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What exactly is the Oral Torah?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

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The Torah has two parts: The "Torah Shebiktav" (Written Law), which is composed of the twenty-four books of the Tanach, and the "Torah Sheba'al Peh" (Oral Law).

G-d told Moses1 that he will give him "the Torah and the commandments." Why did G-d add the word "commandments?" Are there any commandments which are not included in the Torah? This verse (amongst others) is a clear inference to the existence of the Oral Torah.

Originally the Oral Law was never transcribed. Instead it was transmitted from father to son and from teacher to disciple (thus the name "Oral" Law). Approximately 1800 years ago, Rabbi Judah the Prince concluded that because of all the travails of Exile, the Oral Law would be forgotten if it would not be recorded on paper. He, therefore, assembled the scholars of his generation and compiled the Mishnah; a (shorthanded) collection of all the oral teachings that preceded him. Since then, the Oral Law has ceased to be "oral" and as time passed more and more of the previously oral tradition was recorded. 

The Oral Law consists of three components:

1. Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai:

When Moses went to Heaven to receive the Torah, G-d gave him the Written Torah together with many instructions. These instructions are called "Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai" (the Law that was given to Moses on Sinai). Maimonides writes that it is impossible for there to be an argument or disagreement concerning a Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai, for the Jews who heard the instructions from Moses implemented them into their daily lives and passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, etc.

G-d told Moses (Exodus 24:12) "I will give you the Torah and the commandments." Why did G-d add the word "commandments?" Aren't all the commandments included in the Torah? This verse is a clear inference to the existence of the Oral Torah.
Some examples of Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai are: Teffilin straps must be black, a Sukkah must have at least two and a half walls, and all the different Halachic measurements and sizes.

It is obvious that a Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai, which was spoken by G-d Himself, carries the same weight as a commandment which is written by G-d in the Torah.

2. Shlosh Esreh Middot ShehaTorah Nidreshet Bahem:

When G-d gave the Written Law to Moses he also instructed him how one is to study and understand the Torah. Every word and letter in the Torah is exact, and many laws can be extrapolated from an extra (or missing) word or letter, or a particular sequence which the Torah chooses to use. The thirteen principles which are the keys to uncovering the secrets of the Torah are called the "Shlosh Esreh Middot ShehaTorah Nidreshet Bahem."

For instance: One of the rules is: "Anything that was included in a general statement, but was removed from the general statement in order to teach something, was not removed to teach only about itself, but to apply its teaching to the entire generality." An example for the usage of this rule is: in Exodus2 the Torah says "You shall not light fire in any of your dwellings on the Shabbat day." Now, kindling a fire was already included in the general statement that prohibits work on Shabbat.3 It was removed from the general rule and stated independently in this verse to teach us that it is a distinct form of work and, as such, carries a distinct penalty. Moreover, this lesson applies to each of the 39 categories of work included in the general statement. Thus, there isn't a broad category called "work," rather each type of work is to be viewed as distinct. Therefore, if someone should do several kinds of work while unaware that they are forbidden on Shabbat, he must bring a separate sin-offering to atone for each type of work that he did.

Footnotes

  • 1. Exodus 24:12.
  • 2. 35:3.
  • 3. Exodus 20:10.

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Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Oral Law
G–d orally explained all the 613 Commandments to Moses. These explanations constitute the Oral Law.
Chametz
Any leavened product which is produced from wheat, barley, rye, spelt or oats. This includes bread, cake, cereals, crackers, biscuits, yeast, pasta and whisky. It is forbidden for a Jew to possess or consume Chametz throughout Passover.
Passover
A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Halachah
Jewish Law. All halachah which is applicable today is found in the Code of Jewish Law.
Halachic
Pertaining to Jewish Law.
Maimonides
Moses son of Maimon, born in Spain in 1135, died in Egypt in 1204. Noted philosopher and authority on Jewish law. Also was an accomplished physician and was the personal doctor for members of the Egyptian royalty. Interred in Tiberius, Israel.
Sukkah
The temporary structure in which we are required to dwell for the duration of the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah must have at least three walls and its roof consists of unsecured branches, twigs or wooden slats.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Nissan
The first month of the Jewish calendar. This month, which falls out in early spring, is known for the holiday of Passover which starts on the 15th of Nissan.
Judah
1. The fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He was blessed by Jacob to be the leader of the tribes. Consequently, the Davidic royal dynasty is from the tribe of Judah. 2. The southern part of Israel which was occupied by the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and always remained under the reign of the kings from the tribe of Judah.
Tanach
Acronym for Torah, Nevi'm (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Holy Writings). Tanach refers to the 24 books of the Bible: the 5 books of Moses, the 8 books of the Prophets, and the 11 books of Holy Writings.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
Mishnah
First written rendition of the Oral Law which G-d spoke to Moses. Rabbi Judah the Prince compiled the Mishna in the 2nd century lest the Oral law be forgotten due to the hardships of the Jewish exiles.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.