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the oral law- what is from Sinai?


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Cheshvan 28, 5773
Hi, I’ve just been doing an assignment on the Karaites at university, and in the meantime I’ve been thinking more about Orthodox Judaism and the oral law. I think that I believe it’s impossible to truly honour the Torah outside of Orthodox Judaism, because of the authority of the ancient rabbis and the continuity of customs that may have been integral in a way we can’t understand merely from the written Torah. I believe that Jewish observance is something that the communities of Israel do together, not something that individuals do by themselves and only with a text. I know that some things like Shabbos have incredibly strong penalties and yet no clear written boundaries; also, why point to the book as revealed unless there is a trusted tradition to say so? These things make sense to me. But I don’t see a reason or a clear way to believe that the ’oral law’ was given to Moses basically in the form it exists now, and passed down faithfully through generations. I would see it more as a living experience of certain things that were important from the start, mixed in with the practical decisions of rabbis, and also some human traditions... in a way that is inseparable now (and so is surrendered to). Thanks :) Annelise
Most of your assumptions about the oral law, whether learned from others or whether you arrived at them logically, correlate perfectly with orthodox Judaism. The oral law which we believe was given at Sinai together with the written Torah, includes the necessary explanations, and not the entire set of Talmud as we know it today, which was written down about 1600 years ago. When the Torah says to take on the holiday of Sukkot “the fruit of the beautiful tree”, Moshe obviously had to be told that it was a citron, and when told to put tefillin (phylacteries) on the hand and head, we had to be told what that meant. The tfillin I lay every morning are exactly the same “black boxes” with the same 4 mini-scrolls written on parchment which were found in Massada and the Dead Sea Scrolls from 2,000 years ago, which was explained in the oral law to Moses 3,300 years ago. Similarly, many of the rules how to deduce laws and read “in between the lines” of the Torah were also given at Sinai [e.g.: how much does one eat to be considered “satiated” and obliged in the Grace After Meals- “you shall eat, be satiated, and bless the Lord”, Dvarim 8, 10]. You are correct that much of the other traditions, and surely the rabbinical practical decisions, decrees, obligations and prohibitions were instituted, mainly in the Sanhedrin, and over the centuries. With Love of Israel, Rav Ari Shvat
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