QA: Judaism’s Oral tradition

Q: “Is Judaism’s Oral tradition as defined in the Talmud and the Mishnah unscriptural?  Are they merely man-made Rabbinical rules?”


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The Oral Tradition

by Rabbi Chaim Richman

Excerpt from: The Mystery of the Red Heifer


© 1997 Light to the Nations, Rabbi Chaim Richman – All Rights Reserved

One of the most important foundations of Jewish faith is the belief that God gave Moses an oral explanation of the Torah along with the written text. This Oral Tradition was given directly by God at the Revelation of Mount Sinai. We are taught that when Moses was with God for forty days and forty nights (Ex. 24:18), the Holy One taught him a set of rules and principles of the Torah which could be applied to every eventuality and situation that could arise in the course of time. God also revealed to Moses all the details of how the commandments should be observed. Among these, He revealed many things which would not be used until much later. While Moses was on the mount, God taught him the Written Torah during the day, and the Oral Torah at night. This is how Moses was able to distinguish between day and night while he was with God, since “Moses entered the cloud where the Divine was revealed” (Ex. 20:18).

Thus when we speak of the Torah, we actually refer to “two” Torahs, which are one and the same: the Written Torah, known as the Tanach (from the acronym of the Torah-the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings, sometimes called the Old Testament) and the Oral Torah. Both are alluded to in God’s words to Moses: “Come up to Me to the mountain, and I will give you the Torah and the commandments” (Ex. 24:12).

This provides the explanation for the many, many instances where the Torah refers to details which are not included in the written text – as if we must be aware of these details from some other source. These details can all be found in the Oral Tradition. We shall see that in this manner many of the details pertaining to the red heifer are recorded in the Oral Tradition.

Some Other Important Examples:

The Bible states “You shall slaughter your cattle…as I have commanded you” (Deut. 12:21), which clearly implies that there is a commandment concerning ritual slaughtering. In fact, these rules comprise one of the most complicated areas of Jewish law. Yet the details concerning ritual slaughtering, the kosher method of killing animals by which Jews are permitted to eat meat, are nowhere to be found in the written text…for it is an oral commandment.

Similarly, complicated observances such as tzizit (fringes-see Num. 15:38) and tefillin (phylacteries – Deut. 6:8) are given in the Biblical verses, but no instructions for their fulfillment are listed. These details, too, were commanded and clarified within the framework of the Oral Tradition.

Even the most basic cornerstone of Jewish life, the Sabbath, does not receive any clarification within the written text as to just how it is to be kept. Yet the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments! This is why God said, “You shall keep the Sabbath holy, as I have commanded your fathers…” (Jer. 17:22) – meaning, as I have commanded them in the Oral Tradition.

The Oral Tradition and the Tanach are Equally Divine

The Jewish people depend on the Oral Tradition for the interpretation of the Torah. Indeed, as we have illustrated above, the Bible simply cannot be understood without it. These examples show that the written text could even be perceived as being defective unless it is supplemented by the information contained in the Oral Tradition. This is why believing in the Divine source of the Oral Tradition is so important for the Jewish people…for if it is denied that this tradition is God-given, this can lead to the denial of the Divine origins of the written text as well. Thus, if one does not believe in the Oral Tradition, he is regarded as one who does not accept any aspect of the Torah.

Originally, this tradition was meant to be transmitted by word of mouth only, throughout the ages. It was always handed down from master to student. Since the time of Moses, it had been passed down in this manner in every generation. This process ensured that this information was transmitted in a clear manner. Any student who had a question was always able to ask, as opposed to studying from a text which is only written-it can always be misinterpreted.

The Oral Tradition is Committed to Writing

However, during the era of the Roman empire, decrees were passed which forbade teaching the Jewish faith and spreading knowledge of the God of Israel. The great sages of Israel were persecuted, tortured and killed for the crime of teaching. At this time, it was feared that all those who possessed this knowledge would perish, and it was decided that the traditions could be committed to writing. This vast body of information was compiled and preserved in the Talmud and Midrashim, but this entire area of knowledge is still referred to as the Oral Tradition.

Historical Background: Pharisees and Sadducees

During the era of the Second Temple, the influence of apostasy began to make inroads in Israel. The mainstream Pharisees (who held fast to the Oral Tradition of Bible interpretation) were opposed by the cult of the Sadducees. The former upheld the performance of the commandments as they were received by Moses at Mount Sinai, and passed down through every subsequent generation by the people of Israel. The Sadducees did not accept the traditions of Sinai; by opposing the Oral Tradition, they rebelled against God Himself-for it was He, in His ultimate wisdom, who decreed that this process should keep the Torah alive and bind it steadfast to His people through every generation and circumstance.

Instead, the Sadducees cut themselves off from this body of tradition, and translated and interpreted the Bible in a very literal sense. Thus, a classic example of the difference between the two groups is their opposing interpretation of the famous verse “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand…” (Ex. 21:24). The Sadducees interpret this verse, which deals with payment for personal damages, in a literal sense. However, the Pharisees received a tradition from Moses that these words are meant idiomatically and not literally-that is, full monetary compensation must be made for the loss caused by these injuries.

The Sadducees also denied the belief that there will be a resurrection of the dead, since this important principle of Jewish faith is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but only alluded to; like other interpretations of the Pharisees, it too is included in the Oral Tradition.

While the Pharisees could be considered the true guardians of authentic Judaism-for their influence has kept adherence to the true Biblical ways alive amongst the Jewish people to this very day-the Sadducees sought ways to undermine the former’s influence, and to establish customs and practices of their own making. Because many of these men came from aristocratic families, there were periods when they succeeded in infiltrating the Sanhedrin, where they deliberately enacted legislation that changed the accepted customs which had been practiced for generations.