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The Oral Torah comprises the legal and interpretative traditions that, according to tradition, were transmitted orally from Mount Sinai, and were not written in the Torah. The "oral Torah" is recorded in the Mishnah, the Talmud and Gemara.
According to Rabbinic Judaism, the oral Torah, oral Law, or oral tradition (Hebrew: תורה שבעל פה, Torah she-be-`al peh) was given by God orally to Moses in conjunction with the written Torah (Hebrew: תורה שבכתב, Torah she-bi-khtav), after which it was passed down orally through the ages. Later to be codified and written in the Talmud (Hebrew :תַּלְמוּד ). While other cultures and Jewish groups maintained oral traditions, only the Rabbis gave ideological significance to the fact that they transmitted their tradition orally.
Rabbis of the Talmudic era conceived of the Oral Torah in two distinct ways. First, Rabbinic tradition conceived of the Oral Torah as an unbroken chain of transmission. The distinctive feature of this view was that Oral Torah was "conveyed by word of mouth and memorized." Second, the Rabbis also conceived of the Oral Torah as an interpretive tradition, and not merely as memorized traditions. In this view, the written Torah was seen as containing many levels of interpretation. It was left to later generations, who were steeped in the oral tradition of interpretation to discover those ("hidden") interpretations not revealed by Moses. In his introduction to Mishneh Torah Maimonides provides a generation by generation account of the names of all those in the direct line that transmitted this tradition, beginning with Moses up until Ravina and Rav Ashi, the rabbis who compiled the Babylonian Talmud.
Existence and usage
Written texts will always require (some) explanation and interpretation; see hermeneutics. The significance of the Oral Torah, though, is that Rabbinic Judaism holds that it was given by God alongside the Torah to Moses and is therefore binding. To the Rabbis in late antiquity, the Oral Torah is thus as authoritative as the written law itself. At the same time, it is noted that from within Judaism (both of that era, and currently) several dissenting views exist. This section then outlines the support claimed for the Rabbinic view. For more detail here, from a general perspective, see Rabbi Nathan Cardozo, The infinite chain: Torah, masorah, and man (ISBN 0-944070-15-9), and Rabbi Gil Student, Proofs for the Oral Torah. For a verse by verse analysis in light of the oral tradition, see the commentaries listed below.
- Biblical verses assuming an oral tradition: Many verses in the Torah require interpretation. Some even presuppose that the reader understands what is being referred to. Many terms used in the Torah are totally undefined, and many procedures are mentioned without explanation or instructions, assuming familiarity on the part of the reader. Some examples follow. The discussion of shechita (kosher slaughter) in Deuteronomy 12 states "you shall kill of your herd and of your flock which God Lord has given you, as I have commanded you," yet the only earlier commandment given by the Torah is "you shall not eat the blood." Similarly, Deuteronomy 24 discusses the laws of divorce in passing; they are assumed knowledge in a discussion about when remarriage would be allowed. Also, that the blue string of tekhelet on the tzitzit is to be dyed with a dye extracted from what some scholars believe to be a snail is a detail only spoken of in the oral Torah. For other examples and further discussion here see Kuzari 3:35.
- Consistency between the oral tradition and biblical verses: The phrase "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot" Ex 21:22–27 is held in the oral tradition to imply monetary compensation – as opposed to a literal Lex talionis. This is the only interpretation consistent with Numbers 35:31. Further, personal retribution is explicitly forbidden by the Torah (Leviticus 19:18), such reciprocal justice being strictly reserved for the magistrate. A second example: The marriage of Boaz to Ruth as described in the Book of Ruth appears to contradict the prohibition of Deuteronomy 23:3–4 against marrying Moabites – the Oral Torah explains that this prohibition is limited to Moabite men. A third example: The rabbinic practice for the Counting of the Omer (Leviticus 23:15-16) is at odds with the Karaite Practice, which appears to accord with a more literal reading of these verses, but is in fact borne out by Joshua 5:10-12. The Targum Onkelos - 1st century CE - is largely consistent with the oral tradition as recorded in the midrash, redacted into writing only in the 3rd or 4th century.
- Consistency with archaeological findings: The rabbinic debate of the 1100s between Rabbeinu Tam and Rashi regarding the Parchment scrolls in the Tefillin, was, in fact, current as least as early as the Qumran community, 1200 years before. Likewise, the Mikvah at Masada – see Map - is consistent with the Rabbinic requirements per tractate Mikvaot, but was constructed approx. 120 years before the Mishna was compiled. A clay seal discovered in Jerusalem in 2011 is consistent with the tradition recorded in tractate Shekalim chapter 5. The Elephantine papyri 419 BCE include a "Passover letter" which already included many of the pesach observances of today; Among the papyri is the first known text of a Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) from about 440 B.C.E. In general, many of the legalistic terms and concepts found in Rabbinic literature have antecedents in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This is especially true in the Halachic Letter (Miqsat Ma'ase Ha-Torah/ Qumran Cave 4).
Sadducees rejected the Pharisaic oral traditions. They based their interpretations on their own traditions emphasizing a more literal understanding of the verses. In many respects, this led to a more severe observance than that of the Pharisees especially as regards purity laws and temple practice. Most aspects of Sadduceean law and methods of interpretation are not known.
Karaite Judaism or Karaism is a Jewish denomination which arose about the time of the completion of the Talmud. It is characterized by the rejection of the "Oral Torah" and Talmud, and, on its reliance on the Tanakh as scripture.
Some Karaites strive to adhere only to the p'shat (plain meaning) of the text. This is in contrast to Rabbinic Judaism, which relies on the Oral Torah and employs several interpretive methods which, at times, stray from the literal meaning.
Prohibition to write the Oral Torah
The laws transmitted to Moses were contained in the Torah written down on scrolls. According to proponents of the Oral Torah, the explanation however, was not allowed to be written down. Jews were obligated to speak the explanation and pass it on orally to students, children, and fellow adults. It was thus forbidden to write and publish the Oral Torah.
Following the destruction of the Second Temple and the fall of Jerusalem, it became apparent that the Hebrew community and its learning were threatened, and that publication was the only way to ensure that the law could be preserved.
Thus, around 200 CE, a redaction of oral law in writing was completed. Rabbinic tradition ascribes this effort to Rabbi Judah haNasi. The Mishna is generally considered the first work of Rabbinic literature.
Over the next four centuries this body of law, legend and ethical teachings underwent debate and discussion (Gemara) in the two centers of Jewish life, Israel and Babylonia. The Gemara with the Mishnah came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud.
Ramification of Jewish law
Oral law was the basis for nearly all subsequent Rabbinic literature. It is therefore intricately related to the development of Halakha. As such, despite codification, interpretation of the "oral law" is likewise required. Although the Oral Law has been in written form for almost 18 centuries, it is still referred to as Torah she-be'al peh.
Halakha LeMoshe MiSinai
The term Halakha LeMoshe MiSinai, literally "Law [given] to Moses from Sinai", is used in classical Rabbinical literature to refer to oral law regarded as having been of direct Divine origin, transmitted to Moses at Mount Sinai at the same time as the written Torah, but not included in the Oral Torah's exposition of it. It is distinguished from the written Torah, on the one hand, and Rabbinical decrees, customs, and other man-made laws on the other hand.
One such law is the requirement that tefillin be dyed black.
Related Torah commentaries
The Tannaitic Era provides the two main works recording existing oral traditions and relating these to the written Torah; these works though are not "commentaries" per se. The Midrash itself, as above, provides a verse by verse discussion of the entire (written) Tanakh, per the oral Torah. The Talmud, relatedly, discusses and analyses the written Torah - both from an aggadic and halakhic perspective - drawing from (and recording) the oral tradition; here the framework for the discussion is the Mishna, and the discussion does not proceed verse-wise as with the Midrash.
The Rishonim provide the first formal Torah commentaries. These are, in the main, based on the oral law as recorded in the Midrash and Talmud. The chief of these is perhaps Rashi's commentary on Tanakh. This work clarifies the "simple" meaning of the text. His method, in general, is to address questions implied  by the wording or verse or paragraph structure, by drawing on the Midrashic, Talmudic and Aggadic literature. It has given rise to numerous counter- (e.g. Ramban) and super-commentaries (e.g. Mizrachi), all similarly drawing on the Oral Torah, and widely studied to this day (see Mikraot Gedolot).
In more recent, Acharonic, times, several (Orthodox) commentaries have been produced, which, to some extent, reverse the direction of the analysis. These originated in response to the (erstwhile) challenges of haskalah and Biblical criticism, and were intended "to demonstrate the indivisibility of the written Torah and its counterpart, the oral Torah” , and thus "showing the organic relationship between the Written Law and the Oral Law"  (often in the light of the above). Given this purpose, these provide a further detailed and explicit analysis here: The main of these:
- Ha'emek Davar ("The Depth [of the] Word") on Torah, and Davar Ha'emek on Nevi'im and Ketuvim, by Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, the "Netziv"
- Haketav VehaKabbalah ("The Written [Torah] and the [Oral] Tradition") on Torah, by Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg
- HaTorah vehaMitzva ("The Torah and the Commandment") by Meïr Leibush, the "Malbim", covers all of Tanakh except Kohelet and Eicha.
- Uebersetzung und Erklärung des Pentateuchs ("Translation and Commentary of the Pentateuch") by Samson Raphael Hirsch.
- Torah Temimah ("The Perfect Torah") on Torah, by Baruch Epstein.
- Oral history
- Oral Law
- Oral tradition
- Traditional knowledge
- Uncodified constitution
- Karaite Judaism
- Rabbinic Judaism
- Rabbinic literature
- Howard Schwartz, Tree of souls: the mythology of Judaism, Oxford University Press, 2004. p lv
- The form of Judaism that does not recognize an Oral Torah as authoritative, instead relying on the most natural meaning of the Written Torah to form the basis of Jewish law, is known as Karaite Judaism.
- Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, The Orality of Rabbinic Writing, in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud, ed. Martin Jaffee, 2007.
- Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, The Orality of Rabbinic Writing, in The Cambridge Companion to the Talmud, ed. Martin Jaffee, 2007. p. 39. This is attested to in numerous sources, such as Mishna Avot 1:1. The manner of teaching and memorization is described in B. Eruvin 54b.
- In Rabbinic literature this view is exemplified by the story of Rabbi Akiva who expounded heaps and heaps of laws from the scriptural crowns of the letters in the written Torah. The Talmud relays that Moses himself would not understand these interpretations, nevertheless, these are also called Mosaic traditions (Halakha leMoshe miSinai). B Menahot 29b. See, Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, op cit.
- David Charles Kraemer, The mind of the Talmud, Oxford University Press, 1990. pp 157 - 159
- Oral Law, Jewish Encyclopedia
- Rabbi Gil Student: Proofs for the Oral Torah
- See http://www.tekhelet.com Ptil Tekhelet
- The Talmud explains this concept entails monetary compensation in tort cases. The Torah's first mention of the phrase "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot" appears in Ex 21:22–27. The Talmud (in Bava Kamma, 84a), based upon a critical interpretation of the original Hebrew text, explains that this biblical concept entails monetary compensation in tort cases. (Additionally, this law cannot be carried out in practice, for both practical and ethical reasons; see also parashat Emor).Logically, since the Torah requires that penalties be universally applicable, the phrase cannot be interpreted literally; it would be inapplicable to blind or eyeless offenders.
- Tim Hegg: "Counting the Omer: An Inquiry into the Divergent Methods of the 1st Century Judaisms".
- See: prof. A Segal Targum "Onkelos" to the Torah; Rabbi G. Student: Onkelos and the Oral Torah.
- See for example, Yigal Yadin: Tefilin from Qumran.
- Rabbi Yosef Back: "Southern mikveh on Masada".
- See references under "Clay Seal Confirms Ancient Temple Service: Archaeologists".
- Schiffman, Lawrence. Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. Hoboken: Ktav Publishing House, 1998.
- Those interested in this information can contact the Biblical Archaeological Review for more information. In addition, the work entitled "Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls", contains Professor Shiffman's article on this very topic.
- Ken Koltun-Fromm, Abraham Geiger's liberal Judaism, Indiana University Press, 2006. p 53
- Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Paulist Press, 2009. p 56
- See BT Temurah 14b, and, BT Gittin 60b. Also, Y Meggila 4:1
- Tosefta Eduyot 1:1 "When the Sages went to Yavneh they said: The time will come that a man will seek a matter in the Torah but will not find it. He will seek a matter from the Scribes but will not find it...They said: Let us begin [to record] with Hillel and Shammai.". See generally Timeline of Jewish history.
- "Maimonides introduction to the Mishnah Torah" (English translation)
- "Maimonides introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah" (Hebrew Fulltext)
- "The Essential Talmud", Adin Steinsaltz, Basic Books; 1984
- "Introduction to The Talmud and Midrash" H.L. Strack and G. Stemberger, Fortress Press
- "The infinite chain : Torah, masorah, and man" Nathan T. Lopes Cardozo, Targum Press Distributed by Philipp Feldheim; 1989