What is the Oral Torah?
What is the Oral Torah? Is it a part of the Torah, a commentary, a rabbinical addition, or something else?
In order to properly understand what the Oral Torah is and its relation to the Written Torah, it’s important to first say a few words about the Written Torah.
G-d gave the Torah to the Jews at Mount Sinai in approximately 1300 BCE entirely orally with nothing being written down other than
During those forty days,
The rest of the knowledge that
Thus, while the part of the knowledge of Sinai which
One example of this regards the mitzvah of tefillin, although the dynamic applies to absolutely every idea or law of the Torah. Basically, all the Torah says about tefillin is “you shall bind these words on your arm and they shall be a sign between your eyes”. From these words alone, this mitzvah is a “non-starter”. What words, how shall they be written, with what, on what, in what, what material, size, shape and color, how shall they be bound, with what, what shape and color, exactly where shall they be bound, by whom and when? These are just some of the questions which preclude performing the mitzvah on the basis of the Written Torah alone. How could
The answer is: In the Oral Torah.
But the Oral Torah is not just an explanation of Torah Laws. It also explains the manifold meanings of Torah verses, including the explanation of ambiguous or cryptic passages, and is also replete with esoteric teachings. So, in truth, the Written Torah cannot really be understood on any level without the
And even though the Oral Torah was eventually recorded in writing by the Talmudic Sages — first in the Mishna and later in the Gemara, together comprising the Talmud — the essential core of what we refer to now as the Oral Torah in the Talmud is not rabbinic in origin. Rather it is the relatively well-preserved version of the Oral Torah initially received by Moses and transmitted orally from generation to generation until it was written down in Talmudic times.
That being said, insofar as the Torah grants authority to rabbis of the caliber of the Talmudic Sages to enact rabbinic legislation, the Talmud also includes all of the non-Torah, specifically rabbinic laws, customs and teachings which were added to Judaism by such Sages throughout the generations. However, the Sages were meticulous in distinguishing between the original core teachings of the Oral Torah and their additional teachings which were also recorded in the Talmud. Thus, it is very clear in the Talmud what teachings originate from Sinai, and which are Rabbinic.
In addition, not only did the Sages add their teachings alongside the core Sinai Oral Torah, but they also included in the Talmud fascinating, brilliant, and timeless observations and insights on many topics which became part of the general body of Jewish knowledge which accrued over the generations, including History, Natural Science, Culture, Comparative Religion, Ethics, Philosophy, Music, Mathematics and much more.