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The Oral Law
by Sr. Agnès (Béat.)

The oral Torah is a vast literary corpus in which the versions of the Talmud: the Talmud of Jerusalem and the Talmud of Babylon, the Midrash, and the other commentaries of the Jewish tradition are included. Everything that could be written in parallel to the Biblical text over the centuries, whether it be commentaries, exhortations, or other texts could be classified here. This immense library, a paradoxical term for oral tradition, is always open and constantly updated and renewed testifying of a “hermeneutic of innovation” specific to Judaism.

According to the rabbinic tradition, this oral Torah is timeless since it was received by Moses on Mount Sinai, along with the Biblical books written by Moses. It was transmitted from master to disciple until it was written down, after the fall of the Second Temple, around 90. Indeed, the drafting of these texts was subject to a prohibition, based on written Torah verses:

  • Rabbi Simon Ben Lakish declared: It is written: “Write for thee these words” [Ex 34.27]. And it is written: “For according to its clauses” (' al-Pi, literally: by the mouth). What is to be understood? This means: You have no right to learn words that are written by heart, and you have no right to put words transmitted orally in writing (' al-Peh). [The reasoning is based on the proximity, in the same verse, of written and oral (the mouth). So there are two Torahs, one written, and the other oral.] (Babylon Talmud, Gittin 60b)
  • Op. cit.: “According to a master from Rabbi Ishmael's school, these words are those of the Torah. You can put them in writing, but you cannot put the Halakhot (oral commentaries regulating the implementation of the commandments of the Torah) in writing [meaning that one can only write the words of the Torah, not the others.]” 
  • "Those who write the Halakhot [are punishable] equal to those who burn the Torah and those who study according to them [the Halakhot put in writing] do not draw any reward from them." Talmud of Babylon, Terumah 14b:

This ban is also mentioned in the Midrash:

  • "It is written: When God revealed himself at Sinai to give his law to Israel, he communicated it to Moses in the following order: the Torah (Pentateuch - the first five books of the Hebrew Bible), the Mishnah, the Talmud, as it is written: And God said all these words [Ex 22.1]. Even the question that the pupil asked his teacher, God passed on to his teacher at that time. Once Moses learned these things from God, he asked him to teach them to Israel.” Midrash Exodus Rabba 47:1, on Exodus 34:27

This last passage gives an important clue: the oral Torah precedes whoever produces it. This conception of a double Torah sheds light on the functioning of the Tradition, implemented by all the people present at Sinai. The oral tradition has been passed down until the writing of the Biblical books, originating from and dependent on orality. The writing of the Biblical books and their definitive canonicity allows a common reference, a memory support. A part of the river of tradition has frozen in written Torah, but it is destined to be overwhelmed by the commentaries that this writing is going to provoke. It is thus the very nature of Tradition to be an open and lively group, unique to innovation and creativity.

Christian “tradition” also arose from this dialectic between orality and redaction. For Christians as well, the text of the written Bible cannot suffice for its comprehension, it must be read and interpreted in the light of tradition, received and transmitted to be adapted and renewed.

The Pharisee concept of two Torahs received by Moses makes it possible to understand the vitality and dynamism of the study life in the academies and Jewish study centers or “yeshivas”. The Torah is entrusted to all the people who are responsible for its interpretation and its implementation. This study is done in community, from master to disciple, or between disciples. Study on one’s own is not encouraged: one must confront the opinions, listen to the other, look for arguments, and be willing to give up his point of view to adopt that of the other... The research, study and practice of Biblical commandments concern all of the people. And if the Halakha's questions are ultimately decided by decision-makers, none of them can claim a monopoly on the truth.

This atmosphere, specific to the schools of study of contemporary Judaism, evokes that in which the Gospels were formulated. The plurality of religious currents featured in these texts testifies to the richness of the oral tradition that gave rise to them.