My partner in crime, Marc wrote a post on Tuesday in which he used the term Oral Torah. That term is one of the most misunderstood concepts outside the observant world. I was given a tremendously insightful explanation by the tremendously insightful Rabbi Denbo. I will do my best to paraphrase his explanation (though I’m sure there will be a mistake or two, please consult your rabbi for further understanding).
Let’s lay the ground work.
Torah (written Torah) – Also known as the Chumash, the Pentuach, the 5 Books of Moses, Torah Shebichtav, and the Old Testament (by those who believe there was a New Testament.) It chronicles God’s creation of the earth, through the Jews leaving Egypt and finally arriving at the promise land. Orthodox Jews believe the Torah was written by God and dictated to Moses. If you go with this understanding, that means every letter has a purpose and meaning that we can learn from. Even the typos? Especially the “typos.”
But here’s the thing, you go through the Torah and you start to find some perplexing verses (as you should). Let’s look at Deuteronomy 12:21 “…you may slaughter from your cattle and your flocks that Hashem has given you, [in the way] I have commanded you…” Okay cool. Time to eat, just need to kill my goat in the way God commanded me… wait a minute.
Nowhere in the written Torah does it say how to properly slaughter an animal. Okay…. Hey it’s Friday night, time to keep Shabbat! It even says if I don’t, I can be stoned to death. Okay… I need to keep it holy…. not work (actually the word is malacha not avodah, the normal word for work) but I’m not seeing really much else…
The fact that there are such incomplete concepts in the Torah leads you to one of two conclusions. 1) The Torah is a nonsensical document. 2) There’s more to it.
The Oral Tradition (Oral Torah) – The Oral Torah is a library of information that elucidates the merely touched upon concepts found in the written Torah. At Mt. Sinai Moses spent 40 days not just learning the written Torah, but mastering ALL OF IT. How to properly slaughter an animal. How to keep Shabbos. The deeper understandings of the narrative of the written Torah. And he taught these concepts to the nation over the next 40 years. After his passing these concepts were taught orally from teacher to student, parent to child and were never meant to be written down. (And when I say written down, I mean published. People totally took notes.)
Whenever you are learning a concept there are two aspects, the inherent idea (it’s abstract, amorphous, contains the essence of the idea but difficult to fully communicate) and there is a grounded example (specific to the person, more easily understandable, able to identify with, not appropriate for everyone) which teaches the idea. The grounded examples for Moses (a prince of Egypt) are not going make sense to a nation of slaves. Their examples aren’t going to make sense to a nation of soldiers conquering their homeland. Their examples aren’t going to make sense to a nation of farmers. And so on. The reason the teachings were oral is because they were supposed to be tailored to the individual learning them. Writing the teachings down concretizes the examples which are supposed to be fluid.
But that system only was able to last so long. Eventually we lost the 1st and 2nd Temple and the nation was thrown into exile. It was decided that the oral tradition would have to be written down. But those specific examples would be cemented and the nature of oral teaching would be lost. However, in the 2nd century C.E. a rabbi by the name of Yehudah HaNasi found a way to do both. He compiled what is known as the books of the Mishnah. It was a collection of teachings from all the rabbis of the time. But they were written somewhat cryptically so one would still need a teacher to unlock the wisdom, keeping some of the oral aspect.
Eventually another document would be needed as times for the Jews got worse. A work known as the Gemara was produced (around 400 C.E.) recording all the rabbis of the time and their understandings of the Mishnah. However the Gemara itself is somewhat cryptic, almost like a puzzle that one needs to wrestle with and immerse themselves in to fully understand, hence keeping the oral aspect. Those two documents together are what we know as Talmud.
Okay great, so the oral Torah is just the Talmud? Not exactly.
The Talmud is a pervasive body of work that covers much, but it’s primary objective is to elucidate the halacha or laws of the mitzvahs. There is also Midrash, a separate work from the Talmud, which details events not included in the Torah (I like to think of it as the director’s cut of the Torah) and there are books concerning Kabbalah, the most prominent of which is the Zohar.
So as you can see, understanding Torah is a life long effort. What’s crazy is that in the times of the temple, the Rabbis of the time had encyclopedic understand of all the oral Torah memorized. MEMORIZED!!! And though idea of learning it all seems absurd, the little I have started to explore has completely change my outlook on life.