Torah – Written and Oral

An Overview

I.  Master Plan Of Creation
God created the world from a plan and for a purpose.  His plan was the Torah which preceded the world (Shabbos 88b), and His purpose was that man find the meaning and the goal of creation in the Torah:  “He looked into the Torah and created the world’ (Midrash).
Torah was the blueprint of creation.  It is commonly thought that, following the failure of the human race and the emergence of Abraham and his descendants as people worthy of bearing the privilege of becoming God’s chosen people, God decided upon the commandments which He transmitted to the Jews through Moses.  Nothing could be more wrong.  The Torah and its commandments were not designed in response to the demands and needs of early life.  The Torah pre-existed earth; and the universe as we know it was designed to conform to the requirements of the Torah.

II.  Gates of Understanding (Gates of Wisdom)
Indeed, it is true that Torah is the blueprint of creation, but that is only a small part of the total truth:  Torah remains the key to all the secrets and resources of creation.  When Adam was created, God placed him in the Garden of Eden ‘to work it and guard it’ (Genesis 2:15), upon which the Midrash comments ‘to work it’ through the performance of positive commandments, and to ‘guard it’ through the observance of negative commandments.  Man in his most exalted form can grasp that the true essence of all this earthly life is the extent of his service to God.  Let us attempt to understand – at least imperfectly – how Torah permeates every molecule of the universe.  If we succeed, we will have found the first marker on the road to fulfillment as the Creator intended it.

‘Fifty gates of understanding were created and all were transmitted to Moses except for one (Rosh Hashanah 21b)’

What were these ‘gates of understanding’?  Ramban explains that each order of the universe was created according to a plan, and its contents, growth, function, and all other of its aspects are determined according to it.  To enter into the mysteries of this plan and to comprehend it is to be admitted into its ‘gate of understanding’. The knowledge of man is the forty-ninth gate of understanding, the ability to know the complexities of the human mind and personality.
Above that gate, is the fiftieth – the knowledge of God.  Forty-nine gates were presented to Moses; the fiftieth was denied even him, for no mortal being can attain the understanding of God.  Thus, in the truest sense, Ramban continues, the fiftieth gate was never ‘created’, for the term creation implies that it was part of heaven and earth – part of the handiwork of the Six Days of Creation that is within the realm of human understanding.  But that gate, the ability to comprehend and understand the essence of God, was never created in the normal sense, because it is beyond the scope of man.

  • Note: Chidushei HaRim suggests that not only was the fiftieth gate createdbut it was transmitted to Moses!  The very fact that a human being can conceive God’s greatness to the extent that he can say ‘ if all the seas were ink and all the heavens parchment and all the trees quills, I could not begin to write Your greatness’ – this in itself is a glimmer of the glories within the fiftieth gate of understanding.  This barest breath of the last gate was transmitted to man; otherwise how could he ever imagine that the unimaginable exists, how could his soul soar in futile yet fruitful quest of the infinite riches of God’s wisdom and spirituality?

With mastery of the forty-nine gates, Moses could understand the complexities of every aspect of creation and the workings of every human mind.  He could look at a person and perceive his sins and merits, his flaws and virtues.
Thus the wisdom of the forty-nine gates was more than a theory.  It enabled its possessor to know all the secrets of any aspect of creation to whose ‘gate of understanding’ he was privy.  He could unlock the high recesses of the human mind as Moses could, he could even know the workings of animal life and the earth.  The master of terrestrial understanding could know without Geiger counters and divining rods where mineral deposits were located and what veins of land were suited to the production of exotic plants.  He could know the ‘speech’ and behavior of animals and the secrets of human healing.
According to the Sages, King Solomon was the possessor of all wisdom, but the wise king did not request encyclopedic knowledge – he asked only for the wisdom of Torah so that he could judge his people wisely and justly.
For the forty-nine gates of understanding are all in the Torah.  The man who can decipher the depths of the Torah’s wisdom knows the secrets of agriculture, mining, music, mathematics, healing, law – everything! – because nothing was built into heaven and earth unless it was found in the Torah,  The question is not whether Torah is the source of all wisdom, the question is only how one interprets the Torah to unseal its riches.
Every aspect of the wisdom transmitted to Moses and presented to Solomon – and shared by the great figures of ancient Israel – is contained in the Torah.  One need only know how to find it.
We, in our spiritual property, lack the keys to the gates of understanding.  The Torah commands us in laws of agriculture – but does this tell us how to make farms more productive?  We are permitted to seek medical help – but does this teach us to conquer disease?  We are commanded to seek the benefit of our fellow men – but how does this show us the way to peace in a jealous, unruly, selfish world?

III. – Treasures Within Torah

Uncover my eyes that I may behold wonders from Your Torah” (Psalms 119:18)

The wonders are there, it is we who fail to see them.  The eyes of the ancients were free of the material veils that so cloud our vision today.
The Talmud tells us that when Moses ascended to heaven to be taught the Torah and receive the Tablets of the Law; he saw God writing small crowns on top of the letters in the heavenly Torah.  Moses wondered why they were necessary and God answered, “There is a man named Akiba ben Joseph who will live many generations in the future who will derive mounds and mounds of laws from each crown” (Menachos 29b).
An extra letter here, a missing letter there, an enlarged letter, a miniature letter – all of these seeming aberrations in a Torah scroll are meticulously preserved guideposts to law, nature, and untold mysteries of the universe.  This explains why Jews down the ages have taken scrupulous care that all Torah scrolls remain faithful to the ancient texts.  Ezra the Scribe, who led the Jews back from the Babylonian exile, wrote a Torah scroll which remained the authoritative one for centuries and which was the standard against which all others were checked for accuracy.  Therefore, too, a Torah scroll with an extra letter – even a silent vowel like vav or yud – is halachically unfit for use.
The sum total of human knowledge, therefore, derives from the Torah, for the very universe itself is a product of Torah.  It existed, as the Midrash tell us – “written in black fire upon white fire”.
The black and white fire of Torah became clothed in ink and parchment, and the Godly wisdom which is the essence of Torah, remained hidden in its words and letters.  The very wisdom which dictated the creation remains imbedded in Torah and reveals itself to those chosen few who are capable of peering beneath its material camouflage.
When the ancient Romans apprehended the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion for committing the ‘crime’ of teaching the Torah to his students, they condemned him to death.  They wrapped him in a Torah scroll and set him on fire.  As his agony reached its climax, his students asked him, ‘Rabbi, what do you see?”  He answered, “The parchments are consumed, and the letters fly up (to heaven)” (Avodah Zarah 18a).  The great Rabbi could see what his students could not.  Flames could burn parchment and ink, but the letters of the Torah are eternal, for the scroll is not their essence but their abode.  They find a temporary home in the artistry of the scribe, but hidden in his handiwork is the wisdom of the scribe Who preceded him – Who composed and wrote the first Torah in black fire upon white fire.  Let the earthly scroll be burned and its letters – those eternal letters that preceded earth and define its destiny – rise up to their Author.  The letters are eternal for they are the will of the Eternal!

IV.  The Oral Law

Even a cursory study of the Torah proves that there must be an unwritten law, that there is much more to Torah than the Five Books of Moses, the Chumash; much more even than the entire twenty-four books of Tanach.
 Exodus 17:14 – “Write this as a remembrance in a book and place it in the ears of Joshua…”  It is plain that, in addition to the written verses of the Torah, something else had to be told to Joshua.
Exodus 21:24 – “..eye for an eye..” yet never in Jewish history was physical punishment handed out for an assault.  Instead the verse was always interpreted to require monetary compensation.
Deuteronomy 12:21 – “You may slaughter from your herd and your flock which Hashem has given you as I have commanded you.”  Moses clearly states that he had “commanded” his people concerning Shechitah (the slaughtering of certain animals and birds for food according to Jewish dietary laws), yet we find no where in the written text of the Torah even one of the intricate and demanding rules of kosher slaughter.
Countless similar questions could be raised. The implication of them all is clear beyond a doubt: there is a second Torah, an Oral Law, without which the first Torah is not only a closed book, but without which the written Torah can be twisted and misinterpreted beyond recognition, as indeed it has been down the centuries.
As Rambam says in his introduction, Moses had three primary disciples: Joshua, Eleazer, and Pinchas, but it was to Joshua ‘who was Moses’ disciple’ that he transmitted the Oral Law and whom he commanded in it.
Moses was commanded to designate Joshua as his successor.  He was commanded: instruct him concerning the ‘Talmud’.  This Rambam interprets as a clear reference to the Oral Law.  This would explain why Israel was so incensed when Joshua forgot three hundred laws following the death of Moses, that there were some who threatened to kill him (Temurah 16a)!  Why the wrath against Joshua alone when there were myriad other scholars and elders in the nation who were equally guilty?  Because, as leader of the people, Joshua had been made responsible for the preservation of the Oral Law.
The Oral Law was taught in its entirety to Moses during his forty days and forty nights in heaven.  When one considers the origin of the hundreds of thousands of volumes that constitute only a fraction of the total body of knowledge that we refer to with the all inclusive name Torah, the phenomenon of Moses knowing it all is not surprising.  In essence, Torah is the wisdom of God, His own thought, the ultimate in spiritual greatness.

V.  Survival of Torah

Proverbs 6:23 – “For a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light”.  Illumination is the last of three important steps taken by God in communicating His Word to us.  The first step was revelation which occurred when God spoke to the bible authors.  The second step was inspiration, that process whereby God guided them in correctly writing or uttering His message.  Now a third step is needed to provide understanding for men and women as they hear God’s revealed and inspired message.  This vital step is illumination, that divine process whereby God causes the written revelation to be understood by the human heart.
The  Person behind the illumination is the Holy Spirit.
God’s wisdom dictated that in our human existence, the way to ascend the spiritual ladder is through – and only through – the commandments of the Torah, just as the lamp is the means to attain light.  Man’s highest privilege and loftiest attainment is in the study of Torah, itself.
After the Torah was given, the Oral Law enabled Jews to properly understand the written Torah, to derive from the laws the principles that should be applied to new situations.  That human intellect is capable of divining a degree of God’s wisdom is one of His greatest gifts to man.  That man can sometimes give a logical explanation of one or another law is no proof whatever of the validity of Torah; the Torah does not need to be legitimized by man’s approval.  Rather it is a tribute to the brilliance of human intellect that it is capable of understanding an aspect of God’s wisdom.
The blossoming of the Oral Law in all its intellectual brilliance and glory – as we find it recorded in the Talmud and other books – did not begin until the period of the Second Temple.  The Shechinah, the Divine Presence, was not to rest upon the Second Temple as it had upon the first, a loss that caused the people enormous distress.  The Men of the Great Assembly, one hundred and twenty great men that included many prophets and leaders such as Ezra, Mordecai, Daniel and others, beseeched God for a divine gift to compensate for the losses.  During the entire period from the Giving of the Law at Sinai until the opening generations of the Second Commonwealth (530 BC – 70 AD), The Oral Law was handed down intact and free of dispute.  During the Second Commonwealth, however, the historic intensity of study began to decline ever so slightly, with the result that disputes began to arise among the Sages.  (Sanhedrin 88b)
In addition, during the long and cruel period of harsh Roman persecution, Torah study became virtually impossible except with the most extreme self-sacrifice.  The result was a further tragic decline in knowledge and an impairment in the transmission of the oral tradition.  Without the totally reliable teacher-to-student chain of Oral Law, ways had to be employed to regain what was being lost.
The principles of Biblical interpretation were taught to Moses at Sinai together with the rest of the Oral Law.  The Talmud teaches us the Thirteen Hermeneutic Principles through which the Torah is interpreted.  The Talmud makes extensive use of these principles, in fact they form it’s heart.  Through their use, it was possible to find within the Torah, laws from the oral tradition which had become forgotten or confused.
Following the death of Moses, a substantial body of orally transmitted law was forgotten as a result of the people’s grief over the loss of their teacher.  The leader and sage, Asniel, applied the principles of Biblical exegesis, a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, and restored the lost knowledge to Israel.  How did he do it?  The laws were not concoctions of Moses.  They were taught him by God as part of the Oral Law which, in turn, is the authentic interpretation of the Torah.  During Moses’ lifetime, the people found no need to derive the laws from Scripture itself, because the oral tradition was intact.
Asniel made use of established principles to regain knowledge that had been forgotten.  In this sense, God promised the men of the Great Assembly that He would reveal to them the secrets of the Torah.  They took the eternal tools of exegesis and used them to reveal the secrets that had always been locked within the words of the Torah, secrets that Moses had taught Israel and that, in turn, had been transmitted orally for over a thousand years until the oral tradition began to crumble due to a lack of diligence and outside persecution.  They did nothing new and certainly made no changes in the Torah; they merely made use of hermeneutic principles that had not been needed while the tradition of study was still at its high point.
The highest levels of spirituality attained by human beings were those of the Patriarchs:  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They obeyed the laws of the Torah before it was given.  Who told them the laws?  No one.  Their own spiritual greatness combined with the holy emanations of Eretz Israel (the Land of Israel) to create within them the instincts that dictated which deeds had to be performed and which were forbidden.  God and Torah form one unity; when the Patriarchs attained the lofty heights that brought them as close to God as human beings can become, they simultaneously became human manifestations of Torah and understood how it was to be clothed in human deed (Rambam).
Following the giving of the Torah, the Oral Law enabled the greatest people among Jews to see the total concept of a commandment.
When Moses was told that Rabbi Akiba would derive laws from the crowns of the letters, he was astounded that a human could reach such a level of greatness.

  • Moses said before Him, ‘Master of the Universe, show Rabbi Akiba to me.’  He said, ‘Move backwards.’  He went and sat at the end of the eighteenth row of students and he (Moses) did not understand what they were saying.  He grew weak from the realization of his inferior knowledge.  As soon as they came to a particular law, (Rabbi Akiba’s) students said to him, ‘My master, how do you know this?’ He said to them ‘It is a law transmitted to Moses at Sinai.  (Moses’) feelings were set at ease. (Menachos 29b)

Moses understood the root of every commandment.  His depth of understanding was such that he intuitively knew every individual law associated with the commandment.  He did not perceive them as separate parts, but as aspects of one whole.

This incident illustrates the fundamental difference between the vision of a prophet and the wisdom of a sage.  The prophet sees with a dazzling clarity, but he is limited to what God reveals to him.  The sage may lack the clarity of the prophet, but by means of his Torah wisdom he is able to delve more deeply and develop a breadth of knowledge beyond what the prophet has been shown.  The prophet’s knowledge is far clearer and he attains a degree of closeness to God that was lost to the great men of the Second Temple, but the sage’s knowledge can be broader and more embracing.

This ability of man to use his human intellect to add to the store of Torah knowledge is surely one of God’s greatest gifts to man.

VI.  Divisions of the Oral Law Rambam divides the Mishnah into five categories:

  1. The traditional explanation of the Torah’s text.  This includes such verses as ‘an eye for an eye’ which, as we have seen refers to monetary compensation only, and not physical multilation.  Countless verses in Tanach cannot be understood properly in the light of the simple translation, but only as our Sages received the interpretation in the chain of tradition extending from Moses.
  2. Halacha, laws given to Moses at Sinai which are not specifically rooted in the Written Law.
  3. Laws derived through logic.  A compelling logical conclusion has the status of a written law.  (For example, it is forbidden for someone to kill another human being in order to save his own life.  As the Talmud puts it: Why do you think your blood is redder than his? (Sanhedrin 74a) It must be made absolutely clear, however, that ‘logic’ in order to have any validity in Torah terms, must be firmly and unquestionably rooted in the tradition stretching from Sinai.)
  4. Rabbinic decrees.  By saying, ‘you shall guard My ordinance’ (Leviticus 18:30), the Torah placed upon the Sages the responsibility to act whenever there appeared to be a danger of lack of strictness in the observance of the Torah’s laws (Yevamos 21a).  In observance of this Scriptural order, the Sages enacted such decrees as prohibitions against the marriage of close relatives who were permitted by the Torah to marry one another.
  5. General Laws, ordinances, and customs that are enacted based on a rabbinic judgment of the need for them.

The Rabbinic authority to enact and enforce observance of their laws is conferred by the Torah itself.

Deuteronomy 17:8-11: “If a matter arises for judgment that is too difficult for you….Then you shall come to the priest, the Levites, and the judge that shall be in those days, and you shall inquire; and they shall tell you in the word of judgment.  And you shall do according to the word that they shall tell you…..and you shall observe to do according to all that they shall inform you…..you shall not swerve from the word which they shall tell you to the right or to the left.”

There is a particular type of Rabbinic ordinance, one that is much misunderstood, that provides an enlightening glimpse of the all-embracing nature of the Torah.  It is called asmachta, a Rabbinic law which is supported by a Biblical text.  For example, the Sages decreed that it is forbidden, under normal circumstances to have a non-Jew perform prohibited forms of labor on festivals.  Although the prohibition is Rabbinic is nature, they found support for it in a Scriptural verse: no work may be done.’  The phrase may be done indicates that the act is forbidden even if not done by a Jew.

The written Torah and the Oral Torah are indivisible halves of a sacred whole.

Torah is the beginning of creation – He looked into the Torah and created the world (Midrash) – and its purpose.  Jeremiah 33:25 – “..were it not for My covenant day and night, I would not have appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth”.  The privilege of accepting the Torah from God, for carrying out its precepts, and for finding its sacred sparks in the darkest corners of earthly existence, belongs to Israel.  Torah and Israel – the twin purposes of creation.  The very first verse in the Torah alludes to them: ‘For the sake of Torah and Israel, both of which are called ‘the primary cause and purpose, did God create heaven and earth’. (Midrash)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *