Orality in Rabbinic Judaism

ת"ר מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו כמה תורות יש לכם אמר לו שתים תורה שבכתב ותורה שבעל פה
Our Rabbis have told us about one gentile who came before Shammai [and] said to him: How many Torahs do you have? He [Shamai] said to him: Two, a Torah which is written and a Torah which is oral

In these words, which are written in the tractate "Shabbat" of the Babylonian Talmud, Shammai is talking about a second Torah which exists beside the five books of Moses usually known as Torah. The term “Torah She Beal Peh” (“Oral Torah”) refers to rabbinic traditions, extra-scriptural teachings which are attributed to different Rabbis mostly of the Tannaitic and Amoraic period of Rabbinic Judaism. Those traditions specify ordinances (Halakha) given in the Written Torah and give additional material to its narratives (Haggadah). Important rabbinic works like Midrash and Talmud today are known to us as written texts. However, the role orality played for Judaism in rabbinic times is not to be underestimated.

The Babylonian Talmud, which constitutes one of the most important works of Oral Torah, hasn't always existed in the written, collected form we know it today.

As stated by Stemmberger, the term “Oral Torah” suggests that rabbinic traditions, as opposed to the Written Torah, were meant to be transmitted orally only (p. 44). There are rabbinic proof texts which support this thesis and might even lead one to assuming a prohibition to write down Oral Torah (pp. 45, 46). On the other hand, there are also passages in the Talmud which mention written rabbinic Halakha and Aggadah (pp. 46-50).

As this picture of a Rabbi teaching in a Yeshiva in Bnei Brak illustrates, today's lessons are taught by means of notes and books. However, the question of the emergence and transmission of traditions in rabbinic times remains unsettled. While Catherine Hezser assumes them to have originated in discussions between Rabbis and their collegues, students and community members who approached them for legal advice (pp. 38, 39), Martin S. Jaffee argues for the pre-existence of “written texts which served either as sources for learned exposition or as scripts for public declamation.” (p. 56).

The way in which rabbinic teachings are presented in the Talmud in its redacted form seems to clearly suggest oral emergence and transmission. Discourses between Rabbis in many cases form the frame for the treatment of halakhic topics and several opinions are mentioned next to each other, each of which is legitimized by a preceding chain of transmission, telling the reader, who narrated the tradition.

Probably the most prominent example thereof is the tractate Pirkei Avot, which appears in the Mishnah and begins with a description of how the Torah was transmitted by Moses, who received it from God at Mount Sinai, to Yehoshua, who passed it on until the chain of transmission reaches Hillel and Shammai, thereby claiming the Oral Torah of the Rabbis to be revealed alongside the written one at Mount Sinai.

Although the used verb “masar” (to give, to notify, to transmit) doesn’t undoubtedly refer to an oral transmission, it clearly claims that the Rabbis received their Torah from God. Even though it’s important to note that these narratives mustn’t be taken as historically accurate and “the dispute form […] must be seen as a literary form constructed at the editorial stage […]” (Hezser, p. 46), these traits might reflect the setting in which rabbinic traditions were created. Furthermore there are distinct stylistic features like a certain rhythm of the text or the appearance of rhymes that can be interpreted as helpful for and therefore indicating oral transmission (Stemmberger, p. 51).

The internet appearance “Kikar Ha-Shabbat”, intended to replace the crossing Kikar Ha-Shabbat in Jerusalem as the place, where Charedim (Ultraorthodox Jews) meet in order to exchange relevant information and demonstrate for their concerns, exemplifies how rabbinic teachings nowadays still are sometimes presented in the oral form. There you can find videos and audio files dealing with halakhic and aggadic topics, taught by contemporary Rabbis.


bShab 31a, in: Tamud in 12 Bdd, Bd I: Masechet Berachot, Shabbat, Talmud, Jerusalem (own translation)

Hezser, Catherine, From oral conversations to written texts : randomness in the transmission of rabbinic traditions, in: Weissenrieder, Annette and Coote, Robert B. (edit.), The Interface of Orality and Writing, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 2010, 36-51

Jaffee, Martin S., How much "orality" in oral Torah? : New perspectives on the composition and transmission of early rabbinic tradition, Shofar 10,2 (1992) 53-72

Stemmberger, Günter, Einleitung in Talmud und Midrash, 9. Auflage, C.H. Beck, München 2011, 44-58

Yitzchak Yosef, Halakha Yomit, Yahadut, Kikar Ha-Shabbat, http://www.kikar.co.il/abroad/266038.html, last access 02/11/2018

Created By
Tilman Wiesbeck


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