Question: If there is an Oral Law, why didn’t Hashem or Moses write it down? What benefit could there be in the details of the Law being Oral?
Answer: There are actually many reasons why the Torah needs an oral component. I will, Hashem willing, try to explain a few in this article.
The Rabbis make a very interesting statement in the Midrash Rabbah (sermons of the Rabbis taken from the Oral Tradition, and later collected and published by a student of Rabbi Judah the Prince, Rabbi Oshayah, circa 200 C.E.). The Midrash is discussing some of the deeper meanings of the sacrificial offerings brought by the leaders of the Tribes of Israel when the Holy Tabernacle was built and dedicated:
«And for the peace sacrifice, two oxen…» Because Hashem gave Israel two Torahs: The Written Torah and the Oral Torah. He gave them the Written Torah that has the 613 Commandments, to fill them up with merits and to purify them, as it says «Hashem wants His righteous people, so He increased and strengthened the Torah.»
He gave them the Oral Torah so that they would, by the Oral Torah, be distinct from all other nations. For this reason it was not given in writing, so that the Gentiles could not forge it or claim it for their own, and then claim that they are the true Israel, as they did with the Written Torah.
— Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 14:10, s.v. «On the Eleventh Day»
The Oral Torah is our unique property, our special possession, our glory and source of joy. It is what makes us what we are, and enables us to fulfill Hashem’s will.
The Torah is more vast than most people imagine. In the Book of Job, Tzofer Hana’amasi (one of Job’s friends) tells us about the wisdom of Hashem, the Torah, that «Its measurement is longer than the land, and wider than the sea» (Job 11:9). But if you unroll a copy of every Book of the Torah and stretch them out end to end, starting from the Five Books of Moses until Malachi, the entire length is not likely to reach even one mile. Tzofer is not referring to the Books of the Written Torah, which have a specific limit, but to the wisdom of Hashem as manifest in the Oral Torah, and as alluded to in the Written Torah.
Similarly, we find in the Midrash as follows:
May the Name of the King of all emperors be blessed, for having chosen Israel from all the seventy nations, as it says, «For Hashem’s portion is His nation, Jacob is the essence of His inheritance» (Deut. 32:9). And He gave us the Written Torah that contains hidden and concealed allusions, and He explained them in the Oral Torah, and revealed them to Israel.
Moreover, the Written Torah has the general rules, and the Oral Torah has the details. The Oral Torah is vast, and the Written Torah is small. Concerning the Oral Torah, it says, «Its measurement is longer than the land, and wider than the sea.» ….
For Hashem ratified His pledge with Israel only because of the Oral Torah, as it says: «Through these words I have set forth my pledge with you…» The actual words used by the Torah there mean, literally, «By the mouth of these words I have set forth my pledge with you….» (Exodus 34:27) [This is the literal translation]. The Torah means «through these words,» but instead uses the phrase «By the mouth of these words….»
The Torah could have said, «Because of these words….» or «For the sake of these words….» or «For these words…» or «through these words…», but instead the Torah used the phrase «By the mouth of these words….» This refers to the Oral Torah, hence the use of the phrase «by the mouth of these words…»
Only those who love Hashem with all their hearts, all their souls, and all their might, study the Oral Torah.
— Midrash Tanchumah, Noach 3:3, s.v. These are the Chronicles
The Talmud is not the entire Oral Torah. The Talmud is the basic skeleton of the Oral Torah, as much as was absolutely necessary for the preservation of the Torah. But it is by far not the entire Oral Torah. That wouldn’t be possible.
The Oral Torah is limitless. This is not hyperbole, or exaggeration, in any way. I mean this precisely and literally. The greatness of the Oral Torah is that no matter how much is taught, no matter how much is learned, there is always more true Torah to be discovered. Hashem created the Torah that way. The Talmud tells us, «Every Torah teaching that any conscientious Torah student is destined to extrapolate was already taught to Moses at Mount Sinai» (Midrash Rabbah: Leviticus 22:1; ibid. Eccl. 1:2 and 5:2). (This does not mean, by the way, that every interpretation anyone makes up is true. See my article on «The Oral Law and Our Own Opinions.»)
And absolutely every single element of the Oral Torah is alluded to in the Written Torah. This adds yet another dimension to the study, and helps make the learning even more glorious and meaningful.
Incidentally, this is why the Written Torah had to be written in Hebrew, the language that Hashem created specifically for that purpose.
The Oral Torah contains the details of the general Laws found in the Written Torah. Without those details, we could never fulfill the Laws. For example, the Torah commands the Jewish Supreme Court to declare when a new month has begun, and the Oral Torah gives us all the necessary details. We find, therefore, that the Talmud (Rosh Hashonoh 25b) tells us that the time between each appearance of a new moon can be no less than 29.53059 days. This information, reported Rabbi Gamliel in the Talmud, is part of the Oral Torah.
Only this century did anyone else in the world have a calculation of that nature. Carl Sagan has stated that the period of time from new moon to new moon is 29.53058 days, only 100 thousandth of a day less! That’s within 0.864 of a second of what the Talmud says! Scientists in Berlin later revised it to 29.530588 days, which is 0.6912 thousandths of a second closer to what the Talmud says (and the scientists are still not absolutely positive). That is how close they are to the number given by our Oral Torah. We needed this information, in order to properly observe a Mitzvah in the Torah, so Hashem taught that to Moses.
The Oral Torah is needed in order to maintain the context of the Written Torah. It therefore contains much more information than the Written Torah. The Written Torah needs the Oral Torah to make certain that the correct meaning is conveyed and understood.
In the simple act of relaying information, the spoken word can employ so many means that are unavailable to the written word. Tone of voice is one example. Another example is which words we stress, and how strongly we accent them. Hand gestures and body language convey a great deal more than the simple spoken word conveys, and far more than the written word.
There is an old Yiddish story about the man in a small town in Europe who sent his son to an out-of-town school. A month or so later, the son wrote the father a letter. The father could not read, so he walked around town looking for someone who could read the letter to him. He came across the baker. In Europe, bakers were known for their lack of scholarship. They usually had poor reading skills, if any at all. This baker was no exception. But the baker was a good man, and he decided he would do this favor for this man.
The baker opened the letter, and read it to the father. The letter was a rather simple letter, in which the son tells the father about how busy he is with his courses, how he has found a simple place to live in the big and confusing city. Unfortunately, it is rather distant from the school, but it was all he could afford. As a result he needs to take a bus to and from school every day. And so on and so forth. He ended the letter with a polite plea to his father to send him some money. «Tatteh, shik gelt.» («Father, send money.»)
Unfortunately, the baker was not very adept at reading, and moreover, did not know of the close relationship between the father and his son. The baker perceived the letter as being nasty and full of demands. He was certainly unable to render the flowery phrases of affection interspersed throughout the letter.
«He complains that you sent him to this difficult school that gives him a lot of work to do,» said the baker, «how terrible the city is, and how he is not happy with his apartment. He demands that you send him money!» That was how the baker interpreted the letter.
The father grew incensed. «After all I did for him! That lousy ingrate! How dare he speak to me that way!»
He took the letter, and rushed off to the town Rabbi to show it to him.
The Rabbi took the letter, the evidence of the son’s chutzpah, and read it. Raising an eyebrow, he asked the father what harm there was in the letter.
The father, sputtering, reiterated his outrage against his son’s chutzpah, all the while pointing to the letter.
The Rabbi smiled patiently, and told the man to sit down. He offered him something to eat and drink, and then said to him, «Let me read this letter to you.» He read the letter out loud, in a soft and loving voice, ending with the impassioned plea of «Tatteh, shik gelt.»
By the time the Rabbi was finished, the man was red in the face with embarrassment. «I can’t understand it, » he muttered. «The baker must have read the wrong letter.»
A written record is needed, but it takes an educated person to read it properly! That is why we need Rabbis and scholars to delve into each matter and make sure the Torah is properly and fully understood.
In addition, words themselves change their meanings over time. Here’s an interesting example. In Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, we find the expression «Stuff and nonsense!» I once read a work in which the author mused that the two words, «stuff» and «nonsense,» made an odd juxtaposition. After all, the word «stuff» means, more or less, «something of substance.» «Nonsense,» of course, means the opposite. Using the two words to describe one thing makes no sense.
But if you read Charles Dickens’ works, you will also come across the word «stuff,» and he used it to mean «nonsense!» In other words, «stuff and nonsense» was not an odd juxtaposition at all, back then. Back then, in the nineteenth century, when Dickens and Dodgson (Lewis Carroll’s real name) lived, the word «stuff» had almost precisely the opposite meaning that it does today, barely 150 years later!
So when the Torah gives us instruction, we must be clear as to the original meaning of the instruction. This, the Oral Torah keeps alive for us.
Let me cite an example of a changing idiom.
The Torah commands Jewish men to wear tefillin on their head. Where on the head? Above the hairline, in a straight line between one’s two eyes (no, it does not have to be precise, but near enough). How does the Torah phrase it? The Torah says, «Let them be as insignia between your eyes» (Deut. 11:18). The Torah does not mean literally between your eyes, but on your head in that position.
How do we know this? The Torah uses the phrase «between your eyes» in at least one other place. The Torah commands us not to imitate pagan practices, among them the practice of pulling out one’s hair in mourning. The Torah says, «You are children of Hashem your G-d. Do not mutilate yourselves, and do not make a bald patch between your eyes as a sign of mourning» (Deut. 14:1).
Where, precisely, are we not to make a bald patch? Between our eyes? Do you have that much hair between your eyes? How can you make yourself bald in a place that has practically no hair, if any at all? What does the Torah mean here?
Well, back in the early Biblical days, there was a Hebrew phrase «between your eyes» that really meant «on your head above your hairline, between your eyes.»
So when the Torah tells us to place tefillin «between your eyes,» the Torah really means on one’s head, in a direct line above the area between one’s eyes.
How do I know this? Because the Talmud tells us so (Menachos 37b). I would not have made this connection on my own. Our Oral Tradition, however, teaches us the meaning of the Written Torah.
Thus we see that the Oral Torah maintains the integrity and original meaning of the Written Torah. Today, no one uses the phrase «between your eyes.» If they do, they don’t mean it the way the Torah uses it. That’s why we need the Oral Torah!
The truth is that the Oral Torah and Written Torah work together, and each can exist only with the other. The Written Torah is needed as an anchor for the Oral Torah. It contains, in brief and in hidden allusion, the Oral Torah as well.
So we need both the Oral Torah and the Written Torah to maintain each other, and bring us the full instruction that Hashem has given us.
Furthermore, the Torah must be passed along from generation to generation by direct oral transmission. Just as in every field, we Jews also have specialists. These are our Rabbis, who have the responsibility to teach and keep Judaism alive that way. And they, too, must teach by example as well as by direct teaching.
Many years ago, I attended a special ceremony over which the previous Rebbe of Bobov (of blessed memory) presided. The Bobover Rebbe, of blessed memory, was a man of exceptionally holy qualities, one of which I personally merited witnessing.
The particular ceremony I’m telling you about now was held in a public park, and was attended by many members of the community at large, even members of other Chassidic groups.
As the Rebbe was leaving the park after the ceremony, the people began to crowd closer to get a better look at the Rebbe. In fact, that was the first time I ever got to meet him personally and shake his hand. Had there not been so many other people who also wanted to meet him, I would also have asked him for a blessing.
As the Rebbe continued to walk toward the gates of the park, he found himself hampered by the crowd. So he made his way carefully, and people began to slowly create an opening, a path between the people for the Rebbe to walk through. But some of the people there felt that it wasn’t happening fast enough. They felt the need to take charge and speed things up. So they began to pummel people on both sides of the «path,» punching them so they would move back and widen the path.
When the late Rebbe of blessed memory saw this happening, he became extremely agitated. He trembled in anguish, and raised his hands as if to ward off the blows himself. He cried out, «Mir shlugt nisht kain Yid!» (One does not hit a fellow Jew!)
That moment etched itself on my brain—to be more precise, it etched itself into my heart. The anguish the Rebbe felt over one Jew hitting another Jew, probably without even hurting them very much, was overwhelming. No one could see the Rebbe’s reaction and not be moved by it.
To be sure, I was aware of the Torah’s Commandment to love all Jews. I had studied the Torah’s Commandments against hitting innocent people. I knew all that. But to see how a holy man had so developed in himself these positive traits was to have the lesson burned into the very core of my being. It showed me a level that I realized I was yet to reach. (I’m not claiming that by now I have reached that level, but that was when I first realized that I hadn’t.)
When I was in the first grade, the Rabbi who taught the class would often speak about the importance of chessed — acts of kindness and charity. I don’t remember much else from that year, but this I recall without a problem. Why do I remember this, when it was so many years ago, and I was so young? Why do I have such a vivid memory of this, when I was only six years old at the time?
I remember it because of an incident that took place one day. During class, another Rabbi came in to observe. The visiting Rabbi began to sit down in one of the empty seat-desks near the back of the class. It was a small seat, of course, made for six-year-olds. The Rabbi of the class, our Rabbi, stood up and offered his own chair to the visiting Rabbi. I was tremendously impressed. I recall the precise words I thought to myself at the time: «He’s doing that because of that chessed he always talks about.»
Do you think I could possibly remember that my first Rabbi taught me about doing chessed, if he hadn’t shown it to us the way he did? That act of chessed, as small as it may seem next to other acts of chessed, cemented into our hearts all the talks he had ever given on the topic. We could have heard a million speeches, read a trillion books, but nothing would ever have affected us as much as seeing him put his own words into action.
These are examples of what any Jewish teacher and parent must convey to each of his or her students. A teacher of Judaism is a vital and necessary link in the chain of our Holy Tradition, and the Torah must be transmitted with its essence intact. It is therefore absolutely necessary that a person place himself or herself in an environment where he or she can have a personal relationship with a spiritually developed, holy Jew, so that he can learn not only the words of the Torah, but how to put them into action. That is the essence of the Oral Torah.
The Torah therefore exhorts each of us, «Ask your father and he will relate it to you; your elders (alternatively, your grandfathers) and they will tell you» (Deut. 32:7).
We must study the Torah constantly, but that is not enough. Torah must be absorbed, it must be internalized through day-to-day exposure. Yes, it must be studied constantly. But even more so, it must be soaked up through total immersion, like a tea bag in hot water. The tea in the bag becomes completely wet, and the water around the bag turns into tea. When we live a life of Torah, the Torah elevates and improves us, and the entire Torah-observant world is enriched through our personal example, and future generations look to us as a role model. Therefore, to truly internalize the Torah within us, we must be part of and interact with the Torah world.
For that, and for the reasons mentioned above, and for many more reasons besides, we need direct Oral Teaching. We could never rely on the Written Word alone.