Sunday 18 September 2022

400) Was it forbidden to write down the Oral Tradition?



This article, based extensively on the work by Professor Yair Furstenberg,[1] explores the very notion of the well-known ban against writing down the Oral Tradition. It is generally accepted that rabbinic literature essentially remained in an oral form since Sinai; and that only from around the period of the redaction of the Mishna in 210 CE was it finally permitted to be written down for the first time.

However, Furstenberg writes in his Abstract that:

“multiple Talmudic anecdotes point to a complex reality that does not align with what seems as an explicit prohibition.” 

To resolve this complexity, Furstenberg suggests that we need to understand that two distinct “book cultures” existed between the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia at that time.

Two sources in the Bavli

There are only two references in the Babylonian Talmud (known as the Bavli)[2] that record a ban against writing down the Oral Tradition. In the main source (Temura 14b), the Talmud Bavli writes that Rav Dimi wanted to send, in writing, a new Halacha he had heard, to the sages of Babylonia, but the Bavli claims that the Palestinian sages raised three objections:

והא אמר רבי אבא בריה דרבי חייא בר אבא א"ר יוחנן כותבי הלכות כשורף התורה והלמד מהן אינו נוטל שכר

דרש רּ יהודה בר נחמני מתורגמניה דר"ל כתוב אחד אומר (שמות לד, כז) כתוב לך את הדברים האלה וכתוב אחד אומר (שמות לד, כז) כי על פי הדברים האלה לומר לך דברים שעל פה אי אתה רשאי לאומרן בכתב ושבכתב אי אתה רשאי לאומרן על פה

ותנא דבי רבי ישמעאל כתוב לך את הדברים האלה אלה אתה כותב אבל אין אתה כותב הלכות

a) “Those who write down halakhot are like those who burn the Torah, and one who learns from them receives no reward.”

b) The Torah (Exodus 23:27) says:

כְּתׇב־לְךָ֖ אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה כִּ֞י עַל־פִּ֣י ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה כָּרַ֧תִּי אִתְּךָ֛ בְּרִ֖ית וְאֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

“‘By word of these things…’ to teach you that that which is oral you may not say in writing…”

c) “‘Write for yourself these matters’ [ibid. Exodus 23:27]— these you may write down [i.e., the words of the Torah] but you may not write down halakhot.”

The Palestinian rabbis who are said to have uttered these three statements are thus duly claimed by the Bavli to prohibit the writing of any aspect of the Oral Tradition.

The problem is that we also have multiple other sources that indicate, to the contrary that many parts of the ‘oral’ Torah were indeed written down!

The different writing cultures of the Palestinian and Babylonian rabbis

Fuerstenberg boldly writes:

“I will argue that the ban on writing Oral Torah is a late construction of the redactor of the Babylonian Talmud and reflects only its own study culture… The Bavli systematically revised earlier Palestinian traditions…” (Furstenberg 2022:2).

Accordingly, the later Talmudic editors or redactors (known as Stamaim, from the post- Talmudic period of Savoraim) “systematically revised” earlier rabbinic sources from Palestine, where writing down ‘oral’ tradition had been commonplace. The Babylonian redactors did this, in order to comply with the Babylonian approach and culture to keep rabbinic traditions in their oral form.

“By tracing the traditions from their earliest Palestinian contexts to their revised form in the developed Babylonian sugyot [Talmudic sections][3], we may identify the changing practical and ideological settings” (Furstenberg 2022:2).

The actual view of the Palestinian rabbis

The Palestinian rabbis (in the Jerusalem Talmud or Yerushalmi) strongly maintain that more material than just the Ten Commandments was given at Sinai. As to this extra literature, in whatever form it was given:

“they are not concerned to regulate how this additional material should be transmitted” (Furstenberg 2022:3).

Thus, the Palestinian rabbis had no objection whatsoever to writing down the Oral Tradition.

The only writing the Palestinian rabbis objected to was the “inappropriate writing of scriptural texts,” lest they change the authoritative version of the Torah text itself, but they never objected to writing down rabbinic texts and teachings. The Palestinian rabbis were only worried about too many ‘casual’ Torah texts perhaps conflicting with authoritative texts, and the fact that these ‘casual’ texts may be subjected to disrespectful treatment. They had no issues with writing down the Oral or rabbinic Traditions. However, this Palestinian conception of the various categories of text was soon to change, because:

“By the time these proscriptive traditions were incorporated into the Bavli, they had been reinterpreted according to the cultural code of their new milieu as concerning a different (almost opposite) issue entirely. In the Bavli it is particularly the text of the Oral Torah that may not be written down, in order to maintain the original distinction between the two forms of Torah, Oral and Written…

Following the trail taken by these Rabbinic traditions from the Land of Israel to Babylonia will allow us to see transformation of one of the most basic aspects of rabbinic culture of study.” (Furstenberg 2022:3).

The paper trail from Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) to Bavli (Babylonian Talmud)

Of our three earlier Bavli statements (from b. Temura 14b) concerning the alleged opposition by Palestinian rabbis to Rav Dimi sending Halachot in writing to the rabbis of Babylonia, the latter two quotes are from a parallel Bavli source (b. Gittin 60b). But these sources can trace their literary roots even further back to their original (two) sources in the Yerushalmi.

Analysing how this ‘cross-cultural’ transfer from Yerushalmi to Bavli changed fundamental nuances in the understanding of the status of writing down ‘oral’ tradition, may shed light on the different ways each Talmudic centre dealt with this idea.

“The analysis of the Yerushalmi sugyot allows us to reconstruct the complex array of original Palestinian motifs that were later incorporated and adapted in Bavli Gittin, and to assess their original meaning…

[T]he Palestinian tradition does not include any prohibition against writing Oral Torah.” (Furstenberg 2022:7).

The Yerushalmi[4] sources adopt a far-reaching approach in that they suggest that not just the Ten Commandments were conveyed at Sinai, but even sections of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Aggada!

While this may be somewhat more radical than the way Sinai is usually understood (and perhaps the topic for another discussion), nevertheless, what strikes one is that the Yerushalmi contains no reference to a prohibition against writing down the Oral Tradition – something the Bavli claimed it did!

This indicates the possibility that the Bavli, or its redactors, reworked these Yerushalmi sources to include the alleged Palestinian prohibitions against writing down the Oral Tradition – when in fact no such traditions seem to have existed in the Yerushalmi:

“While Yerushalmi Pea/Hagiga expands on the scope of the teachings received in Sinai beyond the written Torah, it lacks the two prohibitions[5] against writing oral Torah. The Yerushalmi is concerned with the nature of revelation and not with the forms of transmission” (Furstenberg 2022:11).

The Yerushalmi and its Palestinian rabbis had no objection to writing down the Oral Tradition. The later Bavli redactors, or Stamaim, for some reason, read the Yerushalmi sources very differently from the way they would have been understood by Palestinian readers (and even by readers today). Yes, the Yerushalmi expands the way it views the nature of revelation at Sinai (by incorporating ‘extra’ material), but no, it does not prohibit the writing down of the Oral Tradition.

Furstenberg goes into much more complex detail which is beyond the scope of this article but he ultimately makes the point that:

“No wonder, then, that Rabbinic sources show various Sages writing down halakhot, seemingly unperturbed by and not falling afoul of any prohibition. After all, this prohibition was introduced only in the later Babylonian rendering of the Palestinian tradition” (Furstenberg 2022:16-17).

The third source

The third source referenced in Temurah (numbered “a)” in this article) pronounces that:

“Those who write down halakhot are like those who burn the Torah, and one who learns from them receives no reward” (Temura 14b).

The source for this statement in the Bavli is again taken from the Yerushalmi (Shabbat 16.1) but, as Furstenberg shows, it similarly does not prohibit writing down Halachot. Instead, it refers to writing down sections of Torah, including writing on pieces of parchment things like blessings with G-d’s name, Aggadah with quotes from the Torah, and Torah Targumim (translations) in a way that may end up being disrespectful when the parchment gets damaged or worn. But - once again - the Yerushalmi source does not reference writing down the Oral Tradition and certainly not does it prohibit it.

“It comes as no surprise, then, that the question of writing down halakhot – that do not regularly include citations or paraphrases of scripture – is never raised in the Palestinian sources…The Sages in the Land of Israel had no reservations about this. The Sages worried about the fate of sacred Scripture, but any concern they might have had about pages of halakhot going to waste did not pass the threshold for legislation…The way in which Bavli Temura recasts the Palestinian traditions turns the Yerushalmi’s outlook on writing on its head.” (Furstenberg 2022:22).

According to the reworking of the Babylonian redactors, the concern is no longer that of the original Yerushalmi that sacred scriptural texts may become disrespected if committed to writing, but now it becomes a concern for the writing of the oral rabbinic tradition.

The concept of binary transmission of two Torahs

Furstenberg then makes a significant and fascinating observation:

“Through this thoroughgoing reinterpretation of its sources, the Bavli subsumes the entirety of the Oral Torah under a single universal prohibition, based on the image of binary transmission of the two Torahs” (2022:22).

The argument generally presented is that by mandating that only the Torah is permitted to be written down and not the Oral Tradition, one essentially distinguishes between two Torahs. However,

“As we have seen…Palestinian sources concerning the prohibition of writing do not betray such a concern” (Furstenberg 2022:23).

And according to the Babylonian perspective:

“In addition to the prohibition of writing Oral Torah, the Bavli developed the notion that the Written Torah must be maintained in its original form. While the Palestinian tradition permitted writing Scriptural pericopes separately, the Bavli espouses the position that if one writes down Scripture it must match its complete, original form. The two Torahs must remain faithful—not only in content but also in form—to their revelation” (Furstenberg 2022:23).

In keeping with this Babylonian study culture, even later on, in post-Talmudic Babylonia, the Babylonian Geonim still clung to their commitment to the oral nature of the Talmud:

“by valuing oral versions of the Talmud transmitted by the official reciters of the academies over the written ones” (Furstenberg 2022:26).

Contesting the binary nature of the Torah

It was the Bavli and not the Yerushalmi, that promoted the binary concept of two forms of the Torah. Furstenberg writes in his Abstract:

“While Palestinian sources forbid inappropriate writing of scriptural texts, in fear of the physical obliteration of Scriptural material, the Bavli reinterpreted these prohibitions as securing the original division between the two forms of the Torah.”

However, not everyone agreed with the conceptualisation of there being “two Torahs”:

“The idea that Moses received two Torahs at Sinai—a Written Torah and an Oral one—is present (and contested) already in the earliest strata of Rabbinic literature” (Furstenberg 2022:27).

The Sifra,[6]  comments on the verse “‘These are the statutes, laws, and teachings (torot)’ (Lev. 26:46). This implies that there were two Torahs (“Torot” is plural) given at Sinai:

“…one in writing and the other orally. R. Akiva said: But were two Torahs given to Israel? Were not many Torahs given to Israel?... Teaching that the Torah was given with its halakhot, details, and interpretations via Moses at Sinai.

This Sifra shows that R. Akiva challenged the perception of the binary nature of the Torah emphasizing instead that its entirety is beyond simple division into two categories. This seems more in keeping with the approach of the Yerushalmi where, as we noted earlier, even what it terms Mishnah, Talmud, and Aggada were somehow conceived to be included within the rubric of the Sinai Torah.


Furstenberg’s insightful contribution to scholarship is worthy of consideration. It seems that this notion of the prohibition against writing down the Oral Tradition, which is generally taken as a universal position, is only apparent in the Bavli. His reading of the original sources in the Yerushalmi, however, belies such a notion. This is something that appears to have gone unnoticed until now.

His argument is well-based not only on Talmudic sources, but on historiography as well, because:

“As pointed out by [Yakov] Elman, each [Talmud][7] center seems to have resembled its surrounding culture: the sages in Babylonia encountered a high degree of orality within their Sasanian intellectual atmosphere, whereas in the Land of Israel, in the Graeco-Roman context, there was a well-established tradition of writing and publication” (Furstenberg 2022:28).

If Furstenberg is correct, his observations should not be underestimated as they shine a new light on some very fundamental concepts that may, perhaps, have been taken for granted up to now. The matter of the role of the later Babylonian Talmudic redactors, editors or Stamaim is also something that is often overlooked.

Further reading



[1] Furstenberg, Y., 2022, The Invention of the Ban against Writing Oral Torah in the Babylonian Talmud - forthcoming in AJS Review.

[2] Gittin 60b and Temura 14b.

[3] Parenthesis is mine.

[4] Yerushalmi, Pe’a 2.6 (17a); Yerushalmi, Hagigah 1.8 (76d). The Yerushalmi often copies the same discussion in multiple tractates.

[5] The two prohibitions that Gittin 60b took from the Yerushalmi, and which were later incorporated into (the three components of) Temura 14b (footnote mine).

[6] beHar, 8.12.

[7] Parentheses are mine.

No comments:

Post a Comment