According to Rabbinic Judaism, the Oral Torah or Oral Law (Hebrew: תורה שבעל פה, Torah she-be-`al peh, lit. "Torah that is on the mouth") represents those laws, statutes, and legal interpretations that were not recorded in the Five Books of Moses, the "Written Torah" (Hebrew: תורה שבכתב, Torah she-bi-khtav, lit. "Torah that is in writing"), but nonetheless are regarded by Orthodox Jews as prescriptive and co-given. This holistic Jewish code of conduct encompasses a wide swathe of rituals, worship practices, God–man and interpersonal relationships, from dietary laws to Sabbath and festival observance to marital relations, agricultural practices, and civil claims and damages.
According to Jewish tradition, the Oral Torah was passed down orally in an unbroken chain from generation to generation until its contents were finally committed to writing following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when Jewish civilization was faced with an existential threat.[clarification needed]
The major repositories of the Oral Torah are the Mishnah, compiled between 200–220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, and the Gemara, a series of running commentaries and debates concerning the Mishnah, which together are the Talmud, the preeminent text of Rabbinic Judaism. In fact, two "versions" of the Talmud exist: one produced in Jerusalem c. 300–350 CE (the Jerusalem Talmud), and second, more extensive Talmud compiled in Babylonia and published c. 450–500 CE (the Babylonian Talmud).
Belief that the Oral Torah was transmitted orally from God to Moses on Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egypt is a fundamental tenet of faith of Orthodox Judaism, and was recognized as one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Maimonides. However, not all branches of Rabbinic Judaism accept the divine provenance of the Oral Torah, such that Conservative and (to a greater extent) Reform Jews give deference to the Talmudic sages while empowering themselves to formulate and adopt their own rulings and interpretations.
There have also been historical dissenters to the Oral Torah in its entirety, including adherents to Karaite Judaism, who attempt to derive their religious practice strictly from the Written Torah, using Scripture's most natural meaning to form their basis of Jewish law.
The term "Oral Torah" should not be understood as a monolith. The Jewish Encyclopedia divides the Oral Torah into eight categories, ranked according to the relative level of authoritativeness, which are found within the Talmud, the Tosefta and the halakhic Midrashim, as aside. The regulations, observances, and statutes included in the last three groups were not considered equal in validity to the written law ("De'oraita"), but were regarded merely as rabbinical regulations ("de-rabbanan").
According to modern scholarship, the traditions embodied in what later became known as the "Oral Torah" developed over generations among the inhabitants of Judea and were passed down through various modes of cultural transmission, including but not restricted to oral transmission. It is hypothesized that, sometime prior to the Babylonian exile of 586-530 BCE, in applying the Mosaic code to daily life and Temple worship, "a multitude of usages arising out of practical necessity or convenience or experience became part of the routine of observance of the code, and, in the course of time, shared the sanctity and authority which were inherent in the divinely inspired code itself."
Such practices experienced exponential growth from the time of Ezra to the Romans' destruction of the Second Temple due to the changing social and religious conditions experienced by inhabitants of Judea. Many of these practices were advocated by the Pharisees, a sect of largely lower- and middle-class Jews who stood in opposition to the Sadducees, the priestly caste who dominated the Temple cult. The Sadducees rejected the legitimacy of any extra-biblical law or tradition, as well as increasingly popular notions such as the immortality of the soul and divine intervention. Danby notes the following:
It is a reasonable hypothesis that a result of this controversy—a controversy which continued for two centuries—was a deliberate compilation and justification of the unwritten tradition by the Pharisean party, perhaps unsystematic and on a small scale in the earlier stages, but stimulated and fostered from time to time both by opposition from the Sadducees and by internal controversy (such as, e.g., the disputes between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai) within the ranks of the Pharisees, culminating in the collections of traditional laws (Halakoth) from which the present Mishnah draws its material.
With the destruction of the Second Temple around 70 CE, the Sadducees were divested of their main source of authority, without which their theology could not survive. On the other hand, the Pharisees became the progenitor of the rabbinic class, who formalized the traditions of their predecessors. Following the fall of the Temple, it appears that the Pharisaic leader Johanan ben Zakkai (30-90 CE) established himself in Yavneh (a town south of Jaffa known to the Greeks as Jamnia), where he established a school that came to be regarded by fellow Jews as the successors of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. Upon this Council of Jabneh fell the duty of administering and interpreting religious law, conserving tradition, and solving problems that arose by the past dependence of numerous observances on the existence of the Temple and priesthood. Thus, from 70 to 130 CE, when the Bar Kochba revolt further decimated the Jewish community, the Oral Law experienced a significant period of development and an unprecedented level of legal and religious authority among the populace.
The destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem in the 1st and early 2nd Centuries CE devastated the Jewish community. The First Jewish–Roman War of 66–73 CE and the Bar Kokhba revolt cost more than a million Jewish lives, the destruction of leading yeshivot, and thousands of scholars and students. At that point, it became apparent that the Hebrew community and its learning were threatened, and that publication was the only way to ensure that the law could be preserved. Thus, around 200 CE, a redaction of the Oral Law in writing was completed. Both Rabbinic tradition and scholarship ascribe this effort to Rabbi Judah HaNasi (or "Judah the Prince"). The product of this effort, the Mishnah, is generally considered the first work of Rabbinic literature.
"Mishnah" is the name given to the sixty-three tractates that HaNasi systematically codified, which in turn are divided into six "orders." Unlike the Torah, in which, for example, laws of the Sabbath are scattered throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, all the Mishnaic laws of the Sabbath are located in a single tractate called Shabbat (Hebrew for "Sabbath"). Moreover, the laws contained in the twenty-four chapters that make up that tractate are far more extensive than those contained in the Torah, reflecting the extensiveness of the Oral Law. Some authority suggests HaNasi made use of as many as 13 separate collections of Halakhot from different schools and time periods, and reassembled that material into a coherent whole, arranged it systematically, summarized discussions, and in some cases rendered his own rulings where alternative traditions existed.
However, Jacob Neusner argues that the Mishnah does far more than expound upon and organize the Biblical commandments. Rather, important topics covered by the Mishnah "rest on no scriptural foundations whatsoever," such as portions of the civil law tractates of Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra. In other words, "To perfect the [Written] Torah, the Oral tradition had to provide for a variety of transactions left without any law at all in Scripture." Just as portions of the Torah reflect (according to the documentary hypothesis) the agenda of the Levite priesthood in centralizing worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and legitimizing their exclusive authority over the sacrificial cult, so too can the Mishnah be seen as reflecting the unique "program" of the Tannaim and their successors to develop an egalitarian form of Judaism with an emphasis on social justice and an applicability throughout the Jewish diaspora. As a result, the Talmud often finds the rabbis combing scripture for textual support to justify existing religious practice, rather than deriving the practice organically from the language of scripture.
HaNasi's method of codification, in which he often included minority viewpoints and citation by name to rabbis who championed different viewpoints, became a template for the Gemara, a compendium of discussions and commentaries on the Mishnah's laws by generations of leading rabbis during the next four centuries in the two centers of Jewish life, Judea and Babylonia. The Gemara with the Mishnah came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud. Both the Babylonian Talmud and the Jerusalem Talmud (or "Yerushalmi Talmud") have been transmitted in written form to the present day, although the more extensive Babylonian Talmud is widely considered to be more authoritative.
The Talmud's discussions follow the order of the Mishnah, although not all tractates are discussed. Generally, a law from the Mishnah is cited, which is followed by a rabbinic deliberation on its meaning. The discussion often, but not always, results in a decision regarding the more persuasive or authoritative position based on available sources or anecdotal evidence.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence relating to religious rituals and practices current, prior to the codification of the Mishnah, from which it can be inferred that Judah HaNasi and his contemporaries recorded, rather than innovated, normative Judaism as authentically practiced during the 1st century CE and prior. For example, excavations at Qumran have yielded specimens of tefillin and parchment scrolls. Likewise, the structure and placement of Mikvah ritual baths at the Judean fortress of Masada (see Map) appears to be consistent with the rabbinic requirements per the Mishnaic tractate Mikvaot, but was constructed approximately 120 years before the Mishnah was compiled. A clay seal discovered in Jerusalem in 2011 is consistent with the tradition recorded in tractate Shekalim chapter 5. The Elephantine papyri 419 BCE include a "Passover letter" which already included many of the pesach observances of today. Among the papyri is the first known text of a Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) from about 440 BCE. The Halachic Letter (Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-Torah/ Qumran Cave 4), which records approximately a dozen disputes regarding the application of halakha, also testifies to the evolutionary process of the Oral Law.
Rabbinic Judaism has long held the Oral Law to be of divine origin. The divinity and authoritativeness of the Oral Law as transmitted from God to Moses on Mount Sinai, continues to be universally accepted by Orthodox and Haredi Judaism as a fundamental precept of Judaism. The Oral Law was the basis for nearly all subsequent Rabbinic literature. It is therefore intricately related to the development of Halacha. As such, despite codification, interpretation of the Oral Law is likewise required.
Rabbis of the Talmudic era conceived of the Oral Torah in two distinct ways. First, Rabbinic tradition conceived of the Oral Torah as an unbroken chain of transmission. The distinctive feature of this view was that Oral Torah was "conveyed by word of mouth and memorized." Second, the Rabbis also conceived of the Oral Torah as an interpretive tradition, and not merely as memorized traditions. In this view, the written Torah was seen as containing many levels of interpretation. It was left to later generations, who were steeped in the oral tradition of interpretation to discover those ("hidden") interpretations not revealed by Moses. Instead, Moses was obligated to impart the explanations orally to students, children, and fellow adults. It was thus forbidden to write and publish the Oral Torah.
Jewish tradition identifies the individuals, starting from Moses, who were entrusted with the Oral Law and passed it down to subsequent generations. The unbroken historical chain from Sinai to the present day is attested to in the opening passage of the Mishnaic tractate Pirkei Avot ("Sayings of the Fathers"): "Moses received the Torah and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly." Similarly, in his introduction to Mishneh Torah Maimonides provides a generation by generation account of the names of all those in the direct line that transmitted this tradition, beginning with Moses up until Ravina and Rav Ashi, the rabbis who compiled the Babylonian Talmud.
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According to traditional Judaism, the Oral Law must have been disseminated at the same time as the Written Torah because certain Torah commandments would be indecipherable without a separate explanatory codex and, presumably, God would not demand adherence to commandments that could not be understood. Many terms used in the Torah are left undefined, such as the word totafot, usually translated as "frontlets," which is used three times in the Pentateuch (in Exodus 13:9 and Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18) but only identified with tefillin in the Mishnah (see Menachot 3:7). Similarly, many procedures are mentioned without explanation or instructions, or assume familiarity on the part of the reader. For example, the discussion of shechita (kosher slaughter) in Deuteronomy 12 states "you shall kill of your herd and of your flock which God Lord has given you, as I have commanded you," without any clear indication of what had been "commanded"; only in the Oral Torah are the various requirements of ritual slaughter explicated. Similarly, Deuteronomy 24 discusses the laws of divorce in passing; these laws are set forth with great specificity in the Mishnah and Gemara. Also, the blue string of tekhelet on the tzitzit is to be dyed with a dye extracted from what some scholars believe to be a snail is a detail only spoken of in the oral Torah. For other examples and further discussion here see Kuzari 3:35.
Moreover, according to the traditional view, without an Oral Law, blind adherence to the plain text of certain Torah commandments would lead to unethical acts, or would cause the practitioner to violate a commandment elsewhere in the Torah. Neither of these results could have been intended by God; thus, a priori, a set of supplementary "instructions" must have been provided. A classic example involves the phrase "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot" Ex 21:22–27 is held in the oral tradition to imply monetary compensation – as opposed to a literal Lex talionis.
Finally, the Oral Torah is needed to explain seemingly discordant actions of biblical actors. For example, the marriage of Boaz, a member of the tribe of Judah to Ruth, a Moabitess, as described in the Book of Ruth, appears on its face to contradict the prohibition of Deuteronomy 23:3–4 against marrying Moabites; however, the Oral Torah explains that this prohibition is limited to Moabite men. Similarly, the rabbinic practice for the Counting of the Omer (Leviticus 23:15–16) is at odds with the Karaite practice, which appears to accord with a more literal reading of these verses, but is in fact borne out by Joshua 5:10–12.
As above, the Oral Law is recorded in the Midrash and Talmud, while later Rabbinic literature builds on these works. This section, then, discusses the treatment of the Written Law in light of the Oral Law, and the consequent overlap of the oral and written (and is not a general discussion of Rabbinic Literature, per se). Here, it is important to note that these source, "oral", documents, are nevertheless intimately connected to the written. Thus, the midrash provides a verse by verse discussion of the entire (written) Tanakh, per the oral Torah. similarly, the Talmud, although applying a different framework, discusses and analyses the written Torah—both from an aggadic and halakhic perspective—drawing from (and recording) the oral tradition; here the discussion is organized around the Mishnah, and the discussion does not proceed verse-wise as with the Midrash.
The era of the Rishonim sees the Oral Law incorporated into the first formal Torah commentaries, where the biblical text is discussed and / or analysed based on the various Midrashic and Talmudic traditions. The chief of these is perhaps Rashi's commentary on Tanakh. This work clarifies the "simple" meaning of the text, by addressing questions implied by the wording or verse or paragraph structure, by drawing on the Midrashic, Talmudic and Aggadic literature. It has given rise to numerous counter- (e.g., Ramban) and super-commentaries (e.g., Mizrachi), all similarly drawing on the Oral Torah, and widely studied to this day (see Mikraot Gedolot).
In more recent times, Acharonic times, several (Orthodox) commentaries have been produced, which, to some extent, reverse the direction of the analysis. These originated in response to the (erstwhile) challenges of haskalah and Biblical criticism, and were intended "to demonstrate the indivisibility of the written Torah and its counterpart, the oral Torah", and in so doing, "showing the organic relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law", often in the light of the above. Given this purpose, these provide a further detailed and explicit analysis here. The main of these:
Contemporaneous with, and complementary to these commentaries, were specific, monograph-like works discussing the Oral Torah in concept and historically. These included:
Several works by Rabbi Immanuel Aboab, especially his Nomologia, defend the traditional law and discuss its chronology.
Finally, other major works discussing the Bible as based on the Oral Torah include the following.
From Pharisaic times, there has always been some level of opposition to the concept of a "Dual Torah" within the umbrella of Judaism, although today only the Karaite sect formally opposes the incorporation of any extra-biblical law into their practice. Rather, the branches of modern Judaism differ more in their views regarding the divinity and immutability of the Oral Torah than they do in their belief in the importance of an interpretive tradition as exemplified in the Talmud.
Sadducees rejected the Pharisaic oral traditions. They based their interpretations on their own traditions emphasizing a more literal understanding of the verses. In many respects, this led to a more severe observance than that of the Pharisees especially as regards purity laws and temple practice. Most aspects of Sadduceean law and methods of interpretation are not known.
The Samaritans, an ancient sect that has survived in small numbers to the present day, have their own rich interpretative tradition, as reflected in the Medieval Samaritan legal collection called the Hilukh, which shares etymological roots with the term Halakhah. However, the concept of a divinely ordained Oral Law having equal value with the written one is foreign to Samaritan theology.
Karaite Judaism or Karaism is a Jewish denomination that began in eighth century Baghdad to form a separate sect that rejected of the Oral Torah and Talmud, and placed sole reliance on the Tanakh as scripture. Thus, for example, Karaite understood Exodus 35:3 ("Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day") as forbidding the use of any kind of fire on the Sabbath, including fires lit before the start of the Sabbath, which are permitted by the Oral Law. Karaites also do not adhere to widespread customs such as the donning of tefillin and the prohibition against eating milk and meat together on the grounds that such practices are grounded in the Oral Law.
Some Karaites strive to adhere only to the peshat' (plain meaning) of the text. This is in contrast to Rabbinic Judaism, which relies on the Oral Torah and employs several interpretive methods which, at times, stray from the literal meaning.
Reform Judaism generally considers the Oral Law to reflect interpretations or perspectives on the Torah authored by groups of Rabbis in Babylonia and Palestine over a period of time, which are not inherently more legitimate or authoritative than the opinions of Jewish scholars, philosophers, or religious leaders at any other time, including the present.
Conservative Judaism (also known as "Masorti" outside North America) takes an intermediate perspective, claiming that the Oral tradition is entitled to authority, but regarding its rulings as flexible guidelines rather than immutable precepts, that may be viewed through the lens of modernity. Jewish scholar and philosopher Ismar Schorsch has postulated that Conservative Judaism is tied to "sensing divinity both in the Torah and in the Oral Law," but not in a literalist manner. Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, considered intellectual founder of Conservative Judaism, was respected by many Orthodox until writing in 1859 that the Talmudic term "Law given to Moses at Sinai" always meant ancient customs accepted as such. His opponents demanded that he issue an unequivocal statement of belief in the total divinity of Oral Law, yet he refrained from doing so. He was consequently ostracized and declared a heretic by several authorities.
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