ORAL TORAH is the most common rendering of the Hebrew term torah shebeʾal peh. Rabbinic teachings originating in Galilee between the third and fifth centuries ce, particularly works of scriptural exegesis (e.g., Sifrʾa to Lv. 26:46 and Sifre to Dn. 33:10) and the Palestinian Talmud (e.g., Peʾah 2:6), refer occasionally to religious teachings (devarim, "words") transmitted "orally" or "by memory" (al peh ) and others transmitted "in writing" (bikhtav ). The former references denote oral traditions preserved among ancient sages, whereas the latter denotes texts of scriptural revelation. The full expression oral Torah is rare in rabbinic tradition of late antiquity and only appears in rabbinic texts completed between the fifth and sixth centuries ce (e.g., Avot Nat. A:15/B:26 and the B.T., Shab. 31a, Yomʾa 28b, and Qid. 66a). In these sources oral Torah refers to a body of unwritten oral tradition revealed to Moses on Sinai and transmitted in rabbinic communities as orally performed texts. This oral tradition originates simultaneously with the written revelations gathered in the Five Books of Moses and the remaining scriptural canon. This canon is referred to as the written Torah (torah shebikhtav ). Together the written Torah and oral Torah constitute the entirety of the covenantal contract between Israel and the creator of the universe.
The rabbinic literature compiled prior to the eighth century ce does not systematically define a canon of literary works containing the oral Torah. It assumes that oral Torah is transmitted not in edited documents but rather as oral teachings. Indeed the word mishnah and its Aramaic cognate matnyta can refer either to general texts of memorized rabbinic tradition or to the early-third-century ce compilation of rabbinic law known as the Mishnah. Whereas some rabbinic passages do link the aspects of oral revelation specifically to the Mishnah (e.g., P.T., Peʾah 2:6, B.T., Ber. 5a, Tan.-Bub., to Ex. 34:27), it is not entirely certain whether the reference is to the document or to the more amorphous oral tradition of which the Mishnah represents merely one early form.
Since the Middle Ages it has become common to anthologize rabbinic tradition in written compilations. Thus the oral Torah has for at least a millennium been studied from written works such as the Mishnah, the Tosefta, various Midrashic compilations, and paradigmatically the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds. Commentaries to these works are likewise regarded as part of the oral Torah. In this sense the oral Torah remains an unclosed canon to which new works can in principle be added. Its "orality" lies more in the confidence in its oral origins rather than in the methods of its current preservation and elaboration.
Ancient Jewish Oral Tradition and Rabbinic Oral Torah
Oral Torah appears to be a term of exclusive rabbinic coinage. Ancient Judaism of course preserved a rich oral tradition of law, historical memory, biblical interpretation, and theology beyond its scriptural heritage. Yet there is no clear evidence that Jews of the Second Temple period (from roughly 520 bce to 70 ce) commonly recognized this oral tradition as part of revelation or equivalent to the Torah in religious authority. Indeed whereas Second Temple Jews produced much literature claiming to be the written remnants of revelations given to biblical prophets, there is no record of Jews claiming the status of revelation for orally transmitted traditions.
Perhaps the most likely Second Temple source of the rabbinic concept of oral Torah emerges from a variety of ideas about religious tradition that have been ascribed in various ancient sources to the Pharisees. They were a prominent political-religious party from Hasmonaean and Roman times. Important first-century ce writings, such as the Gospels (e.g., Mk. 7:3: paradosin ton presbuteron ) and the works of the Jewish historian Josephus (Ant. 12:290: paradoseos ton pateron ), describe the Pharisees as great legal scholars and cultivators of "ancestral traditions" that are taken with great reverence in the conduct of life. But such discussions do not mention the key traits of rabbinic oral Torah—that the traditions are part of the revelation to Moses and that they are transmitted in essentially oral form as an authoritative application of the written Torah.
Only new evidence, not yet on the horizon, can determine the Second Temple genealogy of oral Torah. In the meantime it is important to point out that the rabbinic literature itself shows signs that the idea of oral Torah developed within the emerging rabbinic communities that consolidated themselves in the century or so after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 ce. The earliest extant compilations of the emerging rabbinic literary tradition in fact are inconsistent in their appeal to and use of concepts equivalent to oral Torah. The most famous rabbinic source usually cited as an example of the rabbinic use of the term oral Torah is from the first chapter of Mishnah Avot. But this text claims only that "Moses received Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua" (M. Avot 1:1). It goes on to describe at length the chain of traditional authorities who "received Torah" from their masters and transmitted it to their disciples until it was received by such famous early rabbinic founders as Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkʾai (M. Avot 2:8). Moreover in a mid-third-century collection of biblical interpretation known as Sifrʾa the great rabbinic scholar of the second century ce, Rabbi ʿAqiva˒, is represented as dismissing the idea that a reference in Leviticus 26:46 to "teachings" (torot ) given by Moses implies that the prophet received two Torahs from Sinai. By contrast, the later expansion of Mishnah Avot, called Avot d'Rabbi Nathan, quite explicitly ascribes the use of the term oral Torah to Herodian figures such as Hillel the Elder. This suggests that the later text has imported its own concept of oral Torah into the Mishnah's conception of Torah from Sinai.
The development of the idea of oral Torah is intimately bound up with the consolidation of nascent rabbinic institutions of instruction and discipleship. As teachers of wisdom in the Greco-Roman world of late antiquity, the rabbinic sages had to reflect on a problem that was of great interest to other moral educators throughout the Mediterranean world, namely what is the relationship of written books to knowledge and what role does the living teacher play in applying the wisdom of books to the moral formation of disciples? This issue was of deep concern to various religious and philosophical communities—from Neoplatonic philosophers to the rhetoricians of the Second Sophistic and from Gnostic spiritual guides to proponents of Stoicism. Each of these communities came to some conventional agreements within their own institutions regarding the degree to which ultimate wisdom resided in the writing of a great sage or in the person of the teacher who expounded the writing. Similarly each community had to determine the role that memorization of great texts played in the moral formation of students. The development of the idea of oral Torah is the rabbinic refraction of this larger cultural concern. The essential idea is that rabbinic teaching derives its authority not from the person of the sage himself but rather from his assiduous cultivation of a chain of tradition that goes back to Moses. The oral character of this tradition—the fact that it was found not in books but in the living teaching of sages alone—ensured that the tradition could only be accessed through personal discipleship to a rabbinic sage. One could not, that is, become a sage by reading the written Torah in concert with texts of oral Torah. The concept of oral Torah, in this sense, insured that access to Jewish religious tradition would be entirely controlled by sages who alone could mediate covenantal knowledge.
This idea of the sage as the exclusive mediator of traditions that could not be learned entirely from books is expressed both through historical narratives and in the development of technical terms for tradition of various sorts. Representations of the idea of oral Torah in narrative include the famous passage of the Babylonian Talmud (Eruv. 54b) that describes Moses teaching the oral tradition to Aaron and other disciples by careful repetition and memorization. Another (B.T., Tem. 15b–16a) describes the use of the oral Torah's hermeneutical rules to reconstruct oral traditions forgotten by Israel in the despair following the death of Moses. Several rabbinic stories about events in Second Temple times, such as one about a Hasmonaean king who comes to persecute the Pharisees (B.T., Qid. 66a), assume that the oral Torah must have been known to sages at that early date. Others, most famously ascribed to the Second Temple figure Hillel, show Hillel teaching oral Torah to converts (Avot Nat. A:15/B:26, B.T., Shab. 31a).
The emerging technical language of rabbinic jurisprudence also testifies to the increasing significance of the conception that the tradition taught by rabbinic sages is both oral and part of the Sinaitic moment. The distinction between commandments "found in the Torah" (mideʾorʾaitʾa ) and those "enacted by the Rabbis" (miderabbanan ) originates in the earliest layers of rabbinic tradition (e.g., M. Hag. 1:8/T. Hag. 1:9 and M. Orl. 3:9) and is developed broadly in the Talmuds. Moreover a host of synonyms for rabbinic tradition, such as "traditional custom" (halakhah ), "words of the scribes" (divrei sofrim ), "tradition from Moses on Sinai" (halakhah lemosheh misinai ), and "repeated tradition" (mishnah and matnyta ), are increasingly interpreted in rabbinic compilations of the fourth and later centuries ce as references to elements of the oral Torah. Thus by the close of late antiquity the consolidating rabbinic communities of the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires had developed not only a rich oral tradition of jurisprudence, history, and theology but also a rich notion of this entire tradition as part of an oral heritage stemming from Sinai and preserved in the present by the emerging rabbinic elites.
Oral Torah in the History of Jewish Thought
At least some sages—such as the third-century ce Galilean leader Rabbi Yoḥanan bar Nappaḥaʾ—held that written copies of texts of oral Torah should not be used in the training of disciples, just as the written Torah should not be cited from memory during the official synagogue liturgy (B.T., Git. 60b/Tem. 14b). But in the classical rabbinic literature the distinction between written and oral sources of Torah is more often assumed than explicitly discussed. The concept of oral Torah did not become a defining element of rabbinic ideology until the ninth century ce, when it began to play a key role in a polemic within Judaism known as the Karaite controversy. The Karaites (scripturalists) were a loosely affiliated collection of Jewish communities, from Iraq to North Africa, who rejected rabbinic dominance over Jewish life in the expanding Abbasid Empire. Central to Karaite criticism of rabbinic authority was the claim that the oral Torah was a purely human construction, invented by rabbis to legitimate their political authority. According to the Karaite polemicists, the only source of textual authority for Jews was the Mosaic Scripture, what the rabbis called the written Torah.
The most articulate responses to the Karaite critiques were mounted by a series of rabbinic scholars who had been appointed by the Abbasid caliphate to the office of the Gaonate. The Gaonate was charged with promulgating and administering Jewish law among the Jewish communities of the Abbasid Empire. The Geonim traced their own intellectual and religious authority back to the Talmudic sages and from them back to Moses. Mining the classic rabbinic literature for references to the antiquity of oral Torah and buttressing these sources with arguments drawn from scriptural interpretation and philosophy, Geonic leaders from Rabbi Saʾadyah ben Yosef al-Fayyumī (882–942 ce) to Rabbi Sherira ben Hanina (906–1006) composed fierce responses to the Karaites. In these responses the entire corpus of rabbinic compilations from antiquity was defined as part of the canon of oral Torah and their authority in the construction of Jewish law and belief clearly explained. As the Karaite threat to rabbinic authority receded, these polemical writings, defending the centrality of oral Torah to rabbinic authority and linking its antiquity to Sinai, became foundational for Jewish historical thinking about rabbinic tradition.
Whereas the classic Geonic development of the idea of oral Torah originated in Islamic lands in polemics primarily with the anti-rabbinic Karaites, rabbinic Jews living in scattered communities in Latin Christendom were also inspired by contextual factors to develop an ideological self-consciousness about oral Torah. Most important among these, from the eleventh century and onward, were the polemical encounters of Jews with Christian theologians. In staged disputes sponsored by church authorities, held for the edification of Christians and a hoped-for conversion of Jews, rabbinic leaders were required to defend the truth of Judaism against the claims of Christianity. The primary focus of these disputes was the tradition of Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, which viewed the latter as a veiled set of parables foretelling the advent of Christ.
Some of the later rabbinic sources of the Byzantine era had proposed long ago that the Mishnah should be regarded as a "mystery" given by God to Israel to ensure Israel's knowledge of the meaning of Scripture against the claims of the emerging church (e.g., Pes. Rab. 14b). These and many other sources were retrieved by the pioneering eleventh-century French commentator Rabbi Shelomoh ben Yitsḥaq ("Rashi," 1040–1105) in his commentaries to both the Talmud and the Bible. He carefully glossed biblical verses with rabbinic passages from the oral Torah, arguing that the "simple" or "contextual" sense of the written Torah was found in the sources of the oral Torah. This method enabled Rashi to engage Christian readings of Scripture on two fronts. Where Christian tradition might see certain biblical verses as parabolic references to Christ, Rashi could point out that the "simple" sense (the peshat ) was contained in the oral Torah. Similarly where Scripture referred repeatedly to various synonyms for law that had been given to Moses, Rashi could cite rabbinic materials that linked such verses to the written and oral Torah. Rashi's methods were employed, with variations and expansions, in the exegetical tradition founded by his students, known as the Tosafists ("supplements to Rashi"). They were influential as well in the thirteenth-century biblical commentaries of Rabbi Mosheh ben Naḥman ("Nahmanides," 1194–1270), who frequently cites Rashi only to disagree with him about details.
While rabbinic scholars of Latin Christendom were weaving the idea of oral Torah into their tapestry of exegesis, a work appeared in the Islamic world that would become crucial to Jews in both Islamic and Christian societies. The twelfth-century Spanish-born sage, Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon ("Maimonides," 1135–1204), writing in Egypt, introduced his prestigious codification of Jewish law with a historical discussion of the origins and transmission history of the oral Torah. Elsewhere in his brilliant code Maimonides held that belief in the origins of the oral Torah in revelation was a fundamental article of Jewish belief, no less crucial than belief in the existence of God (Hil. Mam. 3:1). His views, shaped largely by the Geonic interpretations of Talmudic sources, influenced all Jewish thought—legal, historical, and theological—from the thirteenth century until the dawn of the nineteenth.
The mystical movement of Qabbalah, which spread with equal success in the Islamic and Christian areas of Jewish settlement, commonly linked its own conceptual innovations to the idea of oral Torah. Indeed the most important qabbalistic work, the thirteenth-century Zohar, was composed in imitation of the language and form of ancient rabbinic works of oral Torah. As late as the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, innovative movements of Jewish religious renewal, such as Hasidism, offered creative interpretations of the idea of oral Torah as part of their larger efforts to link themselves to authentic rabbinic lineage. With equal ingenuity, some rabbinic opponents of Jewish modernization demonstrated how the interpretive principles of the oral Torah proved that "the modern is prohibited by the Torah."
Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, increasing sectors of world Jewry have come under the influence of the modernizing Western culture in which they have been immersed. Grounded in empiricist and historicist assumptions basic to the cultural revolution of the European Enlightenment, many modern Jewish thinkers have found the concept of "revelation" to be especially vulnerable to criticism on historical grounds. Classically understood as a miraculous event in which a personal God speaks in human language to a prophet, revelation has been commonly recast as a psychological, cultural, or moral event. Revelation, in other words, has left the realm of "objective historical fact" and been confined to the domain of "subjective, interpretive experience." Accordingly among most contemporary adherents of modern Judaism, the idea of oral Torah as a revelation coequal with that of the written Torah is hardly a compelling idea, for the very notion of an objective historical revelation is itself under question.
Not all sectors of contemporary Judaism, however, have been willing to give up the concept of oral Torah. Among Orthodox Jews, who are deeply skeptical of the authority of modern culture, there is also a tendency to insist upon the continued authority of oral Torah as part of the divine revelation that governs the concrete behavior of Jews. Paradoxically, in the last decades of the twentieth century certain Jewish thinkers of a postmodern style began to find new complexity in the concept of oral Torah. These thinkers are critical of modernity's often-facile distinction between "subjectivity" and "objectivity." Whereas they may not accept the absolute authority of the rabbis, they are intensely interested in retrieving the idea of oral Torah as a fundamental element of the overall Judaic response to texts and tradition. Thus even among Jewish thinkers who do not explicitly support exclusive rabbinic authority to define Judaism, the idea of oral Torah as the historical embodiment of Jewish forms of "textual reasoning"—living with, challenging, and transforming the meaning of powerful texts—continues to attract great interest.
Baumgarten, Albert. "The Pharisaic Paradosis." Harvard Theological Review 80 (1987): 63–77. This essay offers an excellent discussion of various Second Temple testimonies about the nature of Pharisaic tradition.
Berger, Michael S. Rabbinic Authority. Oxford, U.K., and New York, 1998. This is a comprehensive study of the rhetoric for establishing rabbinic authority from classical times into modernity.
Blidstein, Yaakov. "On the Foundations of the Concept of Oral Torah" (in Hebrew). Tarbiz 42 (1973): 496–498. This essay studies early lexical items in rabbinic literature that refer to memorized or oral tradition.
Brody, Robert. The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture. New Haven, Conn., and London, 1998. A most up-to-date and comprehensive study of the institution of the Gaonate and its religious and cultural achievements.
Dane, Perry. "The Oral Law and the Jurisprudence of a Textless Text." Sʾvara: A Journal of Philosophy, Law, and Judaism 2 (1991): 11–24. This essay mounts a postmodernist inquiry into the nature of rabbinic thought on oral Torah.
Elman, Yaakov. Authority and Tradition: Toseftan Baraitot in Talmudic Babylonia. Hoboken, N.J., 1994. This study of the Tosefta, a companion document to the Mishnah, breaks fresh ground in studying the mutual influence of writing and oral transmission in the shaping of early rabbinic traditions.
Elman, Yaakov, and Israel Gershoni, eds. Transmitting Jewish Traditions: Orality, Textuality, and Cultural Diffusion. New Haven, Conn., and London, 2000. This collection of essays contains valuable studies by an international group of scholars of Jewish oral tradition from rabbinic to modern times.
Fraade, Steven. From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and Its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteronomy. Albany, N.Y., 1991. This is a groundbreaking study of rabbinic ideas of oral Torah and their relationship to the stylistic traits of rabbinic scriptural interpretation.
Gerhardsson, Birger. Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity, with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1998. This work, written in 1961, sums up a century of scholarship on rabbinic oral tradition and links it to the study of early Christian oral tradition.
Gruber, Meyer. "The Mishnah as Oral Torah: A Reconsideration." Journal for the Study of Judaism 15 (1984): 112–122. This essay focuses upon ways in which early rabbinic literature links the Mishnah to the idea of oral Torah.
Harris, Jay. How Do We Know This? Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism. Albany, N.Y., 1995. This book studies the historical conceptions of rabbinic oral-interpretive tradition from ancient to modern times.
Jaffee, Martin S. Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 bce–400 ce. New York, 2001. This book offers a broad theory of rabbinic oral tradition in relation to written sources and a study of the conceptual development of the idea of oral Torah until the fifth century ce.
Kepnes, Steven, ed. Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age. New York and London, 1996. This pioneering collection of essays includes many that reflect upon postmodern conceptions of rabbinic tradition and its authority.
Lieberman, Saul. "The Publication of the Mishnah." In Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, pp. 83–90. New York, 1950. This is a classic essay describing the oral manner in which the Mishnah was compiled and disseminated for study.
Meskin, Jacob. "Textual Reasoning, Modernity, and the Limits of History." Cross Currents (Winter 1999). Available from http://www.findarticles.com/cf_0/m2096/4_49/58621580/p1/article.jhtml. This is a programmatic essay on Jewish "textual reasoning" in a postmodern spirit that pays close attention to modern scholarship on Jewish oral tradition and rabbinic oral Torah.
Neusner, Jacob. "Oral Torah and Oral Tradition: Defining the Problematic." In Method and Meaning in Ancient Judaism, pp. 59–75. Missoula, Mont., 1979. This essay highlights the important implications of distinguishing between ancient Jewish oral tradition and rabbinic ideologies of oral Torah stemming from revelation.
Neusner, Jacob. What, Exactly, Did the Rabbinic Sages Mean by "the Oral Torah?" An Inductive Answer to the Question of Rabbinic Judaism. Atlanta, 1999. This is a convenient summary of a major scholar's thought on oral Torah.
Safrai, Shmuel. "Oral Tora." In The Literature of the Sages, pt. 1: Oral Tora, Halakha, Mishna, Tosefta, Talmud, External Tractates, edited by Shmuel Safrai, pp. 35–119. Philadelphia and Assen, Netherlands, 1987. This essay offers a convenient survey of rabbinic sources on oral Torah and a historical interpretation of their significance.
Schäfer, Peter. "Das 'Dogma' von der mündlichen Torah im rabbinischen Judentum." In Studien zur Geschichte und Theologie des rabbinischen Judentums, pp. 153–197. Leiden, Netherlands, 1978. This essay offers critical and close readings of the various rabbinic references to oral tradition and highlights the crucial role of the third-century ce Galilean school of Rabbi Yoḥanan in developing the ideology of oral Torah.
Schlütter, Margarete. Auf welche Weise wurde die Mishna geschrieben? Tübingen, Germany, 1993. This comprehensive study of Rabbi Sherira's famous letter on the history of the oral Torah includes German translations of both extant manuscript versions and an extensive commentary.
Scholem, Gershom. "The Meaning of the Torah in Jewish Mysticism." In On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, translated by Ralph Manheim, pp. 32–86. New York, 1969. This essay surveys the various symbolic roles played by the term Torah in the qabbalistic tradition.
Scholem, Gershom. "Revelation and Tradition as Religious Categories in Judaism." In The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, pp. 282–303. New York, 1971. This essay explores crucial ideological dimensions of Jewish concepts of revelation and interpretation in rabbinic and mystical contexts.
Silber, Michael K. "The Emergence of Ultra-Orthodoxy: The Invention of a Tradition." In The Uses of Tradition: Jewish Continuity in the Modern Era, edited by Jack Wertheimer, pp. 23–84. New York and Jerusalem, 1992. This essay traces ways in which the conceptual system of rabbinic oral Torah was marshaled in opposition to modern European culture.
Snyder, H. Gregory. Teachers and Texts in the Ancient World: Philosophers, Jews, and Christians. London and New York, 2000. This book surveys the various roles that classic texts and living teachers played in moral education in the Greco-Roman world.
Valantasis, Richard. Spiritual Guides of the Third Century: A Semiotic Study of the Guide-Disciple Relationship in Christianity, Neoplatonism, Hermetism, and Gnosticism. Minneapolis, Minn., 1991. This fine study describes the role of texts and teachers in the spiritual formation of diverse intellectual-religious communities in late antiquity.
Zlotnick, Dov. The Iron Pillar, Mishnah: Redaction, Form, and Intent. Jerusalem, 1988. This book studies various oral-formulaic aspects of the editing of the Mishnah.
Martin S. Jaffee (2005)