For the week ending 10 November 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

Why is there an Oral Torah?

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Robin

Dear Rabbi,

I read with great interest your response to my question about the Oral Torah. Thank you very much for your clear explanation. Based on what you wrote, I have some follow-up questions, if I may.You wrote that G-d taught the entire Torah to Moses orally during the forty days he was atop the Mount. Did He reveal to Moses the future events which He later dictated to Moses how to record? Also, I assume there is a reason why G-d gave the Torah orally. What reason would that be? If there is a special reason, why did He later command to write at least some of it down? Conversely, assuming G-d willed that the rest remain oral (as you explained), why did the Sages eventually write it down in the Talmud? And how do we know what they wrote was accurate after 1500 years? Regarding what you describe as the Talmudic rabbis’ own additional legislation, where did they get the authority to do that, and is it as binding as Torah Law? What about rabbis after the Talmud — can they change or nullify the Rabbinic Oral Law, and can they make up their own new legislation?

Dear Robin,

I’m inspired by, and happy to address, your further interest — which will hopefully also benefit many other readers as well. But since you have posted many questions, I’ll need to answer each one briefly.

Regarding events that preceded Moses’ life, such as Creation, the lives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, etc., G-d certainly did reveal them to Moses atop Sinai. However, I am not aware of any sources that indicate whether or not at that time G-d revealed to Moses future events that later would be recorded in the Torah. However, it seems highly unlikely that He did. Otherwise, presumably, Moses would have attempted to forestall, for example, the incident of the Golden Calf, or would have refrained from striking the Rock, which resulted in his being barred from the Land of Israel.

There are in fact many reasons, both technical and ideological, why G-d gave the Torah initially and primarily as an Oral Torah.

The pragmatic considerations were related to the context of wandering in the Wilderness and of preservation. For one, they did not have an abundance of materials to make the many scrolls that would be needed to supply the Oral Torah in writing for the entire nation. And, anyway, they had enough to carry, without heavy, burdensome scrolls that would need special protection from the elements. Rather, all the information taught by G-d to Moses was transmitted to the people, who committed this huge amount of knowledge to memory. Keeping it oral not only helped them remember (since everyone knows the best way to forget something is to write it down), but had other benefits as well: It enabled the Torah to be mobile; there were as many copies as there were people who memorized it; it was thereby protected from the elements, or loss or destruction; and its integrity was preserved, since only a person deemed worthy and also willing to memorize it would receive it.

Regarding the ideological or qualitative reasons, the Oral Torah is learned through interactive discussion. This makes the experience dynamic and in-depth, and preserves accuracy by comparison of ideas and comprehension. Since it is learned orally and by memorization, it is internalized and becomes holistically integrated into one’s entire way of life. And because the preservation of an oral tradition relies on transmission from one generation to the next, it engenders respect for Elders, the source of the knowledge, and ensures a strong connection to future generations, eliminating deteriorating generation gaps, as great-grandfathers, grandfathers, fathers and sons all learn together. Finally, as an Oral Torah the knowledge remains elastic, allowing it to be extended, modified, and applied to the times. But being simultaneously communal creates a built-in safety mechanism that ensures it won’t be stretched beyond the intended limit.

Despite the many advantages of keeping the entire Torah oral, G-d nevertheless desired that a basic, skeletal structure be preserved in writing in order to anchor the vast amount of knowledge into an authoritative, Divinely-dictated, immutable cannon, accessible and agreed upon by all.

Similarly, even regarding the rest of the Torah which originally remained oral, the advantages thereof depend on the security and cohesiveness of the entire people. And the leaders of each successive generation were responsible for gauging the integrity of the transmission. For some 1,500 years, (despite great trials and tribulations) those with their fingers on the spiritual pulse of the nation confirmed this integrity and upheld the form of the Oral Torah. However, by Talmudic times, after the destruction of the Temple and the dispersal of the Jewish People, there was a concern that if this remainder stayed oral it might be compromised sometime in the future. Therefore, the Sages of those generations, despite the ideal of keeping it oral, took a realistic approach and began to write the Oral Torah as the Mishna and the Gemara.

We know that their written version of the Oral Torah was relatively accurate because otherwise the decision to write it down would have been made by the leaders of an earlier generation before it would be tainted or forgotten. And also it is clear from the very sparing way in which the Talmud is written that the Sages were not writing out of crises but rather out of responsible concern for the distant future.

It was G-d Himself, in the Torah, who granted Torah scholars of the caliber of the Talmudic Sages to enact their own additional Rabbinic legislation. Thus, one who transgresses a Rabbinic Law, in general terms is transgressing the Torah’s command to heed the injunctions of the Rabbis. However, strictly speaking, transgressing Rabbinic Law is not as severe as transgressing Torah Law, and, generally, neither is the punishment. This authority lasted for as long as the ordination, semicha, with which G-d authorized Moses, who then passed it on to others, was preserved, and for as long as there were legislative bodies like the Sanhedrin, until around the close of the Talmudic period. But from this time on, no individual rabbi, collection of rabbis, or court of Jewish Law can change or nullify anything from the Talmud. Nor can they enact any new, additional legislation, other than applying the pre-existing Torah or Talmudic Law to new scenarios and situations as they arise.

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