There are many Halachot which appear to contradict explicit Biblical statements. For example, that an "Eye for an Eye" means monetary compensation.

  • Why does Halacha not follow the simple reading of the Biblical text?

  • How do Chazal have the authority to reinterpret the text away from its simple meaning (if indeed that's what they're doing)?

I'd appreciate if you'd address the general question and not get hung up on the specific examples.

Follow-up: https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/38812/if-god-is-perfect-would-he-contradict-himself

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    @Shmuel How do you know דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם? You're not going to take the Rabbis' word for it, are you? That rule has it's parameters as well. Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:00
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    @YEZ - Touche. What kind of corroboration, other than logic - legal codes have to mean exactly what they say, or else you'd have no idea what the law is - would be acceptable without getting me into a catch-22? EDIT: I'll find a verse that supports this.
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:02
  • @Shmuel perhaps an example from Jewish literature (Talmud, Medrash) where you see something that was understood according to it's "simple" understanding, and a subsequent source which reinterprets it. Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:07
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    @Shmuel What do you mean Sadducee opinions were equally valid? On what basis do you say that?
    – Double AA
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:25
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    @Shmuel "there is an external 'primary meaning' which is 'not yielded' by the text." That's the opposite of what I'm saying. I'm saying that a careful reading of the p'sukim, considering the totality of all the p'sukim in the Torah as context, yields a meaning different from what a person reading an individual verse might think at first glance. Even without the Oral Law, a careful scholar should be able to arrive at this meaning through textual analysis. The same is true re. ממחרת השבת (for e.g. other usages in Tanach make it clear that the intended meaning is the day after yom tov).
    – Fred
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 22:53

4 Answers 4


The question as currently phrased is asked by, among others, R. Yosef Albo in Sefer HaIkarim 3:23 (which is why I'm unsure as to why it still has a negative score). Since I don't have a better way of doing this, I'm going to just paste here what I wrote to this similar question, with a couple of variations.

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]

Thus, the Ibn Ezra would probably tell you (see his intro to commentary on Chumash as well as throughout his commentary), the halakha does indeed follow peshat - the peshat just might not be what you, an English-speaking reader in the 21st century might think it is; peshat is how the reader in c. 2000 BCE Judea would be reading it. See this article which argues that the Rambam felt this way as well (though I personally am not convinced that this is the case).

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. This is certainly the position taken by the Rashbam, as well as, I would guess, the majority of commentators. 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]


  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

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

  • +1 for comprehensive and well-sourced. || However, #1 only works for ambiguities or idioms (and not for the example cited); #2 has the issue of "If the law is like the Drash, why doesn't Pshat match the Drash" (and thus doesn't answer the underlying assumptions of the question, even if it answers the question as stated) (also, I think the implication from Bm 35:31 is weak, and certainly not strong enough to override explicit statements); and #3 is clearly apologetics, and assumes that the best way God had for communicating the importance of the Oral was to corrupt the Written. (#4 is great.)
    – Shmuel
    Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 7:50
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    @Shmuel #4 is only applicable to 'drashos', and even there, it may not be applicable at all. I hoped that I was somewhat clear as to where each answer applies. As I noted, though, the Ibn Ezra does apply #1 to the example cited. As for #2: once we say that there are several equally valid interpretations, the halakha's following any one of them could be arbitrary, or it could be that Hashem wanted the halakha to follow the interpretation that requires Sanhedrin's input, since we need to have an existing judicial body to interpret the laws anyway... Commented Jun 1, 2014 at 13:38

Your question is based on the assumption that what chazal did was reinterpret. In fact the "Torah" as we know it today that was given at mt. sinai included both the oral and written traditions. when chazzal tells us the meaning of a posuk they aren't redefining it but explaining its intention.

  • Just a heads-up that I've rephrased the question.
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 19:53
  • -1 Yes, I'm aware this is the usual answer. But if God had a certain intention, why didn't He just say what He meant, instead of saying something completely different that needs to be interpreted and explained?
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 19:54
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    @Shmuel Your -1 is unwarranted. If you'd like to ask a different question about the way God works, you can do so, but this question is (appropriately) tagged halacha-theory not theology.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:28
  • Well that's easily fixed... And since when do we make diyukim from tags? | Also, the theology element was present in the question, in the small text, at the time this answered was posted.
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:34
  • @Shmuel I said APPROPRIATELY! I'm illustrating what you asked by noting the tags. You are now including too many separate questions in this post, as evidenced by the tags. Edit it down to size please.
    – Double AA
    Commented May 29, 2014 at 20:36

Generally speaking we do follow the simple meaning of the text. The issue arises when the simple meaning of the text contradicts itself. See Bava Kama 83b.

The simple meaning of Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20 is certainly that if someone blinds a person, they themselves are blinded, and if they dismember someone they are treated in kind, etc.

However, Numbers 35:31 specifically that you don't take ransom for the life of a murderer, implying that you take ransom any other time, contradicting the verse in Exodus.

See the Translated Artscroll קול יעקב‏ prayer book's note regarding the Oral Law, found on page 49:

… It should also be noted that the great majority of the laws were handed down for many centuries from teacher to student, and they were well known without a need to search for their scriptural sources. Consequently, in the Talmud era when the Sages attempted to set forth the Scriptural derivation of such well known laws as the use of a citron or the law that an eye-for-an-eye refers to monetary compensation, there were disputes concerning the exact interpretations although the laws were familiar.

Josephus on the Pharisees, who founded Rabbinic Judaism, (13:10:6):

What I would now explain is this, that the Pharisees have delivered to the people a great many observances by succession from their fathers, which are not written in the laws of Moses; and for that reason it is that the Sadducees reject them, and say that we are to esteem those observances to be obligatory which are in the written word, but are not to observe what are derived from the tradition of our forefathers. And concerning these things it is that great disputes and differences have arisen among them, while the Sadducees are able to persuade none but the rich, and have not the populace obsequious to them, but the Pharisees have the multitude on their side.

So tradition played a big role. What the law was was well-known from practice. The process of exegesis was thus often an inductive one.

  • Seems to me that this disconnects the Oral law from the Written one. There are written laws which says X, but our tradition says the law is Y, and we follow Y, even though we don't know the basis for it, and have to "search" for a scriptural source.
    – Shmuel
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 0:44
  • @Shmuel en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbinic_Judaism#Written_and_oral_law
    – Baby Seal
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 0:48
  • @Shmuel I suppose it depends on whether or not you believe that our Oral tradition goes hand-in-hand with the written one or not, like in Dude's answer.
    – Baby Seal
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 0:50
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    @Shmuel Melachot Shabbat do contradict exodus 16:29. According to it, we must sit down all Shabbat and not leave our place. Simple meaning. mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0216.htm
    – Baby Seal
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 0:59
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    @Shmuel do you have a source that for something to accompany something else, it must always compliment and never clarify, other than your own opinion? And again. If you believe that the Oral Law was given at Sinai with the written, it carries just as much weight? I could ask inversely: How can the verse say that and eye is exchanged for an actual eye when Oral tradition dictates that the compensation is monetary??
    – Baby Seal
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 1:03

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.

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.

Chazal were given interpretive authority for the above reasons. The Written Law was meant to be reinterpreted, to maintain our nation's integrity. To offer a very clear example of this authority, Bava Metzia 86a cites and argument taking place between God Himself and the Heavenly Tribunal! A Rabbi is sought to deliberate on the matter.

  • 30+ comments deleted. Please take extended discussions to Mi Yodeya Chat. Commented Jun 6, 2014 at 1:42
  • It appears to me that you nailed the problem, the Rabbis sought polemics, not the truth. The most clear evidence for that is that they did not develop any methodology of reasoning and interpreting. Just look at the huge differences between discussions on the same Mishnayos in Yerushalmi and Bavli. Once they proclaimed "לא בשמים היא" - they granted themselves the freedom of interpretation. Later they declared all other interpretations a heresy and with the political power they had both in Israel and Babylon, they became the de-facto Judaism.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 21:39
  • @AlBerko if you don't believe it's truth, why do you follow it? Just curious...
    – Heshy
    Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 22:33
  • @Heshy Thanks for reading my comments. I never said it isn't a truth, I say it is A truth, one of many many. The Sages themselves didn't hold that everything they say is true, this dogma developed much later. When they argue you seldom (if ever) hear אלו ואלו דברי א"ח - they explicitly state that one is right and another ('s interpretation) IS wrong. So I don't see a reason why I should take all their statements as true. I follow it as a possibility of truth not as an ultimate truth.
    – Al Berko
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 12:40
  • @Heshy In theory, because every practical Halacha is pretty much arbitrary (could be ruled in the opposite way), i.g. it's negation can't be falsified, I think that everyone follows the Halacha because of its de-jure truth (ruled as such) and not de-facto (intrinsically true).
    – Al Berko
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 12:43

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