Previous Chapter

Chapter Ten


No book has been defined and re-defined as many times as the Torah ("Five Books of Moses," or, "Old Testament"). Just in creating translations from the original Hebrew version, writers have had to deal with the "spirit" of the work as much as the technical details of Torah.

This is because the Torah alludes to ideas that sometimes are not well-defined within the body of the text. Thus every translation of Torah is in fact another interpretation.

Especially in this era of increasing interest in Torah-based Judaism, there are many books and tapes that deal with the essence of Torah and its history quite comprehensively. Therefore, rather than "re-invent the wheel," only a brief synopsis of Torah with some interesting statistics will follow.

What is meant by the term, Torah?
Of course, if you ask different groups of Jews what constitutes "Torah" youíll get different answers. In fact, throughout the ages itís often been that way, because there have often been groups that have splintered away from mainstream Torah Judaism.

The first definition of Torah, and the traditional one, is that Torah is composed of two parts. Each was given by God verbally to Moses at Mt. Sinai in the Jewish year 2448 from creation, which corresponds to the Western year, 1313, "Before the Common Era" (B.C.E.).

The Written Law is the scroll from which just about every Bar Mitzvah boy reads upon turning 13 years of age. And whether it is in scroll form, or in individual books ("Chumash"), it is composed of the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The book of "Genesis" begins with an account of how physical existence came into being. However, the overall theme of the book is the life of Abraham and his descendants, how they devoted their lives to developing a relationship with God, and their efforts to live a life in accordance with the Divine purpose for existence.

The term "Jewish" is derived from the Hebrew name "Yehudah" ("Judah" in English), the fourth son of Jacob. Therefore, technically speaking, Abraham was neither a "Jew nor a "Yisroel" ("Israelite"), since both these terms are used only later in history.

However, Abraham, was an "Ish Ivri," which literally means "a man across..." He was named this because Abraham, by choosing to live according to divine morality, literally set himself apart from the rest of the people around him. Hence the term "Ivriim," or "Hebrews," applied to Abrahamís descendants (Genesis 39:16; Exodus 1:15).

The book of "Exodus" is so named because the highlight of the book is the miraculous Jewish exodus from Egyptian slavery. But it is also the book in which the Torah itself is given to the Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai by God.

The name of the third book, "Leviticus," is derived from the term Levite, the name of a tribe that descended from Jacobís third son, Levi. From the Levites came the priests of the nation, and the people charged with assisting the priests in the Temple service. Since this book deals primarily with the Temple service, the book was named after them.

The fourth book, "Numbers" covers the 40 years of wandering in the desert of the Jewish people, before entering the land of Canaan. The Jewish people were only supposed to spend two years marching from Egypt to Canaan, but the episode of the spies (Numbers 13:1) led to an additional 38 years in the desert.

The fifth and last book is called "Deuteronomy," which in Latin means double. It was named this because in this book, which takes place just before Mosesí death, Moses reiterates many of the commandments previously taught in other books. The book ends with the death of Moses.

The first book deals primarily with individuals, and their striving for spiritual greatness. The next four books focuses less on individuals and more on the nation as whole, as it evolves into what is supposed to be a unique people, capable of a heightened spiritual commitment.

From the beginning, the Torah was recorded on parchment that was rolled into a scroll. Moses wrote 13 Torahs, one for placement in the Holy Ark, and one for each of the twelve tribes.

According to strict guidelines that are followed even today, over 3,300 years later, the Torah was copied countless times with phenomenal accuracy. Torah Scrolls found in various locations around the world from throughout the ages are just about perfectly identical, though many of the communities had little or no contact with one another.

Originally in Hebrew, a person only had access to the Torah if they spoke the language. This prompted Ptolemy II (285-246 B.C.E.), then ruler over Israel, to have Torah transated into Greek.

The work was called the "Septuagint," which means "70," because according to Jewish tradition (Talmud Megillah 9a), Ptolemy II had 72 rabbis put into separate rooms with the task of rendering the Torah into Greek. This way, Ptolemy II believed, he would be able to know the veracity of his translated version.

Later on in history, with the rise of Christianity, the Old Testament was translated into Latin and eventually English. Today the Torah is translated into most languages, though it is more commonly referred to as the "Old Testament".

But when traditional Jews refer to "Torah," they usually mean much more that the Five Books of Moses. Torah means both the Written Law and the Oral Law, a section of Jewish learning that allows one to put into practice what is often only mentioned in passing in the Written Law.

When an architect designs a building, he usually draws up a set of plans, which must be accompanied by a book of specifications. Buildings are complex structures, and if the set of plans had all the relevant information on them, theyíd be impossible to use.

Therefore, only the general information is put on the plans to allow the builder to visualize what he has to build. But when the construction crew wants to know the nitty-gritty details of how to build what the plans show, they turn to the book of specifications to see just what size bolts are necessary, and how to weld them.

The Written Law is literally called the "blueprint" of creation. Jewish tradition states that when God decided to create existence, He looked into the Torah the way a builder looks at a set of plans. The Oral Law is the book of specifications that tells you things such as, what kosher food is, and how to prepare it, etc.

But the Oral Law is not entirely a separate work from the Written Law. In fact, the Talmud spends much of its time tracing the Oral Law back to the written Law, finding the relevant verses that act as the written source for an oral law.

Back to the analogy, an experienced builder can look at a set of plans and determine what materials and building techniques are necessary to execute the design - even before consulting the book of specifications. In that sense, the book of specifications is alluded to on the set of plans by each design element.

The same holds true of the Oral Law. A spiritually sensitive individual could, theoretically, look at the physical world and determine not just the principles of the Written Law, but of the Oral Law as well. And thatís exactly what Abraham did when, according to tradition (Talmud Yoma 28a), he discovered the commandments - hundreds of years before God told them to Moses.

Thus, though the Divine validity of the Oral Law has often been disputed, going back as early as 2200 years ago (if not more), the issue has never been, is there an oral law, but, what is the oral law. By necessity, those willing to accept the Written Law will have to have an oral law to explain it, be it the traditional one, or the one they make up.

This was the case even for the Karaites, whose name means "Scripturalists" because they accepted only the written Torah, the books of the Prophets, and the Writings as being authentic. They formed a sect around the year 759 C.E. that rejected the entire oral law as recorded in the Talmud, claiming that all such laws were rabbinic in origin.

But all that meant was that Karaites were free to interpret the Torah and books of Prophets as they saw fit. In effect, they made up their own oral law. And though it is true the rabbis have added to the body of oral law throughout the generations, such additions were basically modern-day applications of existing principles.

For example, the prohibition of lighting a fire on the Sabbath, or building on the Sabbath was never re-interpreted by the rabbis. The entire 39 categories of labor forbidden on the Sabbath (of which the above mentioned are two), though not mentioned specifically in the Written Law are legally binding as if they were written.

What the rabbis have had to decide in every generation regarding Sinaitic laws, is, "Does this new technological advancement constitute a violation of existing Sabbath laws," or any other Torah laws for that matter? The newly decided law was then recorded in the vast body of responsa that has evolved ever since Moses first brought the Torah down from Mt. Sinai.

However, nowhere in the body of traditional rabbinical interpretation and responsa will you find the question, "Is it allowable to light a fire on the Sabbath?" a question that other groups have posed and decided in favor of permitting.

Such sweeping re-interpretations of Sinaitic laws are only made by groups that have splintered away from traditional Jewish thought, for one reason or another. But though the reasons may vary from group to group, the impact on the Jewish nation has always been the same: vast assimilation, confusion amongst the masses of Jews, and the loss of tremendous amounts of Torah wisdom.

This is because every interpretation of the existing principles of the Written Law can at most claim to be an opinion, including modern-day renditions. Only one version of Toraitic interpretation makes the claim to be God-given, to be Sinaitic in origin, and its validity is the subject of many books and seminars (see "Follow-Up").

The "Tradition" as the Oral Law is often called, was Godís explanation to Moses of the commandments and moral teachings He first mentioned to him while he was recording the Written Law. These explanations, for the most, remained oral until Roman persecution forced later generations to formally record them in what are called mishnayos and midrashim.

In general, a "mishnah" is a concisely-worded legal teaching designed to trigger a discussion for the sake of clarifying the precise execution of a commandment. In the year 186 C.E., Rabbi Judah "the Prince," taking advantage of a period of political calm, assembled all of his colleagues with the purpose of redacting the oral law into some written form to preserve both its accuracy, and its oral integrity.

Thus, a mishnah by definition is not a complete teaching, but rather a memory device designed to trigger discussions in the Houses of Study. This way, every generation would be able to re-build the discourses that allow Jewish law to survive and thrive.

However, more persecution forced future generations to record not just the mishnah, but the discussions they were designed to prompt. This resulted in two monumental works: the Jerusalem Talmud (350 C.E.), and the Babylonian Talmud (500 C.E.). It is the latter that is studied today in most traditional yeshivot around the world.

Midrashim are stories or parables, many of which were constructed by the rabbis of the Mishnaic-Talmudic era, compiled into vast works. The point of midrashim was to encode the moral teachings of the oral law, limiting access only to those spiritually sensitive to their messages. This was supposed to prevent infiltration by groups looking to undermine traditional Jewish values.

Many of the midrashim can be found in the Talmud, and often act as connecting pieces between two legal discussions that may seem, on the surface, to be unrelated. But that is often not the case below the surface, and the midrash itself can act as an important key to understanding how the two laws relate to one another.

Why the Torah was broken up into two sections, one written and one oral, is the topic of much speculation and discussion. The question is an important one, especially given the dangers that accompany any kind of oral transmission.

However, in retrospect, one can certainly see how an oral law is in keeping with prevalent Jewish themes regarding the purpose of life and the potential of mankind. Certainly from a historical perspective, the Oral Law has acted as a litmus test of adherence to Jewish tradition. In the words of one scholar:

"It is fortunate that whatever proof there is for the divine origin of the Torah and the Sinaitic origin of the Oral Law it is never quite sufficient to be altogether conclusive. Otherwise, the Jews would have lost a faith and an inner conviction and would have gained a mere science as a substitute." ("The Oral Law;" Feldheim Publishers, 1971)

Judaism is not a science, though we may deal scientifically with information. But Judaism is also not a way of life that demands blind faith. We value the mind and encourage the use of intellect. There is an intellectual path that leads to belief in both the Written Law and the Oral Law as transmitted throughout the generations.

Obviously, acceptance of the traditional oral law has many implications regarding lifestyle. This is where free will comes into the picture. For, you can "lead the horse to water (sometimes thatís not so easy either), but you canít make it drink." The bottom line is, only with self-honesty can a person analyze the evidence in favor of a God-given Oral Law.

The following is information and statistics concerning both the Written and Oral Law that might be of interest.

The Written Law
("Five Books of Moses")
Received: 2448/1313 BCE
Age to Date:
(5754/1993 CE)
3,306 years old

Comprised of: (and number of verses)
Book of Genesis 1,534 26%
Book of Exodus 1,209 21%
Book of Leviticus 859 15%
Book of Numbers 1,288 22%
Book of Deuteronomy 955 16%

Total Verses: 5,845
Total Words: 79,976
Total Letters: 304,805

Time Spans:(in years)
Genesis: 2,309
Exodus: 1
Leviticus: 1
Numbers: 39
Deuteronomy: weeks

Commandments: 248 positive
365 negative
Total: 613

2 positive (1%)
1 negative (1%)
45 positive (18%)
66 negative (18%)
95 positive (38%)
152 negative (42%)
29 positive (12%)
23 negative (6%)
77 positive (31%)
123 negative (33%)
The Oral Law
Received: 2448/1313 BCE
Age to Date: 3,306 years old
Comprised of:
Though many legal teachings from the Oral Law have been forgotten over the centuries, a vast amount remain in mishnaic form, and have been divided into the following sections which deal with legal topics such as:

blessings / prayer / agricultural laws / tithes

Appointed Time:
Sabbath / Jewish Holidays / mourning / Festival Sacrifice

Levirate marriage / marital obligations / vows / nazirite / adultery / divorce / marriage

civil damages / property damages / responsibility to neighbors / court system / oaths / idolatry

Holy Things:
animal sacrifices / pledges made to Temple / firstborn / Temple service

ritual purity of vessels / mikvah / ritual purity of food / ritual purity of people
11 chapters of mishnah
1 book of Talmud

Appointed Time
12 chapters of mishnah
11 books of Talmud

7 chapters of mishnah
7 books of Talmud

10 chapters of mishnah
8 books of Talmud

Holy Things
11 chapters of mishnah
9 books of Talmud

12 chapters of mishnah
1 book of Talmud

Total Chapters: 63
Total Talmudic Volumes: 37

© by Mercava Productions

Next Chapter
Table of Contents
Rabbi Winston's main page
Back to Neveh Homepage

The webspace for the Neveh Zion site has been generously donated by

send your comments to