Parshios Behar & Bechukosai
The Oral Law
"And G-d spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, saying, Speak to the Children of
Israel and say to them, that when they come into the land that I am giving
them, they shall rest the land, a Sabbath to HaShem." [25:1-2]
The Torah is teaching the laws of Shmittah, the sabbatical of the land.
Every seven years the Israelites were instructed to leave the land lying
fallow for a year.
As Rashi tells us, the Medrash asks a question about the way this law is
introduced. Why does it say that God spoke to Moshe "at Mt. Sinai" in this
case? Moshe was told all the laws of the Torah at Sinai!
The Medrash explains that Shmittah is an example. Yes, it was taught with
all of its generalities, specifics, and implications at Sinai -- and so
was everything else. The entirety of the Oral Law was taught to Moshe on
We know that there must be an Oral Law because of all of the gaps in our
knowledge that remain after reading the Written Torah from beginning to
end, from Bereishes to l'eynei kol Yisrael. The Torah introduces things as
important as resting on the Sabbath, and fails to describe what that
entails. It talks about "frontlets" between our eyes, gives apparently
contradictory instructions, and yet expects the Jewish Nation to follow
the rules -- clearly, there was more given at Sinai than just the written
A person can still wonder, though, why is it that we needed to have this
as an _Oral_ Law. There are obvious benefits to having a written record,
one which is more detailed than what we find in the Written Torah. So why
not provide that detail in writing, rather than depending upon oral
transmission, which is of course not going to be perfect? But there are
several reasons why in this case, having an Oral Torah was actually the
First of all, while it is true that there can be errors with an oral
transmission, the truth is that writing leaves room for even greater
levels of misunderstanding. When going over a subject in oral discussion,
it is easy to detect errors and go back and correct them. If you have ever
carried on a discussion by e-mail or other written correspondence and then
finally used the telephone or a face-to-face meeting to resolve confusion
over various issues, then you have already seen for yourself how much more
effective oral communication can be.
For further proof, one need only look at what happened when it finally
became necessary to write down the Oral Law to prevent its being lost.
First the Sages wrote down the Mishnah, a brief catalog of laws meant to
remind everyone of what they needed to know. Over the ensuing centuries,
various issues of confusion came to light, and extensive clarifications
were needed, eventually resulting in the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
Later on, additional commentaries were written to clarify the Talmud's
intent, and many of these commentaries disagree about particulars. This
process has continued until this very day.
Second, oral transmission allowed the teaching to go on in the
then-current language of the day -- both literally and figuratively.
Throughout history, human circumstances have changed -- yet the Torah is
Eternal. Its lessons apply in every era. Even so, it would certainly be
easier to understand if all of its discussions were couched in today's
language, both literally and figuratively.
Literally, the Talmud is in Aramaic. Why? Because that was the spoken
language of the time. But that means that today, a budding Jewish scholar
needs to be able to understand not only Biblical Hebrew, but Rabbinic
Hebrew and Aramaic as well. English translations are hardly sufficient. If
the Oral Torah were still taught orally, this wouldn't be a problem.
In figurative terms as well, there are language barriers -- the examples
require that we understand how people lived a millenium ago. The Talmud
talks about an ox goring a cow, but we could certainly relate more quickly
to a discussion about an automobile accident, or your neighbor's liability
if his Doberman chases your cat up a tree. Instead of just discussing what
day laborers are allowed to eat while on-the-job, we could talk about
using office supplies and doing personal e-mails. Instead of bloodletting
and healing baths, we could delve into the Torah's response to organ
donation, in vitro fertilization, and cloning.
Another advantage of an Oral transmission is the development of the
relationship between teacher and students. Science classes have
laboratories to offer you the opportunity to see for yourself what happens
when you perform certain experiments, rather than simply reading about
them. Sports camps don't have you sitting in a classroom learning how to
improve your skills; you are out on the field, trying various moves in
front of your coach. Given the choice of two young surgeons - one who went
to medical school and learned from seasoned doctors, and another who
bought a library full of books and found a laboratory where he could
practice on his own - which one would you prefer to have a go at your
The Torah is a guide to life, and there's an awful lot that you cannot
learn in the pages of a book. The Talmud says that you can learn more
Torah by serving a scholar than from sitting in his classes. Observing
an expert in action is the best way to translate theoretical knowledge
into real-world skills.
And last but not least, G-d Commanded us to study the Torah constantly.
"The words of this Torah shall not be lost from your mouths, and you shall
delve into it day and night" [Joshua 1:8]. Yet people have other
activities. They move around, they work at tasks, and cannot constantly be
reading from texts. By according full status to the Oral Torah on par with
the Written, a person can be involved in Torah study even while doing
other things. Today one can drive while listening to classes, discuss
Torah concepts while walking, and think about Torah while working around
This is why the Torah emphasizes "Mt. Sinai" -- to say that this was all a
part of Sinai. The oral was given together with the written, in order to
provide a code for life that continues to inspire us, thousands of years
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2004 by Torah.org.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis - Torah.org.
About the Author