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Question 3.5:
What is the Oral Law?


The Torah makes it clear that it was being transmitted side by side with an oral tradition. Many terms and definitions used in the written law are totally undefined. Many fundamental concepts such as shekhita (slaughtering of animals in a kosher fashion), divorce and the rights of the firstborn are all assumed as common knowledge by text, and are not elaborated. Some specific examples:

Another story related to this: R' Akiva was 40 years old before he took an interest in Torah study. He joined a class of little children studying the Hebrew alphabet. On the first day, the teacher taught that such was an alef, and such was a beis, etc... On the second day, the teacher went through the alphabet backwards -- starting with tav and working down to aleph. R' Akiva asked the teacher, "But didn't you teach it the other way yesterday?" "And how do you know that that was the right way and not this one?"

There's an alternate version, perhaps of the same story. This one is told about a non-Jew who came to Shammai and said that he wanted to convert on condition that he would accept only the Written Law. Shammai, realizing that the non-Jew was mocking him, chased him away. The non-Jew then went to Hillel with the same condition. The first day, Hillel taught him alef, bais, gimel, dalet. The second day, he began by calling the same characters tav, shin, raish, kuf. The non-Jew objected, "But didn't you tell me yesterday that these were alef, bais, gimel, dalet?" Hillel responded, "You see that even the names and sounds of the letters can only be understood by an oral teaching. How much more must the Torah itself be understood only through the Oral Law." The non-Jew then began studying completely and honestly.

And an experimental proof: There were numerous movements that tried to follow the written Torah alone: Baithians, Saducees, Karaites, etc... Each, without fail, eventually evolved its own tradition about how to understand the text. Pure fundamentalism about the verses, letting each man interpret for his/herself, has yet to provide a consistant structure. The Torah requires more information than it gives in the text alone. [Note that even Reform uses traditional interpretations of the verse; it is not the interpretation of the verse that is subject to individual choice in Reform, it is whether to incorporate the practice].

There are a number of examples in the rest of Jewish scriptures that show consistancy with conclusions contained in the Oral Torah based on the Pentateuch. In other words, things the prophets assumed about Jewish law that aren't in the text:

The term "oral law" thus reflects the knowledge about how to fulfill the laws and regulations of Torah that was transmitted orally, from generation to generation. The Oral Law can be thought of as a body of jurisprudence and procedure that accompanies the statutes of the Written Law. It is believed to have been passed down from the time of Moses, restored after the first exile by Ezra and Nehemiah, and finally written down by the academies at Yavne and in the Galilee in the two generations following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. It consists of specific interpretations and elaborations of the Written Law, and some commentary on the principles by which the Written Law can be expounded.

There are Jews called Karaites, recognized by the state of Israel as 100% Jewish but heretical, who reject the Oral Law, as did the Sadducees of the time of the Second Temple. One objection to their `purism' is that they have been forced by practical necessity to develop interpretations and methods of textual analysis of their own---you simply cannot have law without jurisprudence. This being the case, most traditional Jews accept the authority of the Oral Law that has come down to us as (at the very least) the closest we can come to Torah from Mount Sinai.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

[Got Questions?]Hopefully, the FAQ will provide the answer to your questions. If it doesn't, please drop Email to The FAQ maintainer will endeavor to direct your query to an appropriate individual that can answer it. If you would like to be part of the group to which the maintainer directs questions, please drop a note to the FAQ maintainer at

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© (c) 1993-2002 Daniel P. Faigin <>