Essay: The Oral Law in Judaism

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SinaiThis essay was inspired by a recent post on DovBear. I have cross posted this post there as well. Head over there for more discussion.

What follows is my understanding of The Oral Law and its transmission to us. This article does not attempt to validate or prove its transmission as fact, rather it explains just what is being transmitted when we refer to Torah SheBaal Peh (TSBP).

I am sure there are plenty of maamarei Chazal that are not 100% congruent with this approach. I am also sure that there are many maamarei Chazal that do jive with this approach. I have spent many hours studying and analyzing the concept of TSBP and what follows is what I believe to be a rational, coherent, non-apologetic approach.

Much of this essay is accessible in audio format by clicking here.

The Torah preceded the world. One tradition tell us that God looked into the Torah and created the world. That means that the Torah contains within it the spiritual genetic code of the world and the world is a physical manifestation of that code. Another metaphor would be a blueprint. All the information necessary to build is in the blueprint, yet it is merely ink and paper. What can this mean? God looked at the stories of Adam and Eve and created the world? Or God looked at the sale of Joseph and created the word? Impossible. The metaphor does not even make sense. I believe Chazal are telling us that Torah is not the stories or even laws in the Chumash. “Torah” refers to the all encompassing Oral Law (this idea is attributed to Rambam). In other words, the Oral Law refers to the natural and supernatural rules of the universe that manifested themselves in a physical sense once God put them into motion during “Creation”.

What this means is that the Torah and our universe are really two sides of one coin. The spiritual code on one side and the physical manifestation on the other side. Thus, someone could potentially rewrite the spiritual code by examining the physical manifestation side. Just as with a blueprint, a talented architect could possibly rewrite a blueprint by examining a building a talented spiritualist would be capable of figuring out the spiritual code the world is made of.

This spiritual code contains within it the natural rules of our universe and some of those rules are recommended limitations on human activity designed to help a person maximize their existence in the world. In this light, the Torah is a guide that gives the physical world its characteristics and contains the instructions for living in that world.

A few individuals were in tune with this reality and implemented some of the Torah’s concepts into their lives. Shem, Ever, Noach and Enosh were a few of the first people who were able to glean spiritual rules from their observations of the world.

Abraham was the first to grasp enough of the code for God to choose him to begin a nation of people to whom God would eventually charge with keeping and teaching this code. Slowly, Abraham taught these concepts to whomever would listen. The Abrahamic family was also aware of these Torah rules and whether they kept them or not is not relevant. They knew them and may have practiced them.

Upon Abraham’s family being enslaved in Egypt, the concepts and their rules became more and more forgotten. The exodus occurred just before the point of no return. The point that Chazal call the 49th level of impurity. The slaves were just as Egyptian as their slave-masters save for 3 (or 4) areas. Such, a large nation of people would need a guide book to remind them of their Abrahamic, monotheistic, Torah tradition. The Bnei Yisrael left Egypt for the sole purpose of receiving these instructions in the form of the Torah.

At Sinai, God gave Moses the entire code. This code included the spiritual rules, the laws, the stories (which all contain important moral and quasi-historical lessons) as well as all the information necessary to live according to those laws. God then gave Moses a written version of notes to this code. These notes were the bare minimum necessary to reconstruct the entire code as God gave it to Moses.

At this point, Moses has all the information in his head and gives the people this written book of notes that we call the Written Law or Torah SheBiksav (TSBK). As time progresses Moses added (probably divinely inspired) notes to the end of the TSBK to complete the books. The Jewish people try to live a lifestyle as Moses taught them according to the code and had the notes in TSBK to help them remember their obligations. As we are taught at the start of Ethics of our Fathers, Moses “kibbel” (received) the “Torah” (including the TSBP) (and again this does not mean the Chumash, why would there need to be a mesora for that if it was written) and gave it all to Joshua, who gave it to the elders etc. There was a central Torah authority who could resolve disputes. Originally, it was a one man show starring Moses. But at the behest of Jethro, some delegation gave Torah authority to others. There was no machlokes (disagreement) among the Torah authority as Moses could always be consulted to give them the truth.

The system was designed to ensure that there would be a transmission from parent to child and teacher to student. This guaranteed the Torah would remain a “living” Torah and not relegated to a library. Codifying the bare minimum in text form forced the Jewish people to rely on a system of relationships and living the life of Torah to remember all its laws. This is an integral part of the Oral Transmission that has stood the test of time, as we shall see.

This system remained in place throughout the 1st Temple. A central Torah authority was the final arbiter of disputes and there was no machlokes as to what Moses claimed God wanted the Jewish people to do in their service of God.

Many called this entire concept into question. Korach, Yeravam and others wished to undermine the Mosaic Torah authority. But it always existed.

During the Second Temple, due to oppression it was literally impossible to maintain a central Torah authority. Torah study was banned, Torah scholars were killed and Yeshivas were disbanded. Students began taking notes to ensure TSBP would be remembered.

In a revolutionary move, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi collected many of these notebooks and canonized a version of TSBP notes called the Mishna. He too, followed the Mosaic formula of writing just the bare minimum necessary for a scholar to recreate the code from the Mishna. He wrote the Mishnayos in a format that would induce questions and those questions would in turn produce the TSBP tradition. He was successful to an extent. But due to the increased hostility and lack of central Torah authority disputes were common. R’ Yehuda HaNassi completely succeeded in the broader goal of maintaining the need for the parent to child, teacher to student relationship to transmit TSBP.

Mishnaic literature was discussed, argued and taught for a couple hundred years. Students continued taking notes and eventually these notes became the Talmud. Ravina and Rav Ashi collected these notes and recorded these conversations to canonize the understanding of the Mishna in order to recreate the entire code. Although to a lesser degree, they also made an effort to be concise and include only the discussion necessary for recreating the method of Jewish life briefly described in the Mishna that was based on the written notes of the Chumash that God gave to Moses. Their brevity, once again maintained the familiar generation to generation connection that TSBP demands.

Since the closing of the Talmud it has been discussed and argued vociferously. This is a good thing. It gives its scholars the chance they need to arrive at the truth. TSBP is not their discussions, it is what they are discussing. TSBP was given to the Jewish people at Sinai but in truth it exists all around us. It is the rules of nature and spirituality that govern our world. Distant cultures and tribes can come to similar conclusions as the Torah because they are examining the world that is the physical manifestation of that Torah. People who never heard of Torah can relate to many of its laws as they seem natural to them. In fact they are natural to the world.

In conclusion, when we say that Moses received Torah SheBaal Peh, what we mean is that Moses had all the information necessary to live and appreciate the Torah lifestyle. The Written Torah were the original notes to this information as time progresses, we now have Mishanic and Talmudic notes as well. Thus, our study of Talmud today continues the Oral Transmission of TSBP as we attempt to decode the original version of the Oral Law handed from God to Moses on Sinai. Today, our greatest resource to that end is the study of Talmud.

  • Elchanan

    You wrote ” As time progresses Moses added (probably divinely inspired) notes to the end of the TSBK to complete the books. ”

    When you say probably divinely inspired, does this mean that you are not certain whether the book of devarim was written with divine inspiration?

    Do you not accept that the book of Devarim is divine without a shadow of a doubt?

    What is your position on this?

    • It is divine.

      Either it was 100% God’s word or, as I indicate, divinely inspired. That position is more probable in my eyes.

  • Elchanan

    You wrote ” As time progresses Moses added (probably divinely inspired) notes to the end of the TSBK to complete the books. ”

    When you say probably divinely inspired, does this mean that you are not certain whether the book of devarim was written with divine inspiration?

    Do you not accept that the book of Devarim is divine without a shadow of a doubt?

    What is your position on this?

    • It is divine.

      Either it was 100% God’s word or, as I indicate, divinely inspired. That position is more probable in my eyes.

  • Elchanan

    gotcha!

  • Elchanan

    gotcha!

  • Another metaphor would be a blueprint.

    never much cared for this metaphor though it’s been repeated ad infinitum by scores of baalei mussar. The Torah is first and formost a book or a tree. So the Cosmos creatyed from it is either the staging of a play from the book (of course props are needed!) and/or an orchard that grew and continues to grow from the primal tree.

    Or God looked at the sale of Joseph and created the word? Impossible

    OTC quite possible. remember that “alma” and its LQ cognate “olam” connote both space AND time. History unspools the way that it does because it is is going according to the “script/screenplay” fore-ordained by the Torah

    a talented architect could possibly rewrite a blueprint by examining a building

    By rewrite do you mean to alter and change or to recreate?

    • The blueprint metaphor is good because of the last thing you commented on. In other words, the world tips us off to its code and it can be written (just as it is now written) using the building / world.

      and you only see God looking at the sale of Joseph and creating the world as “possible” because you see it as more than just a sale…

  • Another metaphor would be a blueprint.

    never much cared for this metaphor though it’s been repeated ad infinitum by scores of baalei mussar. The Torah is first and formost a book or a tree. So the Cosmos creatyed from it is either the staging of a play from the book (of course props are needed!) and/or an orchard that grew and continues to grow from the primal tree.

    Or God looked at the sale of Joseph and created the word? Impossible

    OTC quite possible. remember that “alma” and its LQ cognate “olam” connote both space AND time. History unspools the way that it does because it is is going according to the “script/screenplay” fore-ordained by the Torah

    a talented architect could possibly rewrite a blueprint by examining a building

    By rewrite do you mean to alter and change or to recreate?

  • More another time. Feel free to crosspost anything relevant to where I am banned from commenting myself.

  • More another time. Feel free to crosspost anything relevant to where I am banned from commenting myself.

  • Pingback: The Writing of Torah Shebal Peh (the Oral Law) « Taming Korach()

  • i am a Muslim and since belief in Torah is as essential as belief in Quran and since Quran speak of Torah alot and the most mentioned person in Quran too is Moses, it compelled me to search for Torah scrolls, i believe i have developed a new and more logical view regarding Torah code and i can relate to it as a literal inscription on r18ht hands as a link between cha(* and Total ecl(*pse and Am(*dah where all have unique number, to me this 18 corresponds to the golden rat(*o 1618 where 18 serves as the golden number making a rat(*o golden, r18ht hand physics serves as Torah law for my in in context of rule oif r18ht hand law followed by Universal electro magnetics unanimously, i do not find a left hand present any where to assist the r18ht hand in UNiversal law of both physics as well as mathematics, because i do not find a r18ht hand that does not read 18 where 1 serves as tenth of the unit 8. I noticed 8 is an /8rk in math of all religions, and thus i also found that basic number for all religions in prayers as well as for their respective scriptures all unanimously are bind to number 18. for example, 18 Amidah of Torah, 18 benedicitons of Gospel, 18 Sura Kahaf of Quran, 18 Hindu Puranas, 18 positions of Buddha, 18 basic principles of Martial Arts, Tai chi, all have this blue print of r18ht hand, i further notice the Prophecy of JOB 40:14 stressing on fact that salvation is in our own r18ht hands, leading to a conclusive connection to redemption and salvation through this hand and number some how, further study links Genesis of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers to a very unique number 16:18 in context of  Beit Hamikdash, Mannah ha Omer and the Torah law again to golden ratio 1618, the new testament too points to same code as rock of salvation/church in Gospel of Mathew 16:18 pointing to Third temple which indeed comes out to be location for the first temple built by Prophet Abraham at 1618 point of the Earth. I literally take this 1/8 in my r18ht hand palm to be the two scrolls of Torah and its law, the base and foundation for all creation because Quran speak of numbers, unique numbers that bind all creation in one book without missing a single creation. I notice all clestial bodies spin at the spin of r18ht hand only, same for all blooming flowers, snail shells, water taps, coke pepsi bottle caps, jar tops, all things visibly display rule of r18ht hand law to be the only law in effect leading to my personal understanding of A1L@W of T@RAH to be from A1L@H of Qur@n and A1G@D of G@spel, a perfect Deuteronomy of 18:18, especially when it comes to each and every total eclipse or the law that governs all eclipses, a law based on repetition of 18:18 years! Shema (*srael and Shemoneh Esre(* both represent a direct link to not only the r18ht hand whoch is placed above left or even on the eyes while reciting shama but also the very number 18 too, which indeed is an inscription of r18ht hand. To me this is materializing of Haggai 2 about des(*re/Am(*dah of all nat(*ons, and since desire of any nations naturally comes to be to worship their Creator through praise, i noticed thus that 18 is the divinely prescribed number for praise/amidah/bendiction/hamd and serves as a covenant too, where 8 is an /8rk of the covenant, on the very hand of covenant, the very code we all been looking for i guess, this is  my personal research based on extensive 18 years study and meditation on Torah law in light of Quran and teaching of Prophet Muhammad about r18ht hand and its holiness! Even the winds change per Torah law as i have not seen a single Tornado, Typhoon hurricane or twister in NOrthern hemisphere where rule of r18ht hand law was not in action. Read in Isiah how alm18hty creator created and measured heaven and earth with the palm of h1s r18ht hand, i think that measurement serves as the code and thus 18 comes up again when we read the b8k of r18ht hands, left hand b8k is the oppsite of r18ht hand b8k reading  81 instead of 18 and spinning clockwise or anti r18ht hand spin too. i can go on and on and on as i have been for years and i have come to another conclusion, each creation is a blessing and if we come to count all blessings we cannot comprehend their count yet we find all creation less or more still to be measure perfectly to the ratio of r18ht hand palm not only digitally but also spiritually and physically being one and only law in effect, no UNlaw to be found that can VETO the rule of A1Law, last but not least, end times is i notice called ‘Aharit ha Yameem’ in Juda(*sm, Ahirat means end times and Yameen means r18ht hand, Islam speaks of a book of r18ht hand to come forth in end times as final Judgement, believers that day will rejoice and disbelievers in book of r18ht hand will suffer due to their denial. I take us to be the sheep and since Torah is a living book according to Quran, its inscription on the very r18ht hand palm skin as two scrolls of maths being 18 confirms with the jewish tradition of Torah being inscribed on a sheep skin parchment or something of that sort, apart from the fact that 18 is fulfillment of Torah and number of will(ratzon), appears on each r18ht hand, not a scrolls has jumped its place on either hand where r18ht hand for any would place 1 as a unit instead of it being a tenth for the very book of 10 commandments, we should all know the link between 0 of 10 commandments and the 8 of 18 Amidah in maths, 2 zeros make one 8, creation is an egg(zero) that comes to being out of 2 zeros, and when it divides or multiplies it becomes more zeros, each spinning the spin of r18ht hand law, just like cytoplasm in each and every heart, r18ht hand spin is unanimously unchallenged inside out this universe, i find us all to be mere carving on the palm of our creator, i find the universe to be in the palm of our creator, r18ht hand palm! Any comments? i’ll be waiting anxiously. For i have found a L18ht that shines endlessly emitting from the very r18ht hand box of covenant to all corners of Sumara Judea and far corners of the world, Again highlighting Haggai 2:7-9 as a great Prophecy Prophecising coming of the Last Prophet of Deuteronomy 18:18, Prophet Muhamnmad, because it is the word(Quran) revealed to him which lead me to this Torah of mine and all the links, simply speaking, Quran is Torah written on hearts while Torah of Moses is an inscription of the r18ht hand but in Math and to keep it in mind, 18 Amidah were established with custom involving the very hand that contains the sricpture(18) perhaps waiting for some time in future when it could be explained more properly, i find it to be no other time than ours! I just cant find a single snail shell that is not designed per the rule of r18ht hand draw, or design of r18ht hand thumb around the index finger. i share this with hope for peace through understanding using common science signs and sense involving rule of r18ht hand law and ratio of r18ht hand palm as golden ratio 1618 serving as Torah code/inscription/scrolls. am thrilled indeed by this finding that boosts my spirits and belief in Quran is further strengthened as being a word that explains all scriptures prior to its revelation.