[b-hebrew] oral Torah

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Fri Jun 23 09:54:25 EDT 2006

Dear Harold,

Your perfectly valid comments below are all besides the point, and basically 
are the same points raised by the Sadducees, Karites and other groups within 
Judaism, that eventually ended up in the margins. However, unlike Shoshanna, 
instead of simply making assertations of faith, I'm trying to give us some 
historical perspective.

Rabbinic Judaism was basically the great "democritizer" of Judaism. The 
Priests claimed that their authority was hereditory, based on their descent 
from Aaron. As long as the Temple was at the center of Jewish life, they had 
an unassailable position of power. However, with the emergence of the 
synagogue, which became Judaism's lifeline in the post-Temple era, the 
Priests had no special claim to authority. After all, they had been 
preaching since Deuteronomy that the Jerusalem Temple was the only place in 
which the sacrificial cult was valid. Well, since there was no more Temple, 
it was now someone else's turn.

In principle, anyone can become a prophet, but as scripture became 
cannonized, the list of "true prophets" closed. Tradition considers Malachi, 
a.k.a. Ezra (and yes, I know that there's no scriptual basis for that 
identification!) be have been the last prophet. Malachi, of course, 
predicted the return of Elijah, but until that happens, prophecy is closed. 
Of course, there are still individuals who are "inspired", but that's not 
the same.

Which leaves the rabbis/scribes/elders. Anybody can become a rabbi, but he 
has to study and pass his exams. Moses "ordained" the first group of 70, led 
by Joshua. This "ordination" is called "smikhah", which means "laening [the 
hands]", which is what Moses did to Joshua. The rabbis' tradition is that 
all future rabbis can trace their "smikhah" back to Moses.

You ask, where is all this in scripture? Well, it's not spelled out, hence 
"oral". But there are hints. For example, Deut. 13. Please note: in the 
English, this chapter begins by warning us that if there should arise a 
prophet who tells us to change the Law, he is not to be believed, because 
the Law is immutable. The MT, however, begins one verse before (12:32 in the 
English) - "Whatever I tell you to do, don't add and don't detract". In the 
Hebrew, this is not the ending of chapter 12, but the begining of chapter 

Or go to Deut. 16:18, which is the begining of the Sedrah Shophtim. "Judges 
and officers you shall make in all your gates" - none of which have to be 
priests! So the actuall keeping of the Law is not given to the Priests! And 
then there's 17:8 ff. - if you have a question, come to the Priests, the 
Levites AND the judges...

The point of all of which is that the scribes/rabbis/elders, also the 
Pharisees, considered their authority, based on knowledge and learning, to 
be greater than that of the Priests. They traced their authority back to 
Moshe rabbeinu, "Moses our Rabbi" - the first and greatest of them all. From 
a historical point of view, the won - and shaped Judaism in their image.


----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Harold Holmyard" <hholmyard at ont.com>
To: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Friday, June 23, 2006 2:09 PM
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] oral Torah

> Dear Yigal,
>>Here's a basic difference between Christian and Jewish views. In 
>>Judaism, God is considered to have given the Law (written and Oral) once, 
>>Sinai (of course, this was an ongoing process which took 38 years). In his
>>omniscient wisdom, God made His Torah such, that it would have solutions 
>>any possible situation "built in", so that the Torah would NEVER have to 
> HH: I want to clarify that this is not strictly a Jewish-Christian
> issue, because the Roman Catholic Christians have a similar view to the
> mainstream Jewish view. It is a claim that tradition is equally
> authoritative as the written word.
>> A major componant of the Oral Torah is the "codes" by which the
>>Torah itself is to be interpreted, and these were passed down from Moses 
>>Joshua and on to the elders, the members of the Great Assembly, and from
>>them to what we now call "rabbis".
> HH: Is there anything internal to the Scriptures that would indicate the
> existence of these codes? I can think of nothing offhand.
>> Both preists and prophets are outside
>>this "chain of command".
> HH: Then there is no chain of command, is there, for who else is there
> besides priests and prophets who are God- ordained? The "scribes" are
> not God-ordained as a special authority-bearing group outside the
> priests and prophets. If there is such a chain of command, the Law
> itself ought to instruct us of that fact.
>> The function of Priests, that is, decsendants of
>>Aaron, is to perform the perscribed rituals in the Temple.
> HH: The function of priests was also to teach and to judge. You are
> greatly circumscribing the role of priests.
>> The function of
>>Prophets, that is, people who receive "direct" messages from God, is to 
>>the people of their transgressions or to give them hope for the future, 
>>to interpret the Law.
>>Of course, there were individuals who were either both priest and prophet,
>>priest and rabbi, or prophet and rabbi. Ezra was all three, which gives 
>>a lot of clout in Jewish tradition. But the functions themselves are
>>The Talmud recounts several stories of rabbis discussing a point of Law,
>>when suddenly either a heavenly voice or a prophet (even Elijah!) appeared
>>and gave "God"'s view on the matter, to which the rabbis replied "It [the
>>Law] is not in heaven" (Deut. 30:12) - once the Torah was given to us, we
>>have sole authority over its interpretation.
> HH: The rabbis, as a group distinct from prophets and priests, have no
> special God-given authority that I can recall from Scripture. I
> certainly don't see any "chain of command" in Scripture. There are the
> "wise men" in Scripture, but  these are a group that culturally
> functioned in every nation, simply those looked to as wise. There are
> the elders, who were heads of the various families. That is certainly a
> divinely-approved position of authority, but it is based  in culture and
> family and gives no special authority in the handling of Scripture.
>>Of course, historically speaking, this interpretation has not been held by
>>all Jews throughhout history. The Sadducees, who were mostly priests, both
>>denied the authority of the Oral Torah and of the rabbis who considered
>>themselves to be its stewards. But this has become the "mainstream" view 
>>post-Destruction Rabbinic Judaism.
> HH: Thanks.
> Yours,
> Harold Holmyard
> _______________________________________________
> b-hebrew mailing list
> b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org
> http://lists.ibiblio.org/mailman/listinfo/b-hebrew

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list