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The Building Blocks of Jewish Knowledge

The Writing of Torah Shebal Peh (the Oral Law)

By Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Haber

The Writing of Torah Shebal Peh (the Oral Law)

Based on Halichos Olam

Torah Shebal Peh is not allowed to be written down (Gittin 60b)

The reason for this is that this ensures an accurate transmission from generation to generation because one will have to study from a master who will ensure that he is understood correctly. (Ritva Ibid).

Rabbeinu HaKadosh (also known as Rebbi and Rav Yehuda Hanasi) (165-220CE) lived in the last generation of Tannaic scholars, and realized that due to the series of tyrannical rulers over Israel, and the laws and edicts forbidding Torah study, Torah Shebal Peh was being forgotten.

Due to Rebbi’s unique relationship with Antoninus, the Roman Emporer, there was a brief respite from the Jews troubles. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi took advantage of the opportunity to, with the agreement of his contemporaries, convene a meeting of all the receivers of the mesorah of the Oral Law. They all recalled their teachings and it was written down and organized by Rebbi.

This work, known as the Mishnah (literally review) included anything that was transmitted from Moshe Rabbeinu on Mt Sinai and all their practical applications and disputes in theory practical applications. It also included later edicts, rules and safeguards that were enacted by the Rabbis.

The Mishna has six sections:

a) Zeraim – deals with the laws of agriculture
b) Moed – deals with calendrical events
c) Nashim – laws of marriage, divorce, levirate marriage and other marriage and vow related issues
d) Nezikin – laws of damages and monetary law
e) Kodshim – laws of sacrifices and other Temple related laws
f) Taharos – laws of Ritual purity and impurity

As the Mishnayos were typically precisely worded and cryptic, several of Rebbi’s students wrote parallel texts explaining the Mishanayos with additional reasoning and textual sourcing. These are known as Braisos or Tosefta.

Several generations later, a need was once again established to write down the Torah Shebal Peh by Rav Ashi, this time with much more detail and in greater length. This work, known as the ‘Gemara’, is based on the Mishnah but is an all-encompassing work and much broader in scope than the Mishnah.

The Gemara, or Talmud, has four objectives:

1) To fully explain the Mishnayos in their entirety and to add any additional dialogue that may have postdated the Mishna. To this end, the Gemara will often bring in Braisos to help elucidate the Mishnayos.
2) To issue a definitive ruling in the case of a dispute
3) To add any gezeiros or edicts that had been issued since the Mishna
4) To add various moral and ethical lessons to the masoretic tradition

This work was largely done by Rav Ashi in two editions (Baba Basra 157b) it was then added to very minutely by the Rabanan Sovrai, at which point (498CE) it was closed to further annotations.

For a more over-arching view of Torah Shebal Peh please read Rabbi Fink’s excellent article. Make sure to read the comments as well.


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