The Written Torah and the Oral Torah

According to Jewish tradition, two Torahs were received on Mount Sinai -- one written, and one passed down orally for generations.

When most people think of Torah, they probably imagine the scroll read each week in the synagogue. But that scroll, which consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, is only part of what Jews mean when they refer to Torah. 

The scroll read in synagogue consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Along with the latter books of the Prophets and the Writings — 24 books in all — this is the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Written Torah, or Torah she-bich’tav in Hebrew. 

But there’s another Torah, known as the Oral Torah — or Torah she-ba’al peh. The Oral Torah refers to the later works of the rabbinic period — most prominently the Mishnah and the Gemara, jointly known as the Talmud — that explain and expound upon the statutes recorded in the Written Torah. The traditional Jewish view is that both these Torahs were revealed at Mount Sinai, but the Oral Torah was passed down as oral tradition (hence the name) until the destruction of the Second Temple in the early part of the Common Era, when fear of it being lost forever led to it being committed to writing for the first time. 

The classic statement of the authority of the Oral Torah is found in the first mishnah in Avot 1:1: “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.” This statement was meant to establish that the traditions practiced during the time of the Mishnah were not human creations, but traced their authority back to Sinai. In the Middle Ages, Maimonides stated this quite explicitly in his Introduction to the Mishnah:

Know that each commandment that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave to Moshe, our teacher – peace be upon him – was given to him with its explanation. He would say to him the commandment and afterward tell him its explanation and content; and [so too with] everything that is included in the Book of the Torah.

The Oral Torah is crucial to the normative practice of Judaism today. The prescriptions for daily life found in the Bible are typically cryptic, vague, and even contradictory. Some are completely indecipherable on their own. The Oral Law expounds at great length on these sources, providing a vast literature that translates scriptural sources into a guide for daily living. 

For example, the Tefillin that some Jews wear during prayer on weekday mornings is derived from a handful of biblical verses that refer to the binding of “signs” and “symbols” on the arm and between the eyes. From those sources, later rabbis derived a detailed set of practices — determining that those signs and symbols are specific biblical verses inscribed on parchment, sealed in wooden boxes, and bound to the body with leather straps. They determined a whole host of requirements about how these items should be constructed, standards for what make them ritually appropriate, and when and how to put them on. None of this would have been obvious from the biblical verses alone. 

Or consider one of the most expansive and detailed areas of Jewish law: the regulations around dietary practice, known as kashrut. The Written Torah states twice, in Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21, that it is forbidden to “boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” Without further elaboration, one might understand those verses to be proscribing only the cooking of a young goat in the milk of its mother. But the Oral Torah explains that these verses indicate a vast array of practices, including the complete ban on eating any kind of land animal with any kind of dairy product, the requirement of separate sets of cooking equipment and serving utensils for meat and dairy, and the obligation to wait some period of time after eating meat before eating dairy. None of these rules would have been obvious from the Written Torah alone.

The laws promulgated in the Oral Law take a variety of forms. Some are explanations and details of laws derived directly from interpretations of Torah verses. These are known by the Aramaic term d’oraita — literally “of the Torah” — and are considered as binding as if they were explicitly detailed in the Written Torah. Others are laws known as d’rabbanan — or “of the rabbis.” These are laws that were legislated by the rabbis and are also considered obligatory by observant Jews, though transgressing them doesn’t carry the same severity as transgressing a d’oraita law. There are two types of d’rabbanan laws: A gezerah (literally “fence”), which was imposed as a guard against violating a more serious prohibition, such as the ban on touching objects used to perform forbidden actions on the Sabbath; and a takkanah (literally “remedy” or “fixing”), established to fix a defect in the law or for some other purpose, such as the celebration of the holiday of Hanukkah.

Though the Oral Law is essential to the normative practice of Judaism, it was not universally accepted — neither in antiquity nor today. In ancient times, the Sadducees famously rejected the authority of oral traditions. In modern times, the tiny Karaite community rejects them as well, relying solely on the Written Torah to formulate their customs. This results in Karaites engaging in many practices — such as prostration during prayer and avoiding the burning (not merely the lighting) of flames on Shabbat — that Jews do not observe. 

Among modern Jews, however, religious life would be unrecognizable without the traditions recorded in the Oral Law, though the various denominations still differ significantly in their views of it. 

For Orthodox Jews, the obligations recorded in the Oral Law are as binding as those recorded in the Written Torah. In this view, the laws articulated by the rabbis of the Talmud — and those who later codified them systematically in works like the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch — were not merely legislating, but deducing law that had always been practiced going back to Sinai. The rabbis of the Gemara were scrupulous about rooting the sources for their teachings in scriptural verses and/or received traditions so as to buttress their legitimacy. As such, the Oral Law has the status of a direct divine command among Orthodox Jews. 

Liberal Jews take a somewhat different approach. As a general rule, Reform Judaism does not accept the binding nature of Jewish law, or halacha, seeing the Oral Law as the product of human beings operating within the assumptions and beliefs of a specific historical moment rather than an extension of divine revelation. Conservative Judaism officially accepts the binding nature of the oral tradition, but finds much more flexibility within its strictures than Orthodox Jews and claims for modern rabbis greater authority to depart from rabbinic rulings made centuries ago. 

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