Written and Oral Law

August 9, 2018

by Barry Fike

What is the difference between Written and Oral Law? Many Christians look at this and have no understanding of the concept since Law is usually understood as something rigid and the opposite of grace. Since the mantra of the New Testament is grace, it can’t have anything to do with Law under this conception. Let’s spend some time looking at this concept from the mind of a Rabbi from the first century—like Jesus!
Written law was the Torah! What was Torah? That depends on which section you’re discussing. While it is the five books of Moses, it also contains the other thirty-four books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The basic concept was received on Mt. Sinai by Moses as revealed, in synopsis, by the Ten Commandments. However, in addition to this written revelation, he also received, according to the Rabbis, additional commandments and instruction that was communicated orally. Rabbinic theology embraces the notion that God revealed the entire Pentateuch for Moses to record upon Mt. Sinai. Each and every part of the written scripture equally represents God’s eternal law, God’s Torah. The written law, Judaism holds, was accompanied by oral supplementary and complementary rules (later codified in the Mishnah). (Brooks, Roger. The Spirit of the Ten Commandments, 35)
This belief in the integrity of the Dual Torah—both written and oral—is the reason for the exclusion of the Ten Commandments from daily worship rites. If a single portion of the Torah were to be recited—especially a passage so central to the narrative of the Sinaitic theophany—people might be led to believe falsely that only that passage, the Ten Commandments, in fact was revealed at Mt. Sinai, that the remainder was a later creation of lesser authority. (Brooks, 35, 36) The Ten Utterances represent the heart of all Judaic theology. But, they are no more important than any other bit of the revealed law of Judaism. (Brooks, 36)
These commandments and instructions were designated by the Rabbis as Oral Law, or the Torah, that came out of the mouth as distinguished from the written law. The Oral Law was considered by all Rabbis to be just as inspired and binding as the written law. At the beginning of Pirke Abot in 1:1 it says, “Moses received the Torah on Sinai, and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment [rendering legal decisions and reaching verdict in court of Law]; raise up many disciples [students]; and make a fence [protective fence] around the Torah.” This quote shows a continuation from the time of Moses down to the time of Jesus. When, in the Mishnah, the term Torah is used, as it is used herein Pirke Avot 1:1, it refers to the Oral Tradition or Law as distinguished from the written.
Following this introductory statement in Pirke Avot there are three sayings that are attributed to the men of the Great Assembly. “…They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment [rendering legal decisions and reaching verdict in court of Law]; raise up many disciples [students]; and make a fence [protective fence] around the Torah.” What does it mean to make a fence around the Law? If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mt. when he says “don’t swear by heaven above or by the earth below “(Deut. 23:21, 23). He’s not saying let your yes be yes and your no be no. This has nothing to do with taking an oath. It all has to do with this protective fence around the law. “That which is permitted by the law, or allowed by the law, you do. You guard it by keeping it. If the law forbids something don’t do it.“ It has nothing to do with swearing or taking an oath but with doing the will of the Father in keeping his commandments. When the law says to do something do it (Yes be yes); when the law says don’t do something (no be no) then don’t do it.
What if the Law doesn’t specify your particular situation? The Rabbis of the first four centuries of the Common Era (AD) asserted that true piety (qedushah, “Holiness”) emerged from advancing the law conceptually and intellectually. Rabbinic Judaism promoted the notion that study of the law (Talmud Torah) had a profound and beneficial impact upon the human mind. Furthermore, the discernment of enduring principles of behavior in the received tradition, coupled with the application of those principles to contemporary circumstances, likewise infused Jewish practice and behavior with a progressive edge. The law, as the rabbis understood and explained it, represented the spirit of God’s revelation to the Jewish people at Sinai. The very act of participating in the legal system—an engagement that absorbed and lent sanctity to every moment on one’s life—itself constituted the proper goal of religious practice. (Brooks, Roger, The Spirit of the Ten Commandments, x, xi) This is erecting a protective fence around the law.
In my next blog I’ll deal with what the specifics of Oral law deals with and the task of the Rabbi with all of this material. To not understand this material is to continue to misinterpret the words of Jesus outside of his original social context.