By Israel Drazin


The Oral Torah is made up of laws that were developed after the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, was completed. The changes were made by Pharisees and later by rabbis. These changes are called Oral Torah.[1] So many changes were made that Judaism today is not Torah Judaism but rabbinical Judaism.

In my article “The first Oral Torah,” I wrote that the general scholarly and rabbinical view is that the Oral Torah blossomed during the second temple period, when Judeans 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 in Judea.

I mentioned that the Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz of Lublin[2] 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 that the Oral Torah began with Deuteronomy where Moses altered many laws previously stated in the biblical books Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. He wrote: “Deuteronomy is Moses’ own version (of past events). It is the beginning of the Oral Law.” He states that all “statements by Moses contained in Deuteronomy that do not indicate they were said by God are Oral Torah developed by Moses…just as the Oral Torah that the (later) sages of Israel said on their own authority.” Tzadok said that God saw what Moses wrote, approved it, and told Moses he wanted Deuteronomy to be included as part of his Torah. This explains the many differences between the laws in Deuteronomy and the prior books.

The tenth century Midrash Rabbah 5:13 has a similar view. It mentions that Moses violated God’s clear instructions twice. God told Moses to deliver two tablets upon which the Decalogue was written to the Israelites. Instead, Moses broke them when he saw Israelites worshipping the golden calf.[3] The Midrash states that despite Moses flouting the divine decree, God forgave him. God thereby approved what was most likely the first Oral Torah.

The second breach and change that Moses made in the divine instruction that Midrash Rabbah recognizes is in Deuteronomy. Moses tells his people that prior to the battle with Sichon, the Israelites must seek peace with his kingdom.[4] The Midrash notes that this is a clear violation of God’s instruction to begin the battle without seeking peace.[5] The Midrash acknowledges that Moses contravened God’s decree, but adds that God approved what he did.

These two examples are significant because we have Midrash Rabbah, an important document of traditional Judaism, recognizing that Jews can change biblical laws, even developing contrary legislation, the Oral Torah and rabbinical Judaism.


[1] The first “rabbi” was after 70 CE, after the second Jewish temple was destroyed, when Jews ceased to offer sacrifices. After 70, the emphasis in Judaism was on the synagogue and Torah study. Scholars before 70, such as Hillel, were not called rabbis. Pharisees were Jews before 70 CE, from about 320 BCE. Sadducees were their opponents. Sadducees insisted that the Torah be observed as written, while Pharisees introduced significant changes in biblical laws.

[2] 1823-1900.

[3] Exodus 32:19.

[4] Deuteronomy 2:26.

[5] Deuteronomy 2:24.