The Tradition

Excerpts From Handbook of Jewish Thought by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

  • In many instances, the Torah refers to details not included in the
    written text, thus alluding to an oral tradition. Thus, the Torah
    states, “You shall slaughter your cattle… as I have commanded you”
    (Deuteronomy 12:21), implying an oral commandment concerning ritual
    slaughter (shechitah, שחיטה) …
  • Just as we depend on tradition for the accepted text,
    vocalization, and translation of the Torah, so must we depend on
    tradition for its interpretation.
  • The written torah cannot be understood without the oral
    tradition. Hence, if anything, the oral Torah is the more important of
    the two.
  • Since the written Torah must appear largely defective unless
    supplemented by the oral tradition, a denial of the Oral Torah
    necessarily leads to the denial of the Divine origin of the written
    text as well. Therefore, one who does not believe in any part of the
    Oral Torah is considered a nonbeliever in all respects.
  • The Oral Torah was originally meant to be transmitted by word
    of mouth. It was transmitted from master to student in such a manner
    that if the student had any question, he would be able to ask, and thus
    avoid ambiguity. A written text, on the other hand, no matter how
    perfect, is always subject to misinterpretation.
  • Furthermore,
    the Oral Torah was meant to cover the infinitude of cases, which would
    arise in the course of time. It could never have been written in its
    entirety. It is thus written, “Of making many books there is no end”
    (Ecclesiastes {Kohelet} 12:12). G-d therefore gave Moses a set of rules through which the Torah could be applied to every possible case.
  • The oral Torah was handed down by word of mouth from Moses to
    Joshua, then to the Elders, the Prophets, and the Great Assembly. The
    Great Assembly was the Sanhedrin led by Ezra, at the beginning of the
    time of the second Temple, which undertook to enact legislation that
    would make Judaism viable in the Diaspora.
  • The Great Assembly codified much of the Oral Torah in a form
    that could be memorized by the students. This codification was known as
    the Mishnah (משנה). One reason for this name was that it was meant to be reviewed (shanah שנה) over and over until memorized. The word also denoted that the Mishnah was secondary (sheni, שני) to the written Torah.
  • It was required that the oral tradition be handed down word
    for word, exactly as it had been taught. The sages who taught this
    first Mishnah were known as Tannaim (תנאים), Tanna (תנא) in the singular. The word comes form the Aramaic word Tanna (תנא) equivalent to the Hebrew shanah (שנה), meaning to repeat.
  • Although the Oral Torah was meant to be transmitted by word of
    Mouth, it was permissible to keep personal records. Therefore, many
    individuals would write down personal notes of what was taught in the
    academies. This was especially true of teachings that were not often
    reviewed. Many also added marginal notes to the Biblical scrolls, which
    they used to study.
  • During the generations following the Great Assembly, the
    Mishnah developed into a program of study for the students to memorize.
    This was expanded by new legislation and case law. This was also known
    as the “first Mishnah: (Mishnah Rishonah,משנה ראשונה).
  • The final and most precise redaction of the Mishnah was made
    by Rabbi Yehudah the Prince (רבי יהודה הנשיא). This is the Mishnah that
    we have today, as part of the Talmud. The work was completed in 3948
    (188 c.e.).
  • There was a tradition that if there was danger that the Oral Torah be forgotten, it could be put in writing…

    Comment by Shlomo Scheinman- The Mishnah was written by Rabbis who had “Smikha” status. See The Mitzva To Appoint Judges and Officials to Enforce the Law for a definition of “Smikha”.


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