By Israel Drazin


Judaism today is not Torah Judaism, but rabbinic Judaism. Virtually all Torah laws, if not all of them, were modified by the rabbis to meet the needs of the time when the alterations were made.[1] These changes are called Torah shebalpe, Oral Torah. While they are innovations, they are based on the text or spirit of Torah laws.[2]

There is one source in the Talmud[3] that states that all laws, including the Talmud itself, were “given by God to Moses at Sinai.” However, another Talmudic source[4] is opposite. It contains a parable of Moses being shown Rabbi Akiva teaching Torah to his students in the second century CE. Moses watched and was startled; this was not the Torah he gave the Israelites. Then he heard students ask: “’Rabbi, what is your source?’ He answered them: ‘halakhah l’Moshe Misinai (it is a law Moses obtained at Sinai).’” Moses was relieved.” While realizing that Rabbi Akiva’s teaching was not what he taught, he was consoled, for Rabbi Akiva was saying these laws are derived in some way from Mosaic law and they are as significant as if Moses obtained them at Sinai. When did the Oral Law begin?


The general scholarly and rabbinical view is that the Oral Torah blossomed during the second temple period, when Judeans[5] who had returned from the Babylonian exile were faced with new problems that the Torah did not address and others that were addressed but needed updating to fit the situations they found. The Chassidic Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin (1823-1900)[6] wrote[7] that the Oral Torah burst into full bloom around 150 BCE, when Jews began to integrate scientific findings of nature and logic into their understanding of the Torah. His felt that the Oral Torah was used extensively after the last prophets died, when it was no longer possible to learn proper behavior from God, and Jews had to rely on their interpretation of the Torah. “And although (the Oral Torah) was not evident (in the Written Torah) it revealed (the Torah’s goal).”


But the Oral law did not begin at this time. Rabbi Tzadok states:[8] Deuteronomy 1:5’s “Moses began to explain this Torah” reveals that “Deuteronomy is Moses’ own version (of past events). It is the beginning of the Oral Law.” This, continued Rabbi Tzadok,[9] explains why the version of the Decalogue in Deuteronomy 5 is different than in Exodus 20: “She’amar Moshe mipi atzmo, (Moses said these laws on his own authority).”[10] “Even the many other statements by Moses contained in Deuteronomy that do not indicate they were said by God are also Oral Torah developed by Moses…just as the Oral Torah that the (later) sages of Israel said on their own authority.”[11]


Rabbi Tzadok noted that events narrated in earlier Torah books ended during the second year after the exodus. Moses began his Deuteronomy speeches thirty-eight years later when he addressed a new generation, people who would shortly enter Canaan and face radically new problems that required new laws and innovations and interpretations of existing laws. Deuteronomy is this new interpretation, one fitting land owners rather than desert nomads, a society comprised of rich and poor, unlike the desert wanderers who were all poor. This explains the many differences between Deuteronomy laws and those in former Torah books. One shouldn’t try to reconcile the two versions because they are purposely different.


Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, known as Netziv (1816-1893)[12] agreed. He interpreted[13] Deuteronomy 5:1’s “Moses called all Israel and said to them: ‘Hear Israel the chukim and mishpatim that I am speaking in your ears today, learn and observe them’…chukim are the principles…how to interpret the Torah…mishpatim are laws derived from these principles, new laws…. Moses taught Israel (how to develop Oral Torah) by showing them principles and the laws that he derived from them. And they understood how they could also do the same in future generations.”


Netziv went further.[14] He states that principles of interpretation also change. During the first century CE, for example, Hillel listed seven principles, in the second century Rabbi Ishmael used thirteen.[15] “This is because new principles (were needed) in every generation.”


In short, Judaism today is radically different than Torah Judaism because the rabbis found it necessary to adapt Torah laws. These adaptations, called Oral Torah, began as early as the time of Moses and blossomed during the middle of the second temple period.[16]


[1] For example, despite the Torah stating that all debts are nullified during the Shemitah year, which occurs every seventh year (the next Shemitah will begin in September 2013), Hillel invented “prozbul,” a method whereby debts could remain in force beyond the Shemitah year.

[2] Often, as the Talmud states, hanging by a thread.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5a. Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman gave me the Talmudic sources, as well as those of Netziv and Rav Tzadok of Lublin.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b.

[5] As Jews were called at that time.

[6] He was considered an illui, a brilliant Talmudist.

[7] In Machshavot Charutz (Sharp Thoughts) 139.

[8] In Peri Tzadik (Righteous Product) 21.

[9] In Maamar Kedushat Shabbat (The Holiness of Shabbat) 7.

[10] Many traditionally-minded people who accept Rabbi Tzadok’s view say that God saw what Moses wrote and told him to incorporate it into the Torah.

[11] There are many other indications in Deuteronomy that the book contains Moses’ teachings. The book begins “these are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel.

[12] He was the prominent dean of Volozhin Yeshiva.

[13] In Ha’emek Davar (The Depth of the Torah) on Deuteronomy 5:1.

[14] Ha’emek Davar, Leviticus 25:18.

[15] Tosefta Sanhedrin 7:5.

[16] The Pharisees made these adaptations prior to 70 CE when the rabbinical period began, and the rabbis continued the practice, which created rabbinical Judaism. An excellent source showing the development of Oral Torah is the three-part series by Binyamin Lau, The Sages. Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman said that Rabbi Tzadok’s explanation of the origin of Oral Law starting with Moses could explain why we see Israelites behaving contrary to the Torah laws in the post-Moses periods. They were following the Oral Torah. For example, the Written Torah states that the Levirate law is that a brother of a deceased married male who left no children must marry his brother’s widow. In the book Ruth, the law is different: any relative must marry the widow and the relative redeems the deceased’s property.