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In parsha ki tetze (Devarim 22) it says if a man takes a wife, hates her, accuses her of not being a virgin, etc. Then the elders spread out the bedsheet to see if there is blood of virginity. If not, then the man is fined. If yes, then the girl is excecuted publicly.

Rashi brings down the oral law which explains that it refers to the case where there were witnesses that she committed adultery. The plain reading of the verses however offers no such clue. It appears that only if the bedsheet did not have blood, then the girl is stoned to death by all the inhabitants of the city.

Anyone unfamiliar with the oral law will read this and consider the torah to be barbaric and bizzare. Question is why did God write the torah in such a way that it appears so misleading without the oral law.

There are many many other examples, take for example in parsha vayera (Bereishis 21:6-7) "Upon seeing the son of Hagar engaged in 'laughter' Sarah demands that Hagar and her "son" be sent away" (21:10). Without the oral law which explains "laughter" to be attempted murder it seems really, really bizzare. What just because the kid laughed, you want to send away him and his mother to die in the desert???

Is the torah trying to repel those without access to the oral law??

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Not misleading at all,the point is the Torah is vague so one has to come onto the oral law to show it is divine the written and oral law are hand in hand. – sam Aug 13 '13 at 17:12
right but it seems to be trying to push away those without access to the oral law such as nonjews – ray Aug 13 '13 at 17:14
I think that @Sam has a very valid question which was bothering me as well, Ray I disagree with you, if you look in parshas Breishis where god says "Lets make" by the creation of Adam Rashi explains that the Torah is giving an excuse for the non believers but even there it can be explained in accordance with text as the Talmud says that God was consulting the angels see rashi there for full explanation. – Bernard Goldberger Aug 13 '13 at 18:23
a poor analogy but I'll say it nonetheless. No one thinks that the founding fathers meant to confer absolute freedom of speech on everyone at every time when they wrote the bill of rights. But someone without access to case law and the fuller legal system would think that they meant that. Why be so vague? Because the text is intended for those who study it in its fullness, not in bits and pieces. – Danno Aug 13 '13 at 21:28
Regarding Yishmael's behavior, this relates to aggadic midrashim; probably not part of torah shebaal peh. ineed many of the commentators (e.g. Rabbenu Avraham ben HaRambam) believe that he was kicked out for a lack of decorum and seriousness. שחק meaning mockery and jest, more that "laughter". He was not meant to die. (Perhaps you got the impression from Rashi that he was meant to die, but this itself is Midrashic). – mevaqesh Jan 22 at 1:52

The Rambam in Moreh Nevukhim 3:41 (2nd paragraph) explains the reason behind "an eye for an eye" literally, then says that we should not be bothered that the law is that one pays, because his goal is to explain the written Torah, not the halakhah, and one who wants an explanation of the halakhah should consult the Rambam in person. The commentator Narboni explains that the written law of "an eye for an eye" is the ideal, which can never be practically implemented--because, as the Gemara says, one might end up killing the person which wouldn't be equitable. This means that the written Torah expresses a level of law which cannot be implemented in practice, and the oral law tells us the law as it is carried out.

This is similar to the approach of the Vilna Gaon, who says that the oral and written law are like clay and a seal--the written law is compared to a seal which leaves its imprint backwards in the clay (Aderet Eliyahu, Parshat Mishpatim). According to the Gra, the written law by itself does not represent the law as it is actualized in this world. The "applied law" may appear as the opposite of the law as it is written. For the Gra, this is connected to the kabbalistic level of the written law.

R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, in the introduction to his Dor Revi'i, says that the reason the oral law was not given in writing was to provide necessary flexibility (this is also the explanation given by Mordecai Gumpel Schnaber Levisohn in his Ma'amar ha-Torah veha-Chochmah here). However, the flexibility of the oral Torah doesn't extend to all cases. As the Rambam explains in the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah, there are "received explanations" (peirushim mekkubalim) from Moshe, which cannot change.

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so how do you explain the second example with yishmael that commited the cardinal sin of "laughing"?is it also ideal to banish him for that? – ray Oct 19 '13 at 17:29
מצחק does not always mean laughing. See e.g. Genesis 39:14. In any case, 1. in non-halakhic cases, there is greater latitude to explain the verse, and in this case there is a range of opinion too; 2. the word "צחוק" is used in a number of ways in describing the story of Yitzchak, so it should not surprise us to find it here. In other words, one must also look at the context to understand the Torah. – wfb Oct 20 '13 at 4:52
the context there is the birth of yitzchak and the torah uses the same word many times to convey laughter, such as that sarah "laughed", etc. – ray Oct 20 '13 at 5:00
But Sarah's laughter is not the same as Avraham's. Or how about Gen. 26:8: והנה יצחק מצחק את רבקה אשתו – wfb Oct 20 '13 at 5:21
So מצחק can be used in a sexual context, Still doesn't explain why Rashi concludes that it means "murder" – Shmuel Jun 1 '14 at 1:08


What could be contained in this question, and manner in which we answer it, is going to depend on several things. First of all, we should clarify what we're asking about: your specific question mentioned only phrases that needed 'reinterpretation', but there are many more cases that deserve inquiry, such as gezairah shavas (see the Rambam's introduction to the Mishna, where he breaks it up into 5 components, and we should really ask about the requirement for all 5). Another matter to take into account is the question of how we view the roles of/relationship between 'pshat' and 'derash' - which, in turn, might differ between narrative passages (parts of the Torah that tell a story) and instructive (as in, commandments) sections. The examples in your question contained a sample of each. Additionally, this question can be asked in two forms: 'why is there a clear need for an Oral Law (meaning, why did the Written Law have to be written with contradictions and ambiguities)', or, 'why does the halakha follow something other than the plain meaning', which is asked here, which is a distinct question and not directly meant to be answered here (though I think it is indirectly).

1. Idiomatic Expressions

Some differences between the Written Law and its explanation can be simply explained by saying that the expression in the text of the Torah literally means what the Oral Law says, and that's how it would have been interpreted by any reader of the Torah around the time and place where it was written - even without the Oral tradition. In other words, these are idioms or expressions whose meaning would have been clear to the original recipients of the Torah and we only needed to preserve these peirushim hamekubalim misinai because these expressions might fall out of use and need to be understood thousands of years later. For example, the Torah commands that [these things/words should be] 'totafos' between your eyes (Devarim 6:4). Disregarding the meaning of totafos, why would the Torah say 'between your eyes' when it means 'above your hairline' (Shulchan Aruch 27:9)? The answer, as evidenced by Ugaritic texts, is this is what the phrase actually means, as it is an idiom for the front of the head, not the nose-bridge between the eyes. [footnote 1] Similarly, Rashi's explanation of your example in Devarim 22 indicates that, in fact, a reader of the text without an Oral tradition would actually get it right - if they were a reader in Israel, c. 1200 BCE. (I admit that in this particular case, such an explanation may be unsatisfying). I am fairly certain that the question of Yishmael's 'playing' should be understood in the same way, namely, that an ancient reader would not have been puzzled by this use of the word 'metzchek'. [footnote 2]

2. Levels of Meaning

Let us grant, however, that there are many more cases where peirushim hamekubalim misinai are not idiomatic expressions, but deviations or reinterpretations of the text. The most striking and oft-discussed example is the requirement for an injurer to pay 'an eye for an eye' (Shemos 21:23), which the Sages interpret to mean monetary payment (Bava Kamma 83b). While one may argue that this runs against the plain meaning of the Written Law, it isn't so clear, because the Torah also says (assuming that the Torah is one unified whole, written by One divine Author) "you cannot accept money as reimbursement for a murder" (Bamidbar 35:31), clearly implying that money can be accepted as payment for injury. (However, the Ibn Ezra seems to think that this too is an an idiom, as in the example above).

The first approach is that the somewhat misleading message that is gleaned from seeing only one fragment of the Torah's larger picture is that the Torah intends to convey multiple levels of meaning, which are true on varying level, even if only one of them can be acted upon in terms of halakhic implementation. This seems to be brought out often in the commentary of the Ramban, who often gives explanations of the verses according to Chazal, and then a different explanation 'al pi peshat', and a third 'al derech ha'emes', and the Ramban sees no contradiction; all these meanings are intended by the verse even if only one of them can be used in halakha. In the example discussed, there may be levels in which the strict 'eye for an eye' is indeed true. The Rikanti on the pasuk in Shemos 21:23 asks, why couldn't the Torah just say 'pay money'? He shows that the manner in which the pasuk is written does teach certain kabbalistic truths. The Rambam too, may not think that there are mystical lessons taught by the 'peshat', but the moral lessons to be gained from the mitzvos are better gained from reading the peshat (Moreh Nevuchim 3:41 and in Hil. Chovel U'Mazik 1:1). Thus, the 'partial picture' of reading one pasuk in Shemos actually teaches us Torah messages, if not the halakha. [footnote 3]

3. Emphasizes the Importance of an Oral Tradition

R. Chasdai Crescas in the beginning of Ohr Hashem explains that the reason why we have 'two Torahs' and that the Written Torah is so unclear is so that it be obvious that we shouldn't rely solely on the Written Law. As Hillel told a convert, we need to rely on the Sages and the tradition in order to understand what any word may mean (Shabbos 31a), and besides, there are simply too many details to be fully contained in a book. Therefore, to make sure that we would never make the mistake of attempting to interpret the Torah without the Oral Tradition, Hashem made sure that there would be contradictions, ambiguities, etc. This explanation, in different forms, has been repeated by many others over the generations, including R. Crescas' student, R. Yosef Albo (Sefer HaIkkarim 2:23)

In what may be deemed a variation of this explanation, R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg, in the intro to Hakesav Vehakabalah, says that the Oral Torah is like the 'soul' of a physical body, and is therefore too sublime and extensive to be contained in a physical manner, but rather is left to be recognized as infinite and unending. In other words, the Torah contains so-to-speak 'imprecise' language to indicate that its true meaning is more exalted than anything that can be contained in language.

4. Flexibility of Interpretation

Thus far, we have only discussed explanations of phrases where the halakha may be different that the phrase's plain meaning, but there are other parts to the Oral Law. In the Rambam's division of the Oral Torah into five parts, he names the third part 'hekeshos', things learned from derashot such as 'gezairah shava' and the like. In these areas, it's unclear whether or not they can go against the plain meaning of the text. In Bava Kama 7b it appears that a gezaira shava cannot override the plain meaning of the text, though to what extent may be subject to an argument between R. Akiva and R. Yishmael.

In this area of the Oral Law, which involves the usage of hermeneutical principles, there is considerable amount of flexibility of interpretation, which is why the Talmud is so full of arguments and different opinions. In fact, while many are aware of the concept that one court cannot annul the decrees of an earlier court unless it is greater בחכמה ובמנין (in wisdom and number), the Rambam (Hil. Mamrim 1:1-2) believes that this is only true regarding Rabbinic enactments, but with regards to interpreting the Torah - any Beis Din Hagadol can undo the interpretations of that of an earlier generation. Regarding this specific form of "Oral Law" therefore, some have suggested that the reason for its not being set in writing was in order to allow for flexibility. R. Moshe Shmuel Glasner, in his introduction to Dor Revii, says that the Torah allowed for this flexibility in order to 'match with the times' so to speak, and such an idea seems to exist in the writings of Rav Kook as well. [footnote 4]

Further Reading: David Henshke, אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו. ‫המעין יז,ג (תשלז) 7-19; יז,ד: 52-69 ‬

(link: http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pagefeed/hebrewbooks_org_29654_8.pdf)


  1. See H L Ginsberg, The Ugarit Texts (Jerusalem Bialik Foundation, 1936) 73, ANET 30 no. 10, and the sources quoted in J H Tigay, "On the meaning of t(w)tpt", Journal of Biblical Literature 101 no 3 S 1982, p 326 n. 30

  2. See Joseph Roth-Rotem, "The Exposition of the Banishment of Ishma'el Story" (Genesis 21:9-21), Beit Mikra: Journal for the Study of the Bible and Its World vol. 43 (1998), pp. 113-125 and M Moreshet, "צחק — שחק; יצחק — ישחק", Beit Mikra: Journal for the Study of the Bible and Its World vol. 13 (1978), pp. 127-130

  3. This explanation only seems viable according to those who differentiate between peshat and derash, and assume that the halakha follows only the derash, as does the Rashbam (Beraishis 37:1), though the opinions of the Ibn Ezra and Rambam may be more complicated, as well as the question of how this relates to אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו. See here for a discussion, and here for more sources. In addition, it is difficult to see how this applies to narrative sections; see "What Actually Happened" question.

  4. Sources quoted here, footnote 5: Ma'amarei ha-Re'i'ah: Qovetz Maamarim, Jerusalem, 1983/4, pp. 1-9 and pp. 113-115, and Orot, Jerusalem, 1981/2, pp. 102-118 and pp. 120-121

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thank you matt. but my question was more why the torah is deliberately misleading in the literal meaning. It does seem to want to repel those without access to the oral law dont you think? – ray Jun 1 '14 at 7:22
@ray - Maybe the Torah isn't misleading, and what it says is what God meant. (After all, we believe that it was dictated by Him; Why wouldn't He mean what He said?) Maybe the Oral Law decided it was too harsh (which raises many theological issues) and changed the law. || You'll note that my question is similar, but from a different perspective. – Shmuel Jun 1 '14 at 8:01
@Shmuel are you saying a kid who laughs should be sent out into the desert with minimal provisions to die? come on. its definitely misleading – ray Jun 1 '14 at 8:51
@ray your comment from last week didn't ping me for some reason, but your assumption is based on the Torah being deliberately misleading, which, according to position 1 is not at all the case. But position re position 3 & 4, see the question "why was the Oral Law not allowed to be written". – Matt Jun 9 '14 at 17:43
@shmuel I know I many sources that seem to support that position, if you'd like to see them (though I admit the prospect sounds rather heretical, so it has to be understood in context/application) – Matt Jun 9 '14 at 17:47

Your question is an important one, which can be directed towards many laws found in the Torah, as you seem to suggest.

The principle which would answer it is this: the Torah was given along with the Oral Law (see Mishne Torah intro). Moshe Rabbeinu was the one who explained the Torah for the Israelites throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. It was thus expected that all questions be answered by Moshe and his court. So the people were not misled by the simple meaning of the text, since everything was explained to them by Moses.

The primary purpose of the Torah was to gain the acceptance of the first Jews receiving it. They had to believe with all their hearts that they were entering an eternal, binding treaty with God. The way other people in other times and places would understand it was irrelevant for these purposes.

Instead, the Torah was meant to be understand in different ways at different times. Flexibility and reliance on the Oral Law was of utmost importance. MT Mamrim 2:1 states that a Bet Din (court) is not bound by the rulings of previous generations in regard to how to understand the text. If they read the verses differently, they may in fact rule in contradiction to a previous court's decision. The way they understand the text is for all intents and purposes the Law, no matter how dissimilar a superficial reading of the text may be.

Therefore, it may very well may be that the "plain" understanding of the verses which you indicate was the way it was understood by Moses and his court. That is a matter of theory, though, in terms of modern-day practice, which is determined by the legislation found in the Babylonian Talmud and other sources of Oral Law.

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are you saying Moses understood that the girl would be executed merely if the sheets were not blood stained? (i.e. no witnesses that she commited adultery). dont think that's correct – ray Aug 14 '13 at 5:21
@ray He's saying it might be that Moses understood it that way. It might not. But it doesn't matter (halachically). What matters is how we read it now. – Double AA Aug 14 '13 at 7:45
@DoubleAA cannot be how Moses understood it. that would contradict other places in the torah, such as: lo yumat al pi ed echad. all the more so without any witnesses – ray Aug 14 '13 at 18:11
But maybe chazaka of the circumstances beats that. Maybe the verses about witnesses are talking about the death penalty in only that specific instance. – Double AA Aug 14 '13 at 18:22
@ray That's a nice platitude but you know on some level it isn't true. – Double AA Aug 15 '13 at 3:12

Rabbi Naftali Elfenbein pointed out during a lecture that even the Mishnah, the written codification of our Oral Tradition, is at times woefully misleading. For example, see Bava Kamma 7:4, where a remark from Rabbi Simeon, while it seems to be a response to the preceding statement of the mishnah, is in fact a response to a different saying that is not even recorded in the mishnah! See the Talmudic gloss, folio 76a, (here in english).

He said that the whole purpose of the Oral Tradition is to facilitate consultation and discussion, of the Written Text. That's why the Sages were loathe to write any of it down, and even when they did, they did so in a way that was vague and still required much clarification, (See the thousands of pages of Talmud that do so).

That is why the Written Torah is so vague and misleading when it stands alone. It is by design, so that we can't really understand the laws on our own, and we must search for their meaning being constantly led back to our Rabbis and Sages, and our enduring tradition.

EDIT: This function is more important to the integrity of the Jewish people than it is to have the Written Law be politically correct and crystal clear to other nations, for whom it is completely irrelevant in any practical sense.

Adding my own thoughts, I think this is what has allowed us to persevere as a people throughout this long and arduous exile. If we had everything we needed from the Pentateuch, I think we would have much less of a sense of community and solidarity than we do, and standing alone, we would splinter and fragment throughout the world, falling prey to assimilation and forsaking the Law of Moses.

The Oral Law creates a perpetual discourse between us! Whether its a scheduled time to learn, or hear a lecture. Whether its an argument about a new invention or phenomenon in halacha between Rabbis and communities, whether is contentious or uplifting, it holds us together, and brings us back together, time and time again.

A final thought, beginning with a question. What happened to the Ten Tribes, the Assyrian exiles? We may have regained some of them, and they may live in some guarded land surrounded by a perilous river somewhere. But there is not formal recording of an in-gathering or a redemption as there is for the Babylonian exiles. Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, when I asked him what became of them in general, said that they died out or assimilated.

Why did this not happen to the Babylonian Exiles? How did we remain distinct? Perhaps the Talmud in Gittin 88a, (here in english), provides an answer, explaining God's righteousness even in wrath, for when Jehoiachin was exiled to Babylon 11 years before the Temple's Destruction, with him were exiled a great many wise men and sages, who were still alive when the bulk of the people were driven out of the land. They were already settled, able to teach the exiles Torah and preserve the tradition.

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You cannot compare the Pentateuch, which is the direct Word of God, with the Mishna, which is the work of men. Not to mention the Mishna was written down many decades after the Rabbis said the things that are recorded in it. And there's a big difference between "vague," "misleading," and outright contradictory. – Shmuel Jun 1 '14 at 3:07
@Shmuel You can compare them in some ways (eg. both are books). Can you explain why you think the OP's comparison is invalid? – Double AA Jun 1 '14 at 3:16
@DoubleAA Please reread my comment. What was unclear? – Shmuel Jun 1 '14 at 3:19
anyone who has delved into the oral law,i.e. the talmud knows that the mishna is not to be taken at face value. but the written torah was translated to all 70 languages without the oral law in the time of moses, so it should at least not be deceiving and appear barbaric – ray Jun 1 '14 at 5:43
@ray no. This is subjective. Again the rest of the world lives by an entirely different set of rues than Jews do. If they took the time to actually examine practical Jewish life, they would find that it was not barbaric. I don't see that as an issue. Is it part of your question? I thought you were just asking why its so unclear. I think my Rabbi addresses that nicely, is there another part to the question? – Baby Seal Jun 1 '14 at 18:34

We must not accuse written Torah, much less God, of being misleading. The sages have endeavored throughout history to do the following:
1) Make clear what is obscure
2) Judge in matters of discrepancy.
3) Discern the wisdom behind the judgements provided in written Torah, And apply this wisdom in cases and situations not specifically addressed in written Torah.
(Deuteronomy 17)

We have their thoughts written down so we can glean from the wisdom of the ages and how the sages applied Torah in various generations.

You said:

In parsha ki tetze (Devarim 22) it says if a man takes a wife, hates her, accuses her of not being a virgin, etc. Then the elders spread out the bedsheet to see if there is blood of virginity. If not, then the man is fined. If yes, then the girl is excecuted publicly. Rashi brings down the oral law which explains that it refers to the case where there were witnesses that she committed adultery. The plain reading of the verses however offers no such clue. It appears that only if the bedsheet did not have blood, then the girl is stoned to death by all the inhabitants of the city. Anyone unfamiliar with the oral law will read this and consider the torah to be barbaric and bizzare. Question is why did God write the torah in such a way that it appears so misleading without the oral law.

I would note that it is not unfamiliarity with oral law that causes folks to see this law as barbaric; it is unfamiliarity with written torah. The sages/rabbis immerse themselves in not just one law, but all the wisdom and counsel of YHWH. They meditate on His Torah day and night. I recall reading about one of your well revered sages, whose assumption in exposition of Scripture was that God does not contradict Himself. Thus he sought to see how seemingly contradictory pieces fit together and balanced eachother.

In the case you bring to the table, if one only looks at the instruction to execute the woman whose sheet from the marriage bed shows no stain, but does not consider that God also said no one was to be executed without two or more witnesses (Numbers 35:30), then the ruling could appear barbaric. The rabbi does not make a new law in saying this was in the case where there were witnesses. He draws it to attention from written Torah.

And so it is with the oral torah. To make the most effective use of the wisdom from the sages, one begins with the law, then considers the light shed upon obscure areas and the ways in which the sages put all the pieces together to apply the law in various difficult cases.

By analogy, one does not climb branches of a tree. One approaches the branches at the trunk and then moves up and ventures out into the branches. The further up and out toward the tips of the branches (new growth) one goes the weaker the branch.

Written Torah is never misleading. We do not judge written torah by the judgments of the sages. In fact, their judgement can not survive without the written. Rather, the strength of Written Torah is inherent in the trunk and its wisdom may be observed in its outgrowth of oral law and sagely commentary.

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are you saying it is not misleading even without the oral torah? – ray Jun 9 at 20:35
Of course it is not misleading. :) – Sarah Jun 9 at 23:56
Numbers 35:30 by a single witness shall a person not be put to death. – Sarah Jun 10 at 0:18
so how would you explain the example i cited in the question? thanks – ray Jun 10 at 4:59
Thank you. I edited in reply to your comment. – Sarah Jun 23 at 14:10

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