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The Torah demands that we adhere to the laws implemented by the Rabbis (I think the source is "don't veer from what they tell you to the right or to the left"). This has given the Rabbis far-reaching authority to add mitzvot, impose fences, define ambiguous terms etc.

Why were the Rabbis given such extensive powers?

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2 Answers 2

Primarily, the torah was given to be a living document, subject to certain modes of understanding and application. In order to establish a system of that understanding, the chumash instructs the people to adhere to the particular teachings of those who, in each generation, are the authorities based on their learning and understanding. The torah is not in heaven, but on earth for us to live by so we need the experts who satisfy particular criteria to be those who help us live our lives properly. Pesukim 8-11 of devarim 17 point out the process and hand the mantle of that judicial and interpretive authority to the leaders of each generation.

ח כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט, בֵּין-דָּם לְדָם בֵּין-דִּין לְדִין וּבֵין נֶגַע לָנֶגַע--דִּבְרֵי רִיבֹת, בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ: וְקַמְתָּ וְעָלִיתָ--אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ. ט וּבָאתָ, אֶל-הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם, וְאֶל-הַשֹּׁפֵט, אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם; וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ, אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט. י וְעָשִׂיתָ, עַל-פִּי הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יַגִּידוּ לְךָ, מִן-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ. יא עַל-פִּי הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ, וְעַל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ לְךָ--תַּעֲשֶׂה: לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ--יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל

However, this power is not as extensive as it seems. Rulings cannot be capricious because they must be grounded in the tradition and accepted normative exegetical rules which are part of our tradition. The explicative methods and the legal implementations that we use now are not innovations and are bound severely by all that has come before.


edit -- I found this discussion of a similar question and thought it might be of help http://dixieyid.blogspot.com/2007/11/why-does-all-rabbinical-authority-come.html

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Related: beismedrash.blogspot.com/2012/06/authority-of-talmud.html (the second half of the post is basically an elaboration of one underrstanding of Dan's answer) –  Dov F Jun 26 '12 at 16:57
    
The dixieyid post is slightly problematic. It suggests that the sacrifices, which were done every day and in numerous different ways, were less well known than say how to acquire a slave which the Torah doesn't even explain at all, or how to deal with someone who caused damages to a pregnant lady. –  avi Jul 23 '12 at 18:07

You should know that its not so clear that the Bible, when it gives all this authority, has the Rabbis in mind - rather, it is the Rabbis who teach us that the verse is talking about the Rabbis!

Obviously, so much of Judaism isn't obvious from the Torah, but needs be taught to us by the Rabbis. So to some extent this all goes without saying. But when a particular teaching is about the Rabbis themselves, it is extremely important to remind ourselves of this fact.

As such, a more useful question might be, why - with in the Rabbinic worldview - did God give the Rabbis so much power.

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Aren't all questions on this site asked within the Rabbinic worldview? (At lease, I haven't seen very many Karaites around.) –  Double AA Feb 28 '13 at 21:40
    
We can certainly speak from a Rabbinic view, but we should be fully aware that we are doing so. The topic of this question - sources for rabbinic authority - is one in which that awareness is worth emphasizing. If we ignore it, we'll miss out on valuable areas of inquiry. Why did the Rabbis sees it in this verse? How does reading it from this verse influence the doctrine? How else did the Rabbis interpret this verse? –  Ben Feb 28 '13 at 22:13

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