Is There an Oral Law?

The Rabbis tell us that the written Torah is too complicated for anyone to understand. Thankfully, they tell us, G-d gave Moshe a second “Oral Torah” that was handed down through the generations and was finally written down in the second century AD in a book called the Talmud. Never mind that the Hebrew Bible tells us that our people were almost entirely consumed with idolatry many times or that even the written Torah was lost for many years. We must simply accept that the “Oral Law” has been passed down in a pure and untainted form for 3500 years.

This Talmud includes new commandments that do not appear in the written Torah (Moshe must have forgotten to write them down) that include washing one’s hands before we eat bread, separating meat and dairy so we do not eat both at one meal, and the celebration of Hannukah. We also find several laws in the written Torah, such as those of ritual purity, that have been all but done away with.

Orthodox Talmudic Jews

There are many commandments in this “Oral Law” that stand in direct contravention of the written Torah. One such law is that candles should be lit “before” Shabbat (observed from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset) and allowed to burn on Shabbat. The Torah is very specific on this matter: Shemot (Exodus) 35:3 states:

You shall not allow fire to burn throughout your dwellings in your communities in the day of Shabbat.

(Translation provided by the author).

According the the Talmud this commandment only requires Jews not to “kindle” fire on Shabbat but they can allow it to burn on Shabbat. This is not, however, what this passage says. What precedes this passage is also important. Shemot (Exodus) 35:1 begins as do most passages in the Torah:

And Moses assembled the congregation of the Holy Nation of Israel, and said to them: “These are the words which YHVH (the LORD) has commanded, that you should observe them.”

The passages of the Mishna (a Talmudic book) begin “Rabbi Akiva said:”; “Rabbi Eleazer said:” and such. These men who are conveying the “Oral Law” are doing so just for themselves and in their names. How is it that the words of mere men can compare with the commandments given by Moshe at Mt. Sinai? Who is Rabbi Akiva next to Moshe, let alone YHVH?

Where did this “Oral Law” come from? About 2300 years ago Jews who had returned from the Babylonian Exile divided into two fundamentally different religio-political parties: the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Sadducees believed that the written Torah should be observed according to the plain meaning of the words, Karaite Jews continue this tradition today. The Pharisees argued that their scholars (now called Rabbis) could make changes and “reforms” to the Torah. To justify their position the Pharisees “discovered” that an “Oral Law” had been handed down from the time of Moshe. Conveniently, only the Pharisees had knowledge of this law and only they could interpret and apply it.

It is interesting that there is no mention of this “Oral Law” anywhere in the Torah, the Neviim (Prophets) or the Kethuvim (Writings) that make up the Hebrew Bible. In one instance the Torah is referred to in plural but in context this is referring to the commandments that make up the Torah not to a second Torah. What is more, the Torah tells us neither to add to it or to remove from it any of the commandments. The Torah goes on to say that it is very near to the people, that they do not need to travel to heaven, over the seas, or to establish Rabbinic masters over themselves in order to understand and observe it:

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 4:2

2. You shall not add to the words that I have commanded you, neither shall you remove from among them, that you may keep the commandments of YHVH (the LORD) your God that I have command you.

We are not add to these written words that have been commanded, nor may we remove them. If there is an Oral Law then it certainly may not contradict on any count the written Torah nor may it add additional commandments. What need have we, then, for an Oral Law? Why would G-d give us one? How could these additional laws have escaped mention in the Torah and all of the historical and Prophetic works of the Jewish people? Why would the Pharisees be the only ones who knew about them?

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:17

You shall diligently observe the commandments of YHVH (the LORD) and His testimonies, and His statutes that He has commanded you.

That who has commanded you? Not Rabbi Akiva but YHVH Himself!

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 30:11-14

For this word that I have commanded you today, it is neither too difficult for you, nor is it distant.
It is not in heaven, that you shall say: ‘Who shall go up to heaven for us, and bring it down to us, and make us understand it, that we can observe it?’
Neither is it beyond the sea, that you shall say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us understand it, that we can observe it?’
But My word is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you can observe it.

The Torah says we don’t need Rabbis to change the laws. We may need some help understanding them, but they are not so far away that other men need to control them and dictate their laws to us. We need only follow His laws to receive His blessing. I have found that all too often Rabbis are more concerned with practitioners observing their laws that they might have their Rabbi’s blessing.

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