The Mishnah: “The Oral Law” and Traditions of the Rabbis.

Posted by on Jan 31, 2024

The rabbis teach that the Eternal gave Mosheh other teachings and revelations aka the Oral Law, which he did not write down but transmitted orally to the children of Israel. These orally transmitted laws were eventually written down in the Mishnah and interpreted in the Gemara. The Mishnah and Gemara constitute the Talmud. According to the rabbis, “the Oral Law” had been given to Mosheh orally at Mount Sinai (hence, “Oral Law”), which he did not write in the Torah but handed it down to Yehoshua and the seventy elders. According to the rabbis, these oral laws of the Mishnah have the same authority as the five books of Mosheh (the Torah). When the rabbis speak of “Torah”, they mean both torahs: the written Torah (the five books Mosheh wrote) and the Oral Torah.

Mishnah מִשְׁנָה, means "study by repetition". It is the first major written collection of the rabbinic oral traditions that are known as the Oral Torah. Photo: Rambam's Mishnah Commentary.

Mishnah מִשְׁנָה, means “study by repetition”. It is the first major written collection of the rabbinic oral traditions that are known as the Oral Torah. Photo: Rambam’s Mishnah Commentary.

“The authority of the Torah comes from the fact that the Torah does not refer to itself”. (Jewish saying)

The Mishnah tractate Avot institutes the purpose of the oral laws, namely, the creation of “a fence around the Law”. What purpose does this “fence around the Law” serve?

The various Rabbinic “laws” were instituted to protect Biblical laws against violation by mistake, ignorance, or poor interpretation of the Torah. As such any Rabbinic ordinance introduced for the sole purpose of ensuring the observance of the Torah law as it is and protecting it against violation is not called “an addition”. For the rabbis say that the Oral Law is in the nature of a fence around a vineyard. This fence does not contribute to or enlarge the vineyard but merely protects it against thieves. Moreover, according to the rabbis, observing the Rabbinic ordinances does not constitute a violation of the commandment not to add to the Torah’s laws, but violating Rabbinic ordinances instituted in the Mishnah violates a specific Torah commandment in Deu 17:11: “Do according to the Torah in which they teach you, … Do not depart from the word which they tell you”, wherein the “they” are the rabbis. Violation of the laws in Mishnah results in excommunication. Thus far the rabbis.

While the Torah was indeed transmitted to Mosheh orally, it was nonetheless written down by him. We read from the Torah, as Mosheh has written it,

And Mosheh came and related to the people all the Words of Yehovah and all the ordinances. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the Words which Yehovah has spoken we shall do”. And Mosheh wrote down all the Words of Yehovah, … (Exo 24:3-4)

And Mosheh wrote down all the Words of Yehovah, which He had spoken to Mosheh, wherein “all the words” means that there was none that Mosheh left behind. He received them, related them orally to the people, and wrote them down on the scroll in order that the Word can be verified. And this is the reason for putting in writing all the words the Eternal spoke to Mosheh: so that the people could affirm that what he had written was the same as what he told them orally. This is what the Book of the Covenant consists of. The Book of the Covenant first appears in Exodus 24:7, as we read,

And he [Mosheh] took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that Yehovah has spoken we shall do and obey. (Exo 24:7)

The above verse speaks of the Book of the Covenant (literally, the Scroll of the Covenant), which Mosheh read in the hearing of the people. In the plain reading of the events at Sinai, it is apparent that the Book of the Covenant consists of the words Mosheh spoke from Exo 20:22 through Exo 23:33, while the Covenant itself is in Exo 20:1-17. The Covenant is the Ten Commandments the Eternal spoke from the summit of the mountain. Mosheh read the Book of the Covenant, all the people accepted it upon themselves and said, “All that the Eternal has spoken we shall do”. He then took the blood of the burnt-offerings and sacrificed peace-offerings and sprinkled it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the Covenant, which Yehovah has made with you in agreement with all these words” (Exo 24:8). Thus, the Covenant was ratified and came into effect. Which words the people agreed upon? The words YHVH spoke directly to the people (the Covenant written on the tablets of stone) and the words spoken to Mosheh afterwards, which Mosheh wrote down: the Book of the Covenant. When Mosheh later finished the five scrolls, which we now know as the Torah, he integrated the Book of the Covenant into the Torah to become one and unbreakable whole.

Now, the Covenant was revealed to the people at the mountain, when all witnessed the glory and majesty of the Mighty One of Israel, the Book of the Covenant with the additional laws was given to Mosheh, who read it in the hearing of the people, all the people agreed to do all that the Eternal had spoken, and then He said to Mosheh,

Come up to Me on the mountain and be there, while I give you tablets of stone, and the Torah and the command which I have written that you may teach them. (Exo 24:12)

This verse is cited as a proof text that God revealed to Moses not only the Written Torah but the Oral Torah to be taught through the generations. We read in Berakhot 5a:3 the following interpretation of the verse:

The “tablets of stone” are the Covenant, the Ten Commandments.

The “Torah” is the five books of Mosheh.

The “command” (Hebrew mitsvah) is the Mishnah, which explains the mitsvot in the Torah, and how they are to be performed.

“Which I have written” refers to the Prophets and Writings, written with divine inspiration.

“To teach them” refers to the Talmud, which explains the Mishnah (the Oral Law).

These explanations are the foundation for the rulings of all aspects of life. This verse, conclude the rabbis, teaches that all aspects of Torah were given to Mosheh from Sinai: written and oral. But this is not sufficient, for it would have been proper for Scripture to say what the rabbis claim it says. And why is the verse not written the way the rabbis say it should be understood? The rabbis’ interpretation falls short on why there is no mention of “oral law” as opposed to the written law. Since a verse never leaves its plain meaning, the claim is therefore not binding and cannot be offered as proof. Besides, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In future articles, we intend to address this matter, as we will seek such extraordinary evidence in the Hebrew Scripture to prove or disprove the claim that an oral law was given to Mosheh at Sinai.

In the words of Mosheh, this is how the words of the Eternal are rephrased,

But you [Mosheh], stand here by Me, and let Me speak to you all the command, and the statues, and the judgments which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess it. (Deu 5:31)

Here Mosheh used three terms to explain three terms YHVH used forty years earlier: The Covenant, the Torah, and the command (Exodus) vs “all the command”, “the statues”, and “the judgments” (Deuteronomy).

Did Mosheh correctly quote the Eternal? When two statements seem to be conflicting, a third one comes to explain them both. We read another verse from Deuteronomy,

Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as Yehovah my Elohim commanded me, that you should do so in the land which you go to possess it. (Deu 4:5)

Mosheh spoke first (in Deu 4:5) of a matter which is basic to all [613] commandments: “statutes and ordinances”, and then (in Deu 5:31) he summarized them by saying “all the command”, “the statutes” and “the judgments”. So, what exactly is being described in Exo 24:12 above? Understand this according to what it literally implies: the Eternal called Mosheh to come up to Him on the mountain to give him the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the command which He had written. In order to make this clear to the reader, the Eternal said: “which I have written”. It is for this reason that it was said that YHVH had written them and gave them to Mosheh. This is stated simply to be understood simply.

If the rabbis were correct in their claim that the Eternal gave Mosheh the “command” (the Oral Law, i.e., Mishnah) orally, the question presents itself: Why did He said to him that He had written it, and why was the Mishnah not preserved in a scroll as the Torah was? It is thus clear from the plain reading of the text that the tablets of stone with the Covenant (Exo 20:1-17), the Book of the Covenant (Exo 20:22 through Exo 23:33), and the Torah were given to Mosheh in a written form, according to the words of the Eternal: “which I have written”. If the Torah had not informed us so, we may have thought that the rabbinic teachings of the Oral Law have merits.

At the end of his life, Mosheh renewed the Covenant with the new generation that was born in the desert. This is how he began to introduce the Covenant to the people who were not present at Sinai. He said,

Do not add to the Word which I am commanding you and do not take away from it, so as to guard the commands of Yehovah your Elohim which I am commanding you. (Deu 4:2) See also Deu 12:32, Pro 30:6.

The admonition, “Do not add to the words which I am commanding you, nor subtract from it”, is a warning for man not to try to be more pious than he is by saying that he will do more than God commanded, by thinking that the additions to the Torah will be considered part of his service to the Lord. This is why Mosheh had to point out that all His work is perfect (Deu 32:4). And if something is perfect, nothing can be added to nor subtracted from it, even the least command from the Torah.

Now, if it is forbidden to add new legislation, how can we explain laws and rulings in Rabbinic Judaism that do not appear in the Torah? And if it so, how then have we come up with having today “two Laws”, written and oral?

Ezra the scribe, who is considered the founder of Judaism (see Ezr 7:10, 25; Neh 8:2-9), upon the return from the Babylonian exile forced the Jews to expel the foreign [unconverted] wives they had taken with them from Babylon (Ezr 10:2, 10). The unconverted women were expelled, and since then no polygamy has ever been found in Israel any longer. Moreover, Israel was done with the idolatry that existed before the exile. Besides, after the returned of the exile, the rabbis became so jealous over the correct keeping of the commands in the Torah that they went even further to create “fences around the Torah”.

As we pointed out, the Mishnah is the first part of the Talmud; it is a collection of early oral interpretations of the scriptures by the rabbis that was compiled about 200 C.E. The Mishnah covers agricultural, ritual, civil, criminal, and Temple-related laws, presenting a multiplicity of legal opinions. It is a foundation of the oral tradition, which continues with the interpretations of the rabbis in the Gemara, which was compiled between the 3rd and 8th centuries and structured as commentary on the Mishnah. The Mishnah is also known as “Talmudic” or “Rabbinic tradition”. Rabbi Akiva said, “Tradition is a fence to Torah; tithes are a fence to wealth; vows a fence to sanctity; a fence to wisdom is silence”. The oral traditions are good; they keep a nation alive.

The tradition (Megillah 14b) tells that the prophet Jeremiah was a descendant of the innkeeper Rahav, listing Rahav’s descendants, which include eight prophets and a prophetess. The tradition also tells that the prophet Chavakuk was the son of the Shunamite woman, whom Elisha blessed in 2Kings 4. Leviticus 11 lists number of identifying signs of kosher and unkosher animals but says nothing how to identify those among the fowls. In this case, the rabbinic ruling comes to help beginning with the fact that the kosher birds are not predators and only birds with a tradition of kashrut should be eaten.

Or for example, the Torah says that the new day begins at sunset, but when exactly? How dark must it be to tell that the new day has begun, and why is it important? The rabbis have given in Talmud a very simple and practical rule to determine the new day. They have ruled that when three stars are seen on the night sky, then the new day has begun. This helps determine, i.e., the beginning of the Sabbath day, Yom Kippur, and when the Passover lambs are to be slaughtered in Jerusalem. These are just a few examples of rabbinic rulings based on the established oral tradition. One thing, however, is the traditions that explain historical events, even though unrecorded in the Tanach, the other thing is the innumerous and imposed on people as “laws of God” rabbinic rulings. The Creator forbids any work on Shabbat and Yom Kippur, but indeed, the Torah does not define what work is. The rabbis correctly have ruled that any creative work is forbidden on these days, but they have gone too far in their rulings to create “fences” around the Torah, so that no Jew would even come close to breaking the laws of the Torah. Such “fences” are the thirty-nine prohibitions for the Sabbath Day, while to Torah list only seven. But perhaps, the most controversial “fence” is the prohibition against the pronunciation of the Creator’s Name, the Tetragrammaton, as it is vocalized by the scribes. The rabbis have banned the uttering of the Tetragrammaton, as a fence around the Name against profaning it. The rabbinic prohibition is so severe that if a Jew utters it, he will lose his place in the world to come.

With all that said, it compels us to consider the question: if that is the intention of the Eternal to give Mosheh laws orally only without being written as the other laws were, why is that not made explicit in the Torah? And if the oral tradition of the rabbis cannot provide explicit evidence in the written Torah (for this reason) but refers only to itself as a source, then this is a circular reasoning, when the reason begins with the intended goal of the argument. Such an argument that restates a statement, rather than proves it, can be difficult to detect if it involves a long chain of orally transmitted traditions from Sinai to 200 C.E., when the Mishnah was first compiled. The difficulty also arises from the fact that the rabbinic statements of the Oral Law supply no independent ground or evidence to make such a conclusion. But if such evidence does exist in the Torah or the Tanach, it is incumbent upon us to examine it diligently.

Therefore, it is the object of this work to seek the answers to the questions we raised above that much have been avoided in the traditional commentaries. In this endeavor, we are fully aware that we cannot remove all the difficulties we will come across; the matter of “Oral Law” is not conclusive and should be left with an open end for the reader’s consideration until more knowledge is acquired. Moreover, considering the unique standing of the matter, we do not ask the reader to substitute our judgment for his/her own but to consider what we intend to say in future articles. Until then the reader should be careful when reading rabbinic interpretations interpolated into the Biblical text.

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