Sunday 17 April 2016



It is well known that 3 300 years ago, Moshe received two Torahs at Sinai - one Written the other Oral.[1]

Actually it’s a little more complicated, because there are different views as to exactly how much of the Written Torah Moshe received at Sinai.

According to some, it was the Torah in its absolute entirety (including the last few verses which describe Moshe’s death).According to others, it excluded the last few verses, which were written not by Moshe but by his successor Joshua.

There is, additionally, much debate as to which sections of the Torah were written when, with some sections possibly transmitted even before Sinai.[2]

According to Rashi, just prior to Sinai, Moshe presented the people with the entire book of Genesis as well as the section of Exodus up to that point in history[3]. Moshe may have drawn from earlier biblical manuscripts which did already exist, some of which apparently were authored by Abraham.

And then there is the view that the Sinai revelation was primarily about the Ten Commandments and the Oral Torah, with the Written Torah essentially only presented in its complete form by Moshe just prior to his death about forty years later. According to this view, the Oral Torah actually preceded the Written Torah.

Whatever view one takes, Moshe effectively left us with a Written Torah and an Oral Torah (which served to expound upon the Written Torah in much greater detail, ultimately creating the interpretation of Judaism as we know it today.)[4]


The Oral Torah remained a strictly oral tradition for about 1 500 years, until just before 200 C.E. when it was eventually committed to writing by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi.

The reasons for the dispensation allowing for the Oral Tradition to be written down, are well known. Following the terrible period of persecution in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jews fled to exile in faraway places. Over a million Jews were killed in two ill-fated uprisings, the Great Revolt and the Bar Kochba rebellion. Yeshivas were destroyed and rabbinical leaders killed. 
All these factors were taken into account by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and he felt compelled to break with tradition and, in order to save Judaism for perpetuity, he wrote down what had never been published before, and the Mishna was born.[5]


The writing down of the hitherto Oral Tradition, changed the face of Judaism forever.  It paved the way for the codification of Jewish law and brought with it some fascinating changes to the law itself:
One change related to the classical importance of the role of the teacher, who (according to Shulchan Aruch HaRav) was now, to a large extent, replaced by the book.

“Today, when the entire Torah is committed to writing, there is no longer an obligation to hire a teacher for one’s son. It is now give him the tools (i.e. to teach him how to read) by which he will know how to continue his learning on his own...and it is considered as if the teacher taught him.”[6]

This is an amazing (if not controversial) piece of writing because, notwithstanding the pivotal role of teachers and learning academies today, it seems as if the essential mode of Torah teaching post 200 C.E. is private study through books as opposed to public study with teachers. According to this, it seems as if teachers and public education were, in principle, more relevant in the era when the Torah was actually transmitted orally![7]

Rav Zadok HaKohen records another practical halachik change, post 200 C.E. It concerns the requirement to write down EVERY possible Torah thought or idea that an individual may come up with, lest it too be forgotten. This emphasises the fact that what was previously considered a grave prohibition, subsequently became a very positive imperative and mitzvah which had to be encouraged! This is an example of a prohibition (not to write oral law) transforming into an actual precept (to write oral law).[8]


The Maharal of Prague (1512/26-1609), however, offers a very different and rather mystical explanation as to why the Oral Torah was written down. His explanation is unlike any of the common and ubiquitous reasons we mentioned above.

He posits that the Oral Torah had to remain an oral tradition only until Christianity had firmly been established[9]. He quotes the Midrash Tanchuma[10] which states (paraphrase):

“G-d originally intended to give the Mishna and Gemora in writing. But He was concerned that the nations of the world would take it from the Jews and claim it as their own (as they were to so with the Written Law). That would leave the Jews with no unique literature. Therefore He gave Bnei Yisrael the Oral Torah and commanded them to keep it an oral tradition in order to sustain a unique and exclusive Jewish tradition that could never be imitated by anyone else.”[11]

The Maharal continues in his own words:

“The Written Torah was not (historically) specific to the Jews. Only the Oral Torah remained peculiar to them. For this reason it was important for it to remain an oral tradition so that the nations could not expropriate it as their own.  
Although the Written Torah may have been adopted by other nations, it technically still remained in the possession of the Jews because it is incomprehensible without the Oral Tradition. This is because the spirit of the Written Torah is found only in the Oral Tradition.[12] 
The covenant between G-d and Bnei Yisrael could never just be written on parchment. It had to be more personal. And the only way to make it personal was to introduce the human factor in its transmission process. Hence the essential covenant was not between G-d and the Written Torah, but instead between G-d and the Oral Torah.”[13]

So, according the Maharal, the Written Torah was a kind of ‘code’ that could only be cracked with the Oral Tradition. The Written Torah acted almost like a ‘red herring’ – so that even though it was adopted by others, the integrity of a unique Jewish religious literature still remained untouched because of the existence of the Oral Tradition. 

This Oral Tradition effectively remained ‘secret’ until such time the Christianity had taken root. Thereafter there was no longer a fear of any more textual misappropriation. This ties in historically with the timing of committing the Oral Torah to writing, which occurred in the year 200, so soon after the beginning of the Christian era.

Surprisingly, the only other contemporary English reference I found supporting this view, as put forth by the Maharal, is in the writing of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan:

“Since many non-Jews also accept the Bible as sacred, the Oral Torah is the main thing that distinguishes Judaism and makes it unique. The Oral Torah could therefore not be written down until the gentiles had adopted their own religion based on the Bible.”[14]


It’s interesting to see that before the Oral Torah was written and published, the heads of the various academies did keep their own private collections of notes. They did this so as to maintain the accuracy of their teachings. These notes, however, were strictly private and were not for public consumption. They became known as the megilot setarim or ‘secret scrolls’, and they remained ‘secret’ for 1 500 years.[15] 

Amazingly it was these ‘secret scrolls’ that preserved the spirit of our tradition more than anything else including the Written Torah.

Ironically, these ‘secret scrolls’ were to become the well known and well studied texts we commonly use today. And yet they still go by their original name - Torah Shebe’al Peh or Oral Torah.

Only now they are no longer secret and their glorious printed volumes proudly grace the bookshelves of Jews throughout the world.

Their mission accomplished.

[1] According to Rav Kook, both these Torahs are alluded to in Shemot 24:3/4-7;
“Moshe came and TOLD the people all of G-d’s words and all the statutes.” – Referring to the ORAL TORAH. And then in the next verse; “Moshe WROTE all of G-d’s words...and READ it to the people.” – Referring to the WRITTEN TORAH. (Rav Kook, Midbar Shur pp. 160-165).
[2] This would have taken place at Marah, where the Seven laws of Noah, Shabbat, Honouring parents and the Red Heifer were transmitted. See Rashi to Shemot 24 quoting Mechilta and Sanhedrin 26b. See also Ramban, Rambam and Ibn Ezra.
[3] Rashi on Shemot 24:4.
[4] For more on the fascinating story of the transmission of the Written Torah see KOTZK BLOG 73) The Aleppo Codex.
[5] According to Rambam, he gathered ancient writings from the past and created an anthology of previously oral Torah traditions. This was because individuals were allowed to write down notes for their private usage although they were not permitted to publish them for public consumption. See Rambam’s Introduction to Mishnah Torah.
[6] Shulchan Aruch HaRav  1, 6
[7] I think it should be pointed out that this is probably only a technical or de jure observation, and not a practical suggestion for a change in the contemporary educational system.

There are other changes in halacha also as a result of the Oral Torah having been written down. One example concerns the prohibition of forgetting one’s studies. According to some, once the Oral Torah was written down, the prohibition became less severe (as even if one did forget one’s studies, it still remained preserved within the pages of books. (See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, chap.1,10, bottom of p.20.)

Another example of a change in halacha relates the commandment for each person to write his own personal Torah scroll. Part of the prohibition against writing down the Oral Torah also applied to writing down the Written Torah in a format other than a kosher Torah scroll. Once the Oral Torah was written down, however, it became permissible to write the Torah on any manuscript (although obviously one could not read from that manuscript in synagogue during the public reading of the Torah). This new development, according to some, made the commandment for every man to write his own Torah scroll, now obsolete.  (ibid. p. 67 footnote 1.)

[8] Rav Tzadok bases this thesis on Yoreh Deah 270:2 and Shach 5.

Another example of a prohibition changing into a precept - where a dramatic turnabout took place in halacha - was with regard to paying and supporting people who study Torah. Originally, in Talmudic times, this was forbidden and the sages worked and supported themselves. Towards the end of the period of the Rishonim, however, some poskim (halachik authorities) wrote that scholars who do NOT take money from the community are actually falling foul of the law!

(See Peninei Halacha, Likuttim 1, Chap. 1: 17, p 37 at the top of the page. This is brought by the Shach in the name of Maharshal and Bach.)

[9] Maharal does not make mention of the name of the actual religion, but the inference is obvious. He refers to ‘umot hanizkarim’ (the abovementioned nations’) instead of ‘ Christianity’ , perhaps for fear of reprisals.
[10] The Midrash Tanchuma was compiled around 500 C.E.
[11] There is another similar Midrash, Bamidbar Rabbah 14:10 which states:

“He gave the Jews the Oral Torah to be distinct from all other nations. It was not presented in written form, so that the Gentiles could not forge it or claim it as their own and then declare themselves to be the real and true Israel – as they did with the Written Torah.”

The Bamidbar Rabbah is about 600 years younger than the Midrash Tanchuma that Maharal quoted. It is dated some time after the 1100’s as Rashi (1040-1105) was unaware of it.
The Maharal (d.1609) would have had access to it but, although it states the point more directly than the Midrash Tanchuma, for some reason he didn’t quote Bamidbar Rabbah. Again this may have been out of concern for not offending the non-Jewish authorities.
[12] Gittin 60 b.
[13] Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael 68.
[14] Rabbi Arye Kaplan, A Handbook of Jewish Thought, p.179.
[15] See Rashi to Shabbat 6b. See also Bava Metzia92a.

No comments:

Post a Comment