Torah for the Nations: Judaism 101
5. The Written and Oral Torah
Giving of the Torah
As we saw in Judaism 101 Module 3: The Torah and the Noahide Code , fifty days after their miraculous departure from Egypt, assembled at Mount Sinai in the Wilderness, the Children of Israel - some two million people including men, women and children - attained a collective prophetic experience that brought them all to EMUNAH, the AFFIRMATION of G-d and acceptance of His RULE, the law of the Torah.
The details of the Torah were given to Moses through direct prophecy from G-d while he remained on Mount Sinai for forty days following this collective prophetic experience, as well as on certain other occasions during the forty years in which the Children of Israel were in the wilderness.
Moses wrote down the complete text of the Torah in the Five Books of Moses (Hebrew: Hamishah Humshey Torah), which he taught to the elders of Israel and the rest of the people, together with their meaning and practical guidelines as to how to apply all the laws contained in them.
The Five Books of Moses are known as the Written Torah (Hebrew: Torah she-bi-ktav). The Written Torah also includes the books of the other prophets of Israel (Nevi'im) and holy writings (Ketuvim). For more details, see Module 6: Milestones of Torah Literature.
The Torah Scroll
The Five Books of Moses are traditionally written by a scribe (Hebrew: sofer) in ink on sheets of parchment prepared from the skins of ritually pure (kosher) animals such as sheep, cows or deer. The parchment sheets are sewn together to make one long scroll, which is attached at its beginning and end to wooden poles, around which the scroll is wound.
From generation to generation, scribes made faithful copies of existing Torah scrolls, taking the greatest care to avoid all mistakes. Each new copy must be checked over for accuracy after completion and corrected if necessary. Only a hand-written, perfectly accurate Torah scroll may be used for the synagogue Torah reading, although printed Torah texts are routinely used for everyday study. A Torah scroll that has even a single letter missing or improperly written is considered invalid and may not be used for the public Torah reading in the synagogue until it has been corrected.
The hand-written Torah scrolls we have in our hands today are faithful copies of the original, authentic Torah text given to Moses. Torah scrolls from diverse Jewish communities across the world contain the exact same text (except for a tiny number of known discrepancies in the spellings of one or two words which do not change their meaning in any way).
The Written Torah and the Oral Torah
Included under the general category of The Torah is not only the Written Torah (Hebrew: Torah she-bi-ktav ) but also the Oral Torah (Hebrew: Torah she-be-al Peh , literally "Torah that is by mouth").
The Oral Torah includes laws, traditions, explanations and many other teachings that were not explicitly recorded in the Five Books of Moses but are nonetheless accepted by Torah-observant Jews as binding. This code of conduct encompasses worship and rituals, our relationship with G-d and between one person and another, dietary laws, Sabbath and festival observance, marriage and family life, agriculture, business, civil and criminal law and laws relating to the Temple and its services.
It is an article of Jewish faith that the Oral Torah was given to Moses at Mount Sinai together with the Written Torah as its necessary complement, and that both are equally binding.
Thus, at the time of the Giving of the Torah, it is written:
"And G-d said to Moses: Come up to Me to the mountain and be there; and I will give you the tablets of stone and the Torah and the Mitzvah (commandment) that I have written, so that you may teach them" (Exodus 24:12).
Explaining the terms "Torah" and "Mitzvah" in this verse, Rambam (Rabbi Moses Maimonides) writes in the Introduction to his Mishneh Torah law code:
"The 'Torah' refers to the Written Law; the 'Mitzvah' to its explanation. G-d commanded us to fulfill the 'Torah' according to the instructions contained in the 'mitzvah'. The 'mitzvah' is called the Oral Law...
"Moses our teacher personally transcribed the entire Torah before he died. He gave a Torah scroll to each tribe and placed another scroll in the ark as a testimonial, as it says: 'Take this Torah scroll and place it beside the ark... and it will be there as a testimonial' (Deuteronomy 31:26). The 'mitzvah' - i.e., the explanation of the Torah - he did not transcribe. Instead, he commanded it orally by word of mouth to the elders, to Joshua and to the totality of Israel , as it says: 'Be careful to observe everything that I prescribe to you' ( Deuteronomy 13:1 ). For this reason, it is called the Oral Law.
"Even though the Oral Law was not put down in writing, Moses our teacher taught it in its entirety in his court to the seventy elders. Elazar , Pinchas , and Joshua received the tradition from Moses. Moses transmitted the Oral Law to Joshua, who was his primary disciple, giving him instructions about it. Joshua too throughout his life taught the Oral Law. Many elders received the tradition from him. Eli the High Priest received the tradition from the elders and from Pinchas. Samuel the Prophet received the tradition from Eli and his court, and King David received the tradition from Samuel and his court."
From the time of King David onwards, the tradition continued to be taught by the sages of each generation to those of the next. This was so throughout the period of the First Temple and following its destruction, during the Babylonian exile, as well as throughout the period of the Second Temple (see Judaism 101 Module 4: Torah Timeline ). After the destruction of the Second Temple, leading sages and rabbis continued the transmission of the tradition until it came to Rabbi Judah the Prince (2nd century C.E.).
The severe persecutions and geographical dispersal endured by the Jews at that time were a threat to the future transmission of the Oral Torah. Accordingly Rabbi Judah the Prince collected, edited and wove together all the different oral traditions relating to the entire array of Torah law, setting them down in writing and organizing them by subject in a single work called the Mishnah (= "Second", i.e. second only to the Written Torah). The term Mishnah also has the connotation of something repeated again and again, as Torah students would constantly repeat and review the words of the Mishnah in order to imprint them on their minds and in their very hearts. For more details about the Mishnah and its contents, see Judaism 101 Module 6: Milestones of Torah Literature.
In this way, the Oral Torah was for the first time written down and preserved in the Mishnah and in later derivative works.
Why we need the Oral Torah
Nothing is more unique to Judaism than the Oral Torah.
The Written Torah has been translated into all the languages of the world and its apparent, surface meaning is thus known to many people in the form of the so-called "Old Testament". But no translation of the Hebrew text of the Torah into any other language can convey more than a faint shadow of the endless levels of meaning and allusion in the original as revealed in the Oral Torah. These are unknown except among Jews who study the Written Torah in the light of the interpretations, explanations and discussions in the Oral Torah.
To outsiders, the Oral Torah is often seen as obscure and inaccessible, involving many detailed regulations which may seem burdensome and as having no obvious root in the Written Torah. Throughout history, a feeling of exclusion has in some cases turned such outsiders into vindictive opponents of the Oral Torah, which they have maligned and rejected as if it was elaborated or even invented by humans, which in their eyes would make it non-binding.
The truth is that the Written Torah is incomplete without the Oral Torah.
It is impossible even to read the Hebrew text of the Written Torah correctly without knowing the accompanying oral tradition, because the Hebrew letters in the Torah scroll must be written without any vowel signs indicating how each word is to be pronounced or cantillation notes indicating how each phrase and verse is to be declaimed. The correct vowels, sentence breaks and cantillation are known to us only through the Oral Torah.
The Hebrew of the Torah text is terse, precise and laden with nuances. It is impossible to understand the true meaning of the Hebrew text without the explanations we have received from the Oral Torah.
The Torah commands us to "bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be for adornments between your eyes, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:8-9). We need a precise instructions as to how this is to be done.
The Torah commands: "...on the fifteenth day of the seventh month... take the fruit of the tree of splendor, branches of palms, boughs of the thick tree and willows of the brook" (Leviticus 23:39-40). We need guidance as to the identity of the requisite species and how much of each we must take.
We need guidance in identifying the various species of animals and birds which the Torah permits or forbids for consumption or requires for other purposes.
The Torah commands to "slaughter of your oxen and your flocks... as I have commanded you " (Deuteronomy 12:21), but nowhere in the Written Torah do we find specific instructions about how to perform ritual slaughter of animals ( shechitah ), so here is a clear reference to an aspect of the Oral Torah that was given to Israel together with the Written Torah.
The Oral Torah includes:
Halachah LeMoshe MiSinai (="Law to Moses from Sinai"), specific laws that were given to Moses orally on Mount Sinai
Rulings derived from the Hebrew Torah text through rules of interpretation which the sages received by tradition
Precedents instituted by later sages in cases where no explicit instructions are contained in the Torah text
Decrees instituted by later sages to serve as a protective fence around the laws of the Torah in order to distance people from their possible infringement
Traditional customs of the people of Israel in modest conduct, marriage and divorce, business activity and many other areas
A wealth of lore, legend and accumulated traditions relating to matters of faith and belief, Torah interpretation, wisdom for life and an endless variety of other subjects