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.