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TRADITION (Heb. מָסֹרֶת). The term tradition derives from the Latin tradere, which means "to transmit" or "to give over." Generally, it refers to beliefs, doctrines, customs, ethical and moral standards, and cultural values and attitudes which are transmitted orally or by personal example. Under this designation, the process of transmission itself is also included. Theologically, in Judaism, tradition is the name applied to the unwritten code of law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.


Masoret is the general name for tradition. It is found in Ezekiel 20:37 and means originally "bond" or "fetter." Tradition is the discipline which establishes the correct practice and interpretation of the *Torah and was therefore regarded as a hedge or fetter about the Law (Avot 3:14). Since this knowledge was handed down by successive generations, it was also associated with the Hebrew word masor, denoting "to give over." In the talmudic literature, the term masoret is used to include all forms of tradition, both those which relate to the Bible and those which concern custom, law, historical events, folkways, and other subjects. Different kinds of traditions were given special names. Traditions which specified the vocalization, punctuation, spelling, and correct form of the biblical text were called *masorah. Those legal traditions which were revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai and were later preserved in writing, were known as *Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai ("law given to Moses on Sinai"). A legal tradition which was handed down by word of mouth, but did not necessarily emanate from Sinai, was called shemu'ah ("a report"). Religious and general traditions which became binding as result of long observance by successive generations were termed *minhag ("custom"). Prophetic traditions described in the books of the prophets and Hagiographa were known as Divrei Kabbalah ("words of tradition"). Esoteric and mystical traditions concerning God and the world transmitted to the elect and then passed down through the ages were called *Kabbalah, from kibbel ("to receive").


Many statutes were committed to writing by Moses. However, the vast majority of laws were handed down orally by him (see Written and Oral *Law). The Written Law did not always detail the manner and form of practice, giving rise of necessity to tradition. An instance of this kind is the law relating to fish which meet the biblical dietary requirements. Leviticus 11:9 states that a fish that has a fin and a scale in the water can be eaten. However, the minimum number of fins and scales that a fish must have to be ritually edible is not specified. The traditions relating to the Bible and Mishnah taught that a fish needs at least one fin and two scales to satisfy the biblical dietary requirements (see Arukh, S.V. Akunos). Similarly, the Bible commands that a paschal lamb be slaughtered on the 14th day of Nisan. There is no mention in the Bible as to whether it is permissible to perform this act if the 14th day of Nisan occurs on the Sabbath when the slaughtering of animals is forbidden. In the year 31 B.C.E., the 14th of Nisan fell on the Sabbath. The Sons of Bathyra, the heads of the high court, forgot the precedent previously established. Hillel, a then unknown Babylonian, volunteered the information that he had heard from Shemaiah and Avtalyon, the foremost teachers of the age, that it was permissible to slaughter the paschal lamb on the Sabbath. This reported tradition of Hillel's mentors was readily accepted (TJ, Pes. 6:1, 33a), and it is mentioned that because of this display of erudition with regard to tradition, Hillel was appointed nasi. Tradition was also the vehicle of transmission for the rules of interpretation, of the Written Law, such as the laws of *hermeneutics. Since it was impossible within the confines of writing to record all the laws and their applications in all situations, a medium was needed to preserve this information. Even today, with the availability of writing media, much of our culture is handed down orally. Tradition was the means whereby extant law was maintained and applied to life. Thus R. Joshua b. Levi declared that all teachings both of the Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and aggadah and those that were initiated by veteran scholars were already given to Moses on Mount Sinai (see TJ, Pe'ah 2:6, 17a). Some traditions arose as a result of the common practice of the community. These practices were considered to emanate from eminent religious authorities and owed their binding character to having been handed down by previous generations, from father to son, a principle upheld by R. Johanan in the Talmud. The citizens of Beth-Shean complained to him that the custom of not going from Tyre to Sidon on the eve of the Sabbath was impossible for them to observe. R. Johanan replied, "Your fathers have already taken it (this custom) upon themselves" (Pes. 50b). As a result, this tradition could not be abrogated.


In rabbinic Judaism, tradition was binding and had the force of law. The divine revelation to Moses consisted of the Written Law and Oral Law with its implied exposition by the sages of Israel. Berakhot 5a tells that R. Levi b. Ḥama said in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: "What is the meaning of the verse, 'and I will give thee the tables of stone, and the law and the commandments, which I have written to teach them' [Ex. 24:12]. It means as follows: 'the tables of stone' are the Ten Commandments, 'the law' is the Pentateuch, 'the commandments' is the Mishnah, 'which I have written' are the prophets and the Hagiographa, 'to teach them' is the Gemara. This teaches us that all these things were given at Sinai." Originally, the Oral Law was handed down by word of mouth. When its transmission became difficult, it was set down in writing in the Mishnah and Talmud. The validity of the Oral Law was attacked by the *Sadducees, one of the early sects in Judaism. Josephus records that the Sadducees held that "only those observances are obligatory which are in the written word but that those which derived from the tradition of the forefathers need not be kept" (Ant. 13:297).

Talmudic Times

After the destruction of the Temple, the Sadducees disappeared. The body of tradition continued to grow as rites were introduced to replace the Temple ritual. Megillah 31b pictures the patriarch Abraham as concerned with how Israel could obtain forgiveness, once the Temple ceased to exist. God assures Abraham, "I have already ordained for them the order of the sacrifices. Every time that they read them, it is considered as if they offer up a sacrifice and I forgive them all their sins." After the destruction of the Temple, the system of public prayer was instituted to substitute for the Temple service. The liturgical traditions were handed down verbally, through the centuries, until they were compiled in the prayer book of Amram Gaon.

Medieval Times

At the end of the eighth century, rabbinic Judaism was again challenged by a new sect, the Karaites. They accepted the authority of the Bible but denied rabbinical tradition and law, which had developed further as the Mishnah and Talmud were elucidated and applied to life. Through its great exponents, Saadiah and Maimonides, rabbinic Judaism triumphed over the Karaites. The latter wrote his code of law, Mishneh Torah ("The Second Torah"), and showed the direct connection between the Written Law and its explanation in the Oral Law (Introd. Maim. Yad). As new situations arose, the talmudic, geonic, and post-geonic traditions were further amplified. They in turn were set down in writing in the responsa and codes. In the 16th century R. Joseph Caro produced his definitive code, the Shulḥan Arukh. With the addition of the glosses of R. Moses Isserles and later commentaries, it became the most comprehensive compendium of Jewish law and tradition to this day.

Modern Times

At the end of the 18th century rabbinic Judaism, which had maintained an unbroken chain of tradition from the days of Moses was again challenged. A *Reform movement began in Germany which sought to assimilate the Jews into the general culture by modifying Jewish traditions. Among the reforms instituted were sermons in the German vernacular, hymns and chorals in German, the use of the organ, and the confirmation of boys on the Feast of Pentecost instead of the traditional bar mitzvah. In the course of time, this movement established itself in America. Here it continued to propound its doctrine that Judaism was primarily a universalistic and moral religion. Only the moral law was binding. Ceremonial laws which could be adapted to the views of the modern environment were to be maintained. Other Mosaic and rabbinic laws which regulated diet, priestly purity, and dress could be discarded.

In reaction to the reformers' break with tradition, the *Conservative movement was formed in America. At the founding meeting of its congregational organization in 1913, it declared itself "a union of congregations for the promotion of traditional Judaism." Other aims were the furtherance of Sabbath observance and dietary laws, and the maintenance of the traditional liturgy with Hebrew as the language of prayer. As the complexion of American Jewry changed, the Conservative movement incorporated some Reform externals of worship such as family pews and the use of the organ in many congregations. However, it accepted the authority of rabbinic tradition, instituting changes advocated by its scholars, with regard for the attitude of the people and the place of the observance in Jewish tradition.

Transmitters of the Tradition

In rabbinic literature the chain of tradition is given as follows: Moses received the Torah on Sinai and delivered it to Joshua, who in turn delivered it to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Synagogue (Avot 1:1). According to rabbinic Judaism, the teaching of the great sages in every generation in keeping with the halakhah is binding (Deut. 17:88). Thus, the transmitters of tradition included the successors to the Men of the Great Synagogue down to modern times, namely: the scribes (soferim), the pairs (*zugot), the tannaim, the amoraim, the savoraim, the geonim, the codifiers, the world famous Torah authorities of every era, and the rashei ha-yeshivah ("heads of the academies").


Tradition has given Judaism a continuity with its past and preserved its character as a unique faith with a distinct way of life. As the successor of rabbinic Judaism, Orthodoxy representing tradition harks back to the Sinaitic divine revelation and can only be changed within the framework of rabbinic law. In Conservative Judaism, tradition is a vital force capable of modification according to the historical evolution of Jewish law. Reform Judaism has recently displayed a greater appreciation of traditional practices but tradition remains voluntary in character (see *Masorah).


S. Belkin, In His Image (1960), 290ff.; B. Cohen, Law and Tradition in Judaism (1959), 243ff.; I. Epstein, Judaism (1959), 49ff.; S. Freehof, Reform Jewish Practices (1944), 193ff.; S.R. Hirsch, Judaism Eternal, 2 (1956), 612ff.; L. Jacobs, Principles of Faith (1964), 473ff.; D. Rudavsky, Emancipation and Adjustment (1967), 460ff.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.