Home » What Does Judaism Believe? What is the Oral Law?

What Does Judaism Believe? What is the Oral Law?

by Dr. Eitan Bar
4 minutes read

We believe that when Moses brought the Written Law down, he did not only bring with him the Written Law but also the Oral Law. We believe that the Written and Oral Torah were brought down together. Thus they must not be separated.[i] (Rabbi Rami Brachiahu)

There is no doubt that the authority of the Oral Law is exclusive. Only those who believe in the Oral Law possess the Written Law. And anyone denying the Oral Law does not have the Written Law.[ii] (Rabbi Daniel Assor)

Jews never followed the literal words of the Written Law but rather the traditions of the rabbis.[iii] (Rabbi Chaim Schimmel)

The term ‘Torah’ can be confusing as sometimes it means “Law,” referring to the commandments given by Moses, while other times referring to the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch). However, you may not be as familiar with the term ‘Oral Torah’ or ‘Oral Law,’ which, in Hebrew, signifies “the Torah that is orally transmitted.” Also known as the Mishna, a term derived from the Hebrew verb meaning to recite. The Oral Torah embodies an essential aspect of Jewish belief. According to Jewish tradition, it was transmitted verbally until about the third century, following the belief that God conveyed the Oral Torah to Moses orally, who then communicated it to the elder orally, and so on and so forth. The Oral Torah aims to offer comprehensive instructions on implementing the laws in the Written Torah. It also comprises countless commentaries, traditions, and Mitzvot, all of which are considered vital complements to the Written Torah. This vast body of knowledge is believed to have been passed down orally through generations.

According to the Jewish folktale, writing down the Oral Law was forbidden. Instead, people memorized and recited it to each other. However, after the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 AD, the Jewish people were expelled from Jerusalem and dispersed among other nations. Fearing that the essence, traditions, and teachings of Judaism would be lost, Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi decided to break with tradition and write down the Oral Law to preserve it. Judah ha-Nasi, a second-century rabbi, chief redactor, and editor of the Mishnah, organized the teachings into six orders. Each order dealt with an area of God’s law, such as agriculture, the Temple and holy things, purification, women-related issues, personal damages, and holy festivals. These were divided into 60 tractates, then into chapters containing individual “Mishnas.”

The six orders of the Mishna form the basis of the Talmud, with the rest being commentary. Following the first codification of the Mishna, several respected rabbis and sages added explanations, clarifications, and additions over the years. This process led to the “Gemara,” an exposition of the Mishna. Subsequent explanations, discussions, and additions were later incorporated.

The Talmud’s pages display the initial stages of the Mishna and Gemara in a central column, with later commentaries in surrounding thinner columns. This enormous collective body of writings, including the central Mishna and Gemara and surrounding rabbinic commentary, forms the Talmud. Two versions exist: the “Jerusalem Talmud,” compiled by Israel-based rabbis, and the more prevalent and more respected, the “Babylonian Talmud,” developed by Jewish rabbis in Babylon following the destruction of the Second Temple. The latter is typically referred to when discussing the “Oral Law.”

The exile was instrumental for the Pharisees, allowing them to finally and fully integrate their theology absent the priesthood, Temple, and Jerusalem. These elements had previously obstructed their influence in Judaism. However, in exile, the Pharisees could shape Judaism’s theology and future, resulting in the predominance of Rabbinic Judaism.

A substantial portion of the Talmud addresses how to adhere to the law without the Temple, generally advocating for set morning and evening prayers to replace sacrifices. Essentially, the Talmud removes the necessity for priests and a temple, removing the need for the Written Law.

In Mark chapter 7, we see that many additional laws and traditions had already been well-established when Jesus started his ministry. The Pharisees and some teachers of the law gathered around Jesus, criticizing his disciples for eating with defiled, unwashed hands, which went against the tradition of the elders. Jesus responded by quoting Isaiah, accusing the Pharisees of honoring God with their lips but having hearts far from him, worshiping in vain, and teaching mere human rules. He then chastised them for holding onto human traditions instead of obeying God’s commands.

Thus, as a Jewish follower of Jesus, I can attest that the Talmud includes numerous wise, helpful, and beautiful writings. Still, I do not consider them divinely inspired.

Prof. Avigdor Shinan, a Jewish expert on rabbinic literature at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, sums up the Oral Law in this way:[iv]

I am a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I specialize in post-Bible Jewish literature, i.e., anything written after the 2nd century BC: Mishna, Talmud, Siddur Prayer, including Midrash and translations for the Bible. All Jewish history, known as “rabbinic literature,”– is the milestone of Judaism, not the Bible. Our current theology is not that of the Bible. The rules that we abide by today are not the rules defined in the Bible, but rather those set forth by our sages… The Jewish Oral Law – the laws of the Sabbath, Kosher, and anything else you may think of – is not derived from the Bible. The Bible does not mention a “synagogue,” there is no such thing as “Kadish,” there is no “Kol Nidrei” [Jewish prayers], “Bar Mitzvah,” or “praying shawl.” When someone defines something as “Jewish” and begins to search after its roots – they will not find it in the Bible, but rather in the literature of our sages – that’s where it all began.

As if to make things confusing, the rabbis began referring to both the “Written Torah” and the “Oral Torah” collectively as simply “the Torah.” This convergence causes the Jewish people to often quote from the literature of the rabbinic Oral Torah under the impression that they’re citing the Written Torah. The intentional blurring of these lines has effectively amalgamated the two, causing confusion about their distinct origins and content. With this genius move, the mission to take over Judaism became effortless.

For instance, religious Jews often tell me that “the Torah documents that Jesus admitted to being punished in hell in boiling excrement,” not knowing it’s actually a story in the Talmud.[v]

This article was taken from my book, “Why Don’t Jews Believe in Jesus.
For a rebuttal of Rabbinic Judaism, see my book, “Rabbinic Judaism Debunked.”

[i]  ידיעות אחרונות, מוסף יהדות, “למה צריך את התורה שבעל פה”, 8.5.2012

[ii]  משה בן דוד, על פתחה של רומי, הוצאה עצמאית, עמ’ 479.

[iii]  Introduction to H. Chaim Schimmel, The Oral Law: A Study of the Rabbinic Contribution to Torah She-be-al-Peh (2nd, rev. ed.; Jerusalem/New York: Feldheim, 1996), n.p.

[iv]  www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Li8YbeN2OE

[v] Gittin 56b and 57a

You may also like:

Dr. Eitan Bar
Author, Theologian, Activist