The Origins of the Oral Torah
As many of you may know I am busy studying through a Yeshiva (School of Study) and we have had to write a short essay on the Oral Torah. This I have found fascinating as well as learning a lot of things that I did not know so felt that it was right to let you learn as well. At the end is a Glossary for the Hebrew words.
The Torah is understood to have two parts to it the Torah Shebichtav*
and the Torah Sheba'al Peh
* . Both the Written and the Oral Torah were given to Moses at Mount Sinai.
When the Oral Torah a legal commentary on the written Torah was given to Moses it was not transcribed but was transmitted from father to son and from teacher to disciple therefore the name Oral Torah. The Oral Torah also includes edicts and ordinances promulgated by the sages since Moses, as well as laws and teachings extrapolated from the Torah's verses – using the methods prescribed by Moses.
But to understand the development, of the Oral Torah we need to go back to the people who developed and transmitted the Oral Torah. Moses received the Oral Torah at Sinai and passed it onto Joshua who passed it onto the Elders who passed it onto the Prophets and the Prophets to the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah
* who passed it onto the Zugot
* . The last Zugot
being Hillel and Shammai who then created two schools of learning which focused on the further development of the Oral Torah.
Ezra who was in exile in Babylon became the main architect for the development of the Oral Torah. Ezra and the members of the Anshei Knesset HaGedolah
formed in Babylon with 120 members altogether with Haggai, Mordechai, Nehemiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah to name a few, developed the infrastructure and codified much of the Oral Torah in a form that could be memorized by students and would become the Talmud many centuries later.
This came about so that the people in exile would not assimilate and would know how to live a Jewish life which depends on knowing the commandments of the Torah and their interpretations and applications which have been passed down orally -- in other words, knowing what is known as the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. It is impossible to understand the Written Torah without its Oral complement.
It is known that during the time of the First Temple there had existed megillot setarim
* as these notes could not be published so as to keep within the mandate that the Oral Torah could only be taught orally. There was no law against private individuals writing notes.
Little is known about the disciples of Ezra and the first few generations after the Anshei Knesset
and its demise but we do know that Shimon haTzaddik who was the spiritual successor to Ezra and the last disciple of the Anshei Knesset haGedolah
was High Priest and Head of the Sanhedrin, left a statement that is found in the Talmud which states that studying and understanding Torah, Godly service and the performance of kind deeds was very important. Shimon Ha Tzaddik
also defined the limits of nazir.
Around 250BCE the Rabbis were forced by the Egyptian Ruler Ptolemy II to translate the written Torah into Greek. This was not liked and because of this it was decided to intensify the Study of the Written Torah and the Oral Torah so that Israel would be able to face the struggles that would come their way.
After the death of Antigonus ish Socho who followed after Shimon Ha Tzaddik
the leadership passed onto two of his students Yosi ben Yoezer and Yosi ben Yochanan to lead the Jewish people and so from them the Zugot developed. The Zugot
worked on the frame work for a Torah life that would rescue the Jewish people from being Hellenised and following the Sadducees a political group of Jews who believed in Temple worship only, no synagogues, no Oral Torah, no prophets, no resurrection, no heavenly beings (angels), being Hellenised was fine.
Over the next +- two hundred years there would be the rise of the Hasmoneans to power, the fight between the Tzdokim*
and the Prushim*
, the end of Greek domination and the Rise of the Romans who would set up a King and place a Roman Governor over Judea. The High Priest became the liaison between the Roman Governor the King and the Sanhedrin*
. During this time there was much development of the Oral Torah and the megillos setarim were made more public and expanded and developed and this would eventually become the Mishnah Rishona*
Yosi ben Yoezer was called the Nasi*
of the Sanhedrin and Yosi ben Yochanan was called the Av Beit Din*
This era was very hard and with the shared authority of the Zugot
and the persecution by the Greeks different opinions in the matters of Halachah* happened and so the Zugot came together to discuss these matters. One of the Halachic matters brought before the 1st Zugot
was about placing one's hands on an animal that was going to be sacrificed in the Temple on a holiday. This matter was still not resolved by the last of the Zugot
The second set of Zugot
were Yehoshua ben Prachyah (Nasi
) and Nitai HaArbeli (Av Beit Din
). The Hasmoneans appointed the members of the Sanhedrin and these were mainly Sadducees so the Teachings of Yehoshua and Natai were not considered as valid by the Hasmonean Government and court but were by a large number of Jewish society who were very loyal to the teachings of the Oral Torah.
The Third pair of Zugos were Yehudah ben Tabai (Nasi
) and Shimon ben Shatach (Av Beit Din
), they were around during the reign of Alexander Yanai who was king and High priest. This was a very volatile and violent time as the Pharisees did not accept that Yanai
could be king and High Priest. Both Yehudah and Shimon were exiled to Egypt during the persecution of the Prushim but returned later, first Shimon during the latter reign of Yanai
after Yanai's death.
The fourth set of Zugos
were Shamaya (Nasi
)& Avtalyon (Av Beit Din
). It is understood that they were both converts to Judaism. They both withdrew from public life and governmental issues and concentrated on the Torah and its halachah and moral issues. As well as working on the Oral Torah. There are many references to both of them regarding halachic
The final pair of the Zugos
were Hillel and Shammai, After Shamaya and Avtalyon there was some confusion due to the rise of leadership to power of Antipater and later his sons. Finally Hillel (Nasi
) and Shammai (Av Beis Din
) rose to the positions of leadership. Hillel and Shammai debated 316 issues of which Hillel won 308 and Shammai 8. There were only 3 matters of halachah
that they themselves could not sort out between themselves.
Hillel was the first to establish in writing the 7 Midos
* which was a guide for the interpretation of Scripture and for the deduction of laws. We see these rules used in the Tenach* and the Brit Chadashah
* Yeshua used these rules in his arguments with the Prushim, Tzedokim
1. Kal Vahomer
- Light and Heavy
2. G'zerah Shavah
- Equivalence of Expresions
3. Binyan ab mikathub echad
– Building up a family from a single text
4. Binyah ab mishene kethubim
– Building up a family from 2 or more texts
5. Kelal ufera
t – The general and the particular
6. Kayotze bo mimekom akhar
– Analogy made from another passage
7. Davar hilmad me'animo
– Explanation obtained from context
The House or School of Hillel was larger than Shammai and Hillel believed that everybody rich or poor should be allowed to learn where as Shammai would only except students who were wise, financially independent and from a high family pedigree. Hillel accepted converts while Shammai was cautious. Hillel was compassionate where as Shammai was very strict. It is stated in the Talmud that Hillel was humble, tolerant and very patient, slow to anger and his motto was "Do not do to others what is hateful to you." This sound a bit familiar to what Yeshua said. Shammai on the other hand was called a kapdan
a person who was meticulous, strict with himself and others and impatient. Shammai's students were willing to die in order to uphold the Torah, Oral Torah and teachings of their master. Herod did not like the Prushim
and so persecuted them and made sure that the High Priest was a Tzedok
. We need to understand that at the time of Yeshua we had a real mixture of leadership and understandings as well as the Romans in charge who trusted nobody. As one studies scripture and Yeshua's teaching and arguments we find that 90% of the time he followed the teachings of the School of Hillel.
After Hillel and Shammai it was their disciples who led the way for the next two centuries studying and using the above guide for interpretation of Scripture and the deduction of laws and out of this would come the Mishnah redacted by Rabbi Yehudah haNasi.
I hope that this article give you a little bit of understanding about the Oral Torah and its origins.
Anshei Knesset HaGdola
h - Men of the Great Assembly
Av Beit Din
in charge of Sanhedrin Brit Chadashah
- New Covenant
- Jewish law (to walk)
- Scroll of secrets
Midos - Rules of methodology
- the first text of the Mishnah
Nasi - Prince /Leader of Sanhedrin
Sanhedrin - The name given to the 71 Jewish Sages who formed the supreme court and legislative body
- Jewish Bible (Torah, Nevi'im
- Written Torah
Torah Sheba'al Peh
- Oral Torah
- The Oral law of Sinai An Illustrated History of the Mishnah by Rabbi Berelwein
- History of the Jewish People: The Second Temple Era Hersh Goldwurm Mesorah Publications Ninth Impression July 2003
- Notes taken from Rabbi Bernstein's teaching
- Jewish Virtual Library