The Oral Torah

Rabbi Sam Thurgood

Beit Midrash Morasha

Moshe Received the Torah from Sinai and Transmitted it to Yehoshua...

(Pirkei Avot 1:1)

(משה קבל תורה מסיני, ומסרה ליהושע... (אבות א:א

We know that Torah is a holistic entity, composed of the text itself – Torah Shebichtav (Written Torah) – and the accompanying traditions and reading instructions around it – Torah SheB’al Peh (Oral Torah), and that the latter is absolutely necessary in order for the former to be properly understood.

Rabbeinu Yonah says that when Pirkei Avot teaches us of Moshe’s transmission of the Torah, it refers to the entire Torah, written and oral, but Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein in his Baruch SheAmar to Pirkei Avot takes a view that we are referring here only to the Oral Torah. After all, he says, the written Torah became the property and knowledge of the entire Jewish people during the lifetime of Moshe; it was only the received tradition and methods of interpretation that needed to primarily be entrusted to Yehoshua (and then to the Elders, and so on). The focus of the Torah mesora (tradition) is not so much the text itself (which is essentially, in our terminology, open access) but the approach to it – what it means, how to read it. That is, in many ways, the essence of Torah study. The Gemora1 says:

Rabbi Yochanan said: The Holy One, blessed is He, only made a covenant with the Jewish people based on the Oral Tradition, as it says “for according to (al pi – literally on the mouth of) these words I have formed a covenant with you and with Israel”.2

Irving Bunim explains this in his “Ethics from Sinai” as follows:3

The main point... is that ours is primarily Torah SheBe’al Peh, an Oral Torah, to be learned in words spoken, discussed, memorized, and understood. Our texts, from Scripture to Talmud and Midrash, were never yet learned properly by anyone who took them off a shelf and read them. Every text must be understood in context; the whole must fit in a matrix of values and concepts that must go B’al Peh, by word of mouth, from living teacher to living student.

  1. Talmud, Gittin 60b

  2. Exodus 34:27

“Ethics from Sinai” (page 892)

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