The Indispensable Oral Law
“Safeguard and keep (these rules) since that is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. They will hear all these rules and say, ‘this great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people'”.
— Deut. 4:6
Throughout history, in almost every country, the Jews have led the intelligentsia. Through the worst of the “Dark Ages”, when the only men capable of reading were the clergy and some nobility, just about every Jewish male knew how to read Hebrew, and many were equally proficient in the language of the land. Jews have been at the forefront of every civil movement, every intellectual movement, and have been known as scholars throughout all of history.
Even non-Jews have recognized this, and you can find mention of it in numerous places, and in the writings of many cultures.
What is the source of our wisdom? The Torah tells us — the Torah is the source!
It is amazing that so few people take the time to think about what this really means. Consider: The Christians claim that they now have the Torah. Yet no one calls the Christians a wise people. What do we have that they don’t?
The answer is obvious to anyone who has ever learned the Torah. We have the Oral Law, which is the Traditional accompaniment to the Written Tradition many refer to as the Bible. Anyone who has ever tried to learn the Scriptures alone knows that they are a closed book, full of confusing and difficult-to-understand statements. The Torah is generally briefly worded, and lacks detailed directions. Obviously, commentary is necessary. This commentary is the Oral Tradition, also known as the Oral Law, or the Oral Torah. The Written Bible is completely incomprehensible without the Oral Tradition.
To demonstrate, I will cite some examples of Laws from the Written Torah that are completely incomprehensible without knowledge of the Oral Tradition.
When the Bible tells us (Lev. 20:14) to take together four species on the first day of Succos, which four species are meant, and what are we supposed to do with them?
The prohibition of Chelev (fat) (Lev. 7:24) leaves us uninformed as to which fat is included in the category of Chelev, and which are Shumin (fat) and therefore permitted.
Which blood is forbidden, (Lev. 7:26) and how do we purge the meat of it?
What are Totaphot? (Ex. 13:16) If that means Tefillin, what exactly are Tefillin? How are they made, and how are they “bound as a sign upon your hand?”
Which work is forbidden on the Sabbath, and which is permitted?
“You shall not cook a young animal in its mother’s milk” is stated three times in the Bible. Why? The Oral Law explains why. It also explains the seemingly odd wording of the commandment.
Most Hebrew words change their meaning when pronounced differently. Without the Oral Tradition, how can we determine the true meaning of the words of the Hebrew Scriptures, written as they were without vowels?
These are just a few examples of why the Oral Torah is necessary. And if you consider all that the Torah includes, you will realize that the entire body of Torah, the instructions on how to live our lives, is too vast to be confined to a few small books.
The existence of the oral tradition is alluded to in the Written Law in numerous places.
The Torah says: (Deut. 12:20) “When G-d expands your borders as He promised you, and your natural desire to eat meat asserts itself, so that you say; ‘I wish to eat meat’, you may eat as much meat as you wish… you need only slaughter your cattle and small animals… in the manner I have commanded you.” Nowhere in the Written Torah is such a manner described. So what is the manner in which we are supposed to slaughter cattle?
Though the laws of slaughtering cattle are not explained in the Written Torah, they are described in detail in the Oral Law.
The Talmud tells the story of a Gentile who went to Hillel the Elder and said to him, “I want to convert, but I want to accept only the Written Torah, and not the Oral Torah. I don’t wish to accept the words of the Rabbis. So teach me only the Written Torah, and not the Oral Torah.”
But Hillel knew that the man wanted to do the right thing. He simply didn’t understand the purpose of the Oral Torah. So he began to teach him the Aleph Bais (Hebrew alphabet). The first day, Hillel the Elder taught him the first two letters, aleph, and bais (aleph andbet, for those who speak the Sefardic dialect).
The next day, Hillel the Elder taught him the same two letters in reverse. He showed him the letter aleph, and called it “bais.” The man objected, “but yesterday you taught it the other way!”
“Well, then, you need me, a Rabbi, to teach you the Aleph Bais? So you have to trust my knowledge of the tradition of the letters. What I tell you is the Oral Tradition. You can’t read the alphabet if no one tells you what it means. And you think you don’t need the Rabbis’ knowledge of Jewish Tradition in order to understand the words of the Torah? Those are much more difficult! Without an Oral Tradition you will never be able to learn the Torah.”
So it is clear that an Oral Tradition is needed, and that one exists.