Skip to content

Beware the Oral Law

Beware the Oral Law (the oral tradition) of the Rabbis, it isn’t from the mouth of Moses or God.

Modern Rabbinic Judaism is primarily based on what is called the Oral Law. It consists of thousands of teachings that are not found in the written Bible, the Tanakh. In essence, it is a compilation of the musings and rulings of the rabbis that have accumulated over the past two-thousand years since the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, ending the priesthood and dispersing the Jews among the nations.

According to Rabbinic Judaism, the Oral Law (Hebrew: תורה שבעל פה, lit. Torah that is on the mouth) represents those laws, statutes, and legal interpretations that were not recorded in the Five Books of Moses, the Written Torah (Hebrew: תורה שבכתב, lit. Torah that is in writing), but nonetheless are regarded by Orthodox Jews as prescriptive and co-given by God. This holistic Jewish code of conduct encompasses a wide swathe of rituals, worship practices, God–man and interpersonal relationships, from dietary laws to Sabbath and festival observance to marital relations, agricultural practices, and civil claims and damages.

According to Jewish tradition, the Oral Torah was passed down orally in an unbroken chain from generation to generation until its contents were finally committed to writing following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when Jewish civilization was faced with an existential threat. The major repositories of the Oral Torah are the Mishnah, compiled between 200–220 CE by Rabbi Yehudah ha Nasi, and the Gemara, a series of running commentaries and debates concerning the Mishnah, which together form the Talmud, the preeminent text of Rabbinic Judaism. In fact, two “versions” of the Talmud exist: one produced in the Galilee circa 300–350 CE (the Jerusalem Talmud), and a second, more extensive Talmud compiled in Babylonia circa 450–500 CE (the Babylonian Talmud).

Belief that at least portions of the Oral Torah were transmitted orally from God to Moses on Mount Sinai during the Exodus from Egypt is a fundamental tenet of faith of Orthodox Judaism and was recognized as one of the Thirteen Principles of Faith by Maimonides. However, not all branches of Rabbinic Judaism accept the literal Sinaitic provenance of the Oral Torah, characterizing it as the product of a historical process of continuing interpretation. There have also been historical dissenters to the Oral Torah in its entirety, including adherents to Karaite Judaism, who attempt to derive their religious practice strictly from the Written Torah, using Scripture’s most natural meaning to form their basis of Jewish law. Karaities often look to traditions of interpretation but, unlike Rabbinic Jews, do not ascribe to those traditions an ontological parity with the Written Torah.

Contradicting the concept of an “Oral Torah” that comes down from Moses, the Tanakh says that the entire Law given by Moses was written down so that it could be read. That teaching is confirmed in the Book of Joshua. It says that after the Children of Israel had crossed the Jordan and started taking possession of the Promised Land, Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal and assembled the congregation before Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal and there read the entire Law to them as it was written down in the Book of the Law …

Then Yehoshua built an altar to the LORD, the God of Yisra’el, in Mount `Eval, as Moshe the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Yisra’el, as it is written in the book of the law of Moshe, an altar of uncut stones, on which no man had lifted up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings to the LORD, and sacrificed peace-offerings. He wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moshe, which he wrote, in the presence of the children of Yisra’el. All Yisra’el, and their Zakenim and officers, and their judges, stood on this side of the ark and on that side before the Kohanim the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the LORD, as well the foreigner as the native; half of them in front of Mount Gerizim, and half of them in front of Mount `Eval; as Moshe the servant of the LORD had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Yisra’el. Afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moshe commanded, which Yehoshua didn’t read before all the assembly of Yisra’el, and the women, and the little ones, and the foreigners who were among them.” (Joshua 8:30-35)

Notice that the words of the Law of Moses were read  by Yehoshua, meaning that they were written down, not oral tradition. Same is true for the pronouncements of the prophets.

Most Jews today probably know more about the man made “Oral Torah” than they do about the Word of God, the Tanakh, which was given by God to his prophets and written down so that we who are alive today might know the truth about Him without the corruption and interference of man made laws and traditions. That corruption is why it is so difficult for Jews to see that Moses and the prophets identified Jesus as the Messiah. Not surprisingly, it was foretold that the ancient Jewish leadership would not be able to see the Messiah when he came to Israel two-thousand years ago. They were blinded from seeing and recognizing him by a judgement of spiritual blindness that came from God. The prophet Isaiah had predicted that they would be so blinded, saying …

For the LORD has poured out on you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, the prophets; and your heads, the seers, has he covered. All vision is become to you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one who is learned, saying, Read this, I pray you; and he says, I can’t, for it is sealed: and the book is delivered to him who is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray you; and he says, I am not learned.” (Isaiah 29:10-11).

The book being referred to as sealed in Isaiah is the Book of Daniel, which records that God’s angel commanded the prophet Daniel to seal the book:

But you, Daniyel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run back and forth, and knowledge shall be increased. ” (Daniel 12:4)

Daniel 9:24-27 (the passage containing The Messiah Prophecy, often called the prophecy of the Seventy Weeks) revealed when the Messiah would appear to Israel and how the Jews living back then (and also living today) could recognize him. Many did, most did not. If you are Jewish and want to see what the Tanakh says about the identity of the Messiah and the time of his appearance to Israel, check out our book, The Messiah Prophecy, for a detailed exposition of that prophecy.—Dan Bruce

Published inArticlesMessiahProphecy