we find details on how to perform a Jewish wedding. {Telushkin}

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (see Deuteronomy 6:4).

“Bind them for a sign upon your hand,” the last verse instructs. Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

Despite its name, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in law collections known as the Mishna and the two Talmuds. It used to be passed along orally, but after many centuries it was finally written down so that information wouldn’t be lost.

Strangely enough, the Oral Law today is a written law, codified in the Mishna and Talmud. Orthodox Judaism believes that most of the oral traditions recorded in these books dates back to God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. When God gave Moses the Torah, Orthodoxy teaches, He simultaneously provided him all the details found in the Oral Law. It is believed that Moses subsequently transmitted that Oral Law to his successor, Joshua, who transmitted it to his successor, in a chain that is still being carried on (Ethics of the Fathers 1:1).

Given this chain of authority, one might wonder why the Mishna and Talmud are filled with strong debates between rabbis,who have very different understandings of what the law shoud be. Shouldn’t they have all been recipients of the same, unambiguous tradition Orthodox teachers respond that the debates came about either because students forgot some of the details transmitted by their teachers, or because the Oral Law lacks specific teachings on the issue being discussed.

– Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People and Its History. William Morrow and Co.

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