The Oral Tradition is the explanation that elucidates and directs how to fulfill the 613 commandments written in the Torah.
The strongest proof to the Oral Tradition’s existence is the fact that many of the Written Torah’s commandments are not comprehensible without the oral explanations that were passed down from generation to generation together with the Written Torah. Here are several examples among hundreds:
(1) Nowhere in the Torah does it state which actions are forbidden to be done on the Shabbat, even though the Torah says that violating the Shabbos incurs the death penalty!
(2) Nowhere in the Torah does it state what “no man shall leave his place on the seventh day” means.
(3) Nowhere in the Torah does it state how one marries or divorces or what a “divorce document” is.
(4) Nowhere in the Torah does it state how to slaughter an animal (shechita). The Torah only commands to slaughter an animal “as I instructed you.”
(5) Nowhere in the Torah does it explain what is a mezuza and what is written in it. The verse only says cryptically “you shall write on the lintels of your house.”
(6) Nowhere in the Torah does it state what is “tzitzit” and how it looks.
Actually, none of the Torah’s commandments are sufficiently described in the Torah to enable their practical fulfillment. The Torah’s commandments are similar to an allegory and a table of contents. The Torah brings numerous commandments, but doesn’t provide practical details or explanations of how to fulfill them in practice.
I think it’s obvious that when Moses our Teacher came down from Mt. Sinai with a list of the 613 commandments, the people probably asked him a few simple questions: “What are tzitzit? How does one make a mezuza? How does one write a ”divorce document”? How does one get married? What’s the meaning of “no man shall leave his place on the seventh day?” “Can one prepare a fire before Shabbat to stay lit on Shabbat?” “What actions are forbidden on Shabbat?” etc. etc. Can anyone imagine Moses our Teacher telling the people, “Take a guess! Figure it out yourselves!”
A good example occurs in the section about the man who gathered wood on Shabbat (Numbers, Chapter 15). The Israelites were commanded to give the death penalty to the Shabbat violator, but they weren’t yet told how to implement it. Moses and the Israelites didn’t for a second think to interpret the law according to their own understanding. Moses waited and asked G-d how to kill the wood gatherer. Or to say it in other words, the Israelites were not Samaritans/Karaites who arrogate to themselves the ability to interpret the Torah, but they asked God to tell them how to fulfill His commandments.
]By the way, the fact that the Jewish people knew that the wood gatherer had transgressed Shabbat by doing work on it, is itself an additional proof to the Oral Tradition. The Torah doesn’t explain which acts are forbidden on Shabbat; so how did they know that the wood gatherer had transgressed Shabbat? Who would have conceived that gathering wood is one of the acts forbidden to be done on Shabbat?]
The need to detail the Torah’s 613 commandments proves that in addition to giving the Written Torah, Moses also had to provide the Israelites a more elaborate explanation of how to fulfill them. This explanation was transmitted by the sages and rabbinical leaders from generation to generation and was first put into writing about 2000 years ago by Rabbi Judah the Prince in the Six Orders of the Mishna. It was later elucidated in greater detail in the 40 tractates of the Talmud upon which all Jewish law has been based in every generation.
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From where did the sects come who opposed the Oral Tradition?
Over history, four sects arose that claimed to fulfill the commandments straight from Scripture without need for additional explanations, with each one of them understanding the same commandments in a different way. Samaritans and Karaites are Common examples.
Most of these sects arose during turbulent periods in Jewish history, when governments switched hands, and groups in the Jewish people arose who opposed the authority of the sages. During the period of the Second Temple (150 years B.C.E.) two sects broke off from rabbinical Judaism (the sages and their followers were called Porushim in those times). During that period, there were decrees forcing the Jews to apostatize and hellenize until the Hasmoneans rebelled against the government in power.
While all these sects denied the Oral Tradition, each sect invented its own creative interpretation of Scriptures.
Historically, all sects who denied the Oral Tradition in the end splintered from rabbinic Judaism.
Even though they all claim to believe in the literal meaning of Scripture, each of these sects understood Scripture, Jewish law, and the Jewish calendar in a way completely different from the others. Likewise for fundamentals of faith. If that is not enough, the various sects dispute Scripture’s meaning even among themselves, and every generation changed the Scriptural meaning concerning certain laws, frequently contradicting those of their predecessors.
Wikipedia’s page about Shabbat relates that the Karaites were more stringent at keeping Shabbat prohibitions. For instance, some of them didn’t accept the principle that a situation of doubtful danger to life waives Shabbat observance. In early years, they also prohibited leaving a lit fire from before Shabbat and therefore didn’t have lighting or heating in their homes or heated food. Many prohibited taking objects outside the house on Shabbat. Some prohibited leaving the house (except to pray and such vital needs) and performing a circumcision on Shabbat. The Karaites forbid until today intimate relations on Shabbat. They also forbid having a non-Jew do work for them on Shabbat (and do not permit even hinting to the non-Jew to do the work).
Beginning from the 11th century, there was a gradual modification in these laws, and they permitted lighting fire before Shabbat to provide light for Shabbat, and some even accepted upon themselves the rabbinical ordinance of a 2000 cubit “Shabbat boundary” (tchum Shabbat).
It seems that the Karaites understood Scriptures in the past differently than they understand it today. However, Shabbat prohibitions are not a minor thing, and neither are the laws concerning danger to life.
How is it possible that in one generation they prohibit a certain work on Shabbat according to their understanding of Scriptures, and in another generation they permit the same work on Shabbat because of a different understanding of that same verse?
Shabbat observance is not a mere recommendation. Any slight deviation from the Shabbat laws can bring upon a person the excision of his soul and the death penalty, as the Torah openly states. The text must be comprehensible in a uniform manner which is not dependent on the arbitrary whims of any generation, otherwise we will stumble in extremely grave prohibitions.
The holy Torah was given 3300 years ago by God Who knew all generations in advance. Does anyone really believe that one can re-interpret commandments, and change prohibitions into permitted actions? That a Jewish soul can be sentenced to excision from the Jewish people and receive a death penalty based on one or another newfangled interpretation?
It’s unnecessary to say: If the Torah could truly be understood literally, there would be no need to change its laws over the generations.
The truth must be said: No Karaite has the ability to decide whether it is permitted or forbidden to work on Shabbat since Scripture does not explain what is “work.”
One Karaite may call a certain action “work” while another Karaite may not see it as “work.” If we would confront a modern Karaite with an ancient Karaite, they would argue endlessly about the meaning of Scripture and never reach an agreement concerning its plain meaning… This proves the need for the Oral Tradition, and is tantamount to proof of the Oral Tradition’s historical and practical necessity. Without it, the divine Torah would have no uniform meaning.
For example, the verse “no man shall leave his place” can apply to one’s house just as it might apply to the street or the city, so one cannot understand the verse based on its plain meaning. We need the detailed explanation of the Oral Tradition that was given on Mt. Sinai.
We saw that the ancient Karaites believed that one could not transgress Shabbat even in a case of danger to one’s life, and their descendants changed their view over the generations even though the verse hasn’t changed. The ancient Karaites were sure that one who leaves his house is violating a grave prohibition. Just this alone is sufficient to realize the need for an Oral Tradition to explain the Scriptural verses.
Actually, every commandment written down in the Torah can be explained in hundreds if not thousands of various ways. Just as one cannot determine the content of a book only based on its title, one cannot explain the commandments and how to perform them based on short, cryptic verses without a reliable oral explanation.
The fact that a text can bear contradictory interpretations proves that the text alone is insufficient to establish practical law. This fact alone proves the necessity of the Oral Tradition.
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Genuine Judaism is based first and foremost on humility:
As every chareidi Jew knows, Jewish law doesn’t interpret Scripture based on the opinions of those studying it, but according to the Tradition which was passed down from one generation to another — the Oral Tradition.
Orthodox Jews are all students. We seek to understand God’s Torah based on the teachings that our sages in every generation transmitted to us. We do not rule on Torah law based on our own personal views; none of us is a Moses our Teacher!
This is why throughout the forty tractates of the Talmud, and the Mishnah and the Midrash, one doesn’t find a statement such as “And God spoke to Abaya or Rava.” Judaism only records what was passed down by tradition going back to Moses. No one decides what is God’s Will according to his personal opinion.
The fact is that even secular and marginally traditional Jews in Israel know rabbinic law and fulfill basic commandments according to it. Most secular Jews in Israel perform a circumcision, celebrate a bar mitzvah, fast on Yom Kippur, make a Seder on Passover night, and eat matzahs on Passover. Their marriage and divorce, funerals and recital of Kaddish are presided over by rabbis who follow the Jewish law transmitted to us over the generations.
Even many non-Jews know to identify an observant Jew as one who wears a yarmulkeh, wears a tallit, puts on tefillin, etc.
The rabbis represent the Jewish people — because the Jewish people always recognized the rabbinical traditions Actually, up to two hundred years ago, almost all Jews were observant and obeyed the Oral Tradition. Only in the short period since the Haskalah (“Enlightenment”), do secular Jews exist in large numbers.
When small sects separated from the body of the historic Jewish people, they lost their identity as part of the extensive history of Jewish communities worldwide.
A short search of the word “Jew” or “Judaism” in any encyclopedia or search engine in the Internet will immediately reveal basic information on tefillin, on Chanukah, on a yarmulkeh and a tallit — because these have always been the official religious symbols of the Jewish people. For thousands of years, Judaism was represented in the world by Jewish law and the Oral Tradition. What is Judaism? What are Jewish holidays? Everyone knows to point in the direction of authentic Judaism and not the schisms that broke off.
[It is interesting to note that even anti-Semitic non-Jews and haters of religion like to depict Jews with a chareidi appearance, with a beard and a tallit and tefillin. Yes, even our enemies know very well how to point out who is a Jew…]
One who recognizes Divine Providence can not help but conclude that the Creator has shunted these castoff sects, who are decreasing and disappearing just like the assimilatory Reform and Conservative movements of our time. God wants His children — the authentic Jewish people.
A Jew who is faithful to the Jewish people, the eternal people, is inevitably connected to the Oral Tradition.
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