The Bible is not enough: why Jews believe in an oral tradition

The Bible is not enough: why Jews believe in an oral tradition October 21, 2018

It’s a core belief of traditional Judaism stretching back to the days of the Pharisees two millennia ago (and as I hope to show, even longer than that!) that when God instructed Moses to write down the Five Books of Moses, He also gave Moses an accompanying Oral Tradition.

That tradition  includes a whole set of explanations and interpretations of the written text that define, clarify, and interpret vague or unclear passages, words, and laws in the Bible. Of course, lots of other interpretations were not given over to Moses by God, but instead created by rabbis reading the text in later generations.

I want to deal today with the question of how we know that the Five Books of Moses (from here on simply called “the Bible” for convenience) needs to have orally given interpretations in order to be understood or fulfilled.

The first key idea is that the written text of the Bible on its own simply cannot be read without some non-written interpretations and explanations, in addition to rules of how to understand its many unclear passages.

Here’s an interesting text from the Talmud, in which Hillel, a famous rabbi living around 2,000 years ago, explains this concept.

The story goes that a gentile came to Hillel and requested to be converted “on condition that you will teach me only the Written Torah…On the first day, he showed him the letters of the alphabet and said to him: Alef, bet, gimmel, dalet. The next day he reversed the order of the letters and told him that an alef is a tav and so on. The convert said to him: But yesterday you did not tell me that. Hillel said to him: You see that it is impossible to learn what is written without relying on an oral tradition. Didn’t you rely on me? Therefore, you should also rely on me with regard to the matter of the Oral Torah, and accept the interpretations that it contains.”
(Tractate Shabbat 31a)

This Talmudic story contains the basic lesson that everyone needs a teacher in order to read a text. That’s true on the literal level, in terms of making out the letters. But it’s also true in terms of learning how to read a text well. You won’t get nearly as much out of Shakespeare by reading it alone as you will from reading it with a Shakespeare scholar. The same goes for the Bible and the rabbis.

Elaborating on that argument, to properly read the written Biblical text, you need more than just letters. As it appears in ancient scrolls, the Bible is just a string of letters. That’s it. The Kuzari, a medieval work of Jewish philosophy written by Rabbi Judah Halevi, shows the implications of that statement:

“There is, therefore, no doubt that the Book was preserved in memory with all its vowels, divisions of syllables and accents…The seven vowels and accents were appointed as signs for forms which were regarded as Mosaic tradition…
“someone divided the text into verses, equipped it with vowel signs, accents, and masoretic signs, concerning full or defective orthography…”
(Kuzari Book III 31,33)

In other words, the written Biblical text is entirely unreadable without an oral tradition telling us which vowels go where, when sentences end, and when to emend the text. Every generation needs oral traditions from the previous generation about vowels, verses, accents, and other non-written markings to be able to read it. The conclusion is clear:

“The acknowledgment of tradition is therefore incumbent upon…anyone who admits that the Torah, in its present shape and as it is read, is the Torah of Moses.”

If the Biblical text is from God, that doesn’t mean very much if we can’t even read it! But in order for us read it, we need oral traditions, which must have been told to the children of Israel when they received the Torah so that they could read it!

I think you get the point. But up until now, all I’ve done is demonstrate that there must be some oral tradition that accompanied the Bible in order for its first readers to read it. Great. But how do we know there were any oral traditions given to Moses beyond the banal matters of vowels, accent marks, and punctuation?

Here’s the Kuzari again:

“If the consonantic (me: not a real word, but that’s what the online translation says!) text of the Mosaic Book requires so many traditional classes of vowel signs, accents, divisions of sentences and masoretic signs for the correct pronunciation of words, how much more is this the case for the comprehension of the same!

The meaning of a word is more comprehensive than its pronunciation. When God revealed the verse: ‘This month shall be unto you the beginning of months’ (Exod. xii. 2), there was no doubt whether He meant the calendar of the Egyptians among whom they lived, or that of the Chaldæans who were Abraham’s people…or solar [or lunar months], or lunar years…I further wish to be instructed on the question as to what makes an animal lawful for food; whether ‘slaughtering’ means cutting its throat or any other mode of killing…I further desire an explanation of the words: ‘Let no man go out of his place [on the seventh day]’ (Exod. xvi. 29). Does this refer to the house or precincts, estate…territory, district, or country. For the word place can refer to all of these… I want to know the details of circumcision, fringes and tabernacle…how to deal with laws which interfere with each other, as circumcision or Paschal lamb with Sabbath, which must yield to which, and many other matters which cannot be enumerated in general, much less in detail.“

The examples given in that passage are a bit complicated, but the essential point is pretty simple. The laws of the Five Books of Moses are not written all that clearly or specifically. We are told not to eat certain birds, whose identity is unclear! We are told to slaughter animals a certain way before eating them, but that way is not specified! We could add other examples: we are given commands not to do “work” on the Sabbath or to “afflict our souls” on the Day of Atonement. What do those words mean exactly? And don’t say that we can just give it our best guess, because the punishment for violating the Sabbath is death. How could God let us take a chance on that? How could God possibly give a commandment and cause His people to sin by writing it so ambiguously?

The Bible says “be fruitful and multiply.” How many kids must you have to fulfill this command? Christians would never think to ask a question like that, but the rabbis did. If we read the Bible’s commands seriously, we quickly see that the written words alone are not enough to fully explain the meaning and details of every law.

It’s a fair theological assumption that God would not command something that we could not understand or fulfill. However, Biblical commandments are often very difficult to understand or fulfill!

The answer for traditional Jews is that there must be an accompanying oral tradition to the written biblical text that at the very least defines and explains vague or ambiguous laws and their details. Otherwise, the Bible couldn’t be understood or fulfilled.

As it happens, the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, living nearly 2,000 years ago, says this is exactly what occurred, writing that Moses “appointed such laws and afterwards informed them in what manner they should act in all cases.” (Antiquities Book 3 5.6)

That’s all for now. Next post will be on the same topic, and explaining why it’s actually a good thing for there to be “two” Torahs, one written and one oral.

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  • Christine

    In contrast to Catholicism, James Carroll writes, on page 248 of Constantine’s Sword,

    “Though based on the law of Moses, Judaism had emerged as a community ordered not by legislation or decree but by the influence of its interpreters, reflecting on a compilation of the commentary of ancestral masters. This is the culture of Talmud, a culture not of codification but of conversation, written and oral; a culture not of hierarchy but of mutuality.”

    I think that last sentence is lovely. I wonder how it reads to a Jewish person.