The Oral Law
is a legal commentary on the Torah, explaining how its
commandments are to be carried out. Common sense suggests
that some sort of oral tradition was always needed to
accompany the Written Law, because the Torah alone,
even with its 613
commandments, is an insufficient guide to Jewish
life. For example, the fourth of the Ten
Commandments, ordains, "Remember the Sabbath
day to make it holy" (Exodus
20:8). From the Sabbath's inclusion in the Ten Commandments, it is clear that
the Torah regards it as an important holiday. Yet when
one looks for the specific biblical laws regulating
how to observe the day, one finds only injunctions against
lighting a fire, going away from one's dwelling, cutting
down a tree, plowing and harvesting. Would merely refraining
from these few activities fulfill the biblical command
to make the Sabbath holy? Indeed, the Sabbath rituals
that are most commonly associated with holiness-lighting
of candles, reciting the kiddush, and the reading
of the weekly Torah portion are found not in the Torah, but in
the Oral Law.
Without an oral tradition, some of
the Torah's laws would be incomprehensible. In the Shema's first paragraph, the Bible instructs: "And these
words which I command you this day shall be upon your
heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children,
and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house,
when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when
you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon
your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your
eyes." "Bind them for a sign upon your
hand," the last verse instructs. Bind what? The
Torah doesn't say. "And they shall be for frontlets
between your eyes." What are frontlets? The Hebrew
word for frontlets, totafot is used three times
in the Torah always in this context (Exodus
and is as obscure as is the English. Only in
the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should
bind upon his hand and between his eyes are tefillin (phylacteries).
Finally, an Oral Law was needed to
mitigate certain categorical Torah laws that would have
caused grave problems if carried out literally. The
Written Law, for example, demands an "eye for an
eye" (Exodus 21:24).
Did this imply that if one person accidentally blinded
another, he should be blinded in return? That seems
to be the Torah's wish. But the Oral Law explains that
the verse must be understood as requiring monetary compensation:
the value of an eye is what must be paid.
The Jewish community of Palestine suffered horrendous losses during the Great
Revolt and the Bar-Kokhba
rebellion. Well over a million Jews were killed in the two
ill-fated uprisings, and the leading yeshivot, along with thousands
of their rabbinical scholars and students, were devastated.
This decline in the number of knowledgeable Jews
seems to have been a decisive factor in Rabbi Judah the Prince's
decision around the year 200 C.E. to record in writing the Oral
Law. For centuries, Judaism's leading rabbis had resisted writing down the Oral
Law. Teaching the law orally, the rabbis knew, compelled students
to maintain close relationships with teachers, and they considered
teachers, not books, to be the best conveyors of the Jewish
tradition. But with the deaths of so many teachers in the failed
revolts, Rabbi Judah apparently feared that the Oral
Law would be forgotten unless it were written down.
In the Mishna, the name for the sixty-three
tractates in which Rabbi Judah set down the Oral
Law, Jewish law is systematically codified, unlike in the Torah.
For example, if a person wanted to find every law in the Torah about the Sabbath, he
would have to locate scattered references in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.
Indeed, in order to know everything the Torah said on a given subject, one either had to read through all of it or
know its contents by heart. Rabbi Judah avoided this problem by
arranging the Mishna topically. All laws pertaining to the Sabbath were put into one tractate called Shabbat (Hebrew for
"Sabbath"). The laws contained in Shabbat's twenty-four chapters are far more extensive than those contained in
the Torah, for the Mishna summarizes the Oral Law's extensive Sabbath legislation. The tractate Shabbat is part of a larger
"order" called Mo'ed (Hebrew for
"holiday"), which is one of six orders that comprise the
Mishna. Some of the other tractates in Mo'ed specify the Oral Laws of Passover (Pesachim); Purim (Megillah); Rosh haShana; Yom
Kippur (Yoma); and Sukkot.
The first of the six orders is called Zera'im (Seeds), and deals with the agricultural rules of ancient Palestine,
particularly with the details of the produce that were to be
presented as offerings at the Temple in Jerusalem.
The most famous tractate in Zera'im, however, Brakhot (Blessings)
has little to do with agriculture. It records laws concerning
different blessings and when they are to be recited.
Another order, called Nezikin (Damages),
contains ten tractates summarizing Jewish civil and criminal law.
Another order, Nashim (Women), deals
with issues between the sexes, including both laws of marriage, Kiddushin, and of divorce, Gittin.
A fifth order, Kodashim, outlines the laws
of sacrifices and ritual
slaughter. The sixth order, Taharot, contains the laws of
purity and impurity.
Although parts of the Mishna read as dry legal
recitations, Rabbi Judah frequently enlivened the text by presenting
minority views, which it was also hoped might serve to guide scholars
in later generations (Mishna Eduyot 1:6). In one famous
instance, the legal code turned almost poetic, as Rabbi Judah cited
the lengthy warning the rabbinic judges delivered to witnesses
testifying in capital cases:
"How are witnesses inspired with awe in
capital cases?" the Mishna begins. "They are brought in
and admonished as follows: In case you may want to offer testimony
that is only conjecture or hearsay or secondhand evidence, even
from a person you consider trustworthy; or in the event you do not
know that we shall test you by cross-examination and inquiry, then
know that capital cases are not like monetary cases. In monetary
cases, a man can make monetary restitution and be forgiven, but in
capital cases both the blood of the man put to death and the blood
of his [potential] descendants are on the witness's head until the
end of time. For thus we find in the case of Cain, who killed his
brother, that it is written: 'The bloods of your brother cry unto
Me' (Genesis 4:10) that
is, his blood and the blood of his potential descendants....
Therefore was the first man, Adam, created alone, to teach us that
whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he
destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the
Bible considers it as if he saved an entire world. Furthermore,
only one man, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among men, so
that no one should say to his fellow, 'My father was greater than
yours.... Also, man [was created singly] to show the greatness of
the Holy One, Blessed be He, for if a man strikes many coins from
one mold, they all resemble one another, but the King of Kings, the
Holy One, Blessed be He, made each man in the image of Adam, and
yet not one of them resembles his fellow. Therefore every single
person is obligated to say, 'The world was created for my
sake"' (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). (One commentary notes,
"How grave the responsibility, therefore, of corrupting myself
by giving false evidence, and thus bringing [upon myself the moral
guilt of [murdering] a whole world.")
One of the Mishna's sixtythree tractates
contains no laws at all. It is called Pirkei Avot (usually
translated as Ethics of the Fathers), and it is the "Bartlett's"
of the rabbis, in which their most famous sayings and proverbs are
During the centuries following Rabbi Judah's editing
of the Mishna, it was studied exhaustively by generation after generation
of rabbis. Eventually, some of these rabbis wrote down their discussions
and commentaries on the Mishna's laws in a series of books known as
the Talmud. The rabbis
of Palestine edited their discussions of the Mishna about the year 400:
Their work became known as the Palestinian Talmud (in Hebrew, Talmud Yerushalmi, which literally means "Jerusalem Talmud").
More than a century later, some of the leading
Babylonian rabbis compiled another editing of the discussions on the
Mishna. By then, these deliberations had been going on some three
hundred years. The Babylon edition was far more extensive than its
Palestinian counterpart, so that the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud
Bavli) became the most authoritative compilation of the Oral Law.
When people speak of studying "the Talmud," they almost
invariably mean the Bavli rather than the Yerushalmi.
The Talmud's discussions are recorded in a
consistent format. A law from the Mishna is cited, which is followed
by rabbinic deliberations on its meaning. The Mishna and the rabbinic
discussions (known as the Gemara) comprise the Talmud,
although in Jewish life the terms Gemara and Talmud usually
are used interchangeably.
The rabbis whose views are cited in the Mishna are
known as Tanna'im (Aramaic for "teachers"), while
the rabbis quoted in the Gemara are known as Amora'im ("explainers" or "interpreters"). Because the Tanna'im lived earlier than the Amora'im, and thus were in closer
proximity to Moses and the revelation at Sinai, their teachings are
considered more authoritative than those of the Amora'im. For
the same reason, Jewish tradition generally regards the teachings of
the Amora'im, insofar as they are expounding the Oral Law, as
more authoritative than contemporary rabbinic teachings.
In addition to extensive legal discussions (in
Hebrew, halakha), the rabbis incorporated into the Talmud
guidance on ethical matters, medical advice, historical information,
and folklore, which together are known as aggadata.
As a rule, the Gemara's text starts with a
close reading of the Mishna. For example, Mishna Bava Mezia 7:1 teaches the following: "If a man hired laborers and ordered
them to work early in the morning and late at night, he cannot compel
them to work early and late if it is not the custom to do so in that
place." On this, the Gemara (Bava Mezia 83a)
comments: "Is it not obvious [that an employer cannot demand
that they change from the local custom]? The case in question is
where the employer gave them a higher wage than was normal. In that
case, it might be argued that he could then say to them, 'The reason
I gave you a higher wage than is normal is so that you will work
early in the morning and late at night.' So the law tells us that the
laborers can reply: 'The reason that you gave us a higher wage than
is normal is for better work [not longer hours].'"
Among religious Jews, talmudic scholars are regarded
with the same awe and respect with which secular society regards Nobel
laureates. Yet throughout Jewish history, study of the Mishna and Talmud
was hardly restricted to an intellectual elite. An old book saved from
the millions burned by the Nazis, and now housed at the YIVO library
in New York, bears the stamp THE SOCIETY OF WOODCHOPPERS FOR THE STUDY
OF MISHNA IN BERDITCHEV. That the men who chopped wood in Berditchev,
an arduous job that required no literacy, met regularly to study Jewish
law demonstrates the ongoing pervasiveness of study of the Oral Law
in the Jewish community.