Rabbi Yeshayahu Hollander discusses the significance of different meanings of the term Oral Torah.
The Oral Torah and Noahides
We celebrate the giving of the Torah on Shavuoth. What exactly took place? There are two accounts, one in Exodus 19-20, and another in Deuteronomy 5. We heard the Decalogue. According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hannania, we heard the first two statements of the Decalogue, and the rest was given to Moses when he was alone on Mount Sinai. While the date commemorates this amazing experience of the Children of Israel, the “Torah”, of course, is a much larger text: The Five Books of Moses, or “The Written Torah” – as opposed to the so-called “Oral Torah”.
In response to many questions, I would like to discuss various uses of the term: The Oral Torah.
Let’s start with an example:
When we look for “The Oral Torah” in an encyclopedia or on the Internet, we find various definitions, which are often explained with an accompanying ideology. For example, take this remark: “The contents of the Talmud, the accompanying oral part of the Torah, was actually transmitted before the written Bible.” For part of the Talmud, that is obviously true: Noahide law existed before the Children of Israel went down to Egypt! To the extent that the Talmud deals with the Noahide laws, the Talmud is dealing with what was transmitted before the written Five books of Moses. To what extent do the discussions regarding Noahide Law reflect the oral tradition from the times of the Yeshiva of Shem? Unfortunately, we cannot know. But it is clear, at least, according to all views, that Noahide Law is the most ancient part of “The Oral Torah”!
However, the Talmud deals with so many other issues, including rabbinical ordinances from after the destruction of the Second Temple – these surely were not “transmitted before the written Bible”. How can serious honest people make such a sweeping statement?
Like many ancient terms, the term “Oral Torah” is used in many ways, and justifiably so. The definition changes because of different contexts in which oral traditions are treated and different ideological foundations. One classic view is a “contemporary view” – the “Oral Torah” means all the books of learning, and any new ideas which may develop, from the time of Moshe – or from before that time – through the Prophets, through the Mishna and the Talmud, all the Sages, until the day the study takes place. In this approach, “The Oral Torah” comprises the contemporary state of understanding. This is explained by the beautiful idea that all thought is contained in the words of the Five books of Moses, and everything expounded is an inevitable elaboration of these words. This idea is often the source of very interesting commentaries.
Another view is a historical view: the “Oral Torah” is a continuously developing body of knowledge, of understandings, of elaborations, of rules of behavior, of customs, of Laws, of halachot. In other schools of thought, “The Oral Torah” may include the studies of mysticism. In most universities, the term “Oral Torah” is used in a very limited sense, to refer to those few interpretations of the written Torah which were contemporary with the written Torah, explaining terms and concepts necessary for the understanding of the The Five Books of Moses. Because their purpose of learning is to describe the development of the material that is learned in the Yeshiva, it makes quite a difference if the idea appeared during the time of the first Temple or of the Second temple or in the 16th century. In many high schools, everything in Judaism which is not a direct explanation of the five Books of Moses is considered “Oral Torah”.
What does all of this mean for Noahides?
It is important to realize that in order to understand a Jewish text one must also know which school of thought is reflected in the text. Many learned Jews make mistakes about this, and many of the great debates throughout the generations revolve about these ideas. So all I can say clearly is: “Take Care”, and think, think, think, and ask, ask, ask. Perhaps say the famous prayer of Rabbi Nehuniya ben Hakanah. He used to recite a short prayer before beginning to learn and after finishing. His friends asked him: What are these prayers that you say? He replied: “When I enter I pray that I will cause no harm, and when I leave I give thanks for my occupation”. This prayer is elaborated in the commentary of Maimonides:
Upon Entering what does one say?
May it please you, Oh! My God, that I shall not make a mistake in judgment, nor shall I fail to make the correct decision, and may my friends derive pleasure from me, and may my friends also not make mistakes, and may I derive pleasure from them.
Upon leaving what does one say?
Thank you, Oh! My G-d, that my occupation is in the House of Learning and not with Wasters of Time; for I rise early and they rise early; I rise early to learn Torah and they rise early for vain things; I strive and they strive: I strive and achieve reward, but they strive and receive no reward; I run and they run: I run towards a future life, and they run to eternal nothingness,