Sage Insight on the Oral Torah

Oldest known copy of a Talmud manuscript (b. Chullin; CUL T–S MISC. 26.53.17), ca. 600 CE

We are often accused of elevating Talmud to the same level as the Torah Shebikhtav (Written Torah). While it is true that Judaism traditionally speaks in terms of the unity and cogency of "the one whole Torah of Moshe Rabbeinu," inclusion of the entire corpus of the Talmud is not what is meant. The Torah Shebe'al Peh (Oral Torah) is indeed presented in the Talmud, but it is not the whole of the Talmud. Those elements are found woven into the same textual fabric as elements of midrash, agaddah, a record of rulings based upon them, and a vast body of commentary.

The Mishnah records teachings as pronounced by 54 Sages, presumably all members of the Sanhedrin Gedolah, collectively known as Tanna'im. The Gemara is commentary on the Mishnah by the Amora'im, the generation of Sages which were permitted to issue no new halakha (legal content), rather - only commentary on or rulings based upon existing (Tanna'itic) halakha and aggadah (non-legal content); thus, it preserves the history of interpretation in the early centuries of the Common Era, allowing us to join in the ancient conversation.

Barry Scott Wimpfheimer, The Talmud: A Biography

(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018), p. 36

As midrash was a freestyle conversation surrounding Bible, talmud [sp. gemara] was a freestyle conversation surrounding the Mishnah.

(ה) עֵ֕קֶב אֲשֶׁר־שָׁמַ֥ע אַבְרָהָ֖ם בְּקֹלִ֑י וַיִּשְׁמֹר֙ מִשְׁמַרְתִּ֔י מִצְוֺתַ֖י חֻקּוֹתַ֥י וְתוֹרֹתָֽי׃

(5) inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings [lit. My Torahs].”

אָמַר (רַב), וְאִיתֵּימָא רַב אָשֵׁי: קִיֵּים אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אֲפִילּוּ עֵירוּבֵי תַבְשִׁילִין, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״תּוֹרוֹתָי״, אַחַת תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב וְאַחַת תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה.

Rav said, and some say Rav Ashi said: Abraham our Patriarch fulfilled the entire Torah, even the mitzva of the joining of cooked foods, a rabbinic ordinance instituted later, as it is stated: My Torahs. Since the term is in the plural, it indicates that Abraham kept two Torahs; one, the Written Torah, and one, the Oral Torah. In the course of fulfilling the Oral Torah, he fulfilled all the details and parameters included therein.

The Necessity for the Oral Torah

Orthodox and Conservative Judaisms assert that the Written Torah cannot be properly understood or observed without the Oral Torah. In many instances, the Torah refers to details not included in the written text, thus alluding to an oral tradition. D'varim 12:21, for instance, assumes the existence of an Oral instruction regarding shechita (ritual slaughter), such as is found in masekhet (tractate) Chullin.

(כא) כִּֽי־יִרְחַ֨ק מִמְּךָ֜ הַמָּק֗וֹם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִבְחַ֜ר יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֘יךָ֮ לָשׂ֣וּם שְׁמ֣וֹ שָׁם֒ וְזָבַחְתָּ֞ מִבְּקָרְךָ֣ וּמִצֹּֽאנְךָ֗ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן יְהֹוָה֙ לְךָ֔ כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוִּיתִ֑ךָ וְאָֽכַלְתָּ֙ בִּשְׁעָרֶ֔יךָ בְּכֹ֖ל אַוַּ֥ת נַפְשֶֽׁךָ׃

(21) If the place where HASHEM has chosen to establish the divine name is too far from you, you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that HASHEM gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements.

Likewise, regarding the observance of Shabbat we have an entire masekhet (tractate) of the Talmud expounding the topic introduced in the Torah and Prophets.

(כב) וְלֹא־תוֹצִ֨יאוּ מַשָּׂ֤א מִבָּֽתֵּיכֶם֙ בְּי֣וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת וְכׇל־מְלָאכָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשַּׁבָּ֔ת כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוִּ֖יתִי אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵיכֶֽם׃

(22) Nor shall you carry out burdens from your houses on the sabbath day, or do any work, but you shall hallow the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.

We likewise have very little instruction from the Torah shebikhtav alone on which passages of Torah to include in the mezuzah or tefillin, though archaeology reveals both were in use at least as far back as the Dead Sea Scrolls and each has a tractate to itself in the Masekhtot Ketanot of the Talmud. Neither do we find any detailed instruction there on how to host a Pesach seder; this we encounter in masekhet (tractate) Pesachim, e.g. the four cups of wine being prescribed at m. Pesachim 10:7.

(ז) מָזְגוּ לוֹ כוֹס שְׁלִישִׁי, מְבָרֵךְ עַל מְזוֹנוֹ. רְבִיעִי, גּוֹמֵר עָלָיו אֶת הַהַלֵּל, וְאוֹמֵר עָלָיו בִּרְכַּת הַשִּׁיר. בֵּין הַכּוֹסוֹת הַלָּלוּ, אִם רוֹצֶה לִשְׁתּוֹת, יִשְׁתֶּה. בֵּין שְׁלִישִׁי לָרְבִיעִי, לֹא יִשְׁתֶּה:

(7) They poured for the leader of the seder the third cup of wine, and he recites the blessing over his food, Grace After Meals. Next, they pour him the fourth cup. He completes hallel over it, as he already recited the first part of hallel before the meal. And he also recites the blessing of the song at the end of hallel over the fourth cup. During the period between these cups, i.e., the first three cups established by the Sages, if one wishes to drink more he may drink; however, between the third cup and the fourth cup one should not drink.

It is suggested that Shemot 24:12 indicates the giving of the Torah Sh'leimah (whole Torah, consisting of both Written and Oral) was on the first set of luchot (tablets) given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Sinai.

(יב) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יהוה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם וְאֶתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ אֶת־לֻחֹ֣ת הָאֶ֗בֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה֙ וְהַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתַ֖בְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָֽם׃

(12) HASHEM said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the Torah [shebikhtav] and the mitzvah [Torah shebe'al Peh] which I have inscribed to instruct them.”

(יב) (אכתוב) [אֶ֨כְתׇּב־]ל֔וֹ (רבו) [רֻבֵּ֖י] תּוֹרָתִ֑י כְּמוֹ־זָ֖ר נֶחְשָֽׁבוּ׃
(12) The many teachings I wrote for him
Have been treated as something alien.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan interprets the verse from Hosea as Hashem saying: "If I would have written the majority of my Torah, [Israel] would be counted the same as strangers."1

Transmission of the Oral Torah

M. H. Segal, A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), p. 19

The linguistic trustworthiness of the Mishnaic tradition... is established by the old rule, older than the age of Hillel, that a tradition - which, of course, was handed down by word of mouth - must be repeated in the exact words of the master from whom it had been learnt: הייב ארם לומר בלשון רבי. This rule was strictly observed through the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods ('Ed. i.3, with the commentaries; Ber. 47a; Bek 5a).

(ה) בְּעֵ֥בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֖ן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מוֹאָ֑ב הוֹאִ֣יל מֹשֶׁ֔ה בֵּאֵ֛ר אֶת־הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את לֵאמֹֽר׃

(5) On the other side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses undertook to expound this Teaching. He said:

(ג) הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, מְלֹא הִין מַיִם שְׁאוּבִין פּוֹסְלִין אֶת הַמִּקְוֶה, אֶלָּא שֶׁאָדָם חַיָּב לוֹמַר בִּלְשׁוֹן רַבּוֹ. וְשַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, תִּשְׁעָה קַבִּין. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים, לֹא כְדִבְרֵי זֶה וְלֹא כְדִבְרֵי זֶה, אֶלָּא עַד שֶׁבָּאוּ שְׁנֵי גַרְדִּיִּים מִשַּׁעַר הָאַשְׁפּוֹת שֶׁבִּירוּשָׁלַיִם וְהֵעִידוּ מִשּׁוּם שְׁמַעְיָה וְאַבְטַלְיוֹן, שְׁלֹשֶׁת לֻגִּין מַיִם שְׁאוּבִין פּוֹסְלִין אֶת הַמִּקְוֶה, וְקִיְּמוּ חֲכָמִים אֶת דִּבְרֵיהֶם:

(3) Hillel says: “A hin full of drawn water renders the mikweh unfit.” (However, man must speak in the language of his teacher.) And Shammai says: “Nine kavs.” But the Sages say: “Neither according to the opinion of this one nor according to the opinion of this one;” But when two weavers from the dung-gate which is in Jerusalem came and testified in the name of Shemaiah and Avtalion, “Three logs of drawn water render the mikweh unfit,” the Sages confirmed their statement.

(ה) לְמַאי נָפְקָא מִינַּהּ? שֶׁחַיָּיב אָדָם לוֹמַר בִּלְשׁוֹן רַבּוֹ.

(5) The Gemara asks: What difference does it make whether Rav said taste or eat? The Gemara explains that there is no difference and that Rav Safra’s insistence teaches that one must say what he was taught in the precise language employed by his teacher without altering a single detail.

(ז) אי הכי היינו דידן קמ"ל חייב אדם לומר בלשון רבו

(7) The Gemara asks: If so, that is the same as our tradition, that in Rabbi Yoḥanan’s opinion the firstborn that were born in the wilderness were sanctified, and in Reish Lakish’s opinion they were not. For what purpose, then, did Rav Mordekhai inform Rav Ashi of his alternative version of the dispute? The Gemara answers that it teaches us that a person must say what he was taught in the precise language employed by his teacher.

The Legitimacy of the Oral Torah

Jacob Neusner, The Oral Torah

(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 174

The oral Torah - the books written by the sages of late antiquity in the Land of Israel and in Babylonia from ca. 200 to ca. 600 C.E. - lays down three claims.

  1. [The Torah] First, the books at hand fall into the classification of torah, God's revelation, and are part of the Torah.
  2. [The Dual Torah] Second, in addition to Scripture, these books, by their nature, indicate that there is another form of the Torah. Hence the Torah is in two media, Scripture and some other.
  3. [The Oral Toah] Third, that other medium for the Torah is oral, meaning transmission not in writing but in the form of oral communication of memorized sayings.

(יא) עַל־פִּ֨י הַתּוֹרָ֜ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר יוֹר֗וּךָ וְעַל־הַמִּשְׁפָּ֛ט אֲשֶׁר־יֹאמְר֥וּ לְךָ֖ תַּעֲשֶׂ֑ה לֹ֣א תָס֗וּר מִן־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־יַגִּ֥ידֽוּ לְךָ֖ יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאל׃

(11) You shall act in accordance with the instructions [lit. Torah] given you and the ruling handed down [lit. which is said] to you; you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּגוֹי אֶחָד שֶׁבָּא לִפְנֵי שַׁמַּאי. אָמַר לוֹ: כַּמָּה תּוֹרוֹת יֵשׁ לָכֶם? אָמַר לוֹ: שְׁתַּיִם, תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב וְתוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה. אָמַר לוֹ: שֶׁבִּכְתָב אֲנִי מַאֲמִינְךָ, וְשֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה — אֵינִי מַאֲמִינְךָ. גַּיְּירֵנִי עַל מְנָת שֶׁתְּלַמְּדֵנִי תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב. גָּעַר בּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ בִּנְזִיפָה. בָּא לִפְנֵי הִלֵּל, גַּיְירֵיהּ. יוֹמָא קַמָּא אֲמַר לֵיהּ: א״ב ג״ד. לִמְחַר אֲפֵיךְ לֵיהּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: וְהָא אֶתְמוֹל לָא אֲמַרְתְּ לִי הָכִי! אֲמַר לֵיהּ: לָאו עֲלַי דִּידִי קָא סָמְכַתְּ? דְּעַל פֶּה נָמֵי סְמוֹךְ עֲלַי.

The Sages taught: There was an incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai. The gentile said to Shammai: How many Torahs do you have? He said to him: Two, the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. The gentile said to him: With regard to the Written Torah, I believe you, but with regard to the Oral Torah, I do not believe you. Convert me on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah. Shammai scolded him and cast him out with reprimand. The same gentile came before Hillel, who converted him and began teaching him Torah. On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.

(ח') ...טוֹב אֶרֶךְ רוּחַ מִגְּבַהּ רוּחַ, חַד פַּרְסִי אֲתָא גַּבֵּי רַב אֲמַר לֵיהּ אַלְפֵנִי אוֹרָיָא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֱמֹר אָלֶ״ף, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאן דְּיֵימַר דְּהוּא אָלֶ״ף, יֵמְרוּן דְּאֵינוֹ כֵן. אֱמֹר בֵּי״ת, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאן אֲמַר דְּהוּא בֵּי״ת, גָּעַר בּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ בִּנְזִיפָה, אֲזַל לְגַבֵּי שְׁמוּאֵל, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אַלְפֵנִי אוֹרָיָא, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֱמֹר אָלֶ״ף, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאן דְּיֵימַר דְּהוּא אָלֶ״ף, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אֱמֹר בֵּי״ת, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאן אֲמַר דְּהוּא בֵּי״ת, אַחֲדֵיהּ בְּאוּדְנֵיהּ וַאֲמַר אוּדְנִי אוּדְנִי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ שְׁמוּאֵל מַאן אֲמַר דְּהוּא אוּדְנִיךְ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ כּוּלֵּי עָלְמָא יָדְעִין דְּהוּא אוּדְנִי, אֲמַר לֵיהּ אוֹף הָכָא כּוּלֵּי עַלְמָא יָדְעִין דְּהוּא אל״ף וּדְהוּא בי״ת, מִיָּד נִשְׁתַּתֵּק הַפַּרְסִי וְקַבֵּיל עֲלוֹי, הֱוֵי:

(11) ...A Persian once came to Shmuel and asked him, `Teach me Torah.' Shmuel showed him an alef and said, `This is an alef.' The Persian asked, `Who says that it's an alef?' Shmuel showed him a bais and said, `This is a beth.' The Persian questioned, `Who said it's a beth?' Shmuel then pulled his ear very hard. The Persian cried, `My ear, my ear!!' Shmuel then asked him, `Who says it's your ear?' `Why everyone knows that it's my ear.' Said Shmuel to him, `It is the same here, everyone knows that this is an alef and everyone knows that this is a beth.' On hearing this the Persian agreed to accept his words.

Yerushalmi Hagigah 1:7.V

R. Zeira in the name of R. Yochanan: 'If a law comes to hand and you do not know its nature, do not discard it for another one, for lo, many laws were stated to Moses at Sinai, and all of them have been embedded in the Mishnah.'

(א) משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הֵם אָמְרוּ שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים, הֱווּ מְתוּנִים בַּדִּין, וְהַעֲמִידוּ תַלְמִידִים הַרְבֵּה, וַעֲשׂוּ סְיָג לַתּוֹרָה:

(1) Moses received the Torah [both parts - Written and Oral] at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.

(א) אָז לֹא אֵבוֹשׁ, בְּהַבִּיטִי אֶל כָּל מִצְו‍ֹתֶיךָ:
כָּל הַמִּצְווֹת שֶׁנִּתְּנוּ לוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה בְּסִינַי – בְּפֵרוּשָׁן נִתְּנוּ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "וְאֶתְּנָה לְךָ אֶת־לֻחֹת הָאֶבֶן, וְהַתּוֹרָה וְהַמִּצְוָה" (שמות כד, יב): "תּוֹרָה", זוֹ תּוֹרָה שֶׁבִּכְתָב; וּ"מִצְוָה", זֶה פֵּרוּשָׁהּ. וְצִוָּנוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת הַתּוֹרָה, עַל פִּי הַמִּצְוָה. וּמִצְוָה זוֹ, הִיא הַנִּקְרֵאת תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה.

(ב) כָּל הַתּוֹרָה – כְּתָבָהּ מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ קֹדֶם שֶׁיָּמוּת, בִּכְתָב יָדוֹ. וְנָתַן סֵפֶר לְכָל שֵׁבֶט וְשֵׁבֶט; וְסֵפֶר אֶחָד – נְתָנָהוּ בָּאָרוֹן לְעֵד, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "לָקֹחַ, אֵת סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה, וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֹתוֹ, מִצַּד אֲרוֹן בְּרִית־ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶם; וְהָיָה־שָׁם בְּךָ, לְעֵד" (דברים לא, כו).

(ג) וְהַמִּצְוָה, שְׁהִיא פֵּרוּשׁ הַתּוֹרָה – לֹא כְתָבָהּ; אֵלָא צִוָּה בָּהּ לַזְּקֵנִים וְלִיהוֹשׁוּעַ וְלִשְׁאָר כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "אֵת כָּל־הַדָּבָר, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם – אֹתוֹ תִשְׁמְרוּ, לַעֲשׂוֹת . . ." (דברים יג, א). וּמִפְּנֵי זֶה נִקְרֵאת תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה.

(ד) אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁלֹּא נִכְתְּבָה תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה, לִמְּדָהּ מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ כֻּלָּהּ בְּבֵית דִּינוֹ לְשִׁבְעִים זְקֵנִים; וְאֶלְעָזָר וּפִינְחָס וִיהוֹשׁוּעַ, שְׁלָשְׁתָּן קִבְּלוּ מִמֹּשֶׁה. וְלִיהוֹשׁוּעַ שְׁהוּא תַּלְמִידוֹ שֶׁלְּמֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ, מָסַר תּוֹרָה שֶׁבְּעַל פֶּה וְצִוָּהוּ עָלֶיהָ; וְכֵן יְהוֹשׁוּעַ, כָּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו לִמַּד עַל פֶּה.

"Then should I not be ashamed, when I have regard unto all Thy Commandments". (Ps. 119.6.)
All of the commandments which were given to Moses on Sinai were given together with their oral explanation for, it is said: "And I will give thee the tables of stone, and the Torah and the commandment" (Ex. 24.12.); the Torah, is Holy Writ; and the commandment, its oral explanation. Moreover, He commanded us to observe the Torah by the word of the commandment; thus it is this commandment which is called Oral Torah.

(2) The whole Torah was written by Moses our Master, before his demise, by his own hand; and he gave a Book to each and every tribe, and one Book he deposited in the Ark as testimony, even as it is said; "Take this Book of the Torah and put it by the side of the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, that it may be there as a witness against thee" (Deut. 32.26.);

(3) but the commandment, which is the oral explanation of the Torah, he did not reduce to writing, but he charged the Elders and Joshua and the rest of all Israel concerning its observance, even as it is said: "All the word which I command you, that shall ye observe to do" (Deut. 13.1.); therefore, is this word of the commandment called, Oral Torah.

(4) Although the Oral Torah was not reduced to writing, Moses our Master gave instructions in its full scope at his tribunal-seat, to seventy Elders. Eleazar, Phinehas and Joshua, all the three of them received it from Moses; yet, unto Joshua, because he was the disciple of Moses our Master, he transmitted the Oral Torah and charged him concerning its observance. Joshua likewise continued throughout his lifetime to study it orally;

(טז) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יהוה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶסְפָה־לִּ֞י שִׁבְעִ֣ים אִישׁ֮ מִזִּקְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָדַ֔עְתָּ כִּי־הֵ֛ם זִקְנֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם וְשֹׁטְרָ֑יו וְלָקַחְתָּ֤ אֹתָם֙ אֶל־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וְהִֽתְיַצְּב֥וּ שָׁ֖ם עִמָּֽךְ׃ (יז) וְיָרַדְתִּ֗י וְדִבַּרְתִּ֣י עִמְּךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְאָצַלְתִּ֗י מִן־הָר֛וּחַ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָלֶ֖יךָ וְשַׂמְתִּ֣י עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וְנָשְׂא֤וּ אִתְּךָ֙ בְּמַשָּׂ֣א הָעָ֔ם וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לְבַדֶּֽךָ׃

(16) Then יהוה said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you. (17) I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן, כֵּיצַד סֵדֶר מִשְׁנָה: מֹשֶׁה לָמַד מִפִּי הַגְּבוּרָה. נִכְנַס אַהֲרֹן, וְשָׁנָה לוֹ מֹשֶׁה פִּירְקוֹ, נִסְתַּלֵּק אַהֲרֹן וְיָשַׁב לִשְׂמֹאל מֹשֶׁה. נִכְנְסוּ בָּנָיו, וְשָׁנָה לָהֶן מֹשֶׁה פִּירְקָן. נִסְתַּלְּקוּ בָּנָיו, אֶלְעָזָר יָשַׁב לִימִין מֹשֶׁה, וְאִיתְּמַר לִשְׂמֹאל אַהֲרֹן. רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר: לְעוֹלָם אַהֲרֹן לִימִין מֹשֶׁה חוֹזֵר. נִכְנְסוּ זְקֵנִים וְשָׁנָה לָהֶן מֹשֶׁה פִּירְקָן. נִסְתַּלְּקוּ זְקֵנִים, נִכְנְסוּ כׇּל הָעָם וְשָׁנָה לָהֶן מֹשֶׁה פִּירְקָן. נִמְצְאוּ בְּיַד אַהֲרֹן אַרְבָּעָה, בְּיַד בָּנָיו שְׁלֹשָׁה, וּבְיַד הַזְּקֵנִים שְׁנַיִם, וּבְיַד כׇּל הָעָם אֶחָד. נִסְתַּלֵּק מֹשֶׁה וְשָׁנָה לָהֶן אַהֲרֹן פִּירְקוֹ. נִסְתַּלֵּק אַהֲרֹן שָׁנוּ לָהֶן בָּנָיו פִּירְקָן. נִסְתַּלְּקוּ בָּנָיו, שָׁנוּ לָהֶן זְקֵנִים פִּירְקָן. נִמְצָא בְּיַד הַכֹּל אַרְבָּעָה. מִכָּאן אָמַר רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר: חַיָּיב אָדָם לִשְׁנוֹת לְתַלְמִידוֹ אַרְבָּעָה פְּעָמִים. וְקַל וָחוֹמֶר, וּמָה אַהֲרֹן שֶׁלָּמַד מִפִּי מֹשֶׁה, וּמֹשֶׁה מִפִּי הַגְּבוּרָה — כָּךְ, הֶדְיוֹט מִפִּי הֶדְיוֹט — עַל אַחַת כַּמָּה וְכַמָּה. רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר: מִנַּיִן שֶׁחַיָּיב אָדָם לִשְׁנוֹת לְתַלְמִידוֹ עַד שֶׁיִּלְמָדֶנּוּ — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל״, וּמִנַּיִן עַד שֶׁתְּהֵא סְדוּרָה בְּפִיהֶם — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם״, וּמִנַּיִין שֶׁחַיָּיב לְהַרְאוֹת לוֹ פָּנִים — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְאֵלֶּה הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים לִפְנֵיהֶם״. וְלִיגְמְרוּ כּוּלְּהוּ מִמֹּשֶׁה! כְּדֵי לַחֲלוֹק כָּבוֹד לְאַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְכָבוֹד לַזְּקֵנִים. וְנֵיעוּל אַהֲרֹן וְנִיגְמַר מִמֹּשֶׁה, וְלִיעַיְילוּ בָּנָיו וְלִיגְמְרוּ מֵאַהֲרֹן, וְלִיעַיְילוּ זְקֵנִים וְלֵילְפוּ מִבָּנָיו, וְלֵיזְלוּ וְלַיגְמְרִינְהוּ לְכוּלְּהוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל! כֵּיוָן דְּמֹשֶׁה מִפִּי הַגְּבוּרָה גָּמַר, מִסְתַּיְּיעָא מִלְּתֵיהּ.
The Gemara continues to discuss methods of Torah study. The Sages taught the following baraita: What was the order of teaching the Oral Law? How was the Oral Law first taught? Moses learned directly from the mouth of the Almighty. Aaron entered and sat before him, and Moses taught him his lesson as he had learned it from God. Aaron moved aside and sat to the left of Moses. Aaron’s sons entered, and Moses taught them their lesson while Aaron listened. Aaron’s sons moved aside; Elazar sat to the right of Moses and Itamar sat to the left of Aaron. Rabbi Yehuda disagreed with the first tanna with regard to the seating arrangements and said: Actually, Aaron would return to sit to the right of Moses. The elders entered and Moses taught them their lesson. The elders moved aside, and the entire nation entered and Moses taught them their lesson. Therefore, Aaron had heard the lesson four times, his sons heard it three times, the elders heard it twice, and the entire nation heard it once. Moses then departed to his tent, and Aaron taught the others his lesson as he had learned it from Moses. Aaron then departed and his sons taught the others their lesson. His sons then departed and the elders taught the rest of the people their lesson. Hence everyone, Aaron, his sons, the elders and all the people, heard the lesson taught by God four times. From here Rabbi Eliezer said: A person is obligated to teach his student his lesson four times. And it follows by way of an a fortiori inference: If Aaron, who learned from Moses himself, and Moses had received the Torah directly from the mouth of the Almighty, needed this regimen; an ordinary student learning from the mouth of an ordinary teacher, how much more so must he review his studies four times. Rabbi Akiva says: From where do we derive that a person is obligated to teach his student until he learns the material and understands it? As it is stated: “Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it to the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). This verse indicates that one must teach Torah to others. And from where do we derive that one must teach his students until the material is organized in their mouths? As it is stated: “Put it in their mouths,” so that they should be capable of teaching it to others. And from where do we derive that a teacher must show his students the reasons for the teachings? As it is stated: “Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them” (Exodus 21:1), which indicates that the lesson must be set out in logical fashion for the students. With regard to the manner in which the Oral Law was taught, the Gemara asks: They should all have studied from Moses himself four times. The Gemara answers: The teaching was divided in this manner in order to give honor to Aaron and his sons, and also to give honor to the elders. The Gemara asks why a different method was not adopted, one which would have involved less trouble for Moses: Aaron should have entered and studied from Moses; his sons should then have entered and studied from Aaron; the elders should then have entered and studied from Aaron’s sons; and then they should have gone out and taught all of the Jewish people. The Gemara answers: Since Moses had studied directly from the mouth of the Almighty, it would be more effective for everyone to hear the Torah at least once from Moses himself.

(ז) אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ, מְקֻבָּל אֲנִי מֵרַבָּן יוֹחָנָן בֶּן זַכַּאי, שֶׁשָּׁמַע מֵרַבּוֹ וְרַבּוֹ מֵרַבּוֹ, הֲלָכָה לְמשֶׁה מִסִּינַי, שֶׁאֵין אֵלִיָּהוּ בָא לְטַמֵּא וּלְטַהֵר, לְרַחֵק וּלְקָרֵב, אֶלָּא לְרַחֵק הַמְקֹרָבִין בִּזְרוֹעַ וּלְקָרֵב הַמְרֻחָקִין בִּזְרוֹעַ....

(7) Rabbi Joshua said: I have received a tradition from Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher [heard it] from his teacher, as a halakhah [given] to Moses from Sinai, that Elijah will not come to pronounce unclean or to pronounce clean, to put away or to bring near, but to put away those brought near by force and to bring near those put away by force....

Testimony from Early External Sources

Flavius Josephus2

That Josephus is viewed by a majority of Jewish voices, both in his own time and now, as a traitor to Israel/Judaism due to his allegiance to Titus of [Greco-]Rome justifies categorizing this as a foreign/outside source.

ὅτι νόμιμά τινα παρέδοσαν τῷ δήμῳ οἱ Φαρισαῖοι ἐκ πατέρων διαδοχῆς, ἅπερ οὐκ ἀναγέγραπται ἐν τοῖς Μωυσέως νόμοις, καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ταῦτα τὸ Σαδδουκαίων γένος ἐκβάλλει

The Pharisees had passed on to the people certain regulations handed down by previous generations, but not written down in the Law of Moses. For this they were rejected by the Sadducee party.

Christian Sources

Early Christian texts record Jesus commanding his followers to "take care to do everything" presented in Oral Torah, though this respect for Jewish halakha would be short-lived, lasting only a few generations.

Peshitta (Khabouris Codexa)3

מתי כ''ג:ב-גא

(ב) ואמר להון על כורסיא דמושא יתבו ספרא ופרישא: (ג) כל מדם הכיל דנאמרון לכון דתטרון טרו ועבדו איך עבדיהון....

Matthew 23:2-3a

(2) And he [Jesus] said to them, 'The scribes and the Pharisees sit on the seat of Moshe. (3)Therefore, take care to do everything that they say to you that you should keep and do....'

It is shown in Talmud (b. Meg. 21a) that when the Written Torah is read and studied, the practice was to stand. The "seat of Moshe" in the above text (Matthew), then, would signify the authority of Moshe Rabbeinu, i.e. that given to the seventy elder, and from them to the Prophets, and eventually to the Great Synagogue, and ultimately to the Sanhedrin. The passage below from Luke testifies that Jesus understood and practiced this.

לוקא ד':ט''ז, כ'-כ''א

(ט''ז) ואתא לנצרת איכא דאתרבי ועל איכנא דמעד הוא לכנושתא ביומא דשבתא וקם למקרא:... (כ') וכרך ספרא ויהבה למשמשנא ואזל יתב כלהון דין דבכנושתא עיניהון חירן הוי בה: (כ''א) ושרי למאמר לותהון דיומנא אשתלם כתבא הנא באדניכון:

Luke 4:16, 20-21

(16) And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth where he had been raised, and he entered into the assembly as he was accustomed on the Sabbath day and stood up to read.... (20) And he rolled up the scroll and gave it to the shammash and went and sat down. (21) And he began speaking to them, saying, 'The scripture in your ears is fulfilled today.'

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מִימוֹת מֹשֶׁה וְעַד רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל לֹא הָיוּ לְמֵדִין תּוֹרָה אֶלָּא מְעוּמָּד. מִשֶּׁמֵּת רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, יָרַד חוֹלִי לָעוֹלָם וְהָיוּ לְמֵדִין תּוֹרָה מְיוּשָּׁב. וְהַיְינוּ דִּתְנַן: מִשֶּׁמֵּת רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל בָּטַל כְּבוֹד תּוֹרָה. כָּתוּב אֶחָד אוֹמֵר: ״וָאֵשֵׁב בָּהָר״, וְכָתוּב אֶחָד אוֹמֵר: ״וְאָנֹכִי עָמַדְתִּי בָּהָר״! אָמַר רַב: עוֹמֵד וְלוֹמֵד, יוֹשֵׁב וְשׁוֹנֶה. רַבִּי חֲנִינָא אָמַר: לֹא עוֹמֵד וְלֹא יוֹשֵׁב אֶלָּא שׁוֹחֶה. רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן אָמַר: אֵין ״יְשִׁיבָה״ אֶלָּא לְשׁוֹן עַכָּבָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַתֵּשְׁבוּ בְקָדֵשׁ יָמִים רַבִּים״. רָבָא אָמַר: רַכּוֹת מְעוּמָּד, וְקָשׁוֹת מְיוּשָּׁב.

With regard to Torah study while standing, the Sages taught: From the days of Moses until the time of Rabban Gamliel, they would study Torah only while standing, as learning from one’s teacher is comparable to receiving the Torah at Sinai, during which the Jewish people stood. When Rabban Gamliel died, weakness descended to the world, and they would study Torah while sitting. And this is as we learned in a mishna (Sota 49a): When Rabban Gamliel died, honor for the Torah ceased, as standing while learning is an expression of honor for the Torah. The Gemara points out an apparent contradiction with regard to this very issue. One verse says: “And I sat [va’eshev] on the mount” (Deuteronomy 9:9), and another verse says: “And I stood on the mount” (Deuteronomy 10:10). The Gemara cites several possible resolutions. Rav said: Moses would stand and learn the Torah from God, and then sit and review what he had learned. Rabbi Ḥanina said: Moses was not standing or sitting, but rather bowing. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: The term yeshiva is nothing more than an expression of remaining in one place, as it is stated: “And you dwelled [vateshvu] in Kadesh for many days” (Deuteronomy 1:46). Rava said: Moses studied easy material while standing and difficult material while sitting.

Additional evidence for support of the Oral Torah among Jesus and his followers comes in the preponderance of quotations, paraphrases, and allusions to the contents of the Oral Torah we find echoing through their teachings. Jesus' teachings number 204, with 187 of these agreeing with passages from the Talmud. Paul affirms Talmudic teachings no fewer than 15 times in his 13 letters. Similar citations are found in the letters of disciples Luke, John, and Peter.

Islamic Sources

Islam has its own version of oral law - shar'ia - which may have been directly influenced by the Talmud via Jewish converts to Islam. Some of its mandates are echoes of Talmudic principles.

Harry Freedman, The Talmud: A Biography4
(Bloomsbury Continuum, 2014)

Amongst the many Jewish converts whose stories entered Islamic hagiography, two in particular stood out. K’ab al-Ahbar, a Yemenite Jew, is thought to have been one of Caliph Umar’s closest advisers. Amongst the sayings attributed to him is that all human history is alluded to in the Jewish Torah; a Talmudic idea first expressed by the intriguingly named Ben Bag-Bag (Mishnah Avot 5:22; below).

Another convert, or possibly the son of one, Wahb ibn Munabbih, wrote, or contributed to, a work known as Kisas al-Anbiya, the Tales of the Prophets which recounts Jewish biblical legends, recast in an Islamic guise. Kisas al-Anbiya is considered to be the source for the Islamic belief that Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Ishmael, rather than Isaac as the Hebrew Bible has it. The Qu’ran does not say which son was nearly sacrificed.

(כב) בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה:

(22) Ben Bag Bag said: Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it.


  1. Aryeh Kaplan, The Handbook of Jewish Thought (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Moznaim Publishing, 1990), vol. 1.
  2. The writings of Flavius Josephus survive in Greek, not his native Hebrew, thus here we have a 1st-century Greek-language source testifying to the Oral Torah.
  3. Matthew and Luke are better known in Greek, but the oldest manuscript recording these texts survives in Aramaic. The Peshitta, the Bible in Aramaic, is the Bible of the Church of the East. The oldest known copy is Khabouris Codexa, a manuscript internally dated to 164 CE which President Eisenhower and the US Library of Congress placed into the guardianship of Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan (its present location) in the 1950s.
  4. This text comes from a book excerpt posted on the Jewish Chronicle website: (accessed 16 Feb 2022).