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A term used to denote the legal and interpretative traditions which, according to tradition, were transmitted orally from Mount Sinai, and were not written in the Torah. According to Rabbinic Judaism, the oral Torah, oral Law, or oral tradition (Hebrew: תורה שבעל פה, Torah she-be-`al peh) was given by God orally to Moses in conjunction with the written Torah (Hebrew: תורה שבכתב, Torah she-bi-khtav), after which it was passed down orally through the ages. Later to be codefied and written in the Talmud. The form of Judaism which does not recognize an Oral Torah as authoritative, instead relying on the most natural meaning of the Written Torah to form the basis of Jewish law, is known as Karaite Judaism. The Talmud is the record of the oral Torah.

While other cultures and Jewish groups maintained oral traditions, only the Rabbis gave ideological significance to the fact that they transmitted their tradition orally.[1] According to Rabbinic tradition, Moses and the Israelites received an oral as well as the written Torah ("teaching") from God at Mount Sinai. The books of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) were relayed with an accompanying oral tradition passed on by each generation. Jewish law and tradition thus is not based on a strictly literal reading of the Tanakh, but on combined oral and written traditions.

Rabbis of the Talmudic era conceived of the Oral Law in two distinct ways. First, Rabbinic tradition conceived of the Oral law as an unbroken chain of transmission. The distinctive feature of this view was that Oral Law was "conveyed by word of mouth and memorized."[2] Second, the Rabbis also conceived of the Oral law as an interpretive tradition, and not merely as memorized traditions. In this view, the written Torah was seen as containing many levels of interpretation. It was left to later generations, who were steeped in the oral tradition of interpretation to discover those ("hidden") interpretations not revealed by Moses.[3]

The "oral law" was ultimately recorded in the Mishnah, the Talmud and Midrash.

Existence and usage

All written texts require some explanation and interpretation. (See, hermeneutics.) The significance of the Oral Law is that Rabbinic Judaism felt its oral interpretations were the result of a long tradition and therefore binding. To the Rabbis in late antiquity, the Oral Law is as authoritative (or nearly so) as the written law itself (contrast with Karaism below).

Many verses in the Torah require interpretation. Some even presuppose that the reader understands what is being referred to. Many terms used in the Torah are totally undefined, and many procedures are mentioned without explanation or instructions, assuming familiarity on the part of the reader. Some examples are listed below.

The discussion of shechita (kosher slaughter) in Deuteronomy 12 states "you shall kill of your herd and of your flock which God Lord has given you, as I have commanded you," but the Torah does not record an earlier commandment.

Deuteronomy 24 discusses the laws of divorce in passing; they are assumed knowledge in a discussion about when remarriage would be allowed.

Similarly, that the blue string of tekhelet on the tzitzit is to be dyed with a dye extracted from what some scholars believe to be a snail is a detail only spoken of in the oral Torah.[4]

  • The phrase "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot" Ex 21:22–27 is held in the oral tradition to imply monetary compensation - as opposed to a literal Lex talionis. Since the Torah requires that penalties be universally applicable, the phrase cannot be interpreted literally; it would be inapplicable to blind or eyeless offenders. Further, personal retribution is explicitly forbidden by the Torah (Lv 19:18 Leviticus 19:18), such reciprocal justice being strictly reserved for the social magistrate (usually in the form of regional courts). The Talmud explains this concept entails monetary compensation in tort cases.[5] This is the only interpretation consistent with Numbers 35:31. Additionally, this law cannot be carried out in practice, for both practical and ethical reasons (see also parashat Emor);
  • The marriage of Boaz to Ruth as described in the Book of Ruth appears to contradict the prohibition of De 23:3-4 Deuteronomy 23:3-4 against marrying Moabites - the Oral Torah explains that this prohibition is limited to Moabite men.

Dissenting views

Rabbinic Judaism believed that the traditional interpretations received through the Oral Torah were binding. This belief, however, was not accepted amongst all segments of Judaism and religions which schismed from Judaism.


The ancient Galileans were noted as not being strict to oral traditions. Many of the people Galilee, were less strict "The Galileans generally were not such sticklers for tradition as were the Judeans. - Compare with Talmud (Megillah 75a)" "the former are, in fact, charged with neglecting tradition. In this regard it may be noted that Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem, not from Galilee, were the ones who took issue with the failure of Jesus’ disciples to observe the traditional washing of hands.— Mark 7:1, 5."


Sadducees rejected the Pharisaic oral traditions. They based their interpretations on their own traditions emphasizing a more literal understanding of the verses. In many respects, this led to a more severe observance than that of the Pharisees especially as regards purity laws and temple practice. It must be noted that most aspects of Sadduceean law and methods of interpretation are not known.


Essenes, a monastic group of people, had a “monastic organization”. Though they had non-biblical rules, and customs, they reject much of the oral traditions.


Christians generally reject a notion of any oral Torah as they see most of the laws in Tanakh as completed or fulfilled by Jesus (Matthew 5:17). According to some, Jesus rejects some oral traditions as seen in Matthew 15:1, 2, 7-11; and Mark 7:4-8.


Karaite Judaism or Karaism is a Jewish denomination which arose about the time of the completion of the Talmud. It is characterized by the rejection of writing down the Oral Law and Talmud, and, on its reliance on the Tanakh as scripture.

Some Karaites strive to adhere only to the p'shat (plain meaning) of the text. This is in contrast to Rabbinic Judaism, which relies on the Oral Law and employs several interpretive methods which, at times, stray from the literal meaning.


Prohibition to write the Oral Torah

The laws transmitted to Moses were contained in the Torah written down on scrolls. According to proponents of the Oral Torah, the explanation however, was not allowed to be written down. Jews were obligated to speak the explanation and pass it on orally to students, children, and fellow adults. It was thus forbidden to write and publish the Oral Law.[6]

Following the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, it became apparent that the Palestine community and its learning were threatened, and that publication was the only way to ensure that the law could be preserved.[7]

Thus, around 200 CE, a redaction of oral law in writing was completed. Rabbinic tradition ascribes this effort to Rabbi Judah haNasi. The Mishna is generally considered the first work of Rabbinic literature.

Over the next four centuries this body of law, legend and ethical teachings underwent debate and discussion (Gemara) in the two centers of Jewish life, Israel and Babylonia. The Gemara with the Mishnah came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud.

Many of the legalistic terms and concepts found in Rabbinic literature have antecedents in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is especially true in the Halachic Letter (Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-Torah/ Qumran Cave 4).[8]

Ramification of Jewish law

Oral law was the basis for nearly all subsequent Rabbinic literature. It is therefore intricately related to the development of Halakha. As such, despite codification, interpretation of the "oral law" is likewise required. Although the Oral Law has been in written form for almost 18 centuries, it is still referred to as Torah she-be'al peh.

Halakha LeMoshe MiSinai

The term Halakha LeMoshe MiSinai, literally "Law [given] to Moses from Sinai", is used in classical Rabbinical literature to refer to oral law regarded as having been of direct Divine origin, transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the written Torah, but not included in the Oral Torah's exposition of it. It is distinguished from the written Torah, on the one hand, and Rabbinical decrees, customs, and other man-made laws on the other hand.

One such law is the requirement that tefillin be dyed black.

Hidden mystical aspects of Torah

According to Rabbinic literature, Torah knowledge, in addition to its "revealed" component ("nigleh" נגלה) as discussed above, comprises a "concealed" component ("nistar" נסתר), today recorded in the Aggada (and, according to some, in Kabbalistic literature). The nigleh deals with the mitzvot and halakha, as outlined; the nistar, on the other hand, discusses esoteric subjects such as creation, prophecy, the world to come, the Jewish Messiah, and similar abstruse themes.

Although the "nistar" is regarded as a component of the oral tradition, it is not always regarded as part of the "oral law". This is because this material was not recorded in an explicit, mishnah-like, medium; instead, it is presented in a "concealed mode" and via "paradoxes". The difference, according to Orthodox Judaism, is that halakha is to be taken literally, while Aggadah can be allegorical in nature. According to Maimonides and other classical commentators, when expounding halakha, the sages spoke in distinct, understandable terms. On the other hand, higher and mystical ideas are not, necessarily, meant for the masses, and the mode of transmission here thus departs somewhat from that of the halakhic material. The aggadot are therefore presented as tales, folklore, historical anecdotes, moral exhortations, and business and medical advice, but may, generally, be interpreted allegorically. For Hasidic Judaism and other branches which accept it, the Kabbalah, is regarded as dealing with deeper, esoteric knowledge, further concealed and transmitted to elect individuals, and preserved only by a privileged few. In Chassidic communities, customs and choices between Halachic rullings are made according to Kabbalah (e.g., according to the Third Lubavitcher Rebbe Tzemach Tzedek, wearing a beard is not a custom but a Halacha for all Jewish males despite existing more lenient opinions); in some Sephardic communities, especially those influenced by the Ben Ish Chai, if there is a difference between a Kabbalistic and a Halachic rulling, the validity of the former is accepted.

See also


  1. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, The Orality of Rabbinic Writing, in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud, ed. Martin Jaffee, 2007.
  2. Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, The Orality of Rabbinic Writing, in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud, ed. Martin Jaffee, 2007. p. 39. This is attested to in numerous sources, such as Mishna Avot 1:1. The manner of teaching and memorization is described in B. Eruvin 54b.
  3. In Rabbinic literature this view is exemplified by the story of Rabbi Akiva who expounded heaps and heaps of laws from the scriptural crowns of the letters in the written Torah. The Talmud relays that Moses himself would not understand these interpretations, nevertheless, these are also called Mosaic traditions (Halakha leMoshe miSinai). B Menahot 29b. See, Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, op cit.
  4. See Ptil Tekhelet
  5. The Torah's first mention of the phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot" appears in Ex 21:22–27. The Talmud (in Bava Kamma, 84a), based upon a critical interpretation of the original Hebrew text, explains that this biblical concept entails monetary compensation in tort cases.
  6. See BT Temurah 14b, and, BT Gittin 60b. Also, Y Meggila 4:1
  7. Tosefta Eduyot 1:1 "When the Sages went to Yavneh they said: The time will come that a man will seek a matter in the Torah but will not find it. He will seek a matter from the Scribes but will notfind it...They said: Let us begin [to record] with Hillel and Shammai.". See generally Timeline of Jewish history.
  8. Anyone interested in this information can contact the Biblical Archaeological Review for more information. In addition, a book called "Understanding the Dead Sea" scrolls now contains Professor Shiffman's article on this exact topic.
  • Oral Law @
  • "Maimonides introduction to the Mishnah Torah" (English translation)
  • "Maimonides introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah" (Hebrew Fulltext)
  • "The Encyclopaedia Judaica", Keter Publishing (available in print or in an updated CD-ROM version.)
  • "The Talmud", Adin Steinsaltz
  • "Introduction to The Talmud and Midrash" H.L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Fortress Press
  • "The infinite chain : Torah, masorah, and man" Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo, Targum Press Distributed by Philipp Feldheim; 1989

External links

cs:Ústní Tóra ka:ზეპირი თორა pt:Torá oral ru:Устный Закон