I am currently learning in a s'micha program. I was challenged by one of my old friends to find a source for our modern understanding of rabbinic authority that does not require circular reasoning for its explicit authority by relying on a rabbinic source to justify itself.

The best I could do was Devarim 1:16 and 17:8-11, however I was unable to demonstrate anything more from these pesukim other than their explicit mention of rabbinic authority to determine individual practical halachic issues (e.g. if something is kosher, tamei or mutar, etc).

EDIT Update: The full spectrum of rabbinic authority as we interpret it today (e.g generating novel rabbinic law, determining the true interpretation of biblical texts, etc) seems to transcend the explicit intention of the rabbinate in the Torah. This 'creative' aspect of rabbinic authority appears in the Torah only via its own creative rabbinic interpretation. This presents a significant conflict of interest and raises great doubt on its authenticity.

This dilemma greatly pains me and challenges my conception of Rabbinic Judaism. I understand the reluctance of my peers to struggle with this concept which is why I cannot engage openly about this issue. Fundamentally, I find the issue devolves onto a willingness to accept the concept of "emunat Chachamim" which is where I find no biblical sanctioning. I would love to have complete reliance on Chazal however man is fallible and the only man the Torah ever placed trust in was Moshe [Shmot 14:31] but that was because he was a perfect conduit speaking the word of G-d, not contaminating them with his own interpretation.

Accepting an expert's authority to determine a practical legal question is demonstrable from the Torah as above, but suggesting that Chazal or later rabbanim can creatively expand upon the Torah is not explicit. The Torah is explicit in its understanding of the fallibility of human leadership [Vayikra 4:13]. To conclude that the Torah would sanction allowing flawed human reasoning to command final authority on Torah interpretation seems exceptional and requires explicit demonstration; which it appears to lack.

I have a great hesitation accepting rabbinic authority without scriptural proof as it requires surrendering my intellectual honesty that I am practicing Judaism as was intended by the Torah. I would expect others to feel similarly given the gravity this potential error could hold on our religious practice.

(A great source text attempting to resolve this issue was written by Jews for Judaism and can be found here, but in my opinion it fails at the task as it makes a significant leap to conclude the biblical intention of the rabbinic creativity. Why would the concept of rabbinic 'creativity' require itself creative interpretation to be derived from the Torah rather than explicit mention as the other sources of basic rabbinic interpretive authority? As the author himself compares such a concept to the American Supreme Court which derives its authority to 'make law' from explicit permission in the constitution, not via interpretation of legal example in the constitution, so too if the intention of the Torah was for rabbinic authority to be both interpretive and creative, then both should have been mentioned equally as explicit. To argue otherwise is precisely the type of circular reasoning I was hoping to disprove.)

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    Not sure what your title has to do with the body of your question, but Rav Asher Weiss writes regarding the latter: אך באמת נראה בזה עוד דעצם המצוה לשמוע בדברי חכמים אינה נובעת בהכרח ממצות לא תסור, אלא יסוד הוא ועמוד החזק שכל התורה נשענת עליו והוא יסוד כל תורה שבע"פ ומשה קיבל תורה מסיני ומסרה ליהושע ויהושע לזקנים ולולא חכמים והציות להם אין תורה בישראל, ודבר זה גופא הלממ"ס הוא. Ie: our source is mesora, which by your standards is circular
    – robev
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 14:16
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    Welcome to MiYodeya Sam and thanks for this first question. You might want to edit it to narrow it and ask a specific question (rather than general thoughts). After the helpful background, try starting your question by "What is the basis for XXX". Also since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. Great to have you learn with us!
    – mbloch
    Commented Aug 26, 2019 at 15:27
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    1. The article you cited gives a very knowledgeable explanation, please explain why "but it too failed at the task"? - I think this is the best you can get. 2. Any scriptural source would require some form of interpretation, you render as circular, so maybe your expectations are unreal.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Aug 27, 2019 at 6:15
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    כך מסרו לנו אבותינו הראשונים שזה אלף וזה בית וזה גימל
    – Dr. Shmuel
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 5:41
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    I don't think I accept your question. You seem to be requiring scriptural proof for rabbinical authority. Where is that requirement coming from? In other words, who told you that whatever is in scripture is a reliable source, and everything else needs a proof from there? Why can't the oral tradition be at least as reliable a source? And if you aren't willing to accept it, why are you accepting the scripture as reliable either? - Isn't the whole idea of an oral tradition, that we have reliable information about the Torah that was not written down?
    – MichoelR
    Commented Apr 26 at 4:06

8 Answers 8


Full disclosure here, I'm not Orthodox, I'm a Reform girl, but this is what I was able to grab, insomuch as understanding where the Orthodox position stands on rabbinic authority.

First, some clarification. Halacha is Jewish law with a practical basis. Aggadah, which was not passed down from Halacha L'Moshe Mi'Sinai, is Jewish folklore. Today, we won't be discussing anything to do with the aggadah, as it does not pertain to our study.


The first proof comes from Shemot 23:19. There, we find חלב, now, whether it's chalav or chelev is unclear if you don't have the Torah she-be-`al peh as a guide. Keep in mind that the vowels were invented in the 10th century, however, it's clear they were part of the mesora, and hence, passed down from one generation to the next. Other examples we can choose from have already been discussed, such as how one keeps Shabbos, and what does it mean to be punished by death if you refused to keep it.

I want to move on, specifically, to biblical references. One prime illustration comes from Nechemiah 13:15-17, where some Jews violate Shabbos by separating grain from the husks via a squeezing press. The Navi quoted these strict legal bindings from Torah, but none of the above are found in the Torah she-bi-khtav. Clearly, then, he meant the Oral Law.

As far as rabbinic authority goes, we learn from Vayikra 18:30 and Shemot 18:13-22 that legal safeguards are to be erected by the elders to deal with case law and hermeneutics - in short, Klal Yisrael [1].

This teaches us that the correct interpretation of passages such as Yehoshua 8:34-35 are to be understood in light of the above.

Note that while there were debates over a certain takkanah, there was never an issue between Chazal over the principle of there being an Oral Law in the first place. This means that there has always been a legal procedure in which Chazal could study and make rulings. Note further that the Gemara purposefully decided to record all opposing views so that when a future Sanhedrin is reestablished, they will know that these discussions have been properly dealt with.


Even though verses such as Devarim 6:7 and Tehillim 1:2 exist, secular scholars still come away with the claim that our ancestors forgot the law for a thousand years (citing Melachim Bais 22:8). The verse in question, however, isn't talking about the founding (or invention) of the first Torah scroll, but rather, the discovery of the original parchment. Shmuel Alef 4:19-22 is clear how the people felt about it, and they sure weren't up in arms, as secular scholars would have us believe. Moreover, one may compare innumerable Torah mandate with its application elsewhere in Tanakh before the age of Yoshiyah HaMelech [2].

Regarding the Isiyim, they too were Perushim, though it is a little known fact. Evidence for this comes from the strict nature of their Shabbat observance, such as added time before nightfall; prohibiting business dealings, perfumes, labor, cooking; while permitting walking a thousand cubits and breaking Shabbos to save a life.

Now, if we turn our attention to Josephus, we'll find that he too followed the Oral Torah, and ascribed it all to Moshe Rabbeinu (see Antiquities Book 3, 5.6). To be brief, he agreed with the Mishnah's ruling that Nisan was the first of the month, and that the months were to be lunar [3]; to carrying a branch of myrtle, willow, pomme citron, and a bough of palm on Sukkot [4]; for allowing forty stripes minus one for the accused [5]; for prohibiting a kohen from marrying a harlot [6]; for prohibiting the testimony of women in court [7]; saying the Shema twice a day; placing a Mezuzah on your doorpost; and wearing tefillin [8].

Keep in mind that he wasn't from the Perushim sect by birth, in fact, he criticized them at first, and only after much study, came to the conclusion that what they taught was from Hashem.


For 2,400 years, the Abyssinian Christians have unknowingly kept a fringe of oral tradition. This is because they were once Jews who fled after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash. In 1992, researcher, Graham Hancock, published his journal of discoveries in search for the lost Ark of the Covenant. One slice of his account recalls his meeting with an Ethiopian priest by the name of Memhir Fisseha. He recollected the way his people used to offer burnt offerings by collecting the blood of the lamb in a "bowl" - he used here the Hebrew "gomer," which means "finished" or "complete," and is utterly foreign to his native Ge'ez. The blood was then scattered over the stones of the tent, which, he claims, once housed the Ark. When asked to rehearse the action, Fisseha “positioned himself next to the stones with the bowl in his left hand, dipped into it with his right forefinger, swept his right hand above the level of his head and commenced an up-and-down motion. ‘The blood was scattered in this way,’ he said, ‘over the stones and over the tent of the Ark. Afterword, as I told you, what was left was poured thus.’ He then tipped the bowl sideways above the cup-shaped hollows in the tops of the pillars." It was as if, Hancock later reflected, he’d been wielding a whip instead.

Back in England, Hancock poured over ancient sources only to discover that Fisseha’s actions had fitted exact descriptions of the Kohen Gadol, as recorded in the Mishnah’s tractate, Yoma. Accordingly, the blood was collected and stirred so as to not be congealed. Then, the Kohen Gadol would arrive and take the bowl, sprinkling the blood “once upwards and seven times downwards [on the curtain outside, facing the Ark]. . . . as though he were wielding a whip."

Fisseha had never read the Mishnah, and yet, it seemed as if he knew exactly what it said [9].


They were basically a break-away movement (no relation to the צְדוּקִים) in the mid 760s CE. The Exilarch, Shlomo, was childless when he died, and so the Geonim, doubting his nephew's character (Anan), passed on his position to another. Anan rebelled, and was locked up by the Caliph, whom he later convinced to be set freed. Once free, he started his own interpretation of Torah, often taking on a hand's-down literal approach, such as not allowing a doctor to heal your illness (Shemot 15:26), which, unsurprisingly, resulted in his own death. It should be noted that the Karaite movement, while rejecting our Oral Torah, wear kippot and do other decrees only known orally.

Well, I think that about wraps. Proof of an Oral Law is easy to come by when you know what to look for, and of course, this short introduction isn't by far exhaustive. Nonetheless, I'm glad to have done my part. Reach out to me if there's more you'd want to know, the examples are literally never-ending.


  1. See Bava Metzia 59a-b, B.T., for a talmudic reference and Devarim 20:14-20, 23:25-26, Vayikra 14:33-34 for these applications in action. Specifically see Rut 4:1-2 for a local beit din.

  2. To name a few, compare Devarim 8:10 with Shmuel Alef 9:13; Vayikra 22:4 with Shmuel Alef 21:5, 28:3; Vayikra 13:46 with Melachim Alef 5:1-5, 7:3; and Vayikra 20:27 with Melachim Bais 4:23 and Amos 8:5.

  3. Antiquities, Book 3, 10.2-5.

  4. Ibid. 10:4.

  5. Compare Devarim 25:3 with Maakos 3:10 and J. Book 4, 8:21.

  6. Compare Vayikra 21:7 with Kiddushin 4:1, Kesubos 2:5, J. Book 3, 12:2.

  7. Compare Mishnah Shavuot 4:1 with J. Book 4, 8:15.

  8. J. op. Cit. 8:13.

  9. Hancock, Graham, The Sigh and the Seal: the Quest for the Lost Ark of the Covenant. A Touchstone Book published by Simon & Schuster, Inc. New York, NY (1992). 600 pp. pp. 141, 214-218.

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    You don’t need to classify yourself as reform. If your mother is Jewish you are Jewish and we all may be at different levels of doing mitzvahs and observing Torah, but we are most importantly all Jews without labels. :-)
    – Akiva___
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 15:51
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    @Akiva___, thanks, I agree with you.
    – Rivka
    Commented Aug 28, 2019 at 16:24
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    Thanks for this contribution. Are you quoting from someone else or did you write this? Your introduction sounds like you might have found this elsewhere. Quoting from other sources is fine, but please use blockquote formatting and attribute. Commented Aug 29, 2019 at 17:33
  • @Monica Cellio, I did write it, that's why I didn't quote a source other than the "proofs." But thanks for the nice comment! That's a complement to me as a writer and I appreciate it!
    – Rivka
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 6:32
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    Thanks for your reply. It's delightful to see a thorough, footnoted answer from a new user. May you go from strength to strength! Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 15:44

Their job of determining the true understanding of texts

I have heard from many sources, Rabbi Orlofsky being the most recent. The idea that the fact that the torah says וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אַךְ אֶת שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם לָדַעַת כִּי אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא לָכֶם מְחַלְלֶיהָ מוֹת יוּמָת כִּי כָּל הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ: (שמות לא יג-יד That you need to keep shabbos or else you will die (rough translation) without specifying anywhere how to keep shabbos, proves that the torah was given with an oral tradition. An oral tradition requires people to be keepers of that tradition.

As far as novel halacha - they are simply applying handed down halacha to novel circumstances ( an important distinction in general)

By my extension those keepers were clearly not meant to only memorize and pass on by rote (that would be the same as something b'chtav) so their knowledge would have to be applied knowledge hence the role of Rabbi


One of the best sefarim written on this topic is called מעוז הדת by Rabbi Yehoshua Heller. He was a talmid of Rav Dovid Tebli, the "Nachlas Dovid" (famed talmid of Rav Chaim Volozhiner) and of Rav Yisrael Salanter. While he is most famous for his work חוסן יהושע he actually wrote numerous others including this one.

This entire sefer is written as a dialogue between a student and teacher, clarifying basic fundamental points about Judaism including: how do we know there is an oral law, how can we be sure that what we have is correct, how do we know that halachic principles are correct, etc.

He quotes numerous specific examples from the Written Torah in order to prove each question. Some of them have been mentioned in other answers here, but he brings many more answers and addresses lots of specific issues.

The sefer was literally written for people like you!

  • Fyi it's רב דוד טעביל, I believe pronounced Tuwil. Thank you for the citation but this isn't such a useful answer without examples from the work.
    – robev
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 1:12
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    FYI, I read that sefer, as well as many others on the topic. It is likewise filled with circular reasoning, providing only rabbinic interpretation of biblical texts, never providing an explicitly text for the source of mesora. Our mesora should be more precious to us than simple supported on a flimsy fallacy.
    – Sam
    Commented Dec 25, 2023 at 14:20

This is a very important question.

The Gemara in Masechta Shabbos (23a) remarks that we make a Bracha on the lighting of Channukah candles, including the words וצונו, "and You (G-d) commanded us". The Gemara asks: where were we commanded to make this Bracha? There are two answers presented there. One is mentioned in your question, לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל(דברים יז:יא). The other one is (שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך (דברים לב:ז. There could be important differences between these two sources, which we will discuss later. ֿ The Gemara in other places, for example, Brachos (19b) remarks that כבוד הבריות, respecting creatures is דוחה, it nullifies, דבר תורה, something from the Torah. The Gemara says that there is no way this could be! Rather, it must be that it nullifies/ overrides a דין דרבנן. They ask, though, that is not a דבר תורה, that is derabanan! They answer that it is really based on the rule of לא תסור, so they have some root that is deoraysa.

Is there a difference between if we learn it out from לא תסור, or from שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך? The Rambam in the Shorashim to Sefer Hamitzvos Shoresh 1 says that all Derabanans are based on לא תסור. The Ramban disagrees. Like you said in the question, לא תסור seems very specific to certain cases. It is actually dealing there, in Devarim Chapter 17 with the case where there is a doubt what the Halacha is and people have to go the בית דין הגדול. That can only be applied when the Rabanim are clarifying a question. However, the Ramban says that whenever there is a new Halacha, it has to be based upon שאל אביך ויגדך זקניך ויאמרו לך. We have, therefore, established that there are (at least) two sources for Dinim Derabanan. There are other sources, including יבמות כא עמוד א which explains the Pasuk ושמרתם את משמרתי to mean עשו משמרת למשמרתי, that the Rabanim should place safeguards around the Torah.

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    So I take it from your answer that you agree its circular reasoning as everything you explained requires a rabbinic interpretation to have reached that conclusion. As I stipulated in the original question, a topic of such vital importance such as the authenticity of our mesora should stand of sturdier ground than a fallacy (e.g. circular reasoning). I am still surprised no one else seems to be deeply disturbed by this...
    – Sam
    Commented Dec 25, 2023 at 14:17

I don't think that you will be able to find a solid source, because during the biblical era the authority came from the prophets, not Rabbis. After prophecy stopped, the Rabbis took over the prophets.

בבא בתרא יב א

אמר אמימר וחכם עדיף מנביא

Bava Batra 12a

Amimar said, a sage is better then a prophet.


In addition to Rivka's wonderful answer, I would like to add another example of Rabbinic ruling found in Tanach, namely Zacharia 7:5, where he is asked if we should still fast on Tisha B'Av.

לֵאמֹר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים אֲשֶׁר לְבֵית־יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת וְאֶל־הַנְּבִיאִים לֵאמֹר הַאֶבְכֶּה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַחֲמִשִׁי הִנָּזֵר כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי זֶה כַּמֶּה שָׁנִים׃

...and to speak to the priests who were in the house of the Lord of hosts, and to the prophets, saying, Should I weep in the fifth month, separating myself, as I have done these so many years?

Tisha B'Av is a Rabbinic fast, along with 4 other Rabbinic fasts mentioned in Zacharia 8, not mentioned in Chumash (see Sefer HaTashbetz, Part II 271 and related gemaras for deeper discussion)

Thank you Rabbi Tovia Singer for pointing this out.


It depends which kind of rabbinic authority you are talking about - nowadays there isn't much. When there was a clear centralised rabbinic body accepted by all, that had a power similar to that of the Sanhedrin. See How does halacha work?


Yes, there are many biblical sources. For example, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah comes to mind. In the story, Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people, tells G-d that, although he is only “dust and ashes”, (Genesis 18, 27) he will be arguing with G-d (the name Israel means to argue with G-d). When hearing G-d's divine decree (Genesis 18:17) to blot out the Sodomites from the face of the earth, Abraham asks: Will you destroy the righteous with the wicked?” (Genesis 18, 23) and "Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Genesis 18, 25).

There is also the story of Moses who disputes with G-d after the incident of the golden calf. G-d wants to destroy Israel but Moses argues with G-d, this decree is against morality and is an injustice (Exodus 32, 11-14). Even more shockingly, Moses demands G-d to repent! Moses demands that G-d to “Turn from Your fierce anger, and repent of this evil against Your people” (Exodus 32, 12), and the passage concludes with, “And the L-rd repented of the evil which He thought to do to His people” (Exodus 32, 14). Here we see Moses calling G-d's divine decree evil, and G-d doing teshuva! (Tshuva means to change behavior).

Similarly, when G-d commands Moses to make war with Amalek, Moses first makes peace, only declaring war when they reject the peace offering. Here we see Moses acting at his own accord, changing the Torah law, using his own measuring stick of morality. In a word, disregarding G-d's divine decree. Already, form all this, we see the authority of the rabbis emerge and the decree of G-d diminished. Judaism is not like Christianity who is a people of the book, who live by the book. Contrary but to the surprise of many, Judaism interprets the biblical commands, and Jews live by the rabbinic enactments as the rabbis explain them. The Torah is not in heaven. It is with the Jewish people.

One more story. There is a Talmudic parable of akhnai[1] about an oven. In the story, Rabbi Eliezer asked G-d to perform many miracles, such as uprooting a carob tree, making the waters flow backward, and bending the walls of the academy. He even includes a voice from heaven, saying: "What do you have against Rabbi Eliezer? He is correct about the law!" The rabbis and sages shouted back that miracles prove nothing. They said that prophecy has ended and only remains between fools and children (because fools and children are immature). The rabbis opted for the more traditional Jewish method of study since yeshivot and Talmudic period(s), the Socratic method of discussion-argument-debate. They felt that one could not bring G-d into the equation since prophecy and revelation has ended.[2] Thus, Rabbi Joshua said: "It [the Torah] is not in heaven. Why is it not in heaven? Rabbi Jeremiah said that ever since the Torah was given at Sinai, we no longer pay attention to a heavenly voice, since [G-d] already wrote in the Torah at Sinai. We should “follow the majority” (Exodus 23:2)... Rabbi Nathan met Elijah and asked him, “What did the Holy One, blessed be He, do at that time?” He replied: “He laughed and said, ‘My children have defeated me, my children have defeated me.’”

[1] See the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b

[2] To see a contrasting opinion regarding the cessation of revelation and prophecy, see Rav Kook

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    This does not address the posted question.
    – robev
    Commented May 17, 2020 at 22:08

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