Online Adult Jewish learning

Foundations Course Information:

Course InfoDetailsSyllabusSample Lecture
Other Courses in this Series:

Foundations 1: Foundations of Judaism

Foundations 2: Responsible Leadership

Foundations 3: Encounters with G-d

Foundations 5: Divine Providence

Foundations Series:
Oral Torah & Midrash

Excerpt from Lesson One: Prophecy


  1. G-d Distinguishes between the Written and Oral Torahs
  2. Primacy of Oral Teachings: Hillel "converts" a convert
  3. Reasons for both a Written and Oral Torah
    1. Weakness of Text Only Study
    2. The Torah is Timeless
    3. The Torah is for All
    4. The Torah Unifies
    5. Preserving Judaism's Distinctiveness
  4. Components of the Oral Torah

G-d Distinguishes between the Written and Oral Torahs

Maimonides (1135-1204, Egypt), in his monumental codification of the Torah law, Mishneh Torah, shows that the Torah text alludes to the existence of both a Torah text and oral interpretations:

Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law, Introduction)

At Sinai, G-d explained to Moses the details of all the mitzvot. This is the meaning of the verse: "G-d said to Moses, Come up to the mountain, and remain there. I will give you the stone tablets, and the Torah, and the commandment that I have written for [the people's] instruction" (Exodus 24:12).

The words "the Torah" refer to the Torah text that G-d gave Moses; "the commandment" is the detailed explanations of the Torah text through which we can properly fulfill the Torah mitzvot. These explanations are "the Oral Torah."

Before Moses died, he personally made thirteen copies of the entire Torah text (from Genesis to Deuteronomy) - one Torah scroll for each of the twelve Jewish tribes and one for the tribe of Levi. "Take this Torah scroll and place it to the side of the Ark of G-d your L-rd's covenant..." (Deuteronomy 31:26), refers to the scroll belonging to the tribe of Levi.

However, Moses did not transcribe the detailed explanations of the Torah text; rather, Moses taught it orally to the Jewish elders, Joshua (his successor), and the entire Jewish people. "Carefully observe all the words that I am prescribing to you..." (Deuteronomy 13:1), alludes to the fact that Moses' explanations of the Torah mitzvot were conducted orally.

Maimonides identifies the dual, interconnected, yet inseparable components of the Torah that originated at Sinai: a brief, unexplained written text (Written Torah), and its detailed oral explanations (Oral Torah). One component without the other will necessarily yield an incomplete, and as we shall read, an incorrect understanding of Torah.

A statement in Midrash Tanchuma, (An early homiletic Midrash on the Torah, attributed to Rabbi Tanchuma ben R' Abba, circa 370 CE,) elaborates on this integral bond between the Torah text and its oral interpretations:

Midrash Tanchuma (to Genesis 6:9)

Blessed is G-d, King of the Universe, Who chose the Jewish people from among the nations, as Scripture writes, "But His own nation remained G-d's portion; Jacob was the group of His heritage," (Deuteronomy 32:9), and gave us the Torah text in the form of concealed and puzzling allusions, while elucidating the text in the Oral Torah, which He revealed to the Jewish people alone.

The Torah text is written in generalities, while the Oral Torah provides details for applying the law; the Torah text is succinct, while the Oral Torah is lengthy. Job's words accurately describe the Oral Torah: "Its length - greater than the earth, and it is wider than the sea" (Job 11:9).

This statement can be understood as follows:

1.        On its own, the Torah text is too concise, cryptic and is written much too generally to be understood correctly. The Torah text is too comprehensive to serve as a basis for knowing how to apply its principles in daily life. The Oral Torah supplies the vital details and tools for revealing the wealth of information hidden in the Torah text.

Two examples of the incompleteness of the Torah text alone:

A.      The mitzvot of tefilin (wearing phylacteries) and mezuzah (affixing a parchment containing certain Torah texts to the doorpost): "Bind them as a sign on your hand, and let them be an emblem in the center of your head; write them on the doorposts of your houses and gates" (Deuteronomy 6:8-9; see also Deut. 11:18,20)

The Torah text mentions these mitzvot without any other textual explanation of how to perform them - e.g., what are these mitzvah items? How do we make them? Without an Oral Torah, we would not know how to bind, the correct place to bind on the body, what to write and where on the doorpost to place the written document.

B.       The mitzvah of the Four Species on the Succot holiday: "On the first day [of the Succot holiday,] you must take for yourself the fruit of a beautiful tree, branches of date-trees, boughs of thick-leaved trees, and willows of the brook (Leviticus 23:40)." Without the Oral Torah, we would not know the identity of the "fruit of a beautiful tree" (the Oral Torah identifies it as an etrog [citron]), nor the "boughs of thick-leaved trees (the Oral Torah identifies them as hadassim [myrtles]).

2.        G-d's choice of the Jewish people is evident from the fact that He provided them with the means to know His Will. G-d revealed the Torah - both a written Torah text and its oral interpretations.