Four Proofs there was no Oral Torah

Ron Cantor —  October 1, 2012 — 16 Comments

What is the Oral Law? And, is it from God?

Orthodox Jews maintain that when God gave Moses the written commandments, he also gave him a secret Oral Tradition or Torah she-be’al pe. This was a purportedly a code of conduct and interpretation passed down from generation to generation. The Oral Law supposedly was God’s instruction on how to live out the 613 commandments in the Torah, in addition to other commands in general.

Interestingly enough, the Oral Law is now written down. Around 200 CE Rabbi Judah Hanasi codified, or put into writing, the foundational documents of the Oral Tradition for fear that it might be lost.Screen Shot 2015-05-16 at 4.29.35 PM

Was there really an Oral Law that Moses received?

In short—no. And it can be easily proved.

First, if the Oral Tradition truly came from Sinai then it would have been completely supernatural that it was passed down for over one thousand years unchanged. If my wife sends me to the store to buy five things, unless I write them down, not only will I forget to buy what she asked me to, but I will return home with things that she didn’t ask me to buy! So if it was supernatural, then there would have been no need to write out the Oral Torah as Rabbi Judah Hanasi did in 200 CE. If God had watched over it since Moses, surely He could continue.

Secondly, there couldn’t have been an Oral Law because in the time of King Josiah, they had lost the Book of the Law and it appears that they didn’t even know what Passover was or certainly how to celebrate it! The Temple was in ruins and the King ordered its restoration. In the midst of this great undertaking the Torah was recovered.

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” (1 Kings 22:8)

The king called all the people together and they read the Book of the Covenant. Together, they renewed the covenant with the Lord. King Josiah ordered that the Passover be celebrated.

The king gave this order to all the people: “Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.”  Neither in the days of the judges who led Israel nor in the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah had any such Passover been observed. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah, this Passover was celebrated to the Lord in Jerusalem. (2 Kings 22:21-23)

To summarize, the Torah had been lost as the Temple was in ruins. The king of Israel and the priests did not even know what Passover was—or at least, the details of proper Passover observance. Since the Mishna (the Oral Law in writing, as part of the Talmud) speaks of the Passover at length—in fact it has an entire tractate (major section) called Pesachim (Passovers) that teaches in incredible detail how to correctly celebrate Passover—it had to have been created after the time of Josiah. (In fact, the instructions are so detailed, that it becomes ridiculous to think that God is that mechanical. If you want a brief look, check this out.)

In addition, had there been an Oral Law passed down from Moses it was certainly forgotten. And unlike like a Written Torah, that could be found in the ruins of the Temple, it would be impossible to recover an Oral Torah.

Third, we find an interesting passage in the Torah that refutes the idea of a non-written Torah.

When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. (Exodus 24:3-4a)

Could it be any clearer? God shared all His laws with Moses and then Moses wrote down everything. In the Hebrew it says Kol Div’re Adonia—all the words of the Lord. There was no secret Oral Tradition; all was written. (Here are a few more passages you can reference: Deuteronomy 30:10, 31:9, 24, 26, and Joshua 1:8).

And fourth, one primary reason the Word of God needed to be put down in words was to protect Israel from deception. An Oral Torah would have led to all kinds of duplicity and many would have changed it for their own purposes. Keep in mind, the Children of Israel, my ancestors, went through many periods where they forsook the Lord. Not only would an Oral Law have been abused by leaders during such a time—it would have been eventually ignored and utterly forgotten.

The idea of an Oral Law is not unique to Judaism. Virtually every religion has an Oral Tradition. The Pope’s rulings become the Oral Law of the Catholic church. Catholics claim the Holy Spirit guides their magisterium—that is, the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Islam not only as the Koran, but also the Hadith, ‘the collections of the reports of the teachings, deeds and sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammed.’ (Wikipedia) Hinduism is based on an every evolving oral tradition.

So Where did the Oral Law come from?

One of the most respected Talmudic scholars in the world, Michael Rodkinson, writes in the very first sentence of his highly respected The History of the Talmud:

The name Written Law was given to the Pentateuch (Torah), Prophets and Hagiographa, and that of Oral Law to all the teachings of the sages consisting of comments on the text of the Bible.

In other words, the Oral Tradition was merely the customs, teachings and opinions of Jewish leaders throughout the centuries. It would be no different then the teaching of a popular author today… had he lived millennia ago.

For instance, recently in Israel one of the most influential religious leaders, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 84, declared that iPhones and other smartphones are immoral (because of ease of ability in obtaining pornography) and that Orthodox Jews cannot own one. In Judaism these types of declarations are binding because it is taught that God has given the rabbis the authority to make these pronouncements. Now if this had happened around 300 CE (when iPhones were still in the first generation) it would have been recorded in the Talmud.

Not everything in the Talmud is bad and not everything good. It is opinions and traditions. That’s it.

The Tradition of the Elders

Yeshua cleary did not believe that the Oral Law came from Sinai, as He referred to it as “The Traditions of the Elders.” In fact, the Pharisees themselves referred to it as “The Traditions of the Elders” (Matt. 15:2). Yeshua rebuked the Pharisees for putting these traditions above the Word of God. (Mark 7:9) To be clear, Yeshua was not against all tradition, but against the elevation of mere tradition to Scripture status—and sometimes above it.

While there are many beautiful components in Judaism, there is no Scriptural support for the idea that an Oral Torah accompanied the Torah. What do think? Comment below.

Photo: Daniel Borman

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  • Daniel In A Lion’s Den

    Menashe: Looking at the text, it indicates the pagan satraps regarded his custom of praying 3 times a day as his God’s law. It is no proof that it was the law, As you would have it believed, it is not to be found in the Torah.
    You’all can call me stupid and I call comments made above stupid bigotry or something close.
    By the way, I’m not a Messianic Jew but I can read my JPS version of the Tanakh.

    • MarkPitrone

      Correct; It;s what the satraps SAID was the law of Avinu, not what WAS Torah. It may have been Daniel’s personal tradition, perhaps a family tradition, even. There isn’t any commandent I remember for anyone to pray 3 times a day, unless it was the Priest on duty, who made 2-5 daily offerings. But Daniel was not a Levite, but a Yehudite of David’s line.

  • http://www.TovRose.com/ TOV ROSE

    Awesome!

  • AI

    So when it doesn’t say in the written Torah how a mitzva is supposed to be performed, how do you know how to do it, for instance, shabbat?

    • http://webbpage.cwahi.net/ RadarRecon

      Much of the problem with the oral law is the addition of “commandments” that God didn’t give, such as lighting candles for Shabbat and the “commandment” in the Sabbath liturgy “concerning the washing of hands.”

      Then, of course, there’s the “command to light the Chanukkah lights.” Since Chanukkah lights aren’t even mentioned in the Tanakh … well, you can see the problem there.

    • MarkPitrone

      As to observance of Shabbat, Torah gives you the basics; set the day apart by making preparations on the 6th day so that you will not have to do your normal weekday labors on Shabbat, this includes gathering your food and the means by which to cook it on 6th day, etc. If you WANT to go beyond what is written for yourself, you are by all means allowed. But that is a tradition, not a command. Doing what Abba commands to be done on 6th day to prepare for Shabbat is liberating, not a chore.

  • LPNPA

    While I agree that rabbis and sages through the years have added their own versions of things to the Oral Torah, such as the “command” to kindle the Sabbath lights in the Erev Shabbat prayer welcoming Shabbat, which is never commanded in the Written Torah, this does not mean there isn’t at least some validity to the things within it. The Jews have been doing things a certain way for hundreds and thousands of years, long before Messianic or Torah Observant believers were, so I would be hesitant to dismiss all Oral Law as invalid.

  • Joseph Ergas

    the oral tora that was given to moshe besinai it is not the mishna that rabbi yehudah hanassi wrote down but what we call the thirteen midot the torah it is learned trough! even the sages hint this when moshe is shown the future r’ akiva teaching rulings unknown to moshe himself. the tora itself was first given orally …..” and hashem spoke to moshe: speak to the children of israel….” and after was written by moshe at the end of the forty years “..and moshe wrote…”. the tora says that we have to go and ask the law from the judges that are going to be in their times and listen to them which it means to follow the ruling that is going to be as long it is connected to the source that is called sinai. so the oral tora it is not a compendium but to give a mouth to the written living book

  • dvdcnl

    christians need to read ‘paul and jesus’ by james tabor.

  • Karla Miles

    Where does the books of Enoch and other Old Testament writings fit in?

  • Jennifer Badani

    This is known as Talmud. So that the Torah wouldn’t be misinterpreted.

  • Yduj

    You had me right until you mentioned “Yeshua”. The stories of the New Testament, compiled and editted by the pagan Emperor Constantine on the condition they continued the Roman tradition of a deified man, are every bit as suspect – and even if they are to be believed, the name wasn’t Yeshua.

  • MarkPitrone

    Good words, brother. All teachers venture into opinions on how a passage of scripture applies in his day. He does that by applying his own experience in light of scripture and how he incorporates that into his own life and lifestyle. He may make recommendations to his talmidim as to how the same scripture my apply in his life. There is nothing wrong with that, if it’s received in the manner in which it is given. It is when that application is mandated by the teacher or an intermediary to others that it MAY become a stumbling stone. Such is Talmud/Oral traditions.

  • Yashen

    There seems to be things within the New Testament that are not found in the written Torah. Here is a list from Messianic Publication:

    Matt. 9:14, 15 – The argument of Yeshua, in which He defends the manner in which His disciples fast, is based upon a recognized halakah that it is improper to fast in the presence of a bridegroom. This is not found in the written Torah. Cp. b. Sukka 25b; t. Ber. 2.10.

    Matt. 10:24 – A saying of the Sages, perhaps proverbial

    Matt. 12:5 – The teaching or halakah which states that the priests break the Sabbath but are innocent is not found in the written Torah. Cp. b. Shabbat 132b. For other instances where the Sabbath may be profaned, cp. m. Ned. 3.11 (circumcision); m.Pesah 6.1-2; t. Pesah 4.13 (Passover sacrifices).

    Matt. 15:1 – Pharisees are inquiring about the disciples of Yeshua: why do they transgress the traditions of the elders by not washing their hands according to halakah before eating? Yeshua rebukes them, citing also their use of korban to “hide” their wealth from aging parents who needed their support. In both cases, it is clear that the Pharisees consider the halakah, based on oral Torah, as binding. Cf. m. Hag. 2.5; b.Sabb. 13b-14a; y. Sabb. 1.3d; b. Yoma 87a.

    Matt. 15:36 – There is nothing in the written Torah about giving thanks before eating. Saying the berakah before eating is part of the oral Torah.

    Matt. 22:40 – Yeshua quotes the Shema and Lev. 19:18, stating that upon these two preceptshang (krevmatai, krematai)[55] the Law and Prophets. The terminology of the Law and Prophets hanging from something is derived from oral Torah, cp. m. Hagiga 1.8; b. Ber. 63a.

    Matt. 23:16, 17 – The Pharisees found a way to deny certain oaths (those sworn by the temple) and to allow others (those sworn by the gold of the temple), cf. M. Nedarim 1.3, 4;[56] cp. alsob.Tem. 32a-33b. Yeshua argues that the Temple actually sanctifies the gold. This is not found in written Torah.

    Matt. 23:23 – The matter of tithing very small amounts of produce from volunteer seedlings is not taken up in the written Torah, but is part of the oral Torah, cp. m. Maasarot 1.1; b. Yoma 83b;b.Nidah 5a; b. Rosh HaShanah 12a; b.Shabbat 68a.

    Matt. 24:20 – The whole issue of travel on the Sabbath is defined in oral Torah, not written Torah. There are no specific prohibitions in the written Torah restricting travel on the Sabbath. [The prohibition of Ex. 16:29 cannot mean that one is restricted to stay within his dwelling (the Hebrew has אִישׁ מִמְּקֹמוֹ, “each man from his place” not אִישׁ מִבֵּיתוֹ, “each man from his house”). Yet the written Torah does not define the dimensions of one’s “place.” It was the oral Torah that developed, for instance, a “Sabbath-day’s journey.”] cf. b. Erubin 4.5; Acts 1:12. Jer. 17:19-22prohibits the carrying of loads out of one’s house, but this is clearly defined as “work.”

    Matt. 26:20 – Reclining is the position of eating at the Pesach meal, but is not prescribed in the written Torah. Cf. m. Pesachim 10:1. Reclining is an halakic requirement before one can eat the Passover.

    Matt. 27:6 – The written Torah prohibits the wages of a temple prostitute to come into the Temple treasury (Deut. 23:19). Of interest is b. Aboda Zera 17a where Jacob, a disciple of Yeshua of Nazareth, is said to have had an interaction with R. Eliezer over a saying of Yeshua based onDeut. 23:19. The oral Torah expanded this to include any money obtained for unlawful hire (cf.b.Temurah. 29b).

    Lk. 6:9 – Cp. m.Shabbat 22.5. The issues of healing (see the parallel in Matt. 12:10) on the Sabbath are part of the oral Torah, to which Yeshua no doubt refers.

    Lk. 11:44 – The written Torah declares that a person is unclean from a corpse if he touches it or is in the same room with it (Nu. 19:11-15). The Pharisees extended the communication of impurity to any object overshadowed by a corpse (or part of a corpse) or any object whose shadow contacts a corpse or tomb (m.Oholot 16.1,2). The oral Torah further elaborates the means by which impurity is transmitted from a corpse to an object. It appears that Yeshua accepted at least some of this oral Torah as grounds for His illustration of the Pharisees as concealed tombs that rendered those who overshadowed them unclean.

    Jn. 7:51 – The written Torah suggests that a matter of law be carefully examined, but does not specifically say that the accused must be given the right to speak (cp. Ex 23:1; Deut. 1:16; 17:4). Oral Torah, however, required that the accused be given the opportunity to speak for himself (Ex. Rabbah 23.1)

    Ac. 18:13 – Paul is accused of teaching the Jewish community to worship contrary to the law, but by his own testimony he did not teach contrary to the written Torah (Ac 21:24; 22:3). He is accused of bringing Greeks into the Temple (Ac 21:28), and the issue in Ac 18:13ff consists of issues relating to “words and names and your own law” (v. 15). This must be oral Torah, not written.

    Ac. 21:21 – The phrase “walk according to the customs” (toi`~ e[qesin peripatei`n) is the equivalent of halakah—life regulated by issues of oral Torah.

    Ac. 23:3 – What law was violated when Paul was struck? The idea that a person was innocent until proven guilty is a function of oral Torah, not written Torah.

    Ac. 25:8 – The threefold designation, “law of the Jews, or against the Temple or against Caesar” seems to define the three most powerful arms of law: Pharisees (law of the Jews), Sadduccees (against the Temple) and Rome (against Caesar). Each of these is referred to by the term “Law” in this instance.

  • Benyomin

    Excellent and cogent polemic

  • Joseph

    A reply to the “Four proofs”
    1: Something important, upon which your very existence depends, will be kept and preserved; no need for supernatural intervention.
    Comparing a grocery list to God’s Oral Law is quite absurd.

    2: The verse never says that he found “a scroll of the law” it says “The scroll of the law” with a definite article, clearly implying a very specific scroll of the Law. This was the book of law written by Moses himself, and preserved in the Holy of Holies. Proof of this is found in the parallel verse in 2 Chronicles (34:14), where the scroll is identified as “The scroll of God’s Law, by Moses”. The verse specifies and emphasizes “by Moses” for this was his personal scroll. When Ahaz was burning Torah scrolls, this very scroll was hidden and later recovered.

    Josiah ordering the nation to perform the Passover has nothing do with finding a Torah Scroll, as this appears in 2 Kings 23:21, a completely different chapter! Yet, the author wrote, and I quote, “(2 Kings 22:21-23)”.
    This verse does not appear in chapter 22, but 23! There is no juxtaposition.
    The author either made a mistake, or was intentionally deceitful, so as to bring about the favored juxtaposition. However, even if the two verses were to appear in the same chapter, this would still not insinuate a cause and effect relationship. One, they are still separated by several verses. Two, we have already demonstrated how the verse is to be expounded as referring to a very specific Torah scroll.
    Now, the verse never says that they never celebrated Passover before this point. It very clearly says that “such a Passover was never celebrated” and not that Passover was not celebrated at all; this is because the last mass participation in the offering was in the days of Samuel. From the period when the nation split into two kingdoms, the ten tribes were not able to come to Jerusalem. This is was the first time, in a long time, that all twelve tribes were able to perform the Passover in Jerusalem.

    3: I really don’t understand how this verse proves anything…..
    How does writing the commandments and ordinances that were just discussed, imply that there is no oral instruction? Does anybody argue that the laws and the commandments are not written down?
    Writing something down does not preclude having a tool with which to interpret that which is written. God telling Moses to write some laws, does not in any way imply that God did not explain to him how to understand these laws.
    It is preposterous to think that every word spoken between Moses and God was written, God and Moses spoke for 40 years…..
    There wouldn’t be 5 scrolls, but 5 million scrolls.

    4: The exact opposite; without an accompanying framework and boundary with which to interpret the Torah, it will certainly lead to each individual interpreting the law as he sees fit, changing and distorting by his will. No rules means anything goes.