Monday, January 21, 2008

The Oral Torah

Last year, A.J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically, lived in complete observance of the literal text of the Torah. He grew a huge beard, dabbed oil on it every morning to fulfill the verse "Let oil not be lacking on your head", added safety-pin tassels to the corner of all of his clothing to fulfill the command of fringes (Numbers 15:38), and even through stones at an adulterer. Most people reading this will shake their heads in dismay and call him crazy, and yet, what is wrong with what he did? Why should keeping the literal written law be so insane? Enter the Torah she'beal pe, the Oral Torah.

The Oral Torah is not an interpretation of the Written Torah, nor a later interpolation or explanation by the rabbis. The tractate of Ethics of the Fathers in the Talmud, Pirkei Avot, begins with the words: "Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, from Joshue to the Elders, from the Elders to the Prophets and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly." Until the time of the Romans, the Oral Torah was passed down in an unbroken line of ordination and transmission from teacher to student. Originally, it was forbidden to write down the Oral Law for fear that the gentiles might steal it and claim it as their own, as was the case with the Written Law. During the first centuries of the common era, under intense Roman persecution, the great Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi committed the Oral Law to paper because he worried that it might one day be lost. This became known as the Mishna, and centuries later in Babylon and Israel, the great rabbis known as the Tanaaim wrote an explanation on the often cryptic and concise Mishna, which is the Talmud.

The Torah writes very briefly on many mitzvot and without the Oral Law, it would be impossible to understand its many complex laws and requirements. Take the Shabbat for example. What constitutes "work"? The Torah only tells us to remember the Shabbat to keep it holy. Many sects tried to take the Torah's injunctions literally, such as "ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day." (Exodus 35:3), or "let no man leave his place on the seventh day" (Exodus 16:29). The heretical Karaites would celebrate the holy Shabbat by extinguishing all lights, eating cold food and sitting in the dark house all day. Could this be what the Torah had in mind as the "delight of Shabbat"? Imagine no shabbos candles, no chulent, no synagogue. Only a day of cold food in a dark home. Hardly an appealing prospect.

The Torah gives us many inferences to the Oral Law. Ecclesiastes 12:12 speaks of "making many books without end" and Genesis 26:5 records G-d as saying that Avraham kept His Torahs, in the plural, in reference to the Oral and Written Torah.

Just as a sidenote: It is interesting that there are many who mock the Oral Torah and reject it yet use Jewish symbols like talleisim, kipport, etc. to confuse Jews. And another sidenote for those who have been involved in my anti-missionary discussion: Coincidentally, the Canadian head of 'Jews for Judaism' gave a speech at my synagogue the other day so I know all of the typical missionary tricks.


Yehudi said...

LOL BK! "Just so you know, the Canadian head of 'Jews for Judaism' gave a speech at my synagogue the other day so I know all of the typical missionary tricks. I'm ready for you Christians, and I will not be duped!" That's what it sounds like!

Great post..Jacobs did the best he could under the circumstances, since there were many mitzvot he's unable to perform. Anything having to do with the Temple, the Kohen HaGadol, the techelet on the tzitziot, etc...interesting. I think I'd like to read the book.

Rita Loca said...

Just for the record,
I have been reading your blog for quite awhile because I love learning more about the Jewish roots of my faith. I also enjoy your political observations ofIsrael.
I never "missionized" you or intended to do any such thing. It was, in fact, yourself, who originally began to question things of my faith at my blog. I do not mind this at all!
I just want you to know my intentions. I have no desire to "dupe" you or anyone else at all.
Anyone "converting " to Christianity without a true deep understanding and acceptance of the faith, is not a Christian at all. I would be wasting my time and there's to try and trick them. Once again, you are lumping All, so called Christians into one group, which can not be done.
Any group who tries to go to Israel to "trick" ignorant, lonely (your words, not mine!) Jews into becoming Christians are indeed ignorant of their own Christian faith as well.

Avi said...

I didn't really mean that. I just wanted to share the interesting coincidence that after all of these discussion, the head of Jews for Judaism came to speak at my synagogue. I really enjoy our discussions.

Rita Loca said...

BK, No problem, I just wanted it clear to any of your other readers. thanks. And yes, it is an interesting coincidence!

Papa Frank said...

I would also like to echo that I have, and have never had, any intention of missionizing Jews in any way. I respect you BK as an intelligent and articulate young man and admire your dedication to God and desire to gather Jews to Israel and join them yourself one day. I hang around here to learn and understand and debate rigorously as it serves to strengthen all involved by causing them to know what and more importantly why they believe what they believe. Thanks for being a gracious host and providing a wonderful venue for such debate.

Yehudi said...

I, however, intend to missionize all you Christians. If everyone who would like to go through conversion would line up over here, I will have you speak with my rabbi one at a time. Be civil and orderly, will all get in. Stop shoving! Wait your will all be able to become Jews soon enough!

Papa Frank said...

I suddenly have an urge for challah and a knish while I wait in line. Would someone pass the lox for my .......

Yehudi said...

We better move you to the front of the line, or the food will be all gone for the people behind you....

Deborah said...

I posted my response on my blog. It's a little long... sorry. :)

Nicholas Z. Cardot said...

Missionizing tricks, huh? That's a unique term.

The primary reason that I have read your blog is, like Jungle Mom said, to learn more about my own faith and its roots in Judaism. Your questions have challenged me to dig into history and to dig into the Old Testament more than ever. I have come away from my discussions with you as a more knowledgeable man than when I started.

I hope that I have not done or said anything to sincerely offend or make you angry. I have enjoyed our conversation and have even just a few moments ago posted another post at my blog in regard to our conversation.

I am always very thankful for your kindness.

Nicholas Z. Cardot said...

Oh yeah, here's the new post and the other post where I have posted my rebuttals to your earlier statements. Thanks and God bless you.

The Baptist Muse: The Mistrial of the Ages
The Baptist Muse: Jesus is Still the Messiah

Deborah said...

Remember my mentioning that I now attend a small group study on Shabbat where we follow the Parshahs? Well, today's reading and study of Parshah Yitro was awesome! Very life changing and you were a definitely part of the catalyst in the heart-felt decision I made today. I'll tell you what that change is, but I also have two questions.

Life change because of understanding and embracing Torah (the "or" turned on in my thick skull):

Christmas, with tree and trimmings, are forever banished from my home! My mom, brother and his wife, stopped observing of Christmas years ago. I, however, being a stubborn as I can be, said, "I think you guys are being a little to legalistic and taking this stuff just a bit further than needs be. I'll continue to allow my children to celebrate Christmas until the L-RD convicts me." (You remember... I told you I allow it in my home for my children's sake.)

We carefully studied this week's Parshah, and what do we end up discussing at great length in studying Parshah Yitro (Exodus 18:1 to 20:23)? This:
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus 20:4)

Which led to:
3 For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. 4 They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not. (Jeremiah 10:3-4)

The "graven images" of idols (false gods) we understand! But what about the rest of this passage? Of the 15 people in our group, only 3 have stopped observing Christmas with trees and trimmings. So when we got to this passage, it led into a very long and passionate discussion/debate about celebrating Christmas.

I listened to the debate and everybody's excuses. And then, I finally shared with the group about the online discussion you and I had over this past Christmas. I told them why I had not stopped celebrating Christmas in my home, but the conviction to do so has grown over the past few years. I told them that I knew better than to set up a tree and trim the house with decorations this past Christmas, but I blew past the overwhelming conviction because I did not want to be a "kill-joy" to my children and two little grand babies. Then I told them how I felt I had disappointed you.

I told them that if I had disappointed you, a Jew who knew better than to set up any "graven image... in the likeness of that... that is in the earth beneath," I had certainly disappointed G-d, and sinned against Him!!!! I told them I will not celebrate Christmas in my home again with a tree and trimmings - I may have the family over for a nice dinner after they celebrate Christmas in their own homes, but it will not be celebrated in mine. Historians and theologians really don't know when Yeshua was born, and it is highly suspected that He was born during Sukkot because of the correlation to "G-d tabernacling among men," but they really don't know. I will celebrate His death and resurrection at Pesach (Passover), but NOT at Easter (another observance steeped in paganism).

Thank you, bless you, BK, for holding my feet to the sanctifyhing fire of Torah, so-to-speak! See how your teaching me Torah makes a difference?!

(1) In Exodus 18:14-27, is this the inception of the Sanhedrin?

(2) In Exodus 19:3, it says, "Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel..." Huh? We thought that Yaakov (Jacob) = the people "Israel." Why the delineation, here, between the house of Jacob and the children of Israel?


Avi said...


I'm glad to have made a difference. May we both continue to grow strong in Torah, mitzvot and maasim tovim.

Let me deal with your questions:

1) I believe that this is the origin of the Sanhedrin. Rashi writes on this verse: He sat like a king, and they [everyone who came to be judged] all stood. The matter displeased Jethro, that he [Moses] belittled the respect due [the people of] Israel, and he reproved him about it, as it is said: “Why do you sit by yourself, and they are all standing?” [from Mechilta] from the morning until the evening. Is it possible to say this [that Moses actually sat in judgment from morning until evening]? But this [teaches us that] any judge who issues a true verdict-as truth demands it-even [if he spends only] one hour [reaching his judgment], Scripture deems it as if he had engaged in [the study of] the Torah for the entire day, and as if he were a partner with the Holy One, blessed is He, in the [act of] Creation, in which it says: “and it was evening, [and it was morning…]” (Gen. 1:5). [from Mechilta, Shab. 10a]

2) Rashi explains on Exodus 19:3 that 'say to the house of Jacob' refers to the woman, to instruct them the commandments in a gentle tone, the commandment directed towards women such as shabbat candles, mikveh, modesty... and "tell the sons of Israel" refers to punishments and the details [of the laws] being explained to the males, the harsher aspects of the Torah. The idea, I believe, is that it is most important to convince women of the Torah as they are the ones who set the tone for the entire household (that's why Judaism passes by maternal lineage).

Deborah said...

Todah Rabbah! :-)

Deborah said...

I fowarded your comments regarding the questions to the Shabbat home group. Here's the response of one of the men to your comments:

Thank you for the quick turnaround on the questions you raised. The answers are interesting not only for their content, but also because they come from Rashi.

I'm going to think about the answers before replying, but this is a good way for us to proceed.

...So, Mike thanks you, too!

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