The Oral Torah was not revealed at Sinai


One of the fundamental principles of Orthodox Judaism is the belief that there is both a Written and an Oral Torah, both of which were revealed by God to Moses. Quite a few Orthodox rabbis declare that if a Jew does not accept this teaching, the Jew is not Orthodox and is a rebel, an epicurus.

These rabbis insist upon believing that the Oral Torah is divine because it differs radically with what is stated explicitly in the Written Torah. If people insist that they will only observe what is in the Written Torah and dismisses the Oral Torah, they will be behaving totally different than other Jews. 

Actually, as I have been pointing out, Jews can accept the view that the Oral Torah is not divine, but is an invention of the Pharisees and rabbis, and recognize that Judaism today is not Biblical Judaism, but Rabbinical Judaism, and observe the laws as explained by the rabbis and still be a good Jew, even an Orthodox Jew. Samuel David Luzzatto is a good example, as one can see from his writings.[1]

Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), known as Shadal, was a brilliant Orthodox Jewish scholar, who was the great-grandnephew of the equally famous Moses Hayyim Luzzatto (1707-1747) who was the author of Mesillat Yesharim. He was a devout believer in the divinity, unity, and antiquity of the Torah, but he read the Torah with an open mind and drew interpretations from many sources, Jewish and non-Jewish, ancient and modern, and always focused on the plain simple meaning of the text, as he understood its peshat.

Shadal disliked Maimonides and philosophy, and preferred the commentary of Rashi, but not Rashi’s midrashic interpretations. He recognized that while he considered himself Orthodox, he was not “so according to the ideas of the majority of the ‘kosher’ Jews.” He rejected source criticism and emendation of the Bible text advocated by contemporary Bible critics. In view of this and in view of his rational interpretations, which we will see below, it is strange that he disliked Maimonides. It is possible, and this is one of the many fascinating questions that this scholar raises in the minds of readers, that he was convinced that Maimonides had gone too far and that he rejected the divinity of the Torah.

Shadal was not averse to offering rational interpretations of halakhah, the Torah’s commands that differed from and even opposed what halakhah demanded, but he insisted that despite his interpretations, the halakhah was controlling in practice.[2]  The following are some of his ideas, including his understanding of the Oral Torah and his application of his understanding, that the rabbis can change what is in the Written Torah, to a law about women.

  • God is present and involved in human affairs, performs miracles, but always includes the ways of nature in the miracles. For example, the ten plagues were natural events that occurred from time to time in Egypt, but God made them happen in a single year (Exodus 7:20).
  • It is impossible that the Israelites entered Egypt as only 70 people, and left Egypt after 210-year numbering well over 600,000. They must have been in Egypt for some 400 years and the list of names were not consecutive generations, but there were other generations that are not listed between them (Exodus 6:20 and 12:40).
  • The Israelites during the ancient period, like people of other nations, were very superstitious, and the purpose of the collection of a silver half-shekel for the Tabernacle was to alieve their fear of the “evil eye” (Exodus 30:12).
  • Mount Sinai is called the mountain of God, not because it was holy, but because the Decalogue will be revealed there (Exodus 3:1).
  • The alien people who accompanied the Israelites when they exited Egypt were probably Egyptians who were married to Israelites and the flocks and herds that joined the exodus most likely belonged to them (Exodus 12:38).
  • All of the Israelites heard all of the commands in the Decalogue because of a special miraculous voice that God created for this purpose (Exodus 20:1) or by means of a vision (Exodus 24:10).[3]
  • The ancient Israelites were convinced that children are punished for the misdeeds of their parents, as indicated in Exodus 20:5, 34:7, Deuteronomy 5:9, Lamentations 5:7; but this view was changed in Jeremiah 31:28, Ezekiel 18:2, and Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a.
  • Jewish tradition states that God has thirteen attributes (Exodus 34:6, Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b), but he notes that there is no consensus what they are. In fact, he lists a dozen different listings of the thirteen, and could have listed more.

Two of Shadal’s views are especially significant and may bother what Shadal called “kosher Jews.” These were his idea that the Oral Law are commands developed by the rabbis and the rabbis changed the law concerning women’s obligation to observe certain commandments.

The Oral Law:

Shadal does not accept the view of what he called “kosher Jews” that the Oral Law, also called the Oral Torah,” was given to Moses at Sinai or at any place or time. He recognizes that the Oral Law is comprised of rabbinic enactments. But he contends that the Torah itself orders, or permits, the rabbis to make changes, add rules, and delete what God decreed. The Torah states in Deuteronomy 17:11 that the Israelites should obey the decisions of the legal authorities of their time and “not stray to the right or to the left from the decision that they communicate to you.”

Shadal states that the rabbis made the changes due deep wisdom, fear of God, and love of humanity, to alleviate social conditions, or to set up restrictive “fences’ around the law to assure that the law itself would not be violated.

The rabbis use two terms medioraita, “from the Torah,” and miderabbanan, “from the rabbis,” to classify the origin of laws. These terms should not be taken literally. A law is often called mideoraita even though it is clearly not mentioned in the Torah, because the rabbis found an asmmakhta, a peg upon which they could hang their decree.

It is likely that Shadal felt that the rabbis did not consider their calling rabbinical enactments “biblical,” because they were convinced that what they enacted was in the spirit of the Torah, that the rules were wise and helpful, the new post-temple era required them, they did not tell the people to ignore the plain meaning of the text, and Deuteronomy 17:11 not only allowed them to do so, but encouraged them by telling the people to follow the decisions made during their life time.

The exemption given to women regarding certain positive commandments

Shadal noted that there is no distinction made in the Torah regarding the observance of Torah commands; women are obligated to observe them the same as men. Yet the rabbis in post-biblical times decreed that women are not obligated to observe Torah positive commands that are time-bound, such as dwelling in a sukkah and using the four species on the holiday of Sukkot, or wearing Tefillin, since the observances are positive commands that occurs at a specific time and is not always obligatory.[4]

Shadal supposed[5] that when the Torah was revealed, women were treated fairly. But during the rabbinical period the rabbis noted that women were no longer treated as they should and were obliged to do much work in their families. So the rabbis, Shadal claims, having compassion upon women, lessened their religious burden by allowing them to ignore many biblical positive commands.

In view of Shadal’s strongly-held conviction that the Torah and its commands are from God, his rationale raises the question how he could have believed that the rabbis not only had the power to develop new laws, but even to annul what he, Shadal, felt God desired. Although he disliked Maimonides, this idea that Jews can change even positive commandments is what Maimonides taught in his Guide of the Perplexed 3:32.



[1] The facts stated herein are from “Shadal on Exodus, Samuel David Luzzatto’s Interpretation of the Book of Shemot,” translated and edited by Daniel A. Klein, Kodesh Press, 2015, 524 pages.

[2] Maimonides did the same. For example, he explained in Guide of the Perplexed 3:48 that the three-time-stated command not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk was ordained to avoid a pagan worship practice. Yet he included the rabbinic interpretation that one must not mix and eat dairy and meat products together. The commands are in Exodus 23:19, 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21, each using the same words.

[3] The Midrash Mekhilta and Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24a state the people only heard the first two commands. Shadal states that he understands that Maimonides wrote in Guide of the Perplexed 36 and 47 that God’s speech was directed to Moses alone and it was a vision.

[4] The rabbis decreed that wearing Tefillin is not required at night or on the Shabbat. Women must observe certain positive commands which have negative commands connected with them, such as the Shabbat, which is required in the Decalogue, but there are things which one may not do on the Shabbat.

[5] Without any legal or historical support. I pointed out to my study partners – Dr. Norman and Estelle Wald and my wife Dina – that the notion that women were treated fairly in ancient times is clearly wrong> Dr. Wald wisely commented that perhaps the Torah did not mention that women are obligated to observe the laws because they were treated as non-entities in the past. Later, when they were treated better, the rabbis understood that they were also obligated to observe the biblical commands, but they allowed them the dispensation.