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The Authenticity of the Oral Torah

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A visitor’s comment: I am a firmly committed Gentile Karaite. Because I reject the Oral Torah as man-made, I also disagree with much of what you are saying. In my mind, the covenant of Noah, once established by G-d after the Flood, was legitimate from then onwards. It needed no further ratification at Mt. Sinai.

Response: You seem to have a commitment to some of the Noahide ideals. Observance of the Noahide Commandments is indeed extremely important. It’s the fundamental basis for proper functioning of Gentile societies and of each Gentile in his or her personal life.

However, the main pitfall in your approach is that you have created your own interpretation of your selected Biblical verses. From your own personal interpretation, you proceed to arrive at a new religious doctrine. You admit it is new and has its foundation in your own reasoning. You’ve limited yourself to the meaning of your own “simple reading” of the Biblical verses. Therefore, it is certainly slanted by your own individual perspective. Please see the essay and video series by a former “Karaite Noahide” who discovered the gross errors of your approach:

Click here > Coming to a realization of the Oral Torah

Before denouncing the body of knowledge known as the Oral Torah, you should consider a hypothetical case. Imagine that you find an expert in Hebrew language who has no experience with Torah or the Jewish religion. If you ask him to simply read a Torah Scroll, he could not possibly give a correct reading. That’s because vowels and punctuation, which determine the definitions of the words, aren’t allowed to be written in the scroll!

The correct and universally acknowledged choice for each and every vowel is only known from the Oral Torah.  It was transmitted in the Oral Torah by Prophets and Sages, unchanged from the first Torah Scroll written by Moses. The English words in the Bible you’re interpreting depend on vowels and punctuation transmitted in the Oral Torah you deny.

Here is an example. Write the Hebrew letters for “SPT” without vowels or differentiating between the corresponding “hard” or “soft” Hebrew letters.  It could be vocalized as any of the following English words: spot, spit, spat, spite, soft, sift, shift, shaft. Switching between one or another of these words will completely change the meaning of a sentence!

As far as the consonants which are written in the Torah Scroll are concerned, consider this. Every Torah scroll can only be hand-written, by copying an earlier hand-written scroll. This preserves the chain of exact duplications back to the first Torah Scroll written by Moses as dictated by G-d. See our page titled Authenticity of the Written Torah.

There is a misconception about debates between the Sages that are recorded in the Mishnah and Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Those were not disagreements over what the Oral Torah is. For example, many of the debates were over how strict or lenient the majority decisions should be, when Rabbinic enactments were needed to establish a protective “fence” around the Divine decrees in the (Written and Oral) Torah that was received by Moses from G-d. The opinions in these brilliant debates were recorded so that when the Messianic Era arrives (speedily in our days!), and we again have great Sages with authority to alter ancient enactments, they will know the reasonings that were originally considered.

An explanation of the Written and Oral Torah

A good explanation of the Written and Oral Torah is provided by the following excerpt. It is a free translation [1] based on a classic book of Chassidic teachings, “Sha’ar Hayichud” (“The Gate of Unity”). The author was the “Mittler Rebbe,” Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch [1773-1827 C.E]. The comments in curly brackets { } have been added by the Director of Ask Noah.

The Torah has two parts, the Written Law and the Oral Law. The Written Law {“Tanakh” in Hebrew} is the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and Writings {grouped as 24 Books}. The {commandments in the} Five Books of Moses were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai, and they constitute the foundation of authentic Judaism and Jewish Law. They {the Five Books of Moses} are in a sense the first and final word of G-d, in that they can not be contradicted by any later valid prophet. As Maimonides explained, we do not believe a prophet because he performs miracles or signs, for maybe they are false.

Rather, we believe a prophet because of a Torah commandment. The Torah instructs that if he fulfills the criteria it lays out, only then may he be accepted as valid. As for the Torah scroll itself with prophecies of Moses, we believe them because of the {several million Jewish} men, women and children saw and heard the Ten Commandments from G-d, as well as Moses receiving the commandments. The later works of Written Torah are selected later prophesies and historical records, which hold timeless messages for all generations. These works urge Jews and all Mankind to follow the good straight path, heeding what is stated in the Five Books of Moses.

However, {the commandments in the} Five Books of Moses were not all that Moses received from G-d at Mt. Sinai. He also received the {Oral Torah, including the Seven Noahide Commandments, and the authentic} interpretation of the Torah on all levels of PaRDe”S. [PaRDe”S is a Hebrew acrostic for P’shat, Remez, Drush and Sod, the names of the four dimensions of Torah interpretation. These are, respectively: the simple interpretation, the interpretation hinted (by numerical values, variant spellings of words etc.), the homiletic interpretation, and the kabbalistic interpretation. All of these were were given in full to Moses at Mt. Sinai].

This Oral Tradition is a necessity in the realm of kabbalah and the other non-literal dimensions of the Torah. It is also absolutely essential for the understanding of the laws of the Torah on the simplest level. For example, the Torah dictates that in order for meat to be permissible to be eaten {by Jews as kosher}, it must be slaughtered and prepared “as I {G-d} have instructed you” {Deuteronomy 12:21}. However, these instructions are found nowhere within the Written Law, and likewise with many other examples.

Originally, this Oral Law was strictly oral. It was passed on from generation to generation, with each generation learning it in its entirety by heart. It was not permitted to be written down, except for personal notes. Then came mounting persecution, mass dispersal of Jewish communities, and political and social upheavals under the Roman rule. It became increasingly difficult to have large schools where many could dedicate themselves to mastering this body of law. Therefore, Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, the leading sage, composed an extremely condensed work called the Mishnah. It encapsulated the whole of the Oral Law into a set of {very many} short notes. He circulated copies of it amongst the leaders of each community.

In this way, the Oral Law was not forgotten. The Mishnah was reviewed constantly and learnt by heart by the sages of many generations as a reminder of the whole of the Oral Law. Then some generations later, with mounting persecution, people were not able to spend the required time and effort to learn the whole of the Oral Law, even with the help of the Mishnah. Therefore, the leading scholar of the generation, Rabbi Ashi, took upon himself to record the entirety of the Oral Law, as well as how it was derived from the brief laws of the Mishnah. This work is called the Gemarah, and together the two {the Mishnah and the Gemarah} are called the Talmud.

A deeper explanation on the spiritual level

The inner meanings of the Written and Oral Torah are explained by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi in his most famous book of Chassidic discourses, Likkutei Torah, which was compiled by his grandson the third Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (section Deuteronomy, p. 158). [Insertions within square brackets are added by the Director of Ask Noah, for clarification.]

It is known regarding the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, that the Written Torah is on the lofty spiritual level of the Hebrew letters and their forms. As the Sages taught, the Hebrew letters of the Written Torah [in their prophetically received precise arrangement] form sacred Divine Names of the Holy One Blessed be He. And therefore all the Hebrew letters of the Written Torah are individually accounted for. Adding or subtracting even a single letter is forbidden.

[In the scribal writing of a sacred scroll, such as a Torah Scroll, a Scroll of the Book of Esther, or for scrolls in mezuzahs or tefillin,] every letter must be in its established form and relative size. And if it [the sacred scroll] is lacking anything, that letter [and thus the entire scroll] is disqualified. [I.e., the scroll does not become invested with G-dliness, and it cannot be used to fulfill the Divine commandment for which it was intended.]

[In spiritual terms], the letters are on the level of the intellectual power which is referred to as “Binah” [understanding, revealed through detailed analysis] … We see tangibly that when an intellectual concept comes into the level of one’s grasping and understanding, the letters of thought are revealed in it. But in the higher intellectual level of “Hokhmah” [wisdom contained within the flash of intuition], which is above the level of the understandable intellect, there is not yet a revealed level of letters of thought.

Thus, the meaning of the [precisely defined Hebrew] letters of the Written Torah is that it is on the level of “Binah” (Understanding) … From this a question arises: why do we say that the Written Torah emanates from the Divine attribute of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom)? With respect to the Originator of the Torah [i.e. G-d], it is on the level of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom), but with respect to the creations which receive it [i.e., souls, angels and physical humans], it is on the level of “Binah” (Understanding).

However, the Oral Torah is on the order of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom). Its main aspect is not the letters, but the intellectual concepts. That is the main thing that is revealed by the letters of Oral Torah. It is not letters but rather the concept that is the main thing [that must be revealed]. So we are not so particular about the exact letters used in the Oral Torah. This is because in the Oral Torah the main thing is the idea and the intellectual point that is being taught. Thus in many places in the Talmud we find statements like “What is the reason for the teaching of Rabbi Meir?” The level of reason is the level of “Hokhmah” (Wisdom), as it is known.

Response from a Noahide scholar

To further address your issues, I consulted with our “Expert on Call,” a devout Noahide who is an accomplished scholar of modern and ancient religions. (His studies began with a graduate degree in Theological Studies from Harvard School of Divinity.) Here is his reply, slightly edited for this format:

With all the religious turmoil and confusion in the world, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone started a Karaite “Noahide movement.” Compared to [some other newly invented flavors of Biblical religion], it seems downright prosaic for a Noahide somewhere to latch onto the heresy of the Karaites.

I of course reject the Karaite religion, and it has never held an attraction for me. Part of the reason is that before becoming a practicing Noahide, I spent six years in the Catholic Church and then investigated the Eastern Churches. Even as a Catholic, I had long since rejected the idea out of hand that the Bible alone, without an authoritative interpretive tradition, could be correctly understood. Your correspondent obviously comes from a religious background from which he is predisposed to believe in what is called a “sola scriptura” worldview.

One important point to could make is that even in Catholicism “sola scriptura” is a heresy, and that Protestantism is a more recent invention. But if he replies with “but that is where the ancient Church went wrong” (i.e., in rejecting “sola scriptura”), I don’t know how to reply to him. In that case he may still be hung up on the old Catholic-Protestant debate, which has no place in the Noahide world.

While it is good that he has rejected false “gods,” he also needs to reject the entire context in which the Protestant-Catholic debate takes place. Of course, the problem here is that this same debate existed within Judaism centuries earlier between the Karaites and the Rabbis. It just seems to me that if he had thoroughly investigated all the forms of the Church prior to coming to Noahism he would have already have rejected “sola scriptura,” and the Karaite position would not have appealed to him.

If he is so dedicated to the genuine Karaite tradition, I can give no new arguments that are not available elsewhere from Great Sages. I can only repeat them, perhaps in simplified language. The ultimate form of G-d’s Word is the Torah Scroll. This is not a machine-typed document such as most modern people are familiar with. (The fact that Protestantism began only after the invention of the printing press explains in part their seeming belief in a self-interpreting Bible, since they have no historical memory of when books had to be copied by hand).

Rather, the hand-copied Torah scrolls are written according to the strictest of all known rules. These ancient rules for copying Torah Scrolls are not written in the Torah Scroll! What greater refutation of the Karaite position could exist? For if there is no certain Divine Tradition outside what is written explicitly in the Torah, Prophets and Hagiographa, these rules do not exist (G-d forbid!). Then anyone could write or produce a “Torah” of any kind, and it would be considered valid. Ironically, the Karaites’ reliance on the text alone, since it does not include the rules for writing the Torah, would have destroyed the unchanging, uniform text and appearance of the Torah.

It is the orally transmitted rules which assure that every “kosher” Torah Scroll is an exact duplicate of the first Torah Scroll written by Moses, which was an earthly duplicate of the Heavenly Torah Scroll written by G-d in letters of “black fire upon a scroll of white fire, 974 generations before the Creation.” If there were no authentic Laws of G-d that were passed down orally, then there would be no blueprint for reproducing the Heavenly Scroll on earth. Then all we would have today at best would be the words alone without the crowns, spaces, sizes, shapes, etc. which define the “kosher” scribal letters and the words in the Torah Scroll.

Furthermore, the written text dictated to Moses by G-d was consonants only and had no written vowels. The vowels, which are 100% necessary for words to exist, are part of the Oral Tradition and not the Written Torah. It is true that the machine-printed Bibles we buy today have the vowels (as well as the other pronunciation marks), but this is no different from the Rabbinic commentaries the same books have: they are not part of the dictated text but the Authoritative Oral Tradition without which the written text would be useless to us, G-d forbid.

On top of this, there is the fact that by their very nature the Karaites themselves (like their counterparts in other heretical religions) are inconsistent. It is not possible to interpret 100% of the Bible in a 100% obvious sense. Someone is going to make an authoritative interpretation, even if he insists he is merely reading “the plain text”. The Karaites have in fact their own “unwritten tradition” which they follow.

The Karaites are not the first rejecters of the Oral Tradition, of course. The Saduces used the “plain text” argument as an excuse to reject all manner of spiritual and supernatural concepts, to a degree which would probably horrify your correspondent. I once met a young man who was “Torah only”, and he rejected the Afterlife. (He didn’t even accept the Prophets and Hagiographa).

Without the Oral Torah all is chaos. I do not deny for a moment that the Oral Tradition can indeed be mysterious, opaque, confusing at times. It can seem self-contradictory, and sometimes mountains seem to be suspended by threads, or even to float in the air. However, this merely means we should humble ourselves in the face of our lack of understanding. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that this was the only reason the Sages seemed to disagree with each other – to teach us humility.

In the end, where else is there to turn? Where else do we go for Truth? “Sola scriptura” is impossible, and all the other competing oral traditions are false and impostures. There is only Torah, Written and Oral, handed down to us by the unbroken chain of Sages, or there is nothing. Without this Oral Tradition which your correspondent condemns as false, the Written Torah would not even have been preserved intact and correctly into the second generation after Sinai. What more is there to say?

Finally, I have looked more deeply into the arguments of your correspondent, and it seems since he rejects the Talmud, he doesn’t even accept one of the defining principles of Noahism, that there are Seven Noahide Commandments!”

Additional note from the Director

That was a very brief explanation of the unique nature of the Oral Torah. It brings to mind a talk which the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, gave in February, ’87. The subject was the debate among the Sages in the Mishnah about what Elijah the Prophet will come to accomplish in his task of announcing the revelation of Mashiach (the Messiah). Here is a translation of a few paragraphs from his talk which are relevant to our discussion:

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

“These difficulties [the seeming differences of opinion] can be resolved within the context of the resolution of a problem of larger scope. According to Talmudic tradition, there cannot be a difference of opinion among the Sages over a point of fact, be it past or future.

To explain: Whenever there is a difference of opinion among the Sages, we say, “Both these and these are the words of the living G-d”. It is not that one opinion is right and the other wrong. Both opinions result from the application of sets of principles that are acceptable within Torah law. In practice, only one opinion is followed, but both positions are meaningful in the realm of divine service.

When is this explanation tenable? – In regard to a difference of opinion over a particular law or practice. In regard to an event that happened in the past or which will happen in the future, there cannot be two opinions. The event transpired – or will transpire – as it actually did or will. This is a fact concerning which there can only be one correct opinion.

[The Rebbe shows how the different opinions of several Sages about these activities of Elijah don’t conflict with this rule:]

Based on the above, we can appreciate the nature of the difference of opinion in the Mishnah… The Sages all [!] agree that the Prophet Elijah will carry out all [!] the activities mentioned in the Mishnah. The question is: What will he come to do? I.e., what is the purpose of his coming? What kinds of wrongdoing or confusion must be eliminated so that the world will be prepared for the Redemption?

…The final opinion cited by the Mishnah, that of the [majority of the] Sages, agrees that Elijah will deal with [all the activities mentioned], but does not consider this to be the purpose of his coming. Why, then, will Elijah come? – “To bring about peace in the world.” … [The other activities mentioned] are part of his individual achievements and do not reflect his [specific] mission in preparing the world for Mashiach’s coming.”

Addendum: The chain of transmission of the Oral Torah

Many people are not familiar with the chain of transmission of the Oral Torah. There was a great spiritual leader in each generation after Mt. Sinai, who led a court of prophets and sages to whom he taught the Oral Torah. They and their thousands of disciples taught the Oral Torah to the Jewish people in each generation. Thus, there was complete overlap of this knowledge from people of one generation to the next. Although they learned the Oral Torah, it was the spiritual leader who held the responsibility for raising up a great leader for the next generation, who would know the entire Oral Torah. These leaders who ensured accurate and complete transmission of the Oral Torah were:

From the L-RD G-d to:

(1) Moses, the greatest of all the Prophets

(2) Joshua, along with Elazar (son of Aaron) and Pinehas (son of Elazar)

(3) Pinehas (High Priest and son of Elazar)

(4) Eli the Judge and High Priest [2]

(5) Samuel the Prophet

(6) King David

(7) Ahiyah the Prophet

(8) Elijah the Prophet

(9) Elisha the Prophet

(10) Yehoyada the High Priest

(11) Zechariah the Prophet

(12) Hosea the Prophet

(13) Amos the Prophet

(14) Isaiah the Prophet

(15) Micah the Prophet

(16) Joel the Prophet

(17) Nahum the Prophet

(18) Habakkuk the Prophet

(19) Zephaniah the Prophet

(20) Jeremiah the Prophet

(21) Baruch the Prophet

(22) Ezra the Scribe, whose court included the Prophets Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and Daniel. It also included Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, Nehemia, Mordechai, Zerubavel and Shimon the Righteous

(23) Shimon the Righteous, High Priest and Sage

(24-34) Maimonides lists the main receivers of the Oral Torah in these generations in his “Introduction to the Mishneh Torah.”

(35) The sage Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, a direct patrilineal descendant of King David, wrote down the Oral Torah. It was in a brilliant abbreviated form, called the Books of the Mishnah, for widespread public use. Before this time, the Prophets and Sages who received the Oral Torah in each generation kept private notes on what they learned as oral lessons from their teachers. In the words of Maimonides:

“He [Rabbi Yehudah the Prince] gathered together all the traditions, all the enactments, and all the explanations and interpretations that had been heard from Moses or that had been deduced by the courts [of Prophets and Sages] of all the generations in all matters of the Torah; and he wrote the Book of the Mishnah from all of them. And he taught it in public, and it became known to all Israel; everyone wrote it down and taught it everywhere, so that the Oral Law would not be forgotten from Israel.

Why did [he] do so, and did not leave things as they were? Because he saw that the number of students was continuing to go down, and calamities were continually happening. Wicked government [under the Romans] was extending its domain and increasing in power. The Israelites were wandering and emigrating to remote places. He therefore wrote a work to serve as a handbook for all, that could be rapidly studied and not forgotten. Throughout his life, he and his court continued giving public instruction in the Mishnah.”

(36-39) In the 36th generation, Rabbi Yohanan wrote down the Jerusalem Talmud in the Land of Israel. That was about three hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple. In the 39th generation, the sage Rav Ashe wrote down the Babylonian Talmud.


1. “The Key to Chassidus,” by Bezalel Malamud (free to download).

2. There were several righteous individuals in Biblical times who miraculously lived exceptionally long lives. One of these was Pinehas, son of Elazar, son of Aaron. He transmitted the Oral Torah to Eli, who descended from Itamar son of Aaron.