Oral vs Written Torah: Why Does Judaism Need Written & Oral Law? | Aleph Beta

Why Does Judaism Need the Written Law and Oral Law?

The Difference Between Written Law And Oral Law

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Rabbi Fohrman tackles a difficult and controversial question: Why do the oral laws from the rabbis end up looking so different than the written Biblical laws? And even more so – what does law have to do with God and spirituality? What is the point of the legalism inherent in our religion? In this video, Rabbi Fohrman argues that thought without action can wither away, and that law is about finding spirituality in the mundane.

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Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman, and welcome to Parshat Re'eh, you are watching Aleph Beta.

All right guys, cheeseburgers everybody, it's the classic non-Kosher food and it's not Kosher not just because the meat wasn't slaughtered properly, even if you have slaughtered the meat according to Jewish law, it's still not Kosher.

According to Torah law milk and meat cannot be cooked together, but the problem is if you actually look in the Torah you will never find a verse that actually says this, 'milk and meat cannot be cooked be together.'

Oral Torah vs Written Torah Law

It would seem like such a simple thing to say, 'don't cook milk and meat together', and yet that's not how the Torah says it. The actual Written Torah expresses this law very differently. The verse that's the source for not cooking milk and meat together is a verse in this week's parsha; loh tevashel gedi b'chalev imo – do not boil a kid, baby goat, in its mother's milk.

So you say, how come I can't eat my cheeseburger, I'm not boiling a kid in its mother's milk when I eat a cheeseburger? What is going on here? Why does the Written Torah say one thing, and the Oral Torah that explains these laws to me, tells me something else?

Now there are reasons for this. Our belief is, is that the Oral Torah, at least the main principles in interpretations of the Oral Torah, were passed to Moses along with the Written Torah at Sinai, and these interpretations were passed down from generation to generation orally.

So the Written Torah did contain a kind of oral explanation, and, if any elements of that explanation got lost over time, well the Oral Tradition also included a set of tools whereby you could recover these teachings. There were exegetical methods going back to the Torah's text and extracting those legal teachings. We call this Halachic Drash, it's used all over the place throughout the Talmud.

So that's a little quickie background on Oral Law and Written Law, but what I want to talk with you about is what the rationale behind that is. Why have a Written Law and an Oral Law at all? The Written Law says what is says, why don't I just do that? How come there has to be a discrepancy at all between the Written Law and the Halachic, legal expression of that law?

Why Does Judaism Need Oral Law and Written Law?

I think to attack this point, we really need to look at the role of law itself within the Torah as a whole. Because I might just take the devil's advocate position, that why do I have to have so many laws? Six hundred and thirteen laws in the Torah?

If the Torah is trying to guide me spiritually, why doesn't the Torah talk about lofty, overarching concepts like love? Why don't I spend my days in meditation? What am I doing keeping to this legal code? Legal codes don't seem so spiritual. How can you have a religion based upon law? What is the role of law in the Torah?

I want to just point out by way of observation that in this question about law being so mundane, we might respond to that by saying, in a sense law fits life, because life is mundane. It's not just law that is mundane, life is mundane.

You know, Rabbi Berel Wein once said, life is like chewing gum, first you get a little bit of flavor and after that it's all chew, chew, chew. Or to use another analogy, life is like a cross-country trip. I remember driving cross country in 2001 with my kids, every once in a while you get to something really spectacular – Mount Rushmore, Yosemite, Zion National Park – and these things are really inspiring, but other than that it's cornfields. I mean there's a lot of cornfields out there and one just looks like the other. That's kind of like of life.

Life has a lot of routine in it; it's board meetings, it's picking up the kids from carpool, it's making lunch, it's bedtime, filing reports for your boss, it's all of these things. Yes, there are these grand, symphonic moments in your life; your wedding day, 10th anniversary, these glorious family vacations to Disneyland, the Alps, and all of that stuff. But those are just the things that punctuate our regular mundane existence, it's not the main stuff that life is made out of.

So is it mostly about just living for the grand moments, and that's the exciting thing, and I just have to put up with the cornfields? Or is there spirituality in the cornfields also?

What Is the Purpose of Oral and Written Torah Law?

I think the Torah's position is very firmly, there's spirituality in those cornfields – and that's where law comes in. The purpose of law is to take some of those lofty ideals and to find ways to bring them into everyday life.

We need to do that for two reasons. First, if we don't then everyday life remains truly mundane. This is a way of elevating everyday life. Secondly, if we don't do this, the ideals themselves will be lost, we will lose our grasp upon them.

There's a poem that I really like from Emily Dickinson – I'm a fan in general of her poetry – there's one called "Deed," and it talks about this. The poem goes like this.

A deed knocks first at thought,

And then it knocks at will.

That is the manufacturing spot,

And will at home and well.

It then goes out an act,

Or is entombed so still

That only to the ear of G-d

Its doom is audible.

Now what was she talking about here? She was talking about how we get to do anything in life and she was also talking about why it's important that we actually do things in life and not just hold on to abstract ideas. She's arguing that anything that we do, if you kind of take it apart, there's a three-step process involved.

Before we do it, it begins as a thought, we have to think about some sort of ideal that we want to reach for. Wouldn't it be great if there was less drunk driving on the roads? But then that thought has to go knocking on a door, the door of will, emotion, passion. In other words, the next question is, can that thought engage your emotions and get you to feel fired up, interested and passionate about it?

You see the pain in the face of a mother who lost her child to a drunk driver, and you say, that's terrible, you get fired up about that. The next thing you do, is you say, I'm going to do something about that, which is the poem's next line. Will, that's the manufacturing spot for a deed.

After you get will, passion, engaged, it then goes out an act – that thought is transformed into an act, you're going to do something with it. You're going to be the founder or the charter member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Its first meeting is going to be in your living room.

So yes, if that thought can get your heart excited about it, that you can have some passion and will behind that thought, then the deed will go out as an act. But if it doesn't, if you never succeed in transforming that deed into some sort of act that you actually do in real life, then the deed dies and the emotion dies and the thought dies.

It's all entombed so still that only to the ear of G-d its doom is audible. No one but G-d will have ever known that that thought was ever there in your head in the first place.

So the upshot is, ideals are important, but how do you take those ideals and make them a part of the cornfields – everyday life?

Imagine a guy who is into an ideal, how special his wife is, he sits on the stone floor and meditates upon this all day long; how special is my wife. A guy comes to him and says, you know if you really think your wife is so special you should feel something, but what does your emotion tell you? So he says oh yes, excuse me, and the next day, he's there, he's meditating on the stone floor about how much he loves his wife, how passionate he is about her. He sits there with eyes closed and candles burning, just meditating about how in love he is with his wife. How impressed is his wife going to be with this?

You know, after a couple of days, his wife is going to come knocking on the door, it's like, do you think maybe you could help out in the kitchen, change a diaper, something? It's like, if you really love me, that love, that feeling, would have to translate somehow into action, even a mundane action, something. And if it doesn't, that love will die.

Because in the human soul thoughts don't last and even emotions don't last unless they can find an expression in the world of action. I don't care if it's a mundane expression, a mundane action, but that mundane action is a lifeboat for the thought, for the passion, for the ideal. It allows it to survive in real life.

The Elements of Oral Torah and Written Torah

So the Torah talks to us about laws, but remember there's two elements in laws, there are the grand ideals and then there are the ways to express those grand ideals in mundane, everyday life – the details of the laws.

So I can talk about law from each of these two perspectives. One way to talk about law is to express the grand ideals, another way to talk about law is to express ways in which to filter down those ideals into everyday life. The first job more or less, is done by the Written Torah, the second job more or less, is done by the Oral Torah.

So what that means is this: in Torah Shebichtav – in the Written Torah – the Torah will sometimes express law in terms of the ideals. The Oral Torah will find a way to translate that law into particular details, so that I can bring the ideals into daily life.

Understanding Oral and Written Law in Daily life

So in our case, there is an overriding ideal, think about it. In creation, originally, did not give man the right to consume meat. It involved killing another living, breathing being, and you weren't supposed to do that. The original man was vegetarian. He, and the animals, shared a common food source: the grasses of the field, the vegetation of the ground, the fruits of the trees. But then after the flood G-d gave man the ability to consume animals and yet, there are limits. You have to understand what you're doing when you're taking another life, killing another mammal like yourself for food.

Milk. Milk isn't something you buy in a store, it's a sacred liquid for a mammal, it's how a mother nurtures a child. Meat is the opposite of that milk, it's the death of the animal. Life is nurtured through milk, but meat is about the death of that which was nurtured.

So once you realize that, yes, I give you permission to eat animals, yes, I give you permission to consume milk, but would you boil a kid, a baby goat in its mother's milk? You wouldn't do that, right? That would be a kind of desecration of sorts, you'd be treating that food – the milk and the meat – just as things, as mere ingredients, that you can just mix and match together.

Okay, so that's the ideal, but how many times a day are you faced with the opportunity of boiling a baby goat in its mother's milk? It's a particular vision of an ideal, but how does that make its way into my life in a daily way? For that we have the Oral Torah, and the Oral Law comes along and says, let me show you how we're going to translate that ideal into daily life; we're going to keep milk and meat separate.

Every day when I have a cup of milk, every single day when I have meat, I can understand that these things shouldn't be mixed, don't cook them together, don't eat the products of cooking them together, they don't go together. There's an ideal and then regular, mundane expressions of that ideal.

If you keep to these laws throughout the cornfields of life, if you don't mix milk and meat in that way, you elevate your experience of eating, you elevate your experience of shopping. Milk and meat aren't just things anymore, you've taken an ideal and made it part of your daily life, and you've therefore worked to save that ideal. It will survive through your mundane actions.

Even though your life may look like a lot of cornfields, those cornfields suddenly won't seem quite as mundane as they used to be, as all of a sudden something as simple as a trip to a store or a bite of food can become a little embodiment of a higher consciousness. A little embodiment of holiness itself.

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