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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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Question 3.6:
How was the Oral and Written Law passed down to us?

Answer:

The traditional view is the the Written Law was given to Moses at Sinai, and has remained unchanged since that time. At the same time, according to the traditional view, the Oral Law was dictated but not written down, in order to provide clarifications of Torah. To some extent, this is necessarily the case; the Written Torah mentions some core laws (e.g., the identities of kosher and non-kosher species, shechita [slaughtering], the kinds of activities prohibited on Shabbat, how Yom Kippur is observed, how the shofar is blown, what t'fillin [phylacteries] are, what is a sukkah, marriage and divorce) only briefly, without any of the requisite details. In many such instances, the Oral Torah has special status, and is referred to as "halakha l'Moshe mi'Sinai" (literally, Law to Moses at Sinai), and has the same immutable status as the Written Torah itself. Another factor "forcing" the recognition of the Oral Torah was the need for the basic halakhic principles of the Written Torah to extend and adapt (within limits) to societal changes; cultural and social changes demanded halakhic decisions, and these halakhic decisions had to be transmitted across generations. Deut 17:8-9 tells the people to "go the the judge who shall be in those days;" the rabbinic tradition thus explicitly commands adherence to the Oral Torah and to rabbinic authority.

We do not know much of the early history of the Oral Torah, but much of it (e.g., the basic structure of the Amidah liturgy, and the basic principles of halakhic exegesis) is ascribed to the Men of the Great Assembly (539-332 BCE, the era of the Second Temple and Persian rule). Subsequent development of the Oral Law took place in the era of the Zugot ("pairs" of scholars who served as spiritual and intellectual leaders of the Jewish community under political domination of the Greeks and Hasmoneans; it was in that period that the Sadducees, who substantially rejected the authority of the Oral Torah, arose. But the varieties of modern Judaism derive from the Talmud, in which the essential principles of rabbinic Judaism were more fully discussed and developed. If the Oral Torah was indeed given to the Jews at Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah, how does one explain the talmudic disputes? There are at least three possibilities, and they are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps the Oral Torah was transmitted inaccurately, and the task of the rabbis was to reconstruct it. Alternatively, the halakhic principles of the Oral Torah were used by the rabbis to derive new laws, and to apply old laws to novel situations. The third possibility is that the Oral Law gave the rabbis the right (perhaps the responsibility) to legislate.

Non-traditional movements have different positions on the origin. Some hold with the "documentary theory", which has four authors. Some hold with divine inspiration. Others believe in divine inspiration, written in the language and context of its time. However, all agree that the Written and Oral Torah contain eternal truths that apply as well today as when the documents were committed to parchment, and that study of both is critical.


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 questions@scjfaq.org. 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 maintainer@scjfaq.org.

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