When the Bible, our Tanach, was completed, Judaism entered a new era. The Jews no longer had to depend on the prophets to know the word of God. Now they had the written Torah and the rabbis and scholars interpreted its meaning. These interpretations were called Torah she balpé, the oral Torah. Orthodox Judaism maintains that this oral Torah was given by God to Moses at the same time that he gave him the written Torah. The unorthodox branches of Judaism think differently, as they consider the oral Torah to be the constant work of interpreting by many generations of sages. All in all, the need to legitimize the new interpretations, whether or not they have divine origin, was reflected in the first verse of Pirkei Abot (1: 1) that says: “Moses received the Torah at Sinai, he transmitted it to Yehoshua, and Yehoshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the members of the Great Assembly. ”
The oral Torah represents those laws, statutes, and legal interpretations that were not recorded in the five books of Moses, the written Torah. According to tradition, the oral Torah was transmitted by word of mouth by an unbroken chain of generations of sages, until its contents were finally put into writing, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when Judaism faced an existential threat. In 200 AD, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi decided to edit all these interpretations of the rabbis in what we know as the Mishnah.
That first compilation of the rabbis’ interpretations did not end with the constant discussion among scholars. Our sages continued to question, for example: “What does it mean to keep Shabbat? What can and cannot be done?” Several centuries after the Mishnah had been edited, more interpretations were compiled, in what we know as the Gemara. Both Mishnah and Gemara will form the Talmud, the Oral Torah.
The oral Torah, explained from teacher to student, is the interpretation that our sages give to the commandments. God allowed his will to filter through the intellect of those who study his mitzvoth. And those dialogues, those conversations, have not only recorded the divine commandments, but also the continuous response of men. The rabbis loved to argue with each other and specialized in the smallest and most minute details. Therefore, the work of continuing to interpret is not over. No wonder people admire these scholars more than the biblical prophets themselves. The prophets repeated what they had heard, scholars demonstrated the beauty of combining human wisdom with the words of God. A wisdom that constantly evolves, as it passes from teacher to student.
By Marcos Gojman.
Bibliography: “Understanding Judaism”, by Rabbi Benjamin Blech and other sources.